Friday, September 16, 2005

MVP


On the drive home yesterday, I heard Mets' general manager-turned-ESPN pundit Steve Phillips discussing the National League Most Valuable Player race. (I would say it's not really a "race" per se, as Andruw Jones and Albert Pujols, for instance, are not competing head-to-head. Then I remembered that, starting today, the Houston Astros are completely disassociated from the other teams in the NL wild card "race.")

Phillips cast his radio vote for Jones. In doing so, he said something that seemed odd to me, that "If I were to start a team today, I'd take Pujols, hands down"---but also stated that this preference had nothing to do with selecting an MVP. I'm not sure how to disagree with him except to say that his first statement (the one in quotes) seemed to describe "most valuable" pretty well.

In today's Washington Post chat,* Tom Boswell opined that the MVP is Jones, and "it's not close." Boz makes the positional adjustment argument in favor of Jones, but also adds what I'll call the "good-but-not-great bonus," which is expressed in lots of media outlets about this time of the year:


Cards were going to win their division even if
Pujols had an average year. Without a MONSTER career season for Andruw, the Braves might not even have made the playoffs as a wildcard. To me, Jones DEFINES an MVP year a great player rising to another level for months when his team desperately needs him.


This line of thinking---which, based on my recollection, has really taken off in the wild card era---essentially punishes players on great teams, such as this year's Cardinals. It does so in two ways:

1. It minimizes the player's contribution by placing a surcharge on the value of his teammates; invariably, this helps bring teammates, who are good-but-not-great (compared to the MVP candidate), to the fore of the discussion and dilute the star's value to his own team. To paraphrase Rob Dibble of XM's MLB Homeplate, who I also heard in yesterday's afternoon drive: "Look at David Eckstein. He works hard, plays great defense, is a sparkplug at the top of the order. He gets the thing rolling. Albert Pujols is a great, great player, but Eckstein's just as import to the Cardinals' success, in my opinion." This is a textbook example.

2. The good-but-not-great reasoning simultaneously credits the candidacy of a star on a good-but-not-great team. With the great team's postseason berth all-but locked up (or now clinched), the focus turns to those berths that are still open. A star situated on one of these teams now can be seen as "carrying his teammates on his back"---either now or at some critical point earlier in the season, as Jones clearly did. The effect becomes strangely different than the one displaced on the similarly-situated player on a great team; instead of having his value muddled with the value of his teammates, the value of the star of the good-but-not-great team is sort of placed in a "separate segrated fund," isolated from that of his teammates. This year, it's a particularly strange effect, because rookie sensation Jeff Francouer (SI coverboy!) receives tremendous praise, but his presence seems to be forgotten when Jones' MVP candidacy is discussed.

Note that I'm not advocating Francouer's contributions should at all minimize Jones' stellar season; no doubt, Andruw Jones has been a shining star this year. I'm only suggesting that Pujols' greatness is being overshadowed by the superior quality of his teammates. Re-read Boz's answer to witness this effect. He characterizes Jones' season as a MONSTER year, but says nothing praiseworthy of Pujols at all. He merely states the obvious that the Cards are a great team and then denigrates Pujols' defensive value (which, in the abstract, is a valid point). The effect, while perhaps unfair, made more sense in recent seasons, when Pujols was star among stars of a great team but was nevertheless clearly outclassed by Barry Bonds.

Anyway, those are my thoughts. What are your thoughts? I don't just mean "Who should be the NL (or AL) MVP?" but also "What makes an MVP?"


* Expect rather scathing criticism from my blogging colleagues to emerge from this chat, concerning other subjects.

Comments:
I'm too lazy to look up, but is there an official definition?

Anyway, I think it's all about "Player Most Valuable to his team" versus "Player Most Valuable to a Good Team" versus "Player who brings Most Value to the Game Period".

I'm of the third school of tought. And Pujols is just better than Andrew. And Derrek Lee isn't far back in the NL.
 
Oh, btw, Lee is in front of Jones.
 
Depends I can see three definitions (which is why we have so many problems)
1) Most Valuable to his team - with the ultimate value being placed on making the playoffs. In this def'n, generally only good players on playoff teams can be MVPs. And if you're the best player on a team that barely makes the playoffs (hence they definately wouldn't make the playoffs without you) even better. Generally this is the line of thinking followed by most pundits

2) Most Valuable to his team - with no win being more important than others. This is more of a who had the best season type of award, but best season by conventional stats. RBIs are big here, as are intangibles.

3) Actual best season (most winshares or best VORP or something like that) - favored by the sabermetrically inclined, this would exclude a players teammates contribution and would try to find who actually contributed the most wins to his team.


What do I favor? If MVP was ever seen as a fair award between pitchers and hitters I might go with #3, but actually I favor #2. I'll go into it more when the award are handed out but generally I think the best season should be rewarded. Not the best potential season if on some mythical perfectly average team, but actual season. So things like wins and RBIs and runs scored are perfectly acceptable as being important.
 
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