Every boy in America dreams of one day winning an award with this man's face on it.
Around this time every year, children go back to school, the days get shorter, and baseball writers parse the meaning of the word “valuable.” This can get tiresome, but it is not without reason. The opening line of the letter sent to all 60 MVP voters states:
"There is no clear cut definition of what most valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the most valuable player in each league to his team."
The letter goes on to say that pitchers and designated hitters should be considered (though they rarely ever win), that the winner need not come from a playoff team (although more often than not, they do), that offense, defense, number of games played, character, disposition, loyalty and effort should all be taken into account. How very nebulous.
Going back through the record books we can see trends in MVP voting. Since 1931, when the Baseball Writers of America were given the task of awarding the Kennesaw Mountain Landis trophy, 56 of the 159* winners have been outfielders (35%), 39 first basemen (24%), 20 pitchers (12%), 15 catchers (9%), and Don Baylor is the lone designated hitter (.6%). Before 1969, a pitcher taking home the award was not all that uncommon, but since then only 5 have won (only 2 of them starters), with Dennis Eckersley being the most recent - shockingly winning the AL MVP in 1992. It should be noted that Pedro Martinez probably should have won the 1999 MVP, after putting up arguably the most dominant single season pitching performance ever, but finished in 2nd place after being completely left off of the ballot by two voters.
*The reason for the odd number is in 1979 Willie Stargell and Keith Hernandez both received the same amount of first place votes. This is still the only tie in MVP history. I can only assume that they cut the award in half, King Solomon style.
The trends in voting indicate a preference for sluggers. The sharp drop off in pitchers taking home the trophy indicates that the BBWA essentially views the MVP as an offensive award. What I aim to do in this article is look at recent MVP winners in light of some advanced statistics to see where the voters got it right or wrong, and to try and use this information to predict the winner of this year’s award. The two statistics I will focus on are Wins Above Replacement (WAR) and Weighted On Base Average (wOBA). In theory, WAR should be a fine measurement for a potential MVP, because it takes into account offense, defense and number of games played (all three being considerations for voting as mentioned above). wOBA (solely an offensive metric) is a linear weight formula that combines On Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage more accurately than OPS, by weighing both according to run values. Neither of these metrics are the end-all-be-all when it comes to player evaluation, but they are generally a good way to judge the value of a player.
So, what I have done is taken the top five vote getters in each league’s MVP and compared them to the top five finishers in wOBA and WAR for their respective leagues. I have created a score for calculating the worthiness of MVP candidates by assigning points for finishing in the top 5 of both wOBA and WAR for a single year (5 points for finishing first, 4 for second, 3 for third, 2 for fourth, 1 for fifth, and 0 points for finishing outside the top 5), with bonus points being awarded for winning the Batting Title and Home Run Crown for their respective league (2 points each)*. That score will be known as the MVP NERD-score. So, follow me and we will look at the last five seasons (the post Bonds era, if you will), as well as this season, in light of this metric.
*You will note that I did not include RBI totals into the NERD-score (even though they are clearly valued by the BBWA), as RBIs are a very arbitrary statistic that is highly dependent on factors outside of a player’s control. They are also decidedly anti-nerdy.
(Stats courtesy of FanGraphs)
NERD-score: Derrek Lee (9), Albert Pujols (8), Andruw Jones (7), Todd Helton (3), Chase Utley (3)
wOBA: Alex Rodriguez (.438), Travis Hafner (.422), Jeremy Giambi (.422), David Ortiz (.418), Manny Ramirez (.411)
NERD-score: Alex Rodriguez (12), Travis Hafner (4), Brian Roberts (4), Jeremy Giambi (3), Mark Texiera (3)
Not really much to see here. A-Rod gets a 12 NERD score after putting up some monster numbers in 2005; leading the league in home runs (48), finishing in the top 5 of all three Triple Crown categories, all while playing 162 games for a division winning team. That’s about as close to it gets to a no doubt MVP winner as you can get in the post Bonds era, really the only thing that surprises me is that he didn’t get more first place votes than he did (16 of 28). In the NL, you could make a case for Derrek Lee (1 first place vote) or Andruw Jones (13 first place votes), as they both hit more home runs than Pujols, and Lee even bested Albert in batting average (an NL best .335). This seems like an instance in which the team record was used to break the tie between two very deserving candidates, which I am okay with.
