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OC Register: As baseball grapples with the definition of value, one MVP voter does the same

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In 2015, when Bryce Harper won the National League Most Valuable Player award, his isolated power was an otherworldly 113 percent above the league average. That was better than the best season of Albert Pujols’ career, or Manny Ramirez’s, or Duke Snider’s. Harper hit 42 home runs, batted .330, and was the unanimous choice among BBWAA voters.

Isolated power isn’t a statistic in every baseball fan’s lexicon. It isn’t printed in box scores. It isn’t even found on the stats tables of Major League Baseball’s official website. (The formula for isolated power is as simple as it is anonymous: slugging percentage minus batting average.) Without it, however, we would have no context for what we saw then, and what we are seeing now.

Three players – Cody Bellinger, Christian Yelich and Mike Trout – began the day with 39 home runs, three fewer than Harper’s 2015 total. They could each match Harper by the end of August, or the end of this week, or in a single night. Trout has the highest isolated slugging percentage of the three, 96 percent above the league average. Impressive as that is, it’s only a shade above Yelich (95), and a sequoia in the shadow of Harper’s 2015 redwood.

Harper was an easy choice in 2015. I filed the first MVP ballot of my life that October. The Nationals were not a playoff team, and the thought that a star warranted demerit if his team didn’t make the playoffs still permeated MVP debates. One National League player generously volunteered to assist me in my thought process. He asked me how I defined “most valuable” player. “The best player is the most valuable,” I said. As the words left my mouth that sounded sensible, even trite. Truthfully I’ve been wrestling with what it means ever since.

BBWAA awards ballots were distributed this week. I have a National League MVP ballot, so I’ll be wrestling with the definition of “value” again. The game has changed in the last four years, enough to force voters to re-frame what something as simple as a home run means.

Before a recent game, I talked to a group of pro scouts who were grappling with the same problem. They didn’t have MVP votes. Their task was taller: to evaluate players for their major league readiness in strange places. The average Pacific Coast League game features 12 runs, the average International League game more than 10. A Triple-A pitcher with a 5.00 earned-run average is faring well. Hitting a home run means relatively little at that level – even less than in the big leagues, where the league-wide home run record is on pace to fall with two weeks left in the season.

The ability to swat home runs, the historical gold standard of hitting prowess, is not the prized quality it once was. Scouts must train their eyes on each batter’s swing, looking for holes in his bat path. Any pitch not thrown to that hole is liable to leave a Triple-A ballpark. Anything inside the hole is exploitable by a pitcher with command. And if a swing can be exploited at Triple-A – even if the hitter is slugging 1.000 – it can and will be exploited even more at the major league level. The hitter with the fewest holes in his swing is the best; now the ball supplies his power. For a pitcher, the inverse is true: The ability to get hitters to swing and miss is king.

The net effect of how evaluators grade players in 2019 speaks directly to the definition of “most valuable.” He who can master a game of home runs and strikeouts is deemed the best player. But how valuable is a 40-home run hitter in 2019? Or even a 50-home run hitter?

“Hitters have no idea of what to do in situational hitting spots,” one scout told me. “Over 162 (games), the numbers are entertaining, but to win those last 11, you have to hit, get on base, take extra bases, and play some defense.”

As a study in how the game’s incentives have shifted, one evaluator pointed to the case of Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson. A center fielder with range, Pederson possessed the speed to steal 20 or more bases in each of his four minor league seasons. In the majors, Pederson became a completely different hitter. He re-oriented his approach toward power, and has never stolen more than six bases in a season. Eventually he became a platoon player, then a corner outfielder, and ever so briefly a first baseman.

Pederson’s next home run will be his 25th. That’s how many home runs Kirk Gibson hit in 1988, when he was voted National League MVP. Through Tuesday, 22 NL players had 25 or more home runs.

What if the most valuable player is not someone who conforms to the modern prototype? What if a player derives value by forcing others to redefine the game on his terms? There is no bat-wielding outlier in 2019 who falls into that category.

There is, however, Dodgers pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu.

With an earned-run average of 1.45, Ryu is 66 percent better than the league average. That has never been done by a qualified pitcher in a full season. Greg Maddux came the closest, in 1994, with a 1.56 ERA for the Atlanta Braves. Unlike other elite pitchers today Ryu does not possess an exceptional strikeout rate. He allows batters to make contact like Maddox did, yet he is elite at stifling home runs.

After one May game in which Ryu shut out the Mets for seven innings, I asked Manager Dave Roberts whether Ryu’s success was a byproduct of our era. Does mastering the ability to pitch to contact, relying on pinpoint command rather than elite velocity, allow a pitcher to succeed in a game that emphasizes strikeouts and home runs?

