Today, the Baseball Writers Assocation of America — an organization to which I belong — will wrap up their awards announcements by handing out the MVPs for both the AL and NL. Andrew McCutchen is very likely to win the award for the NL, and Miguel Cabrera is going to get his second consecutive trophy for the AL. The only drama surrounds how much of a landslide each will win by; it’s probably not going to be close in either case.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t other worthy candidates. Clayton Kershaw had an excellent season, as did Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter, and Carlos Gomez, and you could make a case for any of those four. In the AL, obviously, there’s Mike Trout, who was the best player in baseball this year and would win this thing in a landslide if voters saw it as the Best Player award. But, as you’re going to hear numerous times today, this is not the Best Player award; it’s the Most Valuable Player award.
So, we’re going to sit through another day of explanations for why best and most valuable aren’t the same thing. To be honest, I have no real interest in those explanations, or in arguing about them, because the discussion is almost entirely removed from the game of baseball. Few of the people who cast their votes for Miguel Cabrera actually think he had a better year than Trout this season; they just believe they’re answering a question that deals with more than how a baseball player performed for his team over the last year.
I’ve noted before that I think a good way to test the validity of a metric is to explain, in english, what question it is answering. Some of them are obvious and clearly answer a question that people should want to know the answer to, while metrics like Wins for pitchers answer things that no one would ever ask or care about if the metric didn’t first prompt the question. When the question the metric is attempting to answer is a question that no one cares to ask, the metric is basically useless.
I think the same principle can be applied to awards. An award is useful for as long as it honors a person or thing for an achievement that is worth honoring. If the BBWAA gave out an award for Peanut Vendor of the Year, no one would pay any attention to it, because with all due respect to peanut vendors everywhere, the public at large doesn’t really care about concession sales efficiency. Awards hold importance to the amount that they reflect the public’s desire to honor someone for the thing they did.
The Gold Gloves, for instance, used to be pretty important. Then they started giving them out to guys who couldn’t play defense, and made a farce of themselves by awarding one to Rafael Palmeiro in a season where he spent most of the year at DH. The public no longer had any reason to believe that the results actually measured the quality of defense being played, to the point that a second fielding award has been created by Baseball Info Solutions and has gained some real traction because it actually does honor the best fielders in most cases. When the Gold Gloves stopped giving out awards on the basis of a player’s performance, people stopped caring about them.
The MVP isn’t in imminent danger of being displaced by a second award, but the further the BBWAA gets away from honoring the season’s premier player, the less credibility it will have. The credibility of the award takes a hit every time it is given out for reasons not related to baseball performance. It can only take so many hits before people stop caring about the results in a meaningful way.
The BBWAA needs to give Mike Trout an award that recognizes his historic performances more than Mike Trout needs an award to validate what he’s actually accomplished. Over the last two years, we have seen two of the very best seasons in baseball history, and they’ve gone essentially unrecognized by the organization that has been tasked with recording history. We have been lucky enough to see an in-his-prime Mickey Mantle in modern times, and instead of celebrating that, we’ve spent Novembers explaining why his teammate’s inferiority should keep him from winning an individual award.
To justify the selection, voters have to draw a very clear line between Best Player and Most Valuable. But as the award distances itself from Best Player, it becomes less and less obvious why the MVP should be baseball’s top individual award. We honor the best rookie, and the best pitcher, and the best manager, but we have nothing to honor the best player? Why not? If we’re going to create this divide between Best Player and Most Valuable, why is there not simply an additional award for Best Player?
Because if there was, people would wonder what the point of the MVP award still is. If we’re going to completely divorce the MVP from the Best Player of the season, then I’m already wondering what the point of the award is. I will happily congratulate Miguel Cabrera for being the best RBI guy on a playoff team, since that’s the award he’s winning tonight. I will also congratulate Mike Trout for being the best player in baseball, and wonder aloud why we don’t have an award for that.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.