WAR: Albert Pujols (8.6), Carlos Beltran, (7.9) Chase Utley (7.3), Miguel Cabrera (6.7) Andruw Jones (6.3)
wOBA: Albert Pujols (.448), Ryan Howard (.436), Lance Berkman (.425), Miguel Cabrera (.413), Carlos Beltran (.412)
NERD-score: Albert Pujols (10), Ryan Howard (6), Carlos Beltran (4), Berkman and Utley tied (3)
NERD-score: Joe Mauer (6), Travis Hafner (6), Grady Sizemore (5), Manny Ramirez (4), Jeter and Ortiz tied (3)
A pretty interesting study here in 2006, as it appears that the BBWA were asleep at the wheel when voting took place. In both leagues, you could make a very easy case for another player to take home the hardware. In the NL, Albert Pujols gets 10 points on the NERD-score, yet falls short to Ryan Howard. Pujols also had a better slash-line than Howard (.331/.431/.671 to .313/.425/.659, respectively). Why did this happen, how could Pujols have the better season in so many regards and yet still fall short in the voters’ eyes? In short, dingers. Howard hit 58 home runs. It seems like home runs and RBI’s were the deciding factor for the voters that year with Howard having 9 more homers and 12 more RBI’s. For what it’s worth, my vote would go to Pujols here, but Pujols won the year before and would go on to win two more MVP’s, and Howard winning the award likely played into his insane contract extension which will almost assuredly come back to bite the Phillies in the ass before all is said and done, so we’ll call it a wash.
In the AL, it gets even weirder, as Justin Moneau gets a goose egg in the NERD-score. It is difficult to try and figure out what the voters were thinking here, as Morneau finished 22nd in WAR (behind such luminaries as Joe Crede, Brandon Inge, and Reed Johnson), and 13th in wOBA. If you want to look at more traditional stats, he finishes 11th in AL home runs (34), 7th in batting average (.321), and second in RBI’s - the most arbitrary of the Triple Crown stats (130). Yes, Morneau had a good year, but it can be argued that his teammate Joe Mauer had an even better year, winning the batting title (.347/.429/.507), all while playing a much more demanding defensive position.
WAR: David Wright (8.9), Albert Pujols (8.4), Chase Utley (7.9), Matt Holliday (7.7), Chipper Jones (7.5)
wOBA: Chipper Jones (.434), Matt Holliday (.428), Chase Utley (.420), David Wright (.420), Prince Fielder (.417)
NERD-score: Matt Holliday (8),David Wright (7), Chipper Jones (6), Chase Utley (6), Albert Pujols (4)
WAR: Alex Rodriguez (9.8), Magglio Ordonez (8.1), Curtis Granderson (7.8), David Ortiz (6.3), Grady Sizemore (6.2)
wOBA: Alex Rodriguez (.449), David Ortiz (.448), Magglio Ordonez (.438), Carlos Pena (.430), Jorge “Piss Hands” Posada (.417)
NERD-score: Alex Rodriguez (12), Magglio Ordonez (9), David Ortiz (6), Curtis Granderson (3), Carlos Pena (2)
So, A-Rod had another monster year and gets another 12 on the NERD-score. He showed even more power in 2007, belting 54 homers and driving in 156 runs. The voters ate it up like Todd Coffey at the dessert table of an all-you-can-eat buffet, and A-Rod won in a landslide (26 of the 28 first place votes). The NL on the other hand, wasn’t so clear-cut, with a handful of players having arguably better seasons than the eventual winner. Jimmy Rollins scores 0 points on the NERD-score, and finished the year outside of the top 10 in all three Triple Crown categories. So, how did Rollins who was not even elected to the All Star team end up winning the MVP? Well, he was the first NL shortstop to play in every game for his team in 34 years, and he virtually carried his team to their first division title in 14 years (in storybook fashion, no less). He became a member of the 30/30 club, which the voters tend to value a lot. In fact, Rollins was also the first player in the history of baseball to hit 30 home runs, 30 doubles, 20 triples, and steal 30 bases. This was one of the closest MVP votes in recent memory with Rollins edging out Matt Holliday (16 first place votes for Rollins, 11 for Holliday), who also led his team to a playoff berth in a rather exciting finish. Looking at the numbers, I would have bet serious money that Holliday would have taken home the hardware, having won the NL batting title (.340), leading the league in RBI’s (137), and finishing 4th in home runs (36).