“I think that with his stuff, he can survive in any era,” Roberts said of Ryu. “It’s always a good thing to be able to command the baseball and to use different pitches. I think now, when you’re talking about the ability to strike guys out, which he has, and the ability to put the ball on the ground – now you’re talking about shifting and defensive metrics and putting guys in the right spots, depending on the tendencies of the hitter – and you look at Hyun-Jin’s balls in play, they’re converted into outs more than any of our pitchers.

“Right now, probably as an outlier, with the defensive metrics, gives him even a better opportunity for me.”

I have my doubts that Ryu is truly more valuable to the Dodgers than Bellinger, or than Yelich is to the Brewers. I have no doubt that, if he keeps this up, Ryu is more than a mere “hipster pick” for MVP. He isn’t just redefining the game on his terms every time he pitches. He is the best practitioner of a kind of baseball that dominated for a century, only to be rejected in an era of home runs and strikeouts. In so doing Ryu just happens to lead the world in ERA, that most traditional of statistics, by a comical margin. I’m not sure what that means. There’s a bigger picture than the traditional stats are painting in 2019.

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The notion that value is this subjective thing basically makes this award meaningless. It's not unlike picking your favorite painting in a museum. At the end of the day, it's just preference: Whatever is valuable to you, the voter. 

That is the kind of logic reserved for neanderthals. 

Value means, so far as we can determine it objectively: Who was the best player? 

Anything else, and you're talking about relative value, and there is no longer a correct answer. To me, a million bucks is an unfathomable amount of money - more than I'll ever see in my lifetime. To Arte, that's practically pocket change. But at the end of the day, $50k in my pocket is not more valuable than $1mil in Arte's, just because it would a lot bigger deal for me to lose that much than it would be for Arte. 

MVP is the best player. This is the only correct answer because it is the only answer which can possibly even have an answer that we could label as 'correct'. The other crowd doesn't. 

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23 minutes ago, Sean-Regan said:

The notion that value is this subjective thing basically makes this award meaningless. It's not unlike picking your favorite painting in a museum. At the end of the day, it's just preference: Whatever is valuable to you, the voter. 

That is the kind of logic reserved for neanderthals. 

Value means, so far as we can determine it objectively: Who was the best player? 

Anything else, and you're talking about relative value, and there is no longer a correct answer. To me, a million bucks is an unfathomable amount of money - more than I'll ever see in my lifetime. To Arte, that's practically pocket change. But at the end of the day, $50k in my pocket is not more valuable than $1mil in Arte's, just because it would a lot bigger deal for me to lose that much than it would be for Arte. 

MVP is the best player. This is the only correct answer because it is the only answer which can possibly even have an answer that we could label as 'correct'. The other crowd doesn't. 

Player A hits a ball 114mph into the third basemen's glove for an out. Player B hits the ball 102mph under the third basemen's glove for a hit. Who is the better player?

'Value' will always be inherently subjective.

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10 minutes ago, AngelsLakersFan said:

Player A hits a ball 114mph into the third basemen's glove for an out. Player B hits the ball 102mph under the third basemen's glove for a hit. Who is the better player?

'Value' will always be inherently subjective.

Exactly.  For the life of me, I've never understood why fans get worked up when MVP voters add in some subjectivity.  I'm GLAD they do.  Otherwise, why even have an award?  If it's just "the guy who leads in WAR" or whatever, they don't need an official award for it.  (Also, if WAR is the only thing anyone thinks should be factored into the voting, I think that's silly, too, given that there's no single agreed-upon way of calculating it...)

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1 hour ago, Jay said:

So why does there need to be a vote? Just award the MVP to the player with the highest WAR.

 

Where did I say that WAR is the only thing we look at. There can be debates over how accurate WAR is and in regards to how much value to place on defense, etc. I think it was Fangraphs that recently altered their catcher ratings substantially. Literally no one says WAR is perfect or infallible. 

1 hour ago, AngelsLakersFan said:

Player A hits a ball 114mph into the third basemen's glove for an out. Player B hits the ball 102mph under the third basemen's glove for a hit. Who is the better player?

'Value' will always be inherently subjective.

Last line has a fair point in it, although it’s a trifle nit picky. Obviously it’s not 100% objective, nor is the alternative 100% subjective. But the chasm between the two is quite wide. On the first point, those things nearly always normalize over a season. It’s why we allow for a sample size and why using postseason stats as indicative of much of anything is incredibly shortsighted. 

