I regret to inform you that the MVP is at it again. For an award that doesn’t actually matter vis-à-vis actual winning results in the sport, people talk about the award like it has some bearing on our enjoyment of it. Yet here I am, discussing it, writing about it, and re-litigating an already-tired discussion.
Not to say that any year has slam-dunk winners, but at least over the past few seasons, winners had a general consensus in the popular imagination: Jose Altuve with his World Series-winning Astros; Bryce Harper’s Ted Williams-like 2015; Giancarlo Stanton’s 59 home runs; Mike Trout being Mike Trout; and Clayton Kershaw ‘s 1.77 ERA.
The age-old question we circle back to in times of MVP ambiguity is always: how much does numerical and aesthetic value matter in determining a winner? How much should their teams’ standing determine a winner? Should Triple Crown winners be guaranteed an MVP?
This year we might have all three. Currently, JD Martinez is second in batting average, second in home runs, and first in RBIs in the American League. He’s trailing Khris Davis by a home run, and Mookie Betts by a few points in batting average. If he were to finish first in all three, which is unlikely, should he be “guaranteed” an MVP?
The idea that it is some automatic victory goes back to the Miguel Cabrera/Trout debate of 2012, where Cabrera’s Triple Crown bested Trout’s WAR for the award, because the former is cooler. And you know what... I’m fine with that if you’re just making the argument that it’s aesthetically more pleasing as a viewer. Value could mean value to a team, value as in runs added during high leverage, or it could mean value to a viewer. Cabrera was a good win worse defensively, but played more games, and he was still third in fWAR (Robinson Cano could have been the real second-place snub).
This year, it gets much trickier. Martinez’s defense is significantly worse than Cabrera’s, mostly because he has played just 50 games in the outfield, to the tune of -5 DRS in just that time. It gets even hairier when you’re comparing him to a player on his own team. Even if Martinez is the better hitter, Betts’ better defense has the same value in as far as it contributes to the same club, not to mention, y’know, he still has a higher wRC+.
Let’s talk about defense for a second. While the Trout/Cabrera defensive argument was easily arguable, Trout/Betts, for example is a little harder. FanGraphs says they’re separated by about seven or so runs in defensive value. But UZR is less valuable today than it was in 2012 by virtue of greater shifting, so we’re relying on ever-smaller samples. So if we were to look at Statcast Outs Above Average, it tells us a different story.
As of now, Betts sits at 10 OOA, and Trout is at 7 (Martinez is at -7, for what that’s worth). But what does that mean in terms of run value? To estimate this, I thought about the proportion of hits in 2018 along with their linear weight run value. So, the average hit this year was worth .9 runs. You can’t expect that that same proportion of home runs would be “robbed” defensively, of course, so you have to adjust that downward a bit, and assume say, that 75% of robbed hits are singles, 20% are doubles, and 5% are triples. That would reduce the run value to about .8, which sounds about right.
That mean that only about 2.4 runs separate Trout and Betts defensively, and Trout has a slight edge offensively. If your tiebreaker is how much a player helped their playoff contender, well then with that heuristic would follow Betts.
The National League is a whole different can of worms. You have a crowded field of Matt Carpenter, who has the highest fWAR; Javier Báez, with 30 home runs, 100 RBIs, and other dynamic “intangible” abilities; Christian Yelich, who has the same value claim as other candidate Lorenzo Cain, who is nearly as valuable until you factor in his superior defense.
By OOA Cain is the fifth-most value outfielder, worth about 11 runs by our estimate, and Yelich, who is rated as a -8 defensive runs via UZR, is worth about 2.4 runs by Statcast, a ten-run difference that makes him just as valuable as Carpenter, if not more so. And with Báez, it’s very much aesthetic. With just a .326 OBP, voters will likely bear weight on his dynamic nature, defense, tagging ability, and base running. Yet all of them play for contending teams, so there are no tiebreakers here: all of them carry high leverage playoff odds weight. In this case, aesthetics may be the only case.
I’m not here to settle the debate; no one is going to do that. The only model I would follow is to pick a consistent one. Because as much as we claim that, for example, the Triple Crown-MVP-guarantee is some tried and true method, it didn’t stop voters from snubbing Ted Williams in 1947. These truisms are never as true as we think they are.