MVP: Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, Ryan Braun, Manny Ramirez, Lance Berkman
WAR: Albert Pujols (9.1), Chase Utley (8.3), Lance Berkman (7.9), Carlos Beltran (7.6), Hanley Ramirez (7.5)
wOBA: Albert Pujols (.458), Chipper Jones (.446), Lance Berkman (.419), Matt Holliday (.418), Ryan Ludwick (.416)
NERD-score: Albert Pujols (10), Chipper Jones (6), Lance Berkman (6),Carlos Beltran (2), Matt Holliday (2)
WAR: Grady Sizemore (7.4), Dustin Pedroia (6.8), Nick Markakis (6.3), Alex Rodriguez (6.3), Joe Mauer (6.2)
NERD-score: Grady Sizemore (5), Milton Bradley (5), Alex Rodriguez (5), Dustin Pedroia (4), Carlos Quentin (4),
Another clear cut victory for Pujols in the NL, as he was hands down the best player in either league in 2008 with another 10 points on the NERD-score. In the AL, we have another interesting case with the diminutive Dustin Pedroia winning the award. In what was thought would be a close race, Pedroia ended up winning by a fairly comfortable margin (16 of 28 first place votes). He finished tied for second with 4 points in the NERD-score, behind Grady Sizemore (playing for a mediocre Indians team), Alex Rodriguez (this was shortly before the SI article came out, but post-Mitchell Report rumors were flying around), and Milton Bradley (3 strikes against him; a designated hitter, played for a losing team, and not a favorite of baseball writers). This seems to be a case in which intangibles were favored more heavily than in other years. Curiously, Justin Morneau finished second in MVP voting while again being the second best player on his team. I really don’t understand the infatuation with Morneau by the BBWA.
MVP: Albert Pujols, Hanley Ramirez, Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder, Troy Tulowitzki
WAR: Albert Pujols (8.9), Chase Utley (8.2), Hanley Ramirez (7.4), Ryan Zimmerman (7.3), Prince Fielder (6.4)
wOBA: Albert Pujols (.449), Prince Fielder (.420), Joey Votto (.418), Derrek Lee (.412), Hanley Ramirez (.410)
NERD-score: Albert Pujols (12), Hanley Ramirez (6), Chase Utley (4), Prince Fielder (4), Joey Votto (3)
MVP: Joe Mauer, Mark Texiera, Derek Jeter, Miguel Cabrera, Kendrys Morales
wOBA: Joe Mauer (.438), Kevin Youklis (.413), Ben Zobrist (.408), Alex Rodriguez (.405), Texiera and Cabrera tied (.402)
NERD-score: Joe Mauer (11), Ben Zobrist (8), Kevin Youklis (4), Mark Texiera (3), Jeter and ARod tied (2)
2009 was a watershed year in the Cy Young voting, as Zach Greinke took home the honors
despite finishing 7th in the all so important (editors note: sarcasm in use) pitching wins category. Cy Young voters were able to look past a flawed traditional stat and realize who the best pitcher was regardless of whether he happened to play for a bad team. In the MVP voting, it was still business as usual. I’m not trying to take shots at Pujols and Mauer, as they were both the clear choice in each league, but rather to bemoan the fate of one Ben Zobrist. Zobrist had a career year in 2009; scoring 8 NERD-score points, leding the AL in WAR, slashing .297/.405/.543 with 27 home runs in 152 games, all while playing 7 different defensive positions (mostly 2B and LF - where defensive metrics have him well above average). That all sounds pretty damn valuable to me. Saber whipping boy Joe Morgan was quoted as saying that while Zobrist had a good season, he was not an MVP candidate. Unfortunately the voters agreed and Zobrist finished 8th.
