How Should We Value Baseball’s Most Valuable Players? by Robert BC Carlson

Joe Dimaggio and Ted Williams, 1941

My perennial problem with any sport’s Most Valuable Player award is trying to guess how sportswriters will measure how “valuable” someone is. In baseball, I always wonder how they determine that a guy who hit 40 home runs but missed a lot of fly balls in the outfield is more valuable than the shortstop with great range and a perfect arm who stold 40 bases. Traditionally (though not always), the voters have clearly awarded extra points to players whose performance helped their teams into the postseason, even if a guy on the fourth-place team had a better year. This is one reason Joe DiMaggio took the MVP in 1941 despite Ted Williams’s superior season (nevermind the 56-game hitting streak — Teddy Ballgame hit .406 with 37 HR and 120 RBIs, for crying out loud). (The other reason, perhaps, was that Ted was not as friendly with the sportswriters.) But the younger generation of baseball writers seems to pay more attention to performance metrics than to the team’s won-loss record or qualities such as leadership. I have no quarrel with that, assuming the player is actively trying to help his team win on both offense and defense and is not just trying to pad his numbers. (For instance, I see more value in a guy who singles home a run than a guy who flies out because he tries to hit a home run every time up.)

The 2017 MLB MVPs will be announced tomorrow (November 16) evening. Let’s look first at the AL candidates: the Yankees’ Aaron Judge (who earlier this week took Rookie of the Year honors), the Astros’ José Altuve and the Indians’ José Ramírez. (As I mentioned yesterday, a case could be made for the Indians’ ace and Cy Young winner Corey Kluber to be MVP, but he was not a finalist.) In a season that saw a record number of home runs hit, Judge set a rookie record and led the the league with 52 — and this is why I don’t favor him. Clearly the balls were livelier and even guys who used to hit home runs in the single digits were slugging over 20 this year. Judge also led the Majors in strike outs. No disrespect to Ramírez, but Altuve was the best position player in the American League. He led the Majors with a .346 batting average, had 204 hits, stole 32 bases, scored 112 runs and was stellar on defense. Altuve is possibly the best all-around player in baseball. He deserves the award and I expect he will win it.

The NL finalists are the Marlins’ slugger Giancarlo Stanton, the Diamondbacks’ Paul Goldschmidt, and the Reds’ Joey Votto. Only Goldschmidt’s team made the postseason, and his 36 home runs and 120 RBIs were a big reason (as were teammate J.D. Martinez’s 45 round-trippers). Old-style MVP voting would probably result in his winning the trophy. But Stanton and Votto actually had better stats. Stanton (currently the most coveted trade-bait in baseball) led the Majors with 59 home runs and 132 RBIs, and some of those homers traveled very long distances. Assuming he’s not using PEDs, that is one heck of a great season. Yet Joey Votto, with a mere 36 home runs and 100 RBIs, is in a near-statistical tie with Stanton in terms of Wins Above Replacement (WAR), based on the Baseball Reference measure. Votto put together another masterful season, leading all of baseball with a .454 on-base percentage (39 basis points higher than the next-best in the NL), started all 162 games of the season, had 134 walks and played stellar defense at first base. Votto is widely acknowledged as the smartest hitter and the toughest out in baseball, and if it were up to the pitchers, he would win the MVP. (He’s also my favorite hitter to watch.) I would add that a case could be made for a couple of Nationals — Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman — for the MVP honor, since they clearly contributed to their team’s great season, but neither was a finalist.

In the NL, I predict the writers will go with Stanton, although for his all-around play and masterpiece of a season, my personal pick would be Votto.

I seem to be the only one of my friends following this, but if you have an opinion, I’d love to read it.

Robert “B.C.” Carlson

Baseball Thoughts: Cy Young Awards, by Robert BC Carlson

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