FanGraphs Official Position On: 2011 AL MVP

Finally, awards season proper, perhaps inaugurated by last night’s Emmy Awards (more credible than the Grammys, less credible than the Gold Gloves), has begun. Perhaps the annual baseball awards would be more exciting if it somehow incorporated hours of inane red carpet banter, but instead we have to settle for seemingly endless arguments.

If you are reading this, you probably are at least somewhat aware of an added element to the arguments about baseball awards voting the last couple of seasons: the increasing popularity of Wins Above Replacement as a measure of player value. Although I personally have not experienced single-season WAR being used as a “conversation stopper” in player comparison, it seems that some people feel that happens far too often. That is unfortunate, because while WAR is a very useful tool for a getting a picture of a player’s overall contribution relative to his peers, it isn’t something that should be used to end those debates, but to recast them in a different, and hopefully better, fashion. Rather than explain WAR from the ground up (the FanGraphs Library has a good primer), or even to say who should win, today my goal is simply to show how I would use WAR in relation to the 2011 American League MVP Award in a way that probably isn’t too different from most other FanGraphs authors.

The first thing I should say is that the “Official Position” in the title is a bit ironic. After all, one stereotype of saber-nerds is that we all think in the same (probably robotic, perhaps cybernetic) fashion. That isn’t the case, of course, but since the point of this post is to demonstrate general principles for using WAR rather than very specific distinctions, it’s probably okay.

Second, although I know that many people like to argue about the meaning the “V” in “MVP,” I won’t be engaging that issue at length here. For the sake of this post, “Most Valuable” means something like “if you could guarantee the performance the season ahead of time, which player’s 2011 would you pay the most for without knowing ahead of time what the rest of the team is like.” Perhaps that’s a bit Rawlsian, but I’m a few hundred words into this thing already…

Let’s (finally) get to it: who does WAR say is the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 2011? Easy, let’s just look at the value leaderboard for the American League. As of this writing, Jacoby Ellsbury is at 8.5 WAR, just edging out Jose Bautista who is at 8.2. Assuming the vote is today, Ellsbury should win, right?

Well, maybe Ellsbury should win, but it isn’t that simple. For some seasons, just looking at the WAR leaderboard and picking the overall leader would might work. For example, in 2005, Alex Rodriguez was more than two wins better than any other position player, and although I think pitchers should be able to win the MVP, not even 2005 Johan Santana came close enough for me to have seriously considered him over A-Rod.

However, a brief glance over the WAR leaderboards from the past shows that a situation like 2005’s is a rarity; most seasons are more like the current one. So how do we decide who should win?

The first thing I would do is decide who the contenders are. Although I could make the cutoff larger, for the sake of space I will make my initial and imprecise cutoff at about 1.5 wins from the current WAR (Ellsbury at 8.5). Although I think that players like Ian Kinsler, Alex Gordon, and a number of others should get at least some down-ballot support, for now we are left with leaves us with Ellsbury, Bautista, Dustin Pedroia, Curtis Granderson, and also two pitchers in CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander. Again, I think a pitcher should be able to win the MVP, but for this season, with Sabathia and Verlander just on the cusp, I don’t think they are quite in the same league as Ellsbury or Bautista, though the reality is that you can make a legitimate case for any of these guys and not be too far off the mark.

Pedroia and Granderson are a bit more difficult to knock off, as their listed values with respect to Ellsbury and Bautista are significantly weighted by their fielding values for the season: very positively in Pedroia’s case (plus 17 runs), somewhat negatively in Granderson’s (minus seven). If you think that one or both of those fielding ratings is too low, then conceivably one or both players might really be in the area of eight WAR, and thus close contenders. On the other hand, some might find Pedroia’s rating in particular too high, in which case he falls back to the pack. I’m not going to get into an extended discussion of fielding metrics here (there will be more later in the week). I am simply acknowledging that they are rightfully the most controversial component of FanGraphs and other total value metrics. Indeed, if you make enough “adjustments” to the defensive ratings of all the top players, you could get a very different ranking of players indeed! While my preference of UZR, which is what is used as the fielding component useful and is rightly used as the fielding component of WAR here at FanGraphs, the individual player pages also have Dewan’s Defensive Runs Saved, or you can check other fielding metrics out there. I would also recommend looking at the ongoing results of the 2011 Fans Scouting Report, which is very useful.

