Before we get going, allow me to say four things:
- This is not the official FanGraphs position. FanGraphs doesn’t have an official position on any awards. This is a company of a bunch of different writers, and any bunch of writers will possess a bunch of different opinions. These are my thoughts, and my thoughts alone.
- My vote this year is for the AL Cy Young. I do not have a vote for the NL MVP. If I did have a vote for the NL MVP, I wouldn’t be allowed to write this right now! As far as this race is concerned, I’m an outside observer.
- Reasonable people can conclude that Jacob deGrom shouldn’t be the NL MVP. In such an event, I imagine the support would go to Christian Yelich. Yelich has been amazing, especially of late. Every number has error bars, and Yelich has an argument. This case isn’t open and shut.
- You’ve probably read much of my argument before, written by different people in different places. This is the “best player” argument. It’s the Mike Trout argument. I’m just going to make the argument with different words.
So we can get into it, then. Last week, I wasn’t sure who I supported. I’ve never voted for the league MVP, so I’ve never given it all that much thought. But now I’ve come around, and I can say that, if I had a vote for the NL MVP, my first-place choice would be Jacob deGrom. My second-place choice would be Christian Yelich. deGrom, of course, is done for the year, because the Mets were bad. Yelich’s Brewers are playing literally right now, and for all I know, he’ll provide the winning hit that sends the Brewers straight to the NLDS. For so many voters, that’s likely to be a factor. Perhaps that’s likely to be the factor. I don’t believe that it should be. I believe that deGrom made a winning case.
No one’s MVP ballot should ever be based just on a WAR leaderboard. But WAR provides a pretty good starting point. According to our regular version of WAR, deGrom was the best player in the National League. According to our other version of WAR, which holds pitchers responsible for their actual runs allowed, deGrom was the best player in the National League. According to the version of WAR over at Baseball Prospectus, deGrom was the best player in the National League. And you can examine their context-based performances, too — by Win Probability Added, deGrom was the best player in the National League. That stat can be weird and imperfect, but when you’re pitching well in low-scoring games, the WPA can add up pretty quick.
As you know, the Mets didn’t ultimately win all that many of deGrom’s brilliant starts. That’s not at all deGrom’s fault, and it doesn’t make any sense to fault deGrom for the poor performance of his teammates. The MVP is an individual award, given to an individual player. As deGrom’s WPA is able to demonstrate, he consistently gave the Mets a good chance to win. That’s the whole point. deGrom’s teammates couldn’t pull their own weight. So it goes, when you play for a non-contender.
One of the neat things about WAR is that it’s a counting stat. It accounts for performance and playing time. But still, I know this is always a conversation whenever we compare pitchers and hitters. Hitters play almost every day. A starting pitcher goes once every five games. To put this in necessary terms: deGrom, as a pitcher, faced 835 batters. Yelich, as a hitter, batted 647 times. Now, Yelich as a defender in the outfield had something like 270 opportunities. But according to Statcast measurements, Yelich had something like 93 defensive opportunities that weren’t just routine cans of corn. Yelich also gets some credit for all the time he spent running the bases, but I think that, overall, the playing-time argument is unconvincing. deGrom played a lot, too. He played enough to push his WAR into first.
Now feels like the right time to revisit those familiar MVP voting criteria. You can read them here, straight from the BBWAA. I know there’s always a lot of emphasis put on the beginning, the part about how there’s no clear-cut definition of “most valuable.” That’s true! But I want to call your attention to three excerpts. One, the first listed rule:
1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.
Two, from the first paragraph:
The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.
Three, the last line:
Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and designated hitters.
You see articles and tweets every year saying the fun of the MVP is how it’s so open to interpretation. I get a kick out of it, too, because awards are basically thought experiments. But, so often, my sense is that these criteria are interpreted incorrectly. To be clear, it’s not like I have access to hidden documents assembled by the original MVP award creators. I didn’t get to be a fly on the wall. I very much wasn’t present, because I very much wasn’t alive. Yet I think what’s there is pretty explicit, in what gets mailed out to voters every fall. The very first listed rule seems to suggest this is just a performance award. There is, also, a general character aspect, but it’s mostly performance. Which teams’ players are eligible? Every team’s players. Which kinds of players are eligible? All kinds of players. If you played on a major-league baseball field, you’re an MVP candidate.
Too often, voters ignore that last point. I understand why: Many people are of the opinion that the Cy Young is for pitchers, and therefore the MVP is for position players. By the actual rules, this is not the case. A voter might want it to be the case, but it is not, according to the criteria itself. And, of course, pitchers have won the MVP in the past. Clayton Kershaw won in 2014. Justin Verlander won in 2011. But pitchers are up against an obvious bias. In last year’s AL MVP voting, Corey Kluber was left off seven of 30 ballots, and Chris Sale was left off 15. In the NL MVP voting, Max Scherzer was left off 18. The year before, Scherzer was left off 18, and Madison Bumgarner was left off 28. The year before that, Kershaw was left off 18. Zack Greinke was left off six, and Jake Arrieta was left off five. Some of the best pitcher seasons in recent history haven’t gotten across-the-board MVP support. I don’t mean for first place. I mean for even just tenth place. MVP voters have ten slots to fill. A chunk of voters still leave pitchers out of the picture. I don’t think there’s a good argument for why they should.
