The Josh Donaldson MVP Argument

It’s long been a foregone conclusion that Miguel Cabrera is going to win the 2013 American League Most Valuable Player Award. It’s long felt like a foregone conclusion that this will happen despite Cabrera again finishing well behind Mike Trout in league WAR. The question hasn’t been whether Trout will finish first or second; it’s been whether Trout will finish second or third or fourth or worse. We’ve already been through this, and if Cabrera has a serious challenger, it’s in the person of one Chris Davis. It’s Davis who has the lead on Cabrera in dingers. It’s Davis who’s playing for another AL contender. It’s Davis who stands the only real chance of knocking Cabrera down, in the event of a white-hot few weeks. But it still presumably won’t happen. Cabrera has packed a lot into his time.

This has been a foregone conclusion because we’ve tried to predict the tendencies and beliefs of the voters. Precedent: most previous votes. Specifically, last year’s votes. Cabrera will win because he’s a beast on a playoff team. Trout will not win because he’s a beast on a non-playoff team that hasn’t been close to the race. The overwhelming majority of voters place extra weight on productivity in meaningful games. Because we debate the awards every year, it’s pretty hard to find a fresh argument. It’s hard to feel like it’s worth writing something, when you feel like you’ve written it a thousand times before. But every so often, there’s an unexplored nugget of interest, and if you follow the thought processes of the voting writers, I think you can make an argument that this year’s AL MVP should or could be Josh Donaldson.

I want to make two things clear right here:

(1) I’m not sure how much I believe this argument. I think it’s just an argument one could make, somewhat reasonably. I’m as old as I am, and I still haven’t decided how I feel about the MVP, which speaks to its complexity. That’s a big part of the fun.

(2) This is less about Donaldson specifically, and more about the general idea. It’s an idea that could apply every year. When I first talked about this with Dave Cameron last week, the Tigers held a more comfortable division lead. It’s still comfortable, but it’s smaller, which alters this specific picture.

Let’s accept that the voters vastly prefer MVPs to come from good teams. I think they’ve demonstrated as much, and while many have argued against that, the landscape is what it is. Financially, it is more valuable to be a great player on a good team than a great player on a bad team. Any one win is one individual win, but perhaps wins do count differently. Perhaps you can’t add meaningful value to a cellar-dweller. I don’t know. Like most things, it’s probably in the gray area.

So what does that voter preference mean? It means that the games have to matter in order for much value to be accrued. The whole point of the season is making it to the playoffs, so then value really starts to add up on contenders. I don’t know where you draw the line between contender and non-contender, but a line exists, and it probably somewhat has to do with feel. This year’s Angels have not been a contender. They fell flat at the beginning. It’s remarkable for Trout to be able to do what he’s done on a team going nowhere, considering the attendant lack of motivation, but that’s supposedly not what the MVP is about.

But then if it’s about games mattering — high-leverage games, so to speak — there are opposite extremes. There are teams that are too bad for the games to feel important, and there are teams that are too good for the games to feel anything but comfortable. If you’re losing a blowout, you can’t change much with an out or a homer. If you’re winning a blowout, the same principle applies. The leverage is too low. Which, according to the writers, should factor in. They say the Angels would be a bad team with or without Trout. What if a good playoff team would still be a good playoff team without a particular star? It follows, just based on the voting pool’s logic, that the star also shouldn’t be much of an MVP candidate. The games weren’t important enough, for the opposite reason.

The Angels would be bad without Trout. The Tigers would be good without Cabrera. This argument is less convincing with their diminished division lead, but even without Cabrera, the Tigers would probably be the AL Central favorites. They haven’t had to worry much in weeks. Of course, part of that’s because of Cabrera, but if we’re concerned with game leverage, it seems like the focus should be on the teams right on the postseason bubble. Those are the teams with the most to gain or lose. We’ve been led to believe this is a critical factor.

The Orioles are in the thick of things. Chris Davis has a 6.4 WAR. Manny Machado has a 6.0 WAR. The Rays are in the thick of things. Evan Longoria has a 6.0 WAR. The A’s are in the thick of things. Josh Donaldson has a 6.4 WAR. Right now, the A’s are holding off the Rangers in the West, which is the difference between playing at least one extra game and at least three extra games. The Rays are holding off the Indians and Orioles and others in the wild card. If the season ended today, the Rays and A’s would move on, and the Orioles would go home. If the voters were to give an extra boost to an MVP candidate on a contending team that gets over the hump, then here they’d be looking at Donaldson and Longoria, and Donaldson has the slight WAR edge. Not that things should be that simple, but that’s the argument. Donaldson has been Oakland’s best player, and without him, they wouldn’t be looking at a Division Series berth. There’s a world of difference between making the first round and qualifying for the one-game playoff.

Of course, the Orioles have still been a contender. Of course, one could still reasonably vote for Davis, or Machado. Those games have most certainly mattered. The point is that you could conceivably eliminate both Trout and Cabrera from contention, and then you’re left with a tough choice. Donaldson would never win, because nobody even knows who Josh Donaldson is, but according to the voters’ own demonstrated preferences, right now he’s a more deserving candidate than he’ll be treated as in the actual voting.

I mentioned before this doesn’t apply so well right now, with the Tigers’ division lead shrinking. But we can go back and apply it just a couple years ago. In 2011, the AL MVP was Justin Verlander. Verlander, of course, was amazing, and the Tigers won the Central by 15 games. Jacoby Ellsbury was amazing — arguably as or more amazing — and the Red Sox missed the playoffs on the final day, the conclusion of a month-long, team-wide collapse. Verlander got the edge because his team made the playoffs. All of the Red Sox’s games mattered, an awful lot, and while the Sox collapsed around Ellsbury, over that final month Ellsbury himself posted a four-digit OPS. He didn’t even succumb to the greater suck. He was penalized for his team falling apart, even though his team played more important games than the Tigers did. And it seems to be all about important games. At least according to the people who vote on this thing.

Prefer guys on contending teams? That’s fine. It’s arguable, but it’s not unreasonable. Maybe it really is about that high-leverage part of the win curve. But while there are win totals below, there are also win totals above. Either it’s about important games or it isn’t, and if it is, consider whose games truly mattered the most.

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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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