10 August 2012

More Post Modern Baseball: The MVP Award

The following is part of an email exchange from a conversation between myself and an employee at a major sports news organization.  He has been surprisingly receptive to my current method of wasting my academic time, still, trying to spread post-structural analysis to professional baseball is an uphill battle at best:

You regularly make the argument that voters should not consider making the playoffs as part of their MVP voting (the Ellsbury example from last year seems to be the most common case cited).  I disagree.  The award is for most valuable player, not "Best Statistical Player".  I will not argue that advanced statistics (WAR etc.) do not matter, they do!, and have added a lot to my enjoyment of following baseball, both fantasy and real.  Also, the movement towards modernism in professional baseball front offices is long overdue.  Why not analyze the players you are spending millions on with all the tools available to you?

The other side of this coin, is that statistics cannot capture all of what matters, in baseball or elsewhere.  If the MVP award was the "best player" award then I would agree with your argument that the voters should not consider the record of the team that the player is on.  It is because of how I perceive "valuable" in MVP that my opinion differs from yours.  A player having a great year on a team that is in contention is more "valuable" to that team than a great year on a team that is not contending. 

On Thursday's show you made that point that it doesn't matter if Houston loses 95 or 120 games this year.  Flipping this around, and taking just one statistic as an example:  A player having a great individual season resulting in a bad team going from 60 to 70 wins (10 WAR) is, in my opinion, less "valuable" towards that player's organization than a player that finishes with a WAR of 7 on a team that wins their division by 2 games. Value in terms of "most valuable player" is not independent of the record of the team.  I would argue that the closer as team is to contending the more "value" can be added by strong performance.  Also a great year on a great team means less than to a team that is just barely contending.  A player having a WAR of 4 in the remaining games of the Yankees is less valuable than the same performance on the White Sox. I know this is not quantifiable, but neither is winning a baseball game in the broad sense. 

I understand why you make the argument that finishing in the playoffs should not matter for an MVP award, as far too many of the people who do vote for MVP are statistically ignorant "old time" baseball guys who just look at "good player on good team, therefore, MVP. However, you are in danger of taking this argument too far in the opposite direction. Statistics, for all their use in analysis of the game we love, cannot fully capture the value of a player to their team.  "Value" and "Most Valuable" are complex and overdetermined concepts that cannot be considered independent of the ultimate goal of any professional sports franchise, winning, and all the revenue that comes with it.  Until the MVP award is changed to "Best Statistical Player", it is not appropriate to ignore the situation of the player's team when handing it out.