The MVP and the DH Adjustment

No designated hitter has ever won the Most Valuable Player award. Barring a surprise, that will not change this season. Victor Martinez has had a amazing year, but he is not going to be the American League MVP. (I have a feeling he does not have much of a shot at being the National League MVP this year, either.) Who knows where he will end up in the balloting, but does outside of some Twitter arguments the day the winner is announced, will anyone really care about the down-ballot voting?

According the metric everyone loves to hate, Wins Above Replacement, that sounds about right. Martinez is not even close to the top. This might really bother some people. After all, one could argue that Martinez has been the best hitter in the American League this season. The problem with WAR, from the Martinez partisans’ perspective, is the positional adjustment for the DH.

This is not a post about where exactly Victor Martinez should be in the MVP discussion this season. The question is whether anyone would really have a shot at being the most valuable player according to WAR if they DHed all season.

Although this post is not primarily about Victor Martinez, a short digression might head some stuff off at the pass. Namely: just considering offense (no positions or fielding including), Martinez has not been the best in the American League this season. Through Saturday’s games, at least, he was only the fifth-best offensive player in the American League behind Mike Trout, Michael Brantley, Jose Bautista, and Jose Abreu, who all play in the field. Trout is way ahead of Martinez. Even though Martinez is pretty close to the other players on offense, again, they play the field most of the time with varying levels of success. Perhaps some people will object to including baserunning, I’m not sure why they would, but they might. Trout still comes out ahead, while Abreu and Brantley, among others, are right there. And they play the field.

(Note that I am not someone who has a problem with pitchers winning the MVP, I am just leaving them out for the sake of simplicity.)

One could slice it different ways, but I would guess most understand that if a DH is not the best offensive player in the league, he probably should not win the MVP. But we know that other things matter besides offense (for non-pitchers): fielding and the difficulty of the position at which the player mostly plays. WAR attempts to account for those things. One might or might not agree with exactly how current implementations of WAR do so, but most agree that they matter. (This is not to say that having the highest WAR is the only determining factor in deciding which player should be MVP, but the nuances of all that will be left aside here.)

But how much should not playing in the field be held against a player? The positional adjustment for the DH is -17.5 runs for the season. The general reasoning is that a league-average hitter who does not play a position is a replacement-level player. Replacement level is generally thought to be 22.5 runs below average over a full season. However, five runs are “given back” to account for the difficulty of hitting off of the bench. That is a rough account of the reasoning. One might view the DH has being valued like a concrete-gloved first baseman (-12.5 positional adjustment).

Whatever the reasoning, that is a pretty stiff downward positional adjustment. I assume most have no objection, in principle, to a DH winning the MVP. The question here is whether anyone be valuable enough on offense to overcome the positional adjustment and put himself into the mix for being the most valuable player in the league (according to WAR). What does somewhat-recent history tell us?

Probably the most well-known recent example of a primary DH making a legitimate run at being the league’s Most Valuable Player was David Ortiz in 2007. He ended up finishing fourth in the voting (he did better in the voting in other seasons, but 2007 this was his best performance at the plate, objectively) behind Alex Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, and Vladimir Guerrero, which was pretty close to how the WAR leaderboard for positon players ended up. If one wanted to make it just about A-Rod and Ortiz, it was not tough to make the call. Is was not as if UZR boosted A-Rod’s WAR that season. Even if one thought A-Rod was a poor third baseman, was he bad enough that he would have been better off DHing? A-Rod also was about eight runs above average on the bases, while Big Papi was about five runs below average. They also had the same wRC+: 175. The choice was between two roughly equal hitters, but one played a tough position and ran the bases well, the other played no position and was a poor baserunner. It does not seem hard to imagine that the gap between Ortiz and Rodriguez was quite large (it was more than three wins according to WAR).

Widening the net, has any recent player at any position overcome such a big deficit in the defense column and been a legitimate contender for the MVP according to WAR? I did a search for players who had a -17.5 or worse for defense (position plus fielding) to see how they stacked up on the WAR leaderboards in those seasons. (National League players were included because the point is simply to see if a player could have enough value just from offense to overcome a -17.5 on defense.) I did not prorate anything here because I was being lazy, er, I just wanted a rough look. I was also not concerned with the issue of how they actually did in the balloting, as the issue is the DH adjustment. Here are a few interesting cases that stood out to me:

In 1998, Mark McGwire’s defensive value was 25 runs below average — he was rated as a terrible first baseman. He still managed to tie Barry Bonds atop the National League’s WAR leaderboard at 8.5 that season. I guess that is what happens when someone hits .299/.470/.752 (205 wRC+). Neither McGwire nor Bonds won the MVP that year, by the way.