1 hour ago, jsnpritchett said:

Exactly.  For the life of me, I've never understood why fans get worked up when MVP voters add in some subjectivity.  I'm GLAD they do.  Otherwise, why even have an award?  If it's just "the guy who leads in WAR" or whatever, they don't need an official award for it.  (Also, if WAR is the only thing anyone thinks should be factored into the voting, I think that's silly, too, given that there's no single agreed-upon way of calculating it...)

See above. I shouldn’t need to even say this, but people consistently are ignorant in regards to what analytics are actually about for whatever reason. 

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1 hour ago, Jeff Fletcher said:

When people say you aren’t valuable if you don’t contribute to a playoff team, say this:

”Ok, so is Jake Marisnick more valuable than Mike Trout?”

He is in October.

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19 hours ago, Sean-Regan said:

Last line has a fair point in it, although it’s a trifle nit picky. Obviously it’s not 100% objective, nor is the alternative 100% subjective. But the chasm between the two is quite wide. On the first point, those things nearly always normalize over a season. It’s why we allow for a sample size and why using postseason stats as indicative of much of anything is incredibly shortsighted. 

I'm making a broader point about the difficulty in trying to define 'the best player.' Look I have argued for Trout's MVP status on this board in every season since 2012 so I tend to agree with your overall position, I just see a lot of room for how we get there.

Yes examples like the one I mentioned do tend to balance out over the course of a season but there are always exceptions. How about a guy who absolutely kills it for 130 games vs a guy who wasn't quite as good but had similar total value over 162? How about Babe Ruth taking advantage of an insanely short porch in right field while other players had their at bats in cavernous ball parks? Not to argue that Ruth wasn't the best player but the Yankees built Yankee stadium to maximize the value he could provide.

Even looking at today's statistics, particularly for pitchers. fWar uses FIP while brWar uses runs allowed. Probably a more accurate measure of pitcher talent is xFip which normalizes homeruns to fly ball rates. The point here is that there are two very different kinds of statistics, the kind that tries to drill down and evaluate a players true 'talent' and the kind that tries to define a players 'value'.  Saying that the most 'valuable' player is the 'best' player makes it sound like you are conflating two separate ideas.

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20 minutes ago, AngelsLakersFan said:

I'm making a broader point about the difficulty in trying to define 'the best player.' Look I have argued for Trout's MVP status on this board in every season since 2012 so I tend to agree with your overall position, I just see a lot of room for how we get there.

Yes examples like the one I mentioned do tend to balance out over the course of a season but there are always exceptions. How about a guy who absolutely kills it for 130 games vs a guy who wasn't quite as good but had similar total value over 162? How about Babe Ruth taking advantage of an insanely short porch in right field while other players had their at bats in cavernous ball parks? Not to argue that Ruth wasn't the best player but the Yankees built Yankee stadium to maximize the value he could provide.

Even looking at today's statistics, particularly for pitchers. fWar uses FIP while brWar uses runs allowed. Probably a more accurate measure of pitcher talent is xFip which normalizes homeruns to fly ball rates. The point here is that there are two very different kinds of statistics, the kind that tries to drill down and evaluate a players true 'talent' and the kind that tries to define a players 'value'.  Saying that the most 'valuable' player is the 'best' player makes it sound like you are conflating two separate ideas.

On the underlined - I agree, and where it does happen over a full season (one could argue - whether rightly or wrongly - that this is the case for Ryu in the NL Cy Young vote this year), you give credit for it because the results were there over a full season (the terminus covered by the award). There are things WAR doesn't cover perfectly. There are major disputes on how pitchers are rated - as you noted - as well as defense. 

My point is that the goal is to determine which player had the best overall performance in a given season. That is what provides the most value. I don't get the impression you disagree on that.

What I'm frustrated with is the nonsensical idea that value is determined in regards to the team a given player is on making the playoffs. But by that arbitrary reasoning, you could argue that the closer or the guy who hit the game winning RBI to take their team to the playoffs was the most valuable. Or, the best player on a team that barely made the playoffs. Or a hundred other things. Point is: If that's the argument, there is no longer any correct answer possible.

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23 hours ago, Sean-Regan said:

The notion that value is this subjective thing basically makes this award meaningless. It's not unlike picking your favorite painting in a museum. At the end of the day, it's just preference: Whatever is valuable to you, the voter. 

That is the kind of logic reserved for neanderthals. 

Value means, so far as we can determine it objectively: Who was the best player? 