Now let’s go back a point, to the point about the teams. As is said right there, the MVP doesn’t have to come from a playoff team. And we can see this in practice, because last year’s Marlins were terrible, but the MVP went to Giancarlo Stanton. Every year, we have this conversation about Trout. Still, many, many voters place a priority on players playing meaningful games. The closer the race, all the better. Many voters like to try to look for the player who made the difference between a playoff spot and hitting the links. One could extend this to the absurd.
Imagine, if you will, two teams tie for the second wild card. They have to play a tiebreaker, to determine who advances. The game goes into extra innings, and then the road team slips in front. In the bottom half, the home team is down to its final out, with a thin bench. A bench player or September call-up pinch-hits, and then that player hits a dramatic, walk-off home run, turning a deficit into a playoff berth. Technically, that player would have made virtually all the difference. Is that player therefore the league MVP? Of course not. No one would claim so. And yet.
This is all about the interpretation of “value,” with the popular belief that a player provides minimal value when his team is out of the hunt. But if you want to look even closer, why not fold in the player’s salary, too? Is that not a part of the player’s presence on the roster? You can make a good argument that salary ought to be included, as well, but nobody wants that. What if a player is a particularly good box-office draw? There’s no appetite for this. Nobody wants to have to think about these other factors. So keeping it just on the field, it’s true that every team is trying to make the playoffs, but it’s also true that every team is trying to win every game. Every game is of import. Even the Mets’ games in September mattered.
Yelich’s Brewers were trying to win every game, because they’ve been aiming for the playoffs. deGrom’s Mets were trying to win every game, because they’ve been playing for jobs. They’ve been playing for respect. They’ve been playing for the organization; they’ve been playing for the fans. They’ve been playing for themselves, and they’ve been competitive, just as their opponents have been competitive. The goal is always to win as many games as possible. Even in the last week of the season, when all that’s left to decide is draft positioning. All players should be recognized for their performances in competitive baseball games. All regular-season baseball games are competitive baseball games.
To take a step back, to look at the broader picture: What are the MVP results actually telling us? In theory, I know the argument is that the results tell us the collective opinion of 30 professional baseball writers. That’s similar to how it’s supposed to work for the Hall of Fame. But out of the whole pool of BBWAA voters, some writers vote for the best players, period. Some writers place a heavy emphasis on the best players on playoff teams. Some writers ignore pitchers, believing them either ineligible or dramatically inferior. We have all these writers voting, but as things are today, they’re essentially not even all voting for the same award. If everyone has a different opinion of what the MVP is, and if some people leave pitchers out altogether, what question is being answered?
That’s really at the core of all of this, for me. Forget all the familiar arguments about who played for which teams and where they are in the standings, because I want you to forget about the familiar premises. We know what the MVP has turned into. It’s almost hopelessly complicated and inconsistent. Why is there even an MVP award at all? What question is baseball trying to ask of its voters? Does it not make the most sense that baseball would be looking to recognize the single best player in each of its leagues?
Imagine that baseball had no awards. Imagine that you were in charge of creating them. What’s the very first award you create? What’s the most important award you create? It’s the best-player award. Of course it’s the best-player award. It’s not the best-player-on-a-team-that-makes-the-playoffs award. It’s not the best-player-on-a-team-that-makes-the-playoffs-but-only-just-barely award. It’s not the best-player-on-a-team-that-makes-the-playoffs-and-there’s-not-another-really-great-player-on-the-same-roster award. You create an award that looks to recognize the best player. Baseball has such an award. It’s the highest-profile award given by the BBWAA. You can definitely overthink it, and over the course of several decades it’s turned into something extremely overthought. It’s turned into something other than what I have to imagine was the original intent. Sometimes I don’t even know what voters are arguing about anymore. I understand how we got to this place, but we don’t need to stay here.
They say it’s the most-valuable-player award, not simply the best-player award. The most valuable player is the best player, according to the only intent that makes good sense. Even by these simplified criteria, there’s still infinite room to argue. There are statistical error bars everywhere, and it’s not like the conversation becomes less fun. Rather, I think it becomes more fun and engaging, because at least we’d all be trying to answer the same core question. In my opinion, this season, Jacob deGrom was the best overall player in the National League. Therefore, he’d get my vote for the NL MVP. It’s a vote that I don’t have, but it’s a vote I would give him with my full and total confidence.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.