On the other side of things, we have Carlos Delgado in 2000. Delgado had an underappreciated career, but he had the season of his life in 2000, hitting .344/.470/.664 (179 wRC+). He ended up with a 7.4 WAR despite being rated about 21 runs below average combined fielding and positional adjustment. Still, he was rated about two wins worse than A-Rod (that guy again!), and a few other players were between the two. So he was not really in contention, according to WAR.

When one thinks of extremely valuable DH-types, Frank Thomas is one of the first names that should spring to mind, even if he played a fair bit of first base (badly) earlier in his career. In 1991 Thomas was a monster, and actually played more at DH than at first base. He hit .318/.453/.553 (179 wRC+) in his first full season in the majors, but despite his lack of value in the field (-18.2), he still managed 7.3 WAR. But he was not even close to Cal Ripken, who was having one of the best seasons of any modern shortstop at 10.6 WAR. In 1992, though, Thomas basically put on a repeat performance in terms of value. He did play first base pretty much all season, but in doing so showed that he might as well DH (-17.9 positional adjustment plus fielding). And according to WAR, he was the most valuable position player in the American League that year, even if he just finished eighth in the voting. That was okay, as he won it the next year (when it probably should have gone to Ken Griffey Jr. or John Olerud) and also in the strike-shortened 1994 (he deserved it, but 1994… blergh).

One could go on. In 1971 Joe Torre was the National League MVP, and was legitimately in the mix despite his horribly-rated performance at third base. On the other side of things, Gary Sheffield’s 1996 was impressive, but Barry Bonds was, well, being Barry Bonds. McGwire’s 1999 is sort of in the same great-but-not-really-a-contender space, is as The Big Hurt’s 2000.

As one can see, though, while it is very difficult, it is possible for players with very harsh “defense” scores, ones on par (or worse) with the DH positional adjustment, to be rated among the very best according to WAR. Originally, I thought this crude method would not be enough, and was going to do a prorated study to come up with WAR figures for players who hit like crazy and were also good at defense (or at least not so bad they were worse than -17.5). This would judge them as if they had DHed instead of playing the field. That was an interesting exercise in itself. As one might imagine, it included a number of Barry Bonds seasons in which he would have been the most valuable (or very close). Albert Pujols’ 2003 season (would have made it except for Barry Bonds… but what if they had both DHed? Uh, in the National League. You get the idea, though) was up there, as was Mike Trout’s 2013… Let’s avoid going down that road again, shall we?

The point is hopefully obvious by now: when a player’s “defense” rating is -17.5 or lower, is very difficult for the player to be on par with the highest-rated position players in the league according to WAR. However, it is possible because it has been actual. It just takes having one of the best offensive seasons recent memory. Maybe one does not think it is fair to hold Victor Martinez to that standard in 2014. No one is saying Martinez has not had a great year. As well as he has hit, though, he has not hit well enough to be the among the league’s most valuable players without substantial contributions in the field. That is as it has been, and as it should continue to be.

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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Mark Jurries IImember
9 years ago

You just saved me several hours of research time on this, thanks! I think the fact that we’re having these discussions shows how much we under-value fielding. Also, holy cow, Frank Thomas.

9 years ago

I’ve always loved that Frank’s 1994 line easily looks like it could’ve occurred in a full season if you don’t look at the number of games. Hitting .353 with 38 HR, 101 RBI, and 106 R over a full season is impressive – doing it in 70% of a season is ridiculous.

9 years ago
Reply to  steex

Jeff Bagwell had 39 HR, 104 R, 116 RBI, 15 SB (7.8 WAR) … in nearly 40 fewer PAs.

9 years ago
Reply to  MDL

Both of them had a wRC+ of 205, which tie for the highest (non-Barry Bonds division) among qualified hitters since 1980. McGwire’s ’98 is tied with them as well.

I do think it’s funny that Frank Thomas wasn’t even the most famous player in his own organization that year.

Manny Worthy
9 years ago
Reply to  steex

Yeah Frank’s accomplishments are legendary. That said, Vmar’s value to the Tigers does not lie in the stats. Detroit would have missed the playoffs if it were not for his leadership on the field and in the clubhouse. He made Miggy a better hitter by hiting behind him and the club knew they could count on Victor down the stretch. Oh yeah, he’s insurance behind the plate and did play first when Miggy had nagging injuries to rest.
VALUE TO THE TEAM!! you can sit on your WAR rating.