Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
November 12, 2002
BASEBALL: 2002 AL MVP Ballot

So, Barry Bonds wins the NL MVP again - there really wasn't another choice. The guy gets on base 58% of the time and slugs .799 and his teams squeaks into the playoffs again with an unimpressive-looking supporting cast - who else are you gonna give the thing to?

But the AL MVP award, handed out this afternoon (undecided as I write this) is another story. The numbers, again, are clear: the three best hitters in the AL were Jim Thome, Jason Giambi, and Alex Rodriguez (in that order; Manny Ramirez was also more productive per at bat than Rodriguez, but you can't give the MVP to a guy who missed a ton of time for a team that missed the playoffs by a handful of games). The offensive differences were not huge, but when you consider that Thome and Giambi are first basemen who run like apartment houses and are mediocre (Thome) to poor (Giambi) with the glove, while Rodriguez runs well and is a good fielding shortstop, the answer - on paper - is quite obvious.

I could explain why at length, but I don't really have the time. Here are a few highlights from the numbers:

+Rodriguez led the league in total bases; only one player (Alfonso Soriano) was within 35.

+He led the league in homers and RBI (20 more RBI than Giambi) and was second to Soriano in runs scored (24 more than Thome, 17 more than Miguel Tejada).

OK, some of this is credit for just showing up, since his totals were huge, but then if your shorstop slugs .623, I think you'd like him to be in the lineup every day, and the falloff to using a backup shortstop is fairly steep when he doesn't.

+On the percentage side, he was third in slugging (behind Thome and Ramirez but more than 100 points ahead of Tejada), 8th in OBP (Tejada was 30th, Soriano 48th), fourth in on base plus slugging, and fifth in Runs Created/27 outs (1st in total Runs Created, by the formula).

+He was caught stealing just 4 times and hit into 14 double plays (Giambi hit into 18, Tejada 21, but the fly-ball-or-whiff Thome hit into just 5).

The usual argument, then, erupts over whether you can give the award to Rodriguez, who played for a last place team, as opposed to Thome - no, scratch that, as opposed to Giambi or Miguel Tejada, both of whose teams made the playoffs, despite the obvious fact that neither of them was the best player in the league at his position. Some people have also mentioned Soriano as a candidate, but while Soriano was clearly among the top 10 players in the league, he wasn't on the same elite level as the others offensively (because he was just a point above the league on base percentage) and didn't compensate with especially dazzling glove work (Soriano is no better than, at his best, an average defensive second baseman, and probably less than that).

(Ironically, as Mel Antonen of USAToday notes, it's often the players who prefer to look at the numbers and the writers who go with the argument that "intangibles" that make "winners" are an important factor.)

I've been around the block with this argument before, but it seems like the argument of "most valuable" vs. "best player" is two sides talking past each other; what we really need to start with is asking: most valuable to what? What, exactly, is a baseball team trying to accomplish?

The simple answers are, "win championships," "win baseball games," and "make
money." I'm not in favor, and I don't think most people are in favor, of seeing the award become "most cost-effective player," so we'll stick to performance on the field. To me, the basic goal of any baseball team is to provide entertaining baseball to the fans. Fans pay the bills; fans buy the newspapers full of columns arguing about postseason awards; if the fans don't care about your team, the team is doomed. So, look at it from a fan's perspective: what matters? Well, we're back to "win championships" and "win baseball games," but now we can prioritize the two. Most of us would agree that winning championships, and building towards winning championships, is the more important goal, far more important than the difference between winning 76 games and 83 games. On the other hand, every single season, millions of tickets are sold to fans who come to the park knowing that their team's chances of winning a championship is slim to none, and they'd still like to see some winning baseball. And, it's also true that every year, some teams gear up for a wild card berth even though their odds of a championship might be better, over all, if they stood pat and kept building for the future. We can give some credit there, too, to efforts made to make the postseason generally (and, after all, we saw another example this year where the wild card teams actually had the strongest combination of runs scored and allowed in the regular season, and wound up meeting in the World Series).

So in a close race, it's entirely valid for the number one question to be, which player did the most to push his team towards a championship? Which player played the most games in pennant race conditions, the most close games, and did the best? Not because it's harder to play well under pressure - you could just as easily argue that it's harder to concentrate in blowouts, or harder to hit without adequate protection in your lineup - but because those players were most often in a position to do something that would have value to their teams. On the other hand, the same logic would count out some of the contributions of a player whose team walks off with the pennant, like the Twins; how much did Torii Hunter's contributions in the second half really matter to the AL Central race?

On the other hand, it's silly to just write entirely out of the picture a guy who plays for a bad team. People are still paying to come to the park, and they still want to root, root root for the home team. Baseball doesn't work if we don't ask the cellar-dwellers to keep fighting the good fight; indeed, the integrity of the pennant races depends upon that fact. Even a player on a bad team can have an impact on the pennant race.

If we look at it that way, we have to ask the two questions:

1. Who did the most to help his team win a championship?

This is actually a tough question, because the best player in the league on a competitive team was probably Giambi, who was far and away the better hitter than Tejada. On the other hand, the Yankees also pulled away from the race in the season's last six weeks, while Tejada was still pushing the A's towards the postseason until the very end. I think I'd have to say Giambi, since he was so superior with the bat, but it's close.

2. Who did the most to help his team win baseball games?

Like I said before, this has to be A-Rod. This isn't the 1899 Cleveland Spiders (20-134) we're talking about here; the Rangers won 72 games, including 20 victories against their division rivals, each of whom fought to the finish for a playoff spot. Rodriguez was instrumental in the victories the Rangers did have, and he hit well against the contenders: .290/.650/.412 against the rest of the AL West, including 21 homers, 50 runs and 50 RBI in 58 games, and .291/.663/.378 against the Yankees, Red Sox and Twins.

Where do I come out? Regular readers won't be surprised that, on this one, I still come out for Rodriguez, who's been repeatedly shafted in the MVP voting in years past. Yes, he spent his season just trying to win games, not pennants. But I just don't see the race for "best player" as even close enough to swing the balance to Giambi or Tejada on the basis of having played in more meaningful games. It's not even remotely plausible, for example, to argue that the A's were better with Tejada than they would have been with Rodriguez, and if the MVP can't pass that laugh test at his own position, you really can't get carried away with the extra credit he gets for playing in more situations where he can push his team towards a championship.

My ballot would be:

1. Alex Rodriguez
2. Jason Giambi
3. Jim Thome
4. Miguel Tejada
5. Magglio Ordonez
6. Bernie Williams
7. Alfonso Soriano
8. John Olerud
9. Mike Sweeney
10. Nomar Garciaparra

(No starting pitchers this year - nobody stood out far enough or worked enough innings).

Posted by Baseball Crank at 10:19 AM | Baseball Columns | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

What about Frank Thomas. He and Magglio have led the sox this year and with 42 home runs i think he should be concidered for Al MVP

Posted by: Matt at September 30, 2003 08:44 AM
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