WAR: Albert Pujols (7.5), Joey Votto (7.3), Ryan Zimmerman (7.2), four players tied (6.6)
wOBA: Joey Votto (.439), Albert Pujols (.420), Carlos Gonzalez (.416), Troy Tulowitzki (.408), Jason Werth (.397)
NERD-score: Albert Pujols (11), Joey Votto (9), Carlos Gonzalez (7), Troy Tulowitzki (4), Ryan Zimmerman (3)
wOBA: Josh Hamilton (.447), Miguel Cabrera (.429), Jose Bautista (.422), Paul Konerko (.415), Adrian Beltre (.390)
NERD-score: Josh Hamilton (12), Jose Bautista (6), Evan Longoria (4), Miguel Cabrera (4), Carl Crawford (3)
Josh Hamilton had an incredible year in 2010, although he missed a good bit of time due to injury, as is a common occurrence with him (133 games), he still managed the highest WAR and wOBA in the Majors, won the Batting Title (.359), and hit 32 homers - all adding up to a 12 NERD-score and 22 first place votes. Surprisingly, the NL vote was even more lopsided despite the stats illustrating a closer race. The NERD-score shows a three horse race between Pujols (1st in NL WAR), Votto (1st in NL wOBA) and Carlos Gonzalez (1st in NL AVG), and the baseball intelligentsia seemed to agree. As it turned out, it appears that this was a case of a player on a contending team getting the scales tipped in his favor, as Votto took 31 of the 32 first place votes. It can also be said that voters may have been itching to give the award to anyone besides Pujols who had won in three of the last five years. As a fan of the Reds, it is a tad bittersweet knowing that both Hamilton and Votto played together in Cincinnati back as recently as 2007*.
*I will say that I do not begrudge the Reds organization for trading Hamilton. It was the right thing to do at the time as Hamilton was nowhere near a sure thing, and the Reds hadn't had an ace since Jose Rijo was spraying fans at Riverfront Stadium with Super Soakers. Hindsight is still a bitch though.
So, now that we have taken a look at the last five years, let's turn our attention to this season which concluded yesterday. Last night's events will go down as one of the most exciting finishes to regular season play in the history of baseball. I'm trying to put last night's events into historical context, but it is tough. You have Bobby Thompson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World," but that was a tiebreaker after the season officially ended. There was the "Merkle Boner" game and it's eventual makeup game, but the makeup game was not all that exciting as the Cubs went ahead early and Three Finger Brown shut the Giants down with relative ease. We have had some thrilling Game 163's in the past few years with the Twins/Tigers game in 2009 and the Rockies/Padres in 2007, but again, those were one game playoffs. What happened last night was truly special. You had four games with playoff implications going on simultaneously, with two teams on the brink of completing the biggest September collapses in their league, the two top seeds in each league playing hard in what for them were meaningless games, and two miserable teams trying to play spoiler. The way it all went down; plays at the plate, the extra inning drama, blown saves, unlikely heroes*, even down to the timing of the events, could not have been scripted any better and surely exceeded any baseball fan's wildest expectations.
*Dan Johnson, who hit the game tying HR in the bottom of the 9th as the Rays were down to their last strike has the lowest wOBA in the majors this season of position players with a minimum of 90 plate appearances (.181). In fact, the only player with a lower wOBA in either league with 90 plate appearances is Roy Halladay (.133). In Red Sox lore, he now joins Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone as players with the middle name "Fucking."