Anything else, and you're talking about relative value, and there is no longer a correct answer. To me, a million bucks is an unfathomable amount of money - more than I'll ever see in my lifetime. To Arte, that's practically pocket change. But at the end of the day, $50k in my pocket is not more valuable than $1mil in Arte's, just because it would a lot bigger deal for me to lose that much than it would be for Arte. 

MVP is the best player. This is the only correct answer because it is the only answer which can possibly even have an answer that we could label as 'correct'. The other crowd doesn't. 

I hear your  point and mostly agree, but you're still subjectively deciding on what the MVP means. "This is the only correct answer" is a subjective statement. Saying the MVP is the "best player" is a subjective statement. We can't get rid of subjectivity because we are subjects. But we can trying to make the most informed subjective take we can.

The only thing we can say with absolute certainty about the MVP is that it is the, well, most valuable player in the league. But how do we determine "value?" There is nothing in the rules that says the MVP has to be the best player, only the most valuable one. Some people have historically decided that means the player who seemed to make the game-defining plays. Others want it to be the best player, end of discussion. But even so, how to define "best?" Is it WAR? Something else? WAR first and foremost, then other factors? Etc. 

The point being, none of this is as clear as your post seems to imply. Part of the fun of baseball is that we get to argue over things like the MVP. Now I personally agree with you that there are better and worse ways to determine the MVP. For instance, I do I think WAR is a good baseline starting point. You look at WAR, but then you probably have to look at other versions of WAR even though Smart People know that Fangraphs is best (although I am still not quite sure about the new catcher valuations...I'm not sure how I feel about Brian McCann being the best player in the NL in 2008, or Jonathan Lucroy in 2014. I like the idea of this adjustment as catchers were terribly underrated by WAR but think it goes a bit too far). 

But I also think you look at team record. If two players have similar WARs, say within 1.0 of each other, and one played for a team that made the playoffs and the other for a 60-win team, I'll go for the playoff player. But once you go past that 1 WAR difference, I'll start favoring the guy with the higher number.

 

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1 hour ago, Angelsjunky said:

I hear your  point and mostly agree, but you're still subjectively deciding on what the MVP means. "This is the only correct answer" is a subjective statement. Saying the MVP is the "best player" is a subjective statement. We can't get rid of subjectivity because we are subjects. But we can trying to make the most informed subjective take we can.

The only thing we can say with absolute certainty about the MVP is that it is the, well, most valuable player in the league. But how do we determine "value?" There is nothing in the rules that says the MVP has to be the best player, only the most valuable one. Some people have historically decided that means the player who seemed to make the game-defining plays. Others want it to be the best player, end of discussion. But even so, how to define "best?" Is it WAR? Something else? WAR first and foremost, then other factors? Etc. 

The point being, none of this is as clear as your post seems to imply. Part of the fun of baseball is that we get to argue over things like the MVP. Now I personally agree with you that there are better and worse ways to determine the MVP. For instance, I do I think WAR is a good baseline starting point. You look at WAR, but then you probably have to look at other versions of WAR even though Smart People know that Fangraphs is best (although I am still not quite sure about the new catcher valuations...I'm not sure how I feel about Brian McCann being the best player in the NL in 2008, or Jonathan Lucroy in 2014. I like the idea of this adjustment as catchers were terribly underrated by WAR but think it goes a bit too far). 

But I also think you look at team record. If two players have similar WARs, say within 1.0 of each other, and one played for a team that made the playoffs and the other for a 60-win team, I'll go for the playoff player. But once you go past that 1 WAR difference, I'll start favoring the guy with the higher number.

 

Did you read any of my other comments?

I’ll allow my first post could’ve used a bit more clarity. 

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19 hours ago, AngelsLakersFan said:

The point here is that there are two very different kinds of statistics, the kind that tries to drill down and evaluate a players true 'talent' and the kind that tries to define a players 'value'.

This is one thing I think often gets lost in award discussion.

You aren't really evaluating talent. You are evaluating performance. It's not about "who is a better player?" It's about "who performed better?"

In Trout's case this year, obviously, they are the same. However, there are plenty of other cases where they are not the same. Last year, for example. I think Mookie Betts performed better than Trout in 2018, but obviously Trout is the more talented player.

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4 hours ago, Jeff Fletcher said:

You aren't really evaluating talent. You are evaluating performance. It's not about "who is a better player?" It's about "who performed better?"

So did Cabrera perform better than Trout in 2013?

 

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On 8/14/2019 at 4:34 PM, Jay said:

So why does there need to be a vote? Just award the MVP to the player with the highest WAR.

 

We here have had far too many discussions about variable WAR values to go that route. 

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