How Not To Use Statistics: Why David Ortiz Shouldn’t Be MVP

Dear Voter:

There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.

The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931:

1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.
2. Number of games played.
3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.
4. Former winners are eligible.
5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

You are also urged to give serious consideration to all your selections, from one to 10. A 10th-place vote can influence the outcome of an election. You must fill in all 10 places on your ballot.

Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, and that includes pitchers and designated hitters.

Only regular-season performances are to be taken into consideration.

Every year, the baseball writers who have earned the privilege of selecting the annual MLB award winners receive the above letter in the mail, along with their official Most Valuable Player ballot. There are rules, but the first sentence of the letter pretty much gives the writer carte blanche to vote for whomever he wants for whatever reason he wants.

So, while I’m pretty sure that Alex Rodriguez is the American League MVP, I can’t simply post his statistics and say that the case is closed, because it’s not just based on stats. If someone wants to argue that Jason Varitek should be the MVP because of all the intangible things he does for the Red Sox, it’s not going against the facts, and the argument deserves some consideration from MVP voters. It’s not a very good argument—essentially boiling down to “I think Jason Varitek is the MVP because I think Jason Varitek is the MVP,” but it’s still a legitimate one.

Yesterday, Boston Herald writer Tony Massarotti didn’t make a legitimate argument. Arguing in favor of David Ortiz, Massarotti railed against the unfairness of MVP voters ignoring designated hitters in choosing the MVP.

True, the DH should be considered for the MVP—it’s right there in the letter the voters get in the mail. But Massarotti totally misses the point when he argues that poor defensive players have received MVPs when they hit well and great defensive players have only won the MVP when they hit well. It’s not about defense; it’s about offense.

A player’s offensive value isn’t the number of runs he creates for his team, because some of those runs would have been created if the player were never there. A lineup of the nine worst major league hitters wouldn’t go scoreless over 162 games. They wouldn’t score many runs, and they certainly wouldn’t win many games, but they’d score some runs. The offensive value of a player is not how many runs he creates over zero; it’s how many more runs he creates than the player who would have played in his stead would have, had he had the opportunity. It’s called “replacement level.”

The replacement level is different at every position. The harder the position is to field, the lower the replacement level is, because the difficulty of the position eliminates many good hitters who aren’t skilled enough to play that spot on the field. The “Defensive Spectrum,” invented by Bill James, orders the eight non-pitcher positions on the field from easiest to hardest:

1B – LF – RF – 3B – CF – 2B – SS – C

If DH was to be placed on the spectrum, it would be all the way to the left, because DH requires absolutely zero defensive skill. You don’t need to be a very good fielder to play DH; you don’t even need to a very bad one. Babe Ruth has the defensive skill to play DH, and he’s dead. Anyone on the planet can play DH, which opens it up to every single hitter, even the ones who don’t have the skill to play first base.

So if you’re playing DH, your team’s alternative to you is going to be a better hitter than it would be if you were playing third base. It certainly couldn’t be worse—because the guy who can play third base can play DH too.

For example, if Ortiz were to have his kneecaps broken in an unfortunate accident, the Red Sox would likely move Manny Ramirez to DH and either play Gabe Kapler in left or move Kevin Millar out there, giving more playing time to John Olerud and Robert Petagine. Obviously, you’ll miss Ortiz, but those are hitters you can live with.

If Rodriguez were to be abducted by space pirates, however, the Yankees would replace him with I guess Felix Escalona. They don’t exactly have many options, and if you open up all the world of backups to the Red Sox and Yankees, I guarantee Boston would fill Ortiz’s spot better than the Yankees could. Even if you gave the Yankees Billy Beane to work with.

Because of their replacement levels of their positions, everything Alex Rodriguez does with his bat is more valuable to the Yankees than it would be to the Red Sox if David Ortiz did the exact same thing. The specific event itself is of equal value, but games are played with a full lineup, not just one player, and Rodriguez doing what he does while playing third base helps the Yankees have a better offense than Ortiz helps the Red Sox while playing DH.

