Living Through the MVP Voting Transition Period

As expected, Miguel Cabrera just won the American League Most Valuable Player award, and he won it by a landslide. Compared to a year ago, Cabrera gained a first-place vote. Compared to a year ago, Trout lost a first-place vote. Things played out the same, precisely because things played out the same, and so no one’s shocked by the outcome. Everyone has had his or her own opinion, but last year set the precedent and there was no way this year things were going to flip. For some of you, it’s the right outcome. For others, it’s the wrong outcome. My belief is that it’s the wrong outcome, but right now I’m left considering three things — two facts, and one line of speculation.

One factual consideration: Trout and Cabrera were both absolutely amazing. Cabrera trailed off, but for understandable reasons. Trout didn’t play for a contender, for understandable reasons. Trout just posted the highest AL WAR of the past decade. Cabrera just posted the highest AL wRC+ of the past decade. In a few ways, both players are coming off seasons that were historically great, so as much as this announcement feels like one guy beating another, this vote decided between the best of the best. The right response isn’t to celebrate Cabrera only, or to put Trout down. It’s to count our blessings that these players are alive today and performing as they do. The voting recognized the best players in the AL, and you can appreciate more than one guy at a time.

A second factual consideration: WAR isn’t as accurate as we want it to be. None of our numbers are as accurate as we want them to be. We don’t have a clear definition of what “valuable” means with regard to this award, but even if we did, we wouldn’t be able to say with absolute certainty that one guy deserves the award over another. WAR comes with its own error bars, and then there are questions about sequencing and leverage and whatnot. And there’s the matter of intangibles, in that it’s conceivable that one player makes other players better. A lot of the baseball game is hidden, and a lot of what’s not hidden is complicated, and so it becomes a matter of probability. I think Trout was this year’s AL MVP. I’m open to the possibility it was actually someone else. On that basis, I’d still vote for Trout, but I wouldn’t be sure. There’s uncertainty everywhere, more than we’d care to admit.

The speculative consideration: I think we’re living through an MVP voting transition period. I think that the landscape is changing, but that it’s changing slowly. I think this is good for the future of the award, but in the meantime I understand how it can be frustrating.

I think there’s a pattern of progress, where “progress” means “greater thought and open-mindedness,” although it’s hardly without its fluctuations. Consider, if you will, Ryan Howard‘s MVP consideration in the not-distant past. Consider also Alex Rodriguez‘s MVP on a last-place Rangers team. Those two points on their own might represent a step back, but I do think the process is improving overall, for a variety of reasons.

More and more, voters now are publishing their own votes, and their own explanations. They’re putting themselves out there, and they’re held more accountable, and just by publishing these things, it’s made clear the decisions weren’t made lightly. Also, the voters are exposed to feedback and new ideas they might not have encountered in the past. Often there are conversations taking place in the lead-up to the award announcement. Then there are conversations afterward, which might make an impact for voting the next year. Voters are taking responsibility for their votes, all but requiring them to think the process through.

There is, of course, the element of influence from the sabermetric wing. Even articles that claim WAR doesn’t capture everything cite WAR in the body. Voters are thinking about numbers they didn’t used to think about — numbers that, in the past, might not have existed. Behind those numbers are ideas, like the relative value of power or defense or position or baserunning, and this can all make a difference, even if a voter picks the “traditional” guy in the end. The MVP is being thought of differently. Voters think about why power numbers matter. They think about why it matters for a player to come from a winning team.

The conversation can be good and it can go both ways. Sabermetrically, we can identify the most productive players. The voters can talk about what those numbers are leaving out. Analysts can then come back with other numbers, like clutch numbers, or win-expectancy numbers, and we can all figure out how important it is, really, for a player’s team to have been competitive. These are conversations that haven’t arrived at solutions, but there’s a greater degree of open-mindedness today, and that’s what progress requires. More and more, voters are open to having conversations, meaning the process should be getting smarter.

It would help for voters to be given more official guidance. The company line is that the debate is the fun part, that it’s good for baseball, but right now there’s so much uncertainty over what “valuable” means that different voters are voting for a different award. Seems to me such varying interpretation shouldn’t be necessary. It’s conceivable we could see progress here, too.

The case I can’t stop thinking about is Bert Blyleven‘s case for the Hall of Fame. That right there is a clear example of a shift in voter thinking. His first three years of eligibility, Blyleven was named on less than 18% of ballots. He started making progress in year four, and just a couple years ago he finally climbed over 75%. Year after year, Blyleven was considered by a majority old-school voting pool, but the voters were open to having their minds changed, and thanks to their own open-mindedness and thanks to a powerful sabermetric campaign, Blyleven went from little support to Cooperstown. Still today, I don’t know if I’d describe the Hall of Fame selection process as “smart”. But it’s smarter. Blyleven is in the Hall of Fame, and Jack Morris still isn’t.

As a different example, the Gold Glove awards were long sliding toward virtual irrelevance. In response, they’ve introduced a sabermetric component, and now the results aren’t laughable anymore. There’s actual substance to the process, and while that doesn’t reflect a change in voter thinking, it perhaps does suggest that the MVP voting guidelines could be amended down the road. The Gold Gloves are a traditional award that recently changed a little bit. Perhaps one day we’ll get more than a few words on what “valuable” means within a regular season.

Politically, there’s a long history of things that shouldn’t be. I will of course not go into detail, but as these things have changed, they didn’t change overnight. They changed over the course of years or decades or more than that, with little shifts that turned the tide a little more and a little more. During the transition periods, there’s frustration on the part of those who seek change, since to them the change is obvious, but people don’t change policy that fast. Not when they’ve been doing it a certain way forever. It takes time for minds to grow, and it takes time for more stubborn minds to be replaced. In the little picture, there’s the frustration of defeat. In the bigger picture, there’s often the reality of encouraging progress. Progress toward a goal that seems to be inevitable.

As things are right now, we’re never going to agree unanimously on what the MVP is, and on who ought to win it. Realistically, we don’t have enough information to decide who ought to win it. We can just come up with mathematical favorites. The important thing, though, is that I think the voting process is improving. The voters are more accessible, they’re more accountable, and they’re open-minded in greater numbers. We’re able to have more conversations, they’re able to consider more ideas, and the result is that, while stubbornness will forever exist, by and large things ought to be smarter. My sense is that we’re in the midst of an MVP voting transition period. I don’t know exactly where we’re headed, but don’t lose sight of the fact that Mike Trout still got a lot of support, even if he didn’t come close to winning. We’re able to have arguments with voters today. Down the road, there might be fewer arguments, and those arguments ought to be better, on both of the sides.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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