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WAR Index and BBWAA MVP awards voting

The MVP award ballots are finally out, and the winners have been decided. But what does WARi have to say about the biggest omissions in the voting process?

Jonathan Daniel

Last night, the BBWAA finished announcing their 2012 award winners. And while awards season is full of snarking and sniping, of measured and inane insane less-than-measured discourse between parties, this year was back to the ever-fruitful stats-vs-old-school narrative in baseball analysis. (You'd think with Nate Silver and Princeton killing it in the 2012 election maybe statistical analysis would get a break, but nooooo.) The sabermetric community rallied around their favorites (Mike Trout, Justin Verlander), while the community of writers and players championed some different causes (Miguel Cabrera, Fernando Rodney).

Well, one of the best ways to get a high-level picture of a player's performance, is through the heavily-derided and heavily-used Wins Above Replacement metrics (fWAR, rWAR and WARP). And a pretty easy way to get a full picture of what these three metrics think of a player, in concert, is through my WAR Index (WARi). So today, I'll be looking at a few of the BBWAA's hits and misses, at least as far as WARi and the two MVP awards go.

Warning: Caveats here!

There are two important things I want to say before I get into my analysis of the winners (and losers) by WARi. The first is that by no means is WAR, or WARi a perfect metric. I feel like I need to say this every single time I write about WARi and use it to criticize choices made by other writers and analysts. WAR is a great shorthand, and a phenomenal framework, but as a metric (or three metrics, or four metrics, including WARi) there are very real reasons why it should not be used as the complete or only judge of a player's performance. I get that there is some "stuff" in WAR open to debate (positional adjustments, defense, replacement-level, FIP vs. RA9), but the frameworks are mostly good, and the single-number makes these metrics good, useful, and best of all, accessible. WAR is a good stat, and a better framework. But I do understand if you choose not to use it, or you use it with wisdom. That's what I try to do. Even though it is "everything", it's not everything.

The second thing is that while I am *definitely* criticizing certain choices that BBWAA members and voters are making, this does not mean I am criticizing them as people, or trying to tell you that they are bad at their jobs, or anything like that. This is a simple difference of opinion -- perhaps sometimes what I see as a failure to do a certain part (an extremely small one) correctly. Think of it as if your favorite baseball player makes a big mental error, and it costs his team a game. You may be frustrated at the player, you may even call for a change of some sort, but at the end of the day, it's important to recognize the humanity of other people. When you criticize people's decisions, it's important to recognize that one day you could easily be in their position, criticized vehemently by a group of people who are certain that they are right. And that will be awful.

Okay, overly-wordy disclaimers are over. Let's get to the decisions.

AL MVP Award

There probably have been millions of words written about the Cabrera vs. Trout AL MVP discussion. So honestly, I want to touch on that very little. Cabrera managed a WARi of 6.6, which is a very fine number, and indicative of a stellar season from one of the best players in the game. That is also, by my calculations, the sixth-best score of any player in baseball for 2012. Terrific season. Good job.

Mike Trout had a WARi of 9.8, which was the best score in baseball by an enormous margin. On the WARi scale, a score of 8 is an MVP-caliber season. A WARi of 9.8 is one of those every-several-years, season-you-never-forget types of seasons. Trout over Cabrera should have been a no-brainer for several really two reasons (defense! baserunning!), but WARi makes the case, too.

Now, let's talk a little about the player who came in third! I think Adrian Beltre is a phenomenal player, one I especially like to watch play. His season for the Rangers was absolutely dynamite, and WARi has him at a score of 5.9 thanks to his bat and impressive defense at third base. That WARi of 5.9 is good for 10th in the majors among qualified position players! But the problem with Beltre being third in MVP voting, actually isn't a problem with Beltre at all. It's a problem with Robinson Cano.