With those (qualified) “eliminations” aside, we are down to Ellsbury (8.5) and Bautista (8.2). Even if the fielding issue weren’t there, for practical purposes the 8.5 and 8.2 WAR are the same. WAR isn’t precise enough to make that distinction. Again, that doesn’t knock its overall usefulness (and it should be noted, the primary intended use of the WAR concept in general is not to decide annual awards), it is just the nature of the beast. With that in mind, how can we decide who has “really” been most valuable?

We know that the same offense from a center fielder like Ellsbury is more valuable that from a corner outfielder like Bautista, but a positional adjustment part of WAR (which also accounts for multi-position players like Ben Zobrist and, briefly this season, Bautista), accounts for those differences. The non-stolen base element of baserunning is accounted for by UBR, and the differences aren’t that great, either. Really, then, the decision between Ellsbury and Bautista comes down to fielding versus hitting.

As mentioned earlier, it isn’t just the fielding portion of WAR that is subject to uncertainty. However, it is true that the estimation of batting runs is on much firmer footing that fielding runs. Thus, it is tempting to say that given two players of roughly the same WAR, one should go with the player who has the better batting as the more “sure thing,” which would make Bautista the winner.

Before we let ourselves off of the hook that easily, let’s be a bit more careful. After all, the uncertainty around fielding statistics does not simply imply that Ellsbury’s rating should actually be lower than plus 14 runs and/or Bautista’s higher than minus 4.5 runs. The opposite might be the case: Ellsbury might have been better than fourteen runs and Bautista worse! Variance goes both ways, after all.

As I said at the beginning, I’m not posting this to use WAR and other metrics as a sledgehammer to make a case for one MVP candidate over another. I suppose if you asked me today, I would say Bautista, but I could easily be convinced that Ellsbury was the man, and certainly wouldn’t think any worse of someone for differing with me. The main thing I hope to have shown in my own long-winded way is that WAR itself can at be a useful (if imprecise) tool for assembling who should be on the ballot. Perhaps by looking at the components from different angles (different fielding metrics and scouting reports, WPA/LI), we can refine our thinking a bit. My way of looking at it might be summed up like this: WAR isn’t problematic because its imprecision prevents it from being a conversation-stopper. Rather, WAR succeeds because it gives us a framework to help get a better conversation started.

WAR gives us a pretty good idea of who the legitimate candidates for the award are this year. Splitting hairs among players who all had great seasons is not what it was designed to do, nor is it a wise use of the metric. In most years, WAR will not tell you who exactly should get the #1 spot on an MVP ballot, but it will probably give you a good idea of who should be in the top 5. From there, use your best judgment, and understand that there are usually multiple valid opinions, with none of them being obviously more correct than the others.

We hoped you liked reading FanGraphs Official Position On: 2011 AL MVP by Matt Klaassen!

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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ToddM
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ToddM

Bautista is clearly the best hitter. Ellsbury, using UZR anyway, has been the best overall player. Granderson (outside of batting average) has the best counting numbers — his runs scored total in this environment is obscene.

I still think, combining modern and conventional thought, the MVP is Verlander. Until acquiring the surprisingly awesome Fister, he absolutely carried the Tigers’ starting staff into contention. Verlander is dominant, obviously, but it’s more than that. He was essential for most of the season.

Granderson’s average and defense will keep him down; indeed, one might argue Sabathia as the Yankees’ top candidate. The Red Sox have too many viable candidates, and Ellsbury’s lack of exposure relative to Adrian Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia will probably hurt him. Texas doesn’t really have anyone worth considering, nor do most of the non-contenders or almost contenders.

To me, it comes down to Verlander and Bautista. Pitchers-can’t-win vs. Non-contenders-can’t win. Verlander’s gaudy win total and the Tigers’ run vs. a very soft schedule in August and September will get him the hardware.

ToddM
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ToddM

(I do realize the article was about “should”, not about “will”, but I added my thoughts about “will”)

(and yes, Pedro got screwed 1999)

JimNYC
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JimNYC

The way I like to think about MVP awards: Take the player off their team, insert a replacement-level player, see what happens to the team’s position in the standings. You can’t win an MVP on a last place team — they could have just as easily finished in last without you — and you can’t win an MVP on a 110 win team, since they really didn’t need you that badly. Toronto would still be in fourth place without Bautista. Detroit would not be in the playoffs without Verlander.

Verlander is the easiest MVP pick for me in years.

TYML
Guest
TYML

JimNYC, I disagree that team quality should impact MVP voting, but that is for another day. More relevant is that I disagree with your own application of those rules.

