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Who Is the Most Valuable Player in Baseball? (Part 2)

Previously on Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, the gang tried to learn the secret of the haunted lagoon, only to run into a veeeery scaaaary surprise. Also, we took a crack at figuring out the Most Valuable Player in Baseball.

As a reminder, here are the ground rules:

Every active player who has played a game in the major leagues is eligible. Every team has the same budget, and the same salary commitments (which is to say, none). Every ballpark has the same neutral dimensions. Leagues and divisions are abolished. We’re assuming that every team magically evaluates every player exactly right, so a sneaky-good player with “hidden value” (say, Daric Barton) isn’t the answer.

Finally (and perhaps most importantly), every player would be a team’s to keep for the rest of his career.

Under those conditions, which player would be most in demand? In other words, who is the most valuable player in baseball, no conditions attached?

We’ve narrowed the list down to three finalists. Before we break down those three, though, a quick nod to one candidate not mentioned in Part 1: Joe Mauer. I’m a gigantic Joe Mauer fan. Offensive production like his from a catcher comes along…well, almost never. And if 2009 was Mauer’s baseline performance and not an outlier–given it’s the only time he’s even managed double digits in homers–you could argue he should be #1. But given the lack of power, Mauer’s age (he turns 28 in April) and his position (catchers carry greater injury risk), he misses the cut.

Now then, our final three:

Hanley Ramirez: The Recency Effect is a phenomenon that can overpower even the savviest thinkers. We tend to place too much emphasis on an event that just recently occurred, and lose sight of the much longer string of events that immediately preceded it. If you eat a banana and you’re blowing chunks 10 minutes later, you might shy away from bananas in the future, even if you’ve eaten hundreds of them in the past without incident.

Ramirez’s 4.4 WAR season in 2010 is our rancid banana (assuming it was the banana that even made you sick in the first place, and not something totally unrelated). A player posts a wOBA over .400 three seasons in a row, does it while playing the most demanding position on the diamond, and yet some people might downgrade him severely because of one very good but not quite great season. Not everyone feels this way, though. Both Bill James‘ projection and FanGraphs’ own fans’ target predict a bounceback in 2011, if not quite to the 7-plus WAR player Ramirez was from 2007 through 2009.

The more valid concern is Ramirez’s sketchy defense. By UZR, most other advance metrics, or even the human eye, Hanley isn’t exactly Omar Vizquel out there. His size and suspect range make him likely to move to another position in the next five years. You can still put Ramirez at a relatively offense-scarce position like second base or even third base and derive major value from his bat (and for now, at least, his legs). But that drawback, combined with some attitude concerns (we don’t sweat that stuff too much, but if you’re talking about the single most valuable player in baseball, every factor should be considered), relegate Ramirez to #3.

Albert Pujols: His narrow losses in last year’s WAR and MVP standings notwithstanding, Pujols has been the best player in baseball since…possibly 2005, i.e. right after Barry Bonds‘ final season as an elite performer (depends what you want to do with Alex Rodriguez‘s 2005 and 2007 campaigns, mostly). If Pujols’ career ended today, he’d already be a deserving Hall of Famer, with numbers that stand out even in one of the most prolific offensive eras of all-time.

Of course, with Pujols there are two glaring issues in play.

1) His position. Skeptics would argue that there are many big, strong first basemen who can hit the ball a mile. Meanwhile, teams are desperately scraping for shortstops who can kind of-sort of throw their bodies in front of balls, or hit their weight.

Hell, I recently spent an entire post arguing that a single crappy shortstop could torpedo the chances of one of baseball’s (otherwise) strongest teams, and another one claiming that defense might still be underrated, even after all the yelling that’s been done in the analytical community. It’s very tempting to toss all first basemen (and maybe left and right fielders) out of the most valuable player argument entirely, and let Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki (plus possibly a third baseman here, catcher or second basemen there) duke it out for world supremacy.

On the other hand…LOOK AT THIS.

Pujols isn’t just another hulking first baseman who hits some bombs. He’s the greatest player of his generation, he crushes even the mightiest beasts at his position, he fields well, he runs well, he’s durable, he’s universally regarded as a hard worker and model teammate. Hell, the guy might even have a second career as a paramedic.

2) He turned 31 on Sunday. Now this is a legitimate concern.

So how does Pujols stack up against the last guy on our list…

Evan Longoria: He’s been the #1 guy on Dave Cameron’s Trade Value list in each of his three seasons in the major leagues. The nine-year contract he signed–agreed upon while he was still in the minors–was so unique that it warranted several pages of analysis and agent interviews in that book whose cover is creepily thrusting toward you on the right side of this page, like a possessed scud missile.

But the whole reason Longoria’s contract is so beneficial to the Rays is because you’re talking about one of the truly elite players in all of baseball. Longoria hits for power, gets on base, runs the bases well (a very common trait on the Rays) and is in the lineup just about every day. He’s averaged 6.5 wins a season in his first three years in the majors, and he’s just 25 years old–giving us that elusive combination of proven track record with plenty of future production, even potential upside. Merely glancing at Longoria’s offensive numbers doesn’t do him justice either: Tropicana Field played as the single toughest hitter’s park in the majors last year, and shows a multi-year trend of significantly dampening offensive output relative to other parks.

Make Evan Longoria your franchise player, even with a market-value contract, and you’re doing prettaaaay, prettaaaay well.

So who’s it gonna be, then? Pujols or Longoria?

The answer is…Pujols. Here’s why.

First, the smaller point. Longoria gets a ton of credit for his defensive value–about four and a half wins with his glove alone over his first three big league seasons. It’s pretty safe to say he’s a plus defensive player. UZR is one of many advanced defensive metrics that say so, fan surveys echo the point, and two straight Gold Glove awards show that those in the game agree.

But we’re still working out precise run and win values for defensive contributions. FIELDf/x will likely tell us many things we don’t yet know about defense. HITf/x might too, by telling us the velocity, spin and other batted ball factors that might influence a fielder’s chances to make a clean play. It is possible (not certain, but possible) that Longoria’s value is somewhat overrated by the metrics we have now.

Here’s the bigger point: Pujols is the better player (the best player) right now. And right now will always be more important than later. As Dave Cameron noted in an email exchange last night (note: Dave is not arguing for or against Pujols, or anyone else, here’s merely making a point about present value):

Wins now lead to more fans, more revenue, and more chances to invest in the future. You could make a good case that +30 WAR over the next 7 years is more valuable than +40 WAR over the next 10 years if the difference in WAR is almost all tied to years 8-9-10, because getting the value up front would produce enough revenue to buy an extra +10 WAR in those final three years.

In other words, you never know what the future will hold. In theory, Longoria should have 7 to 10 really good years ahead, maybe even more. Jason Heyward, who was quickly dismissed in Part 1, might have 12 to 15 great years ahead–or more.

But this isn’t an exercise in simply adding up projected career WAR. A right-now-superstar isn’t merely worth 1 or 2 more wins than another very good but somewhat lesser talent. At the extremes, a player’s contributions are no longer linear. Albert Pujols is the best bet to push a team toward a World Series right now, and very possibly for the next three to five years. That fact alone is the single most important factor to consider in this debate.

So yes, Albert Pujols is the most valuable player in baseball. If the Mayans are right and we’re all doomed, you’ll be happy you chose the best guy. And if the Mayans are wrong, you’ll still be happy.