A few authors advocated that Cano was actually a more deserving candidate than Cabrera for AL MVP -- if Mike Trout didn't exist, that is. (He does.) Well, WARi is on their side. Cano was actually the second-best player in baseball, behind only Trout according to WARi. His score of 7.4 was one of only three to top 7.0 in all the majors. The WAR metrics give Cano a lot of credit for fielding a critical position very well, despite his bat not being in Miguel Cabrera's rarified air. Yet Cano was left off of four voters' ballots entirely!

Mark Feinsand of the NY Daily News voted for Derek Jeter in third place on his ballot, but left Cano off entirely. Daryl Van Schouwen of the Chicago Sun Times left Cabrera off the ballot, but had Jeter in seventh place. Note that Derek Jeter had a WARi of 2.5, so he was approximately five wins worse than Cano, by this metric. And Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times put Jeter, Fernando Rodney AND Rafael Soriano ahead of Cano on his ballot, on which the Yankees' 2B did not appear.

Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune also had Jeter third, but was at least good enough to put Cano on his ballot ... in eighth place. Joe Haakenson, George King, Tim Kurkijan, Larry LaRue, Roger Mooney, Mark Whicker ... all of these people put Cano below either his more heavily-hyped middle infield teammate, or a reliever who pitched less than 70 innings over the course of the season (Jim Johnson).

And worst of all (in my opinion, at least), John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press left Cano off his ballot, while voting for players like Jim Johnson (3rd-place vote), Derek Jeter (5th-place vote) and Fernando Rodney (7th-place vote) ahead of him. Oh, and then there was Raul Ibanez, who got a 10th-place vote from Lowe. There's a case to be made that Ibanez wasn't even the 10th-best player ON HIS TEAM.*

* Note: I have Cano, Swisher, Tex, Jeter, Granderson, and A-Rod all as better according to WARi -- plus Ichiro. This is without even looking at unqualified hitters other than Ibanez. Oh, and I also have Sabathia, Kuroda, Hughes and even Ivan Nova better than Ibanez among qualified pitchers. Eric Chavez and Russell Martin also have cases, so, wow. Ibanez might even be 13th on his own team.

Jason Wojchzsjksf!h Wojciechowski brought up a huge point on Twitter last night: which player would be the worst to receive an MVP vote. Well, Raul has a really, really great shot at winning that title. In 425 plate appearances during the 2012 regular season, Raul had a WARi of (drumroll) ... 0.5. That's half a win above replacement. Granted, WARi is a counting stat, meaning that if he kept up that pace over a full season of plate appearances, he might have made it all the way up to, I dunno, 0.8 or 0.9 ... but that's not very good. That's not a starter-caliber performance. And it's certainly not an MVP-caliber performance, even worthy of a 10th-place-vote.

Do you know who didn't get any 10th-place votes in the AL MVP race? Austin Jackson of the Detroit Tigers. And Alex Gordon of the Kansas City Royals. Do you know why these two players didn't get any votes? Me neither. Jackson and Gordon both had very, very good seasons, and both are running neck-and-neck in the race for who had the best season but was not given any consideration for MVP. According to my metric, Jackson was worth 5.3 WARi in 2012. Gordon was actually worth closer to 5.4 WARi. Gordon was the 13th-highest scoring qualified position player by WARi, while Jackson was 14th-highest. Among American Leaguers, Gordon and Jackson actually we're fifth- and sixth-overall, just behind Trout, Cano, Cabrera and Beltre by WARi. Yet, somehow, none of the 28 BBWAA voters considered them worthy of down-ballot consideration.

I won't even, for reasons of time, get into why I think it is ridiculous that short-stint relievers like Rodney and Johnson outscored valuable everyday players like Joe Mauer and Ben Zobrist, but suffice to say that WARi doesn't agree with these decisions either. According to WARi, some really egregious decisions were made, especially on the ends of ballots, when it came to the AL MVP.