How would the Tigers be out of the postseason without Verlander, but it’s not the same thing with the other contenders? The Tigers currently enjoy the largest divisional lead in all of baseball at 12.5 games. While the Yankees have the best record in the AL, the relative successes of the Red Sox and Rays only put them at 7.5 games away from being out of the playoffs. Furthermore, the Red Sox have only a 1.5 game lead in the WC race.

So , by your rules, the Tigers without Verlander would be at least 13 games worse, but the Yankees without Granderson wouldn’t be 8 games worse, and the Sox without Ellsbury or Pedroia wouldn’t be 2 games worse.

I don’t follow.

BIP
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BIP

That’s a great argument for Verlander as team MVP, but unfortunately, AL MVP is a league award. I think it’s funny that people quibble about the “V” when the real problem is ignoring the “L”. To be fair, the voting instructions don’t do much to help, referring to “actual value of a player to his team,” but only in the context of “strength of offense and defense,” not position in the standings.

Regardless, MVP is not just a league award, but an individual award as well. I see absolutely no reason to factor a player’s team, teammates, or team record into the voting.

BIP
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BIP

My post is a response to JimNYC if that wasn’t clear.

JimNYC
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JimNYC

TYML: Valid points. The Tigers’ recent ridiculous tear and their running away with the AL Central has kind of obscured how close a thing their making the playoffs was for much of the season. Without Verlander earlier in the season, they probably wouldn’t have been in a position to improve the team and work from ahead the way they’ve done, but you’re right that, at the end of the day, Verlander isn’t a 13 win swing.

My gut instinct is that the Ellsbury and Pedroia campaigns will be nonstarters, since as of this moment I’m thinking that Tampa Bay overtakes them. If I was giving the award to anybody other than Verlander, it would be Granderson — my gut says that he hasn’t been as bad on defense as the metrics make him out to be, and that his statistics probably suffer from having the best defender in the league playing next to him and snagging balls that might otherwise come into his territory, but regardless, I just think he’s probably better than the defensive burden the numbers show him to be.

Matt
Guest
Matt

Part of the problem with these award debates is it becomes about narrative, and sometimes the reality changes but people still stick to the narrative. Verlander is a case in point. About 3 weeks ago, one could make the argument that Verlander was more “valuable to his team” than any other player because the Tigers were in a close race, and he’s been far and away the best pitcher on his team. Now, they have the biggest lead in baseball, and are the only team in the AL to have clinched. Say what you want about pitcher WAR, Verlander probably hasn’t been worth more the 13 game lead the Tigers have. So the argument that he’s had more of an impact than someone on Texas (4.5 game lead, Kinsler with 6.6 WAR), NYY (5.5/7 game lead, Granderson with 7 WAR), Boston (1.5 game lead, Elsbury/Pedroia/A-Gonzalez all above 6 WAR) or even Tampa (trailing by 1.5, Zobrist and Longoria in the 5-6 WAR range) simple makes no sense anymore.

Bert
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Bert

Sorry but you are clearly out to lunch choosing a pitcher. Verlander should merit ZERO as in 0 consideration. He is a pitcher and I dont care of he wins 35 games he only plays in 20 to 25% of his teams games. How can a player who plays in less than a quarter of his teams games be considered for MVP?. The answer is easy – He can`t. There is a reason that pitchers never win MVP and this is it. He wins Cy Young hands down of course because he has had a terrific season but MVP NO WAY

jose bautista is clearly the MVP and no one is even close but he probably wont get it becaus ehe plays in Canada and the Jays arent going to th e playoffs However no one has meant more to his team or won so many games on his own as Bautista. Over the last 2 seasons he has hit 18 more HRs than anyone else – unreaL

ToddM
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ToddM

Except pitchers HAVE won the MVP.

Except players impact games to a different degree, and Verlander has a huge impact on the 35 games he appears in.

Look, I’m not saying he is the only choice. I’m saying he’s a viable choice. Taken from another perspective: Verlander has faced 938 batters this season, a number that would be even higher if his WHIP wasn’t leading the majors, because he’s leading the majors with 244 innings pitched. The major league leader in plate appearances for a batter has 693 (Pedroia).

Verlander has participated in 35% more plate appearances than any batter in baseball. Yes, position players are more important defensively than pitchers, and that makes up for a lot (and perhaps all) of that difference. Still, there’s no logical argument for a horse starting pitcher not having the same impact as a position player. Relievers? Sure. Giving Willie Hernandez the MVP in 1984 was retarded. Verlander, however, is a viable candidate.