With less than a week remaining in the regular season, a number of end-of-year player awards appear to lack a decisive winner. With so few games left, a decisive winner is unlikely to emerge.
In the American League MVP race, for example, you couldn’t have a greater contrast between the top two candidates. Jose Altuve is the smallest position player in the majors, Aaron Judge the largest. They possess different offensive skills and different defensive homes. Yet these two very different players had produced exactly 7.3 WAR entering play Monday. Lurking behind Altuve and Judge is the game’s best position player, Mike Trout. After losing time to injury, Trout isn’t the favorite. He’s been excellent when healthy, however.
The American League Cy Young race might be even more fascinating. After Chris Sale seemed to have run away with the award by the end of July, Corey Kluber has made it very much a contested race thanks to a remarkable series of performances since he returned from the disabled list in June. How one chooses between the two might depend on which version of pitcher WAR one consults: either the FIP-based version (denoted at the site just as WAR) or the one calculated by runs allowed (RA9-WAR).
Sale holds a sizable lead by the former measure (8.2 to 7.1), Kluber by the latter (8.3 to 7.5). And Baseball Prospectus has Kluber (8.09 WARP) and Sale (7.88. BWARP) pretty close. BP’s metric employs its Deserved Runs Average (DRA) as its WAR baseline for pitchers.
Sale has hit a rare milestone: 300 strikeouts. Kluber has had as good a stretch of play as any pitcher in the 21st century. Both seasons rank within the top-five all-time for strikeout- and walk-rate differential (K-BB%), in the company of Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson.
Good luck with those votes, fellow BBWAA scribes.
Part of the problem, particularly with the MVP award, is the voting criteria. The official definition can be read here and hasn’t changed since the first ballots were cast in 1931. The vague language has been an issue for nearly 90 years of voting.
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 MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.
1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.
2. Number of games played.
3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.
4. Former winners are eligible.
5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.
You are also urged to give serious consideration to all your selections, from 1 to 10. A 10th-place vote can influence the outcome of an election. You must fill in all 10 places on your ballot. Only regular-season performances are to be taken into consideration.
Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and designated hitters.
There is, of course, quite a bit of room for subjectivity there — and debates have revolved for decades around the implications of the word “value.”
But I think there’s a consideration that has been addressed less often in this age of better data and better measurements of performance: with our votes, we are awarding (and evaluating) history, considering what has happened. We’re not trying to be predictive, not attempting to determine the most talented player at the present moment, or the best player on the best team. The runs scored and runs allowed and context matter because they help determine, ultimately, the real wins and losses in the standings.
For example, while you probably wouldn’t base any sort of predictive analysis on either Win Probability Added or Clutch, both metrics are meaningful representations of what has happened, of who’s produced in crucial situations. Not all raw value (WAR) is created equal. Consider what FanGraphs’ “Clutch” metric is measuring:
“…how much better or worse a player does in high leverage situations than he would have done in a context neutral environment.” It also compares a player against himself, so a player who hits .300 in high leverage situations when he’s an overall .300 hitter is not considered clutch. Clutch does a good job of describing the past, but it does very little towards predicting the future.”
Much of our analysis at FanGraphs and elsewhere is forward-looking; award voting is the opposite, though. It represents an attempt to more accurately understand history and distribute credit.
WAR is more predictive than WPA and Cutch, sure, but WPA tells us about performance in context and Clutch about how the player performs, relative to his skill, in high-leverage situations.
This was the problem with Bryant’s MVP candidacy last year, which Jeff documented last season.
What this gets at is that his hitting this year has been less helpful than the overall numbers would suggest. That’s not spin; I don’t have anything against Kris Bryant. It’s just how things have happened. And just as with Saunders, this is an easy thing to break down. In low-leverage situations, Bryant’s wRC+ ranks in the 99th percentile. In medium-leverage situations, it ranks in the 85th percentile. In high-leverage situations, it ranks in the eighth percentile. Bryant has done the most damage when the results have mattered the least. That’s all this says.
It’s a problem with Bryant’s candidacy again this year, a matter that Jeff recently revisited.
You can be the most valuable player in a league and the least clutch. Clutch and WPA/LI are just offensive measures. But in close races, voters ought to drill deeper.
Notably, Bryant is the third-least clutch player this year. Judge is the least clutch. Now, WAR also accounts for defense and baserunning value — which aren’t included in the win-probability numbers — but the idea here is to show that not all production is distributed equally. Some players have produced in more meaningful spots than others. Judge hit his 50th home run on Monday, he’s a great player who has enjoyed a remarkable season, but the home run also came with a significant lead late in the game. Altuve has produced similar overall value this year, but more of it has come in critical situations.
Consider the following scatter chart:
Considered in this light, one might arrive at a different conclusion about the identities of the MVP favorites.
We can also approach this from a Win Probability Added standpoint, which is dependent on context. Judge ranks 56th in WPA (+1.74) while Altuve ranks eighth (+3.68). Trout, for the record, ranks first (+5.45).
Another way to evaluate this is simply by considering leverage splits for wRC+:
Low Leverage: 157
Medium Leverage: 174
High Leverage: 133
Low Leverage: 190
Medium leverage: 150
High leverage: 95
Low leverage: 168
Medium leverage: 198
High leverage: 158
In the Cy Young race, Kluber (-0.21) and Sale (-0.35) have very similar ratings in Clutch. As noted before, however, the differences in WAR have their own implications. FIP-based WAR, for example, possesses more predictive value because it neutralizes the influence of balls in play and sequencing. RA9-WAR, however, might be more useful for voting, taking into account the runs that were actually allowed.
Again, we’re concerned with history. What actually happened. That’s this author’s stance, at least.
WAR has become an important tool, perhaps the most important tool for many voters. It marks a step forward from batting average and RBIs. And it’s designed to give a sense — through different recipes at FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball Reference — about which players produced the most total value overall. It’s a great tool. It’s trying to boil a lot down into one number, and that makes life easier for voters. But WAR doesn’t account for context or impact on individual games. In a close race, we need more context.
Award voting is a matter of history, judging recent history. It’s not a predictive exercise or an argument over who’s the top talent at the present moment or the best player on the best team. And to complete that historical picture, to look back as accurately as possible, voters ought to drill deeper.