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Defining what it really means to be Most Valuable

And, yes, it includes more than just WAR.

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

As the Major League Baseball season begins its final quarter, it’s time to start talking about those deserving of season-long accolades. None are more important than the Most Valuable Player award, given to the one player in each league who made all the difference for their team. How “the difference” is defined is oftentimes quite subjective among the voters — they like to remind us that they are not voting for the Best Player award, but the Most Valuable Player award.

So, here I am, ready to define what it means to be most valuable. It’s time to see which players have made the difference that the voters are looking for. I want to get the pulse on where the MVP races stand today.

The question is — what defines valuable?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines valuable four different ways:

  1. having monetary value
  2. worth a good price
  3. having desirable or esteemed characteristics or qualities
  4. of great use or service

For the purposes of professional baseball players, we’re probably looking at a combination of the latter two definitions. We want players with desirable or esteemed characteristics — in this case, baseball skill — but we also want players that have provided a “great use or service” to their own teams.

As a result, we want the players who have not just been the best, but also have been irreplaceable to their specific clubs.

This exercise becomes tricky when we apply a quantitative spin. It’s not hard to see that Mike Trout or Mookie Betts have been good this year, but using data and math to back up which one is more deserving of the American League hardware is tougher. Jose Ramirez, too, adds an extra dimension to the AL’s race; he should not be overlooked.

WAR would be a simple solution to the problem of determining value. It seems like a one-number, all-encompassing statistic that tells you exactly what you are looking for: which players have been worth the most wins.

And, while that is exactly what WAR tells you, it’s context-neutral. A two-run home run in the bottom of the eighth inning with your team down by one is treated exactly the same as a two-run home run in the third inning with your team up six runs. It doesn’t tell you, then, which player has been a greater “use or service” to his specific ball club.

Also, WAR itself isn’t perfect. It’s no secret defensive metrics still lag well behind their offensive counterparts, and depending on the defensive information used, a player’s WAR can fluctuate wildly depending on the calculation. For me, that’s not enough to avoid using it altogether. WAR, while not perfect, does a decent job of putting every individual player’s total contributions into one number that makes sense: wins. That’s why it must be taken into account. It just shouldn’t be the only factor by any means.

But WAR’s issues do create to a greater conversation regarding value. While the stat seems to cover Webster’s third definition of the word, as it describe the skill of each individual player, it leaves out the fourth definition, or what players provide the greatest “use or service” to their specific team.

That is why it’s time to put greater weight into Win Probability Added, or WPA, for MVP discussions. I’m not the first to bring WPA into MVP discussions, but I want to apply it to these races specifically.

WPA is quite simple. Let’s say that Trout is at the plate in the bottom of the ninth, with two outs and a runner on first. The Angels are down by a run, and their current win probability sits at, say, three percent. Then Trout homers, and the Angels win for a win probability of 100 percent. Trout’s WPA for that specific play would be +0.97, as he increased the Angels’ win probability by 97 percentage points.

WPA is an additive measure over the course of the season, so it is not predicative. Having a good WPA in one month or one year does not necessarily mean that will continue going forward. Just as it’s hard to prove that a player is “clutch,” it’s hard to prove that a player is “good” at producing WPA. They just do. A 1.00 WPA would mean that the player has produced an entire win of win probability, but it is important to remember that these are wins above the MLB average, not a replacement level player.

The only other drawback from WPA is that players can accumulate more WPA from having more opportunities in high leverage or impact situations. Some players just have a weird tendency of coming up with the bases loaded more than others, giving them more opportunities to accumulate more WPA.

So, in order to incorporate Webster’s third and fourth definitions into my analysis, I looked at both WAR and WPA to determine which players are leading their respecting MVP races.

American League

The American League’s race is very interesting. J.D. Martinez leads the Junior Circuit in WPA, with 5.30, which is actually greater than his 5.2 fWAR. At least for me, that’s not enough to put Martinez in my top three candidates. I look at WAR as the most important factor to consider, with WPA close behind.

Ramirez, Betts and Trout are the fWAR leaders in the AL with 8.3, 7.9 and 7.6, respectively. Betts, however, surpasses both Ramirez and Trout in WPA by a significant margin. His 4.67 WPA trails on Martinez for the league lead. But, as I mentioned above, this could be because Betts has had more opportunities to produce high WPA marks than Ramirez or Trout. I can’t overlook the fact that four of the top ten players in baseball in WPA are all on the Red Sox.

If we try to take leverage out of this, effectively making WPA context-neutral, using a stat called WPA/LI, then we see the real story. Betts has produced 4.88 context-neutral wins, third in the league behind Ramirez (5.73) and Trout (5.66). So, it’s quite likely that Betts has only added more win probability because of the fact that he’s on a better team that puts more runners on base and creates higher leverage situations.

What I can’t get over, then, is this: Betts still produces in those situations. I don’t think he deserves to get dinged for playing on a better team than Ramirez or Trout. If anything, Betts is one of the main reasons as to why the Red Sox are the best team in baseball this year. That’s why, at least for me, Betts is the front runner for the AL MVP as of today.

Leader: Mookie Betts, Boston Red Sox

National League

The National League’s MVP race is more complicated. While the AL can’t really go wrong by picking one of the three in Betts, Ramirez or Trout, the National League hasn’t really seen a position player step up and be The Man for his specific team. Because of this, more than a few people have entertained the idea of having a pitcher win MVP. Whether that’d be Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom or even Aaron Nola, that’s still up for debate.

For now, though, I am still assuming that a position player wins the award. Cardinals infielder Matt Carpenter has been on a tear recently, pushing him up the fWAR leaderboards quite quickly. On May 15th, Carpenter was slashing .140/.286/.272 (59 wRC+) with just three homers in his first 140 plate appearance sample. Since, Carpenter has hit .315/.423/.685 (189 wRC+) with 30 homers in 378 plate appearances. With 4.9 fWAR, he’s now tied with Nolan Arenado for second in the NL in the metric.

In my mind, the NL also has a three-man race, but all three players are way worse than any of the AL’s candidates. It’s between Carpenter, Arenado and Freddie Freeman, who is tops in the league in fWAR with 5.0. WPA tells a different story, though, as Carpenter (3.53) has a significant lead over both Arenado (2.74) and Freeman (2.73). Like in the American League, context-neutral wins tell a slightly different story, as Freeman (3.87) has a razor-thin lead over Carpenter (3.63) in that department. Arenado is fourth.

In the end, I’m willing to overlook Carpenter’s poor first six weeks and name him the leader in the NL race. Though he doesn’t lead the league in fWAR, I think there is a solid chance that he’ll be the NL’s fWAR leader by the end of the season, too. That would make him the surefire candidate assuming the league does not go in the pitcher direction.

Leader: Matt Carpenter, St. Louis Cardinals

Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.