wOBA: Ryan Braun (.433), Matt Kemp (.419), Prince Fielder (.408), Joey Votto (.403), Lance Berkman (.402)
NERD-score: Matt Kemp (11), Ryan Braun (9), Joey Votto (5), Jose Reyes (3), Prince Fielder (3)
WAR: Jacoby Ellsbury (9.6), Jose Bautista (8.4), Dustin Pedroia (8.0), Ian Kinsler (7.6), Miguel Cabrera (7.3)
wOBA: Jose Bautista (.441), Miguel Cabrera (.436), Adrian Gonzalez (.406), David Ortiz (.405), Jacoby Ellsbuy (.402)
NERD-score: Jose Bautista (11), Miguel Cabrera (7), Jacoby Ellsbury (6), Adrian Gonzalez (3), Dustin Pedroia (3)
The voting this year should be very interesting as there are no clear-cut winners in either league. I would imagine the top five vote-getters in the NL will be very similar to the top five in NERD-score (although I wouldn't be surprised if Berkman or Pujols bump Votto out of the top five in light of the Cardinals' wild ride to the playoffs). The order of those five however, will almost certainly be different. The two favorites are clearly Kemp and Braun, and both had great seasons. Kemp, playing in all 161* Dodger games became a member of the 30/30 club (39 HR/40 SB), led the NL in WAR, home runs, and RBI's (126), while finishing third in batting average (.324). Braun played in 150 games for the division champion Brewers. He led the league in wOBA, finished second in batting average (.332) and WAR, and also joined the 30/30 club (33 HR/33 SB). I imagine this will be an extremely close vote. Kemp has the better numbers, but his advantage is marginal. Braun has the playoff team tiebreaker in his favor, but may have some votes taken away by his teammate Prince Fielder. Another thing to consider is that Kemp's teammate Clayton Kershaw is the presumptive favorite in the NL Cy Young race. Is it asking too much of the voters to pick two players from the same underachieving team to win the MVP and the Cy Young? If I had to guess, I'd say Kemp has the edge.
*The Dodgers had a game with the Nationals postponed due to rain that was not rescheduled. Kemp would have likely had at least 4 more chances to get to 40 homers (and the 40/40 club) had the game been made up.
The AL race this year is a complete mess. Trying to to predict this year's winner is next to impossible. The top 3 in the NERD-score this year will likely end up somewhere in the top five in MVP votes, but none are locks and depending on how you look at things any of them, or none of them could win. Finishing atop the NERD-score leaderboard is Jose Bautista. Bautista started off the season just where he left off last year, knocking the cover off the ball, and quickly put to bed the assertion that last year was just a fluke. His numbers trailed off a bit in June, but he heated back up in July and August, only to cool back down and have a pretty quiet September. He lead the AL in most power numbers finishing first in homers (42), slugging percentage (.608), and wOBA while also finishing second in on-base percentage by one point (.447). Bautista does have the misfortune of playing for a fourth place team, which may or may not affect his chances of winning. Second in NERD-score is Miguel Cabrera who had a great year playing 161 games for a division winning team. He won the AL batting title (.344), finished first in on-base percentage (.448), second in wOBA, and hit 30 home runs. In third place we have Jacoby Ellsbury, who turned a lot of heads this year coming back from injury better than ever before. He finished with the highest WAR in the majors this year (though a great deal of that is due to his above average defense in CF), made himself a member of the 30/30 club (32 HR/39 SB), and finished in the top five in batting average (.321), home runs, and wOBA. While not on the NERD-score leaderboard, Curtis Granderson (2nd in the AL with 41HR) is considered to be a contender for the MVP this year. Granderson was recently quoted in the New York Times lauding the statistical importance of runs scored and RBIs. I'm sure that has nothing to do with the fact that he happens to lead the AL in both runs scored (136) and RBIs (119). Granderson's year end line of .262/.364/.552 is good, but not great and leading the league in runs scored and RBIs is a lot easier playing for an offensive juggernaut like the Yankees. The wild card in all of this is Justin Verlander. Verlander went 24-5 this year with a 2.40 ERA and is garnering speculation that he may be the first pitcher to win the MVP since Eckersley. I doubt that he ends up winning, but I think there is a chance that he may receive some first place votes. My guess is that Bautista, Cabrera and Granderson finish in the top three with Ellsbury and Verlander* rounding out the top five.
*I would put Verlander's chances higher had he got to 25 wins, because baseball writers love them some round numbers.
Post script: When doing research for this article I relied heavily on the FanGraphs Leaderboards. One little quirk with the site is when you click a category to sort, it first sorts from the bottom up. So when sorting the wOBA leaderboards, it would first show me who had the worst wOBA in the league before i had to click again to see who had the best. I started noticing a reoccurring name in the wOBA bottom dwellers, SS Yuniesky Betancourt. Seriously, how does this guy still have a job? He's been one of the worst hitters in the league over his career and he plays terrible defense at a very demanding position. He was traded to the Brewers this past offseason in the Greinke deal as an addition by subtraction move on the Royals' part. Now Yuni gets to boot balls and not get on base in the playoffs. I guess it really is better to be lucky than good.