Yasmani Grandal’s Lone MVP Vote and Voting’s Future

In my introduction post last week, I mentioned how I had given Yasmani Grandal an MVP vote. When voting totals were finally released, it turned out I was the only writer to grant Grandal a place on a ballot. I ranked him as the seventh-most valuable player in the NL. It’s an interesting feeling to stand out there all alone. I’m the reason Grandal will be forever credited with a 22nd-place finish in the 2016 NL MVP race.

I’ve been asked by some FanGraphs readers why I voted for Grandal, who was certainly not a name-brand candidate. So for accountability and transparency purposes, I will answer that question.

As for my vote, I’m not the first person (or projection system) to suggest Grandal is really, really valuable.

Last May, Grandal thought the idea of his name appearing on an MVP ballot was “absurd” when LA Times reporter Bill Shaikin asked him about a PECOTA forecast suggesting he would be one of the best players in the NL.

In October, ESPN’s Sam Miller asked Grandal about his fancy-stats candidacy. Grandal, again, was not inclined to cast a ballot for himself.

Much of Grandal’s candidacy centered on pitch-framing statistics.

According to the methodologies employed both by Baseball Prospectus and StatCorner, Grandal was the game’s second-best pitch-framing catcher after Buster Posey. (Posey was also on my ballot.) The drop off to third place was steep.

Think Zack Greinke missed Grandal last season?

I understand some view framing as “cheating,” but as a voter, I viewed it as a skill that added real value in 2016. I chose not to ignore the value it created. The teams themselves certainly haven’t ignored the power of framing, as evidenced by a number of transactions in recent years.

But a conversation about Grandal’s value doesn’t end with his defensive contributions.

Grandal’s 14% walk rate ranked 12th in the game among hitters with at least 400 plate apperances, residing between Matt Carpenter and Joe Mauer. Grandal was three percentage points behind the MLB leaders, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout.

His .249 islolated-slugging mark tied him for 21st in the sport with Giancarlo Stanton, Joc Pederson and Daniel Murphy

That’s pretty good company for a corner position, let alone a catcher.

Not many catchers can do this…

For me, a catcher that produces on both sides of the ball is one of the most valuable assets in the game. It’s no coincidence, I believe, that Russell Martin has started at catcher for four different teams in the last nine years and has made eight postseason appearances.

According to Baseball Prospectus’ WARP, which accounts for framing skills, Grandal finished 10th among all position players last season (6.74), eighth in the NL, despite having recorded at least 125 fewer plate appearances than any of the nine players ahead of of him on the leaderboard.

Because of the demanding nature of the catching position, most catchers receive plenty of off days. But divide his value by playing time and he was the most valuable position player in baseball per plate appearance, among players with at least 400 plate appearances.

For instance, if he’d tallied as many plate appearances as Kris Bryant, and sustained his performance, he would have produced 10.3 WARP.

So one could argue that no player had as much impact when on the field as Grandal last season.

I’ve heard other criticisms of the vote and the process. Some critiques go as follows: voting based largely upon a WAR leaderboard is lacking creativity. And what of context of performance? What about intangibles?

And there was a leaderboard problem with Bryant’s MVP candidacy, too, as noted by Jeff Sullivan. While Bryant accumulated the greatest WAR totals and many impressive counting stats, he was less effective in impacting games according to Win Probability Added relative to top contenders. While clutch performance isn’t considered a predictive tool for future performance — or even an innate skill — an MVP candidacy should be tied to what did happen in a given season.

I can’t speak too much to Grandal’s intangibles, I was not around the Dodgers often. I did ask around the Pirates clubhouse to get a sense of who players thought was the MVP of the league. I do know you could ding Grandal for inconsistency. If you want to argue context, the Dodgers advanced to the playoffs and held a four-game lead over the Giants and Mets to avoid playing in a coin-flip, Wild Card game. Grandal’s production wasn’t empty production in terms of team results.

At the end of the day, I considered a number of factors and variables. I watched a fair amount of Grandal and Dodgers games. Grandal’s production was, for me, too much for me to ignore.

At the end of the day, this was just one down-ballot MVP vote.

But maybe there will begin to be more voting like it.

Wrote Sam Miller on the topic of Grandal and voting in the ESPN article linked to earlier in this post:

A decade from now, one of two things is likely to be true. Teams will pay top dollar for good framing, which will be incorporated into every model of WAR, which will be cited by MVP voters, who will put players like Grandal near the top of their MVP ballots. Baseball culture will continue to adjust what it values in a player, and the notion of a superstar will move ever onward. Or else framing metrics will get much more conservative and catcher WARs will lose their bonuses. Baseball stats will continue to adjust what can be quantified as valuable in a player. Nobody will talk about framing catchers being worth an MVP vote.

Teams are certainly now valuing framing, and it will be fascinating to watch how defensive catching statistics evolve. Sometime in the future, robot umps could eliminate the skill – and a lot of free-agent dollars – for elite-receiving catchers.

Even without robot umps, the strike zone is evolving. It shrunk for the first time in the PITCHf/x era last season, after seven consecutive years of growth, according to Jon Roegele’s research. Most important is it shrunk in the area below 21 inches above the plate — i.e., the low strike, which is the easiest pitch to frame. The expanding low strike drew the attention of the commissioner’s office prior to last season.

Even without robot umps, Sullivan wondered if the beginning of the end has arrived for framing.

Wrote Sullivan: “If everyone’s good, then no one is good.”

In regard to future voting, this post isn’t so much concerned with framing or what becomes of valuing it. An MVP vote is a snapshot, it’s a decision made with resources and knowledge available at the time. I did my best to consider the collective knowledge we have available at the time of my vote. Hopefully, our understanding will always be evolving and moving toward better understanding of the game and a player’s true value.

If you’re in favor of seeing players like Grandal, not prized by traditional measures, show up in ballots, perhaps the most encouraging sign are the discussions that occurred in mainstream media as early as May about Grandal warranting MVP consideration. In some traditional media outlets, WAR no longer has to be explained upon every first reference in a story. WAR is in danger of becoming mainstream. Moreover, BBWAA membership is evolving, having expanded to include new voices at outlets like at FanGraphs and MLB.com. It’s a more diverse body than in the past. The next generation of voters will be more accepting of advanced metrics. We’ve already seen more open-mindedness at the top of ballots: Mike Trout doesn’t need to play on a winning team to be considered the best player in his league.

I’m not sure if Grandal will receive another vote. MVP votes often rotate in local BBWAA chapters and I may not be voting again for some time. Others will have to carry the flag if he produces another 7 WARP season. But I suspect a decade from now, ballots and debates will look and sound much different than they do today.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

Pretty good defense of the vote! Will be interesting to see how new stats based on statcast data might influence votes in the not so distant future.