- FanGraphs Baseball - https://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

Defining Valuable

Every year without fail, the MVP debate stirs up controversy. It’s all too predictable, considering the Baseball Writers Association of American (BBWAA) doesn’t define what they mean by “Most Valuable” and leaves that distinction up to each individual voter’s discretion. Each voter has their own interpretation, leading to different ballots and debates that go around in circles. It’s old and tired, and yet we can’t help but fall for it every time.

I’m assuming the vast majority of you already know this, but there are two schools of thought on what “valuable” means: the old-school belief that a player’s team needs to make the postseason for them to have been “most valuable”, and the new-school thought that value is value regardless of if a player’s team makes the playoffs or not. Why penalize a player having a spectacular year simply because the rest of their team wasn’t any good?

So how should we define valuable? Value is a word intrinsically tied up in sabermetrics — what else is WAR supposed to be measuring? — so you’d think we’d be able to properly define it. Oh, the English language — that so much controversy can be caused over something as mundane as an imprecise definition.

But this weekend, I had an epiphany. As much as it pains me to say it, you know, those old-school baseball writers might actually have a point.

Full disclosure: I have a tendency to be behind on the times. I sometimes realize things that seem like such common sense, that I’m sure everyone else must already know them…but man, they still utterly blow my mind. Like when I found out that Queen was a British band. Or the time I realized wraps didn’t use bread as the outside wrapping. Mind. Blown.

So I wouldn’t be surprised if this revelation isn’t really an epiphany to anyone else — both Ken Davidoff and Bill Simmons made similar points recently, actually — but the more I think about it, it’s perfectly legitimate to consider if a team made the playoffs when talking about a player’s value. In fact, if we criticize writers for voting with that premise in mind, we’re simultaneously attacking a sabermetric concept: the win curve.

The win curve essentially states that all wins aren’t created equal. It makes little difference to the Orioles this season if they finish with 74 wins or 76 wins*, while a two-game difference can have much more importance for a team on the cusp of making the playoffs. Teams keep this concept in mind when making personnel decisions, paying more for the players that will help put them over the top and into the playoffs. There’s lots of money to be made in the playoffs, so if you’re close, it makes sense to give up more for a chance at those elusive wins.

*This reminds of the old anecdote about Ralph Kiner. After having an All-Star year with the Pirates, he went to GM Branch Rickey and asked for a raise on his salary. Rickey’s response was short and unequivocal: “We finished last with you, we can finish last without you.”

But can’t this same concept be applied toward the MVP Award? If a team fails to sniff the playoffs — or, similarly, makes the playoffs by a mile — doesn’t that make standout performances on their club “less valuable”, as little would have changed if that player hadn’t been on the club? And if a team is clawing tooth and nail for a playoff spot, wouldn’t performances by their stars take on an even greater significance?

All this sounds like good, rationale saber-talk, but it also somewhat validates the old-school “The MVP can only be awarded to players on playoff teams!” line of thought. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the most valuable player can only come from a playoff team, but I do think if we want to be intellectual honest about the word’s meaning, we can’t completely ignore a team’s place in the standings. Looking at WAR and how much value a player created is one part of the process, but you can’t forget to consider the greater context as well.

To put it another way, consider this: Jose Bautista has 7.9 WAR this season, and Justin Verlander has 6.4 WAR. That’s a decent difference, right? Not huge, not insignificant, but somewhere in the middle. But then, who do you give the award to when the Blue Jays are 15 games out of a playoff spot, while the Tigers seem headed to the playoffs almost entirely on the back of Verlander. Kudos to Bill Simmons for this nugget:

Basically, the Tigers give up five runs per start unless Verlander is pitching. They’re 21-8 when he starts and 54-54 when he doesn’t.

I used to be firmly in the “Give the MVP to the best player, period” camp, but after thinking all this through, I don’t know which way to come down. Considering that the award is used retrospectively for things like Hall of Fame voting — and as a memory aid for casual fans — I still want to give credit to the best player in each league. If I had a vote, that’s probably what I’d do. Probably.

But at the same time, I can certainly see the logic in considering a team’s position in the standings. If you want to stand true to the name of the award — we’re back to that whole “value” thing again — I think you have to consider a team’s playoff status to some degree, even if it’s just a little bit. In the end, it comes down to what you want the award to be. Both positions are defensible, as long as writers stay consistent to their logic throughout and don’t take either position to the extreme.

Is this an epiphany? Well, maybe not for others, but for me, it was a shock to realize that the traditional definition of the MVP Award had a saber nugget of wisdom embedded in it. The old school and the new school — they’re a lot more similar than you’d think.