MVP Norms

Cultural norms are a powerful force. Even though we have different backgrounds, we were raised with similar understandings of how certain aspects of the world work, and we agree to abide by these rules without much thought. We eat three meals a day because, well, that’s what we do. I can’t tell you why I sit around waiting for lunch time when I’m hungry and my body is asking for food – I just know I’m supposed to eat around noon. I’m sure there’s a reason for it, but I have no idea what it is, even though I’ve been eating for 29 years now.

It occurred to me today that our discussions about what constitutes a player’s value at award time is kind of like that. Especially if you’ve been a part of the statistical analysis crowd for any length of time, you have a pretty well defined idea of what the parameters of value are. Offense counts the most, obviously. Most people will adjust for the expectations of the defensive position you play, even if they won’t factor in how well you play that position. How well your team performs as a whole matters to some more than others, which is also true of stuff that gets labeled as intangibles, leadership, chemistry, etc…

Not everyone weights everything the same, but the things that we’re attempting to measure are all pretty much agreed upon. I’m wondering, though, is this a case where we agreed to the definition without really thinking about why we did it?

Specifically, I’m wondering why salary is not included. By anyone. Ever.

In terms of practical value to a team, there is no real difference between a player’s salary and the position he plays. The entire point of adjusting for position is to account for the opportunity cost of occupying that spot on the field. If the Tigers didn’t have Miguel Cabrera, they’d get some other decent hitting first baseman, because it’s not all that difficult to find a guy to play that position and hit competently. This matters, and we account for it. Almost everyone does, anyway.

Yet, we never factor in the opportunity cost of a player’s portion of his team’s budget, even though it is the exact same concept. If a player makes $15 million and his team has a $100 million budget, he comes with a significant opportunity cost, as he has effectively lowered the budget for his 24 teammates to $85 million. If he made the league minimum, the franchise would have $99.5 million to surround him with talent, and he would invariably have more talented teammates, given that the guy picking them was not named Dayton or Minaya.

We hear players lauded all the time for “making their teammates better”, yet we ignore the one instance where the player actually does directly influence the performance his teammates are likely to offer. Why? Is there any real good reason why salary shouldn’t be considered in our discussions of value? It matters at least as much as the position they play, and in many cases, a lot more.

This is made plainly evident in trade negotiations with high salaried players. Often times, a team trading the player of value with a significant contract will offer to pay a portion of the remaining amount due to the player in order to increase the return they’re getting in talent. There is no way around it – teams are explicitly stating that they value player X at a certain threshold when he’s paid salary Y, but they value him at a higher amount if he only has to be paid salary Z instead. His value is inextricably tied to how much money he earns.

This is why teams that trade away stars so often come out of it looking just fine – they take the money they would have spent on the traded player and give it to some other talented player, replacing a portion of his value in the process. Just like if a team loses a first baseman, they go out and find another guy who can hit okay. Filling the first base spot isn’t very hard, and neither is getting a valuable player when you have $15 million to play with.

Yet no one accounts for this in any MVP discussion. Why? Because we’ve never cared about salary, so why start, I guess.

I’d write more about this, but it’s noon, and I think that means I’m supposed to go eat now.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Joe R
Joe R

But veteran presense!

Like some guy in a forum once asked, how awesome would the A’s be if they stopped playing Moneyball and had Hudson, Harden, Zito, Mulder, and Haren on the team?

(this actually happened).


I would LOVE for the A’s to still have Mulder.

Imagine Haren, Carpenter, Wainwright.