Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
November 18, 2008
BASEBALL: Mauer for MVP
As I have noted previously, this year's AL MVP race is a mess because so many of the possible candidates got hurt. Carlos Quentin went down for the season from his own foolishness at a key point in the race for a team that went all the way to a 1-game playoff. Evan Longoria, the best player on the league's best team, missed a month; Ian Kinsler missed more. Curtis Granderson played brilliantly upon his return from injury, but his team was already down for the count when he started his season. A-Rod, the defending MVP, led the league in slugging again but missed 24 games. Milton Bradley was the league's best hitter, but he was only able to appear in 126 games (and the Rangers were happy to get that much from him).
Nor can you really give it to a pitcher. I've explained already why K-Rod is a silly MVP candidate. And Cliff Lee had a great year, but not the kind of super-dominant season necessary to give the MVP to a starting pitcher who threw 223 innings for an also-ran team (I did argue for Pedro as MVP in 1998, 1999 and 2000 - in retrospect, that 1998 column looks kinda silly - so I'm not averse in extreme cases to giving it to a pitcher).
What does that leave? I'm fine with giving the award to a player on a non-competitive team, but not if it's a guy who doesn't play a key defensive position and isn't clearly the best hitter in the league, so sorting through Josh Hamilton (and his gaudy RBI totals), Miguel Cabrera, Grady Sizemore (neither of whom even had a particularly great year by their own standards), Aubrey Huff, and Nick Markakis is pointless. Among the contenders, Justin Morneau likewise was just another good first baseman. You want the award with your bat, you have to seize it.
Probably the best offensive player among the guys who stayed healthy all year and played for a contender was Kevin Youkilis, who batted .312/.390/.569, drove in 115 runs and grounded into only 11 double plays and pitched in as a respectable substitute at 3B in addition to playing first. Youkilis would not be the worst MVP, but fundamentally, it comes down to the two guys who were competitive with him with the bat and contributed more on the defensive side: Joe Mauer and Dustin Pedroia. Let's look at the offensive tale of the tape:
As you can see, you can make a case for either of them with the bat. Mauer has the 37-point edge in on base percentage; Pedroia has the 42-point edge in slugging. Pedroia scored 20 more runs and racked up 80 more total bases on the strength of 93 more plate appearances, but he also used up 80 more outs in those extra 93 plate appearances, so the marginal offensive value to the team was pretty much negative. On the other hand, that also translates to an extra 19 games in the field (Mauer caught 139 games), which is important when comparing two good defensive players at key defensive positions. Pedroia stole 20 bases, something Mauer at age 25 has already stopped doing. But note the LgOPS figure: Fenway was a much more favorable offensive environment this season, so while both players hit better at home than on the road, overall you have to apply a bigger discount to Pedroia's numbers.
Baseball Prospectus' VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), which rates hitters compared to a replacement-level player at the same position, rates Pedroia #3 and Mauer #4 in the league, with A-Rod at #1 and Sizemore at #2.
What about "clutch" performance with the bat? I'm not a great believer in clutch ability as a persistent trait, but there's no question that in determining value in a particular season, it's fair to look at who actually did come through in big situations. Let's look how they hit with men in scoring position, men on base and in the late innings of close games:
Both fine performances, but advantage: Mauer for his superior batting and OBP figures with men on base, which is how he managed more RBI in fewer opportunities. Pedroia, of course, finished the season withg a flourish, but Mauer, with his team in a death struggle for the division title, batted .365/.414/.490 the last month of the season, a tough time of year for a guy who's been behind the plate all season.
It's a close call, but at the end of the day, I have to rate Mauer slightly ahead with the bat, given that most of Pedroia's offensive advantages simply come from playing in a better hitters' park and burning a lot of extra outs. And then you turn to the defensive side. That's more subjective, given the difficulty of getting good defensive stats. The Win Shares system, which tabs Mauer as the AL MVP over Youkilis and Morneau (with Pedroia tied for sixth), rates him second only to Kurt Suzuki for the most valuable defensive player in the league (Suzuki's the only catcher in the AL to catch more innings than Mauer), with Pedroia seventh. ESPN's Zone Ratings peg Pedroia as the second-best AL 2B behind Mark Ellis; among the catchers, Mauer's rated #3 behind Suzuki and Dioner Navarro in catching base thieves. The Fielding Bible +/- ratings rate Pedroia at +15, the fifth best 2B in MLB. Clearly, both guys contributed a good deal with the glove.
It's hard to get a good comparison, but good catchers who can hit are really hard to come by, and ones who can stay in the lineup for 633 plate appearances are even rarer. And consider that the 25-year-old Mauer also did such a good job with the Twins' young pitching staff - the overachievement of the Twins' young arms (between Nick Blackburn, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey, Glen Perkins and Francisco Liriano, the Twins gave 128 starts to four pitchers who had an average of 20 career starts and 126 innings entering the season) was a big part of how they ended up in the race to the season's final day despite being buried by most commentators after the Santana trade. Catchers used to win a lot of MVP awards; that's fallen out of favor (Pudge Rodriguez in 1999 is the only catcher to win the award since Thurman Munson in 1976; Mike Piazza couldn't even win when he batted .362/.431/.638 and drove in 124 runs playing for a contending team in Dodger Stadium), but Mauer is pretty much the textbook example of how a catcher can make a big difference on several fronts, from getting on base to hitting in the clutch to cutting off the running game and handling the pitchers (he's the closest thing we'll likely see in our lifetimes to Mickey Cochrane). He could easily have been MVP two years ago when he became the first AL catcher to win a batting title; between Mauer's offensive and defensive contributions, I'd say he should win it this year after being the second.
UPDATE: Pedroia wins, Morneau finishes second. The tools of ignorance once again get no respect. The good news? K-Rod finished sixth.
SECOND UPDATE: I suppose Pedroia's strong second half was just too much to overcome. Pedroia was batting .262/.313/.365 on the morning of June 14, but from June 15 to the end of the season he hit .375/.422/.590 and scored 78 runs in 88 games. That sort of thing tends to leave an impression. I really have no idea what we should expect from Pedroia next year - my guess would be less power overall, but maybe a few more homers.