A-Rod’s defense is another factor entirely. Ortiz, not playing defense, neither gains nor loses anything for the team with his glove. Rodriguez, on the other hand, is an excellent defensive player, and that only increases his advantage over Ortiz.

Massarotti points out that several poor defensive players have won MVPs in the last 20 years (although he misidentifies a couple of players as being poor defensively). There’s no reason why a poor defensive player shouldn’t win the MVP—if his offense is great enough to balance out his defensive shortcomings. Again, how playing DH affects Ortiz’s defensive value is not the issue here—how it affects his offensive value is. And Massarotti’s comment about Barry Bonds winning the MVP despite his defense slipping is comical. When Ortiz posts a 1.400 on-base plus slugging (OPS), then we’ll make some comparisons to Bonds.

Massarotti also makes the point that by only giving MVPs to great defensive players when they have great offensive seasons is hypocritical. But it’s not. You don’t win the MVP on the basis of your offense or defense; you win it based on the combination of the two, and even the greatest defensive player is incapable of saving his team enough runs to make him the league’s most valuable player based solely on his glove work. There just aren’t enough opportunities.

Ultimately, Massarotti tries to argue that Ortiz is only being ignored for the MVP vote because he’s a DH. That may well be true, but the ultimate fact is that he shouldn’t win the MVP because he’s not, statistically at least, the league’s most valuable player. Alex Rodriguez has gotten on base more often than Ortiz and hit for just as much power—while playing in a less hitter-friendly park than Ortiz and at a position where his offense is more valuable than Ortiz’s. Without adjustments, A-Rod is more valuable that Ortiz. With them, it’s not even remotely close.

Massarotti doesn’t see it that way. First of all, he’s relying on unadjusted Triple Crown stats to weigh their offensive contributions, and Ortiz is tied with A-Rod for homers and leads him in RBIs. Massarotti sees A-Rod’s only real advantage as his defense, and he tries to negate that advantage by quoting Ortiz’s clutch numbers.

Ortiz has, in fact, been one of the most clutch players in baseball this season, posting a 1.051 OPS with runners in scoring position and a 1.161 OPS in close and late situations. Rodriguez’s RISP numbers are much worse—just a .842 OPS, but his close and late numbers, while not as good as Ortiz’s, are still excellent: 1.006.

All this is well and good, and Ortiz’s clutch numbers do change the value of his raw stats—they came in higher leverage spots and were thus worth more. But they are not the entire value of Ortiz’s stats. A run scored in the first inning counts just as much on the scoreboard as one scored in the ninth, and the more you score early, the less often you need to score in the ninth. These non-clutch situations are not as sexy as the clutch ones, but they still count, and they encompass two-thirds of a player’s plate appearances.

In rate stats, A-Rod has a massive advantage over Ortiz in non-clutch situations: 1.102 OPS to .994 without RISP, 1.024 to .972 in non-C&L situations. These situations include games that are tied or close early, home runs and doubles with runners on first base, and of course “tack-on” runs that end up deciding a game. If these numbers were close, Ortiz’s clutch numbers would give him an offensive advantage large enough to overcome his disadvantages of park and position (as well as A-Rod’s defensive advantage). They’re not close, and A-Rod still has the edge.

Massarotti tries to further denigrate A-Rod’s value by implying the Yankees would be better off with Hideki Matsui, Gary Sheffield or Derek Jeter at the plate in clutch situations. This may be true of Matsui, who has been better than A-Rod both with RISP and close and late situations, but not of Sheffield, who has been dominant (1.186 OPS) with RISP but anemic (.657) in close and late spots, and Jeter, who has just been plain bad in both of them (.736 RISP, .728 close and late). The fact is that A-Rod is the best hitter in the American League this season, and the Yankees could do little better than having him up in a tight spot.

David Ortiz shouldn’t win the MVP this season, not because he’s a DH, but because he’s not the most valuable player in the league. Alex Rodriguez has better offensive numbers than Ortiz, and that alone is enough to earn him the award. Were Ortiz a shortstop or a centerfielder, he’d be the worthy MVP, but playing everyday at first base, even playing excellent defense there, wouldn’t be enough. It’s not discrimination, and it’s not unfair. It’s just the way it is.

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