NL MVP Award

Well, the NL MVP award was much less contentious, at least in terms of the miles and miles worth of stories written about the AL race as a point of comparison. The way that I saw it, there were five or six very credible contenders to the NL MVP award, led by Buster Posey, Giants wunderkind catcher. Well, Posey wound up winning the award in a landslide (garnering 27 of 32 first-place votes), and, believe it or not, WARi agrees with the choice. Buster was the third-best player in baseball according to WARi, and the best in the National League. His score of 7.3 was excellent, about 0.5 wins higher than the No. 2 player by WARi, Ryan Braun of the Brewers. And, wonder of wonders, Braun came in second in the BBWAA voting, appearing on every ballot (and in fourth-place or better) behind Posey.

At this point, I think it's very fair to give the BBWAA's NL MVP voters a hearty congratulations ... as the tops of their ballots seem to jive with statistical analysis, as well as the eye test. In WARi, the six top National League players were, in order: Posey (7.3), Braun (6.8), David Wright (6.6), Andrew McCutchen (6.3), Yadier Molina (6.2) and Chase Headley (6.2). In the BBWAA voting, these six were the top-six vote-getters, going in order of Posey, Braun, McCutchen, Molina, Headley and Wright. Basically, I see nothing at all to get worked up over here, unless we're talking about the voter who left Yadier Molina off his ballot. I see you, John Maffei. Jay Bruce (2.1 WARi) and Allen Craig (2.1 WARi) were better than Yadier Molina last season? I don't think so.

In fact, Bruce actually highlights a weird tidbit in this election. Three Cincinnati Reds (Bruce, Brandon Phillips and Aroldis Chapman) all garnered more MVP votes than former MVP Joey Votto. The thing is, though Chapman had an unwordly season as reliever, he only pitched in about 72 innings. Phillips had a WARi of 2.5, which is solid, and Bruce had his WARi of 2.1, which was pretty good too. But Joey Votto managed a WARi of 5.4 in 2012, and it was in only 475 plate appearances! Bruce and Phillips had full, 600+ PA seasons in which they could rack up WARi. Votto missed over a month with a serious knee injury, and still put up unwordly numbers. While plate appearances certainly count when determining a player's overall contribution, there's something to be said for a hitter who is so good in their limited action, that their final offensive contributions dwarf those of others.

Though I'm not as big of a fan of Jason Heyward as some Braves fans people I know, I don't think there was any question he was among the ten best position players in the National League this season. Despite finishing seventh-overall among qualified position players in WARi (5.7), Heyward was only named on three ballots (kudos to Clark Spencer, Ken Rosenthal, and Rob Biertempfel). Obviously, the talented young right fielder deserved better than a 29th-overall NL MVP finish.

And finally, challenging Raul Ibanez for the title of "who least deserved an MVP vote" is World Series champion Hunter Pence. Pence, who plays baseball like a malfunctioning cyborg, did not have one of his better seasons in 2012. Though we can usually rely on Pence to provide near-All-Star levels of production with above-average bat and good-enough glove and wheels, those wheels kind of fell off in 2012. Before he was traded to the Giants mid-season, things were not going great for Hunter. After finding a new home in the city by the bay, things got worse. In the end, despite playing 160 regular-season games and notching 688 plate appearances, Pence was only good for 0.9 WARi. Among qualified National League position players, this was the sixth-worst number. Only Jordan Pacheco, Rickie Weeks, Carlos Lee, Drew Stubbs and Chris Johnson performed worse while having enough PA to count for the batting title.

On a rate basis, Pence is awfully close to Ibanez in the race for worst hitter to get an MVP vote, and WARi even has these guys ranking lower than short-stint relievers like Rafael Soriano, Jim Johnson, and Aroldis Chapman. (Well, maybe not Soriano.)

MVP voting is a fantastic way to drive discussion and debate the merits of one player versus another, or one methodology versus another, so long as we can do it in a healthy, rational way without resorting to attacks. WARi gives us one more way to examine these differences, by taking a look at all of the WAR metrics making the rounds in the sabersphere.