The renegade BBWAA awardsby Pizza Cutter
October 07, 2008
In my day job, I get to decide who's being rational and who's not. It's a nice perk of being a psychologist. And this is the time of the year when some of the weirdest and most irrational baseball-related things are said and done. Managers begin making silly decisions based on who has the "hot hand." Fans begin good-luck rituals that border on the absurd. And the BBWAA passes out its annual awards. Let's just say it's a good thing that when I watch baseball, I'm (usually) off the clock.
Every year, the Baseball Writers Association of America votes on its annual award winners (the MVP, the Cy Young and the Rookie of the Year). And every year, the writers manage to bungle at least one of them. Last year, it was the baffling pick of Jimmy Rollins as NL MVP when it could be very easily argued that he wasn't even the Most Valuable Phillie.
But despite some of the weird picks that have been made, I do understand where the BBWAA members are coming from. They're a bunch of writers who are paid to write interesting stories about baseball players. Their training is to look for a good human interest and fan angle. They aren't statisticians by training. And as someone whose day job it is to listen to people's stories, I feel for them.
But with that said, as a psychologist, I'm paid to be a more objective voice in people's lives. If people are being irrational, it's one of my jobs to point that out. And some of the criteria used when talking about the BBWAA awards baffles the mind. Even laying aside my objections to the writers' constant harping on stats like RBI (any argument with a writer will end with "but he has more RBI!") and saves (ugh...), some of the other arguments for picking a player are just as silly. Consider that players are given points for being a "great clubhouse influence," "having a great attitude toward the game," and being "short." After all, if those are the criteria, just about anyone (including me!) could be the MVP.
I'll say that again, because this is how "value" is determined in the minds of the people who hold the greatest influence over the public's perception of baseball. You get extra-credit points for being short.
I decided to take matters into my own hands. I contacted the folks here at The Hardball Times, plus Beyond the Boxscore, The Book Blog, FanGraphs, Statistically Speaking and a couple other friends and asked them to vote on the standard BBWAA awards (MVP, CYA, ROY). (Yes, I voted.) I specifically left out any instructions on how to determine what is "valuable"; I just left a request that the voters not use words like "clutch" or "scrappy" or "batting average" in their reasoning.
Eighteen folks sent back ballots (although only 11 voted for Rookie of the Year). I asked for three places per ballot (three points for first, two for second, one for third). The complete results can be found here.
Congratulations to the following award winners.
Albert Pujols, 1b, St. Louis Cardinals
The voters were unanimous in their pick for the NL MVP, and well they should be. The gentleman they picked finished the year ranked either first or second (usually first) in VORP, WPA, WPA/LI, OBP, OPS and BRAA and even led the league in RZR at his position. What's sad is that he probably won't win the actual award... because his team did not make it to the playoffs.
I'm curious what else Albert Pujols would have to do to win the MVP award in the eyes of the voters. Should he have tried for a .562 on base percentage, rather than the ho-hum .462 OBP that he put up over the course of the year? Maybe he needed a few more extra base hits... oh wait, he led the league in those too. Maybe he needed to develop a 95 mph fastball and pitch every fifth day for the Cardinals?
(This might be a little too obscure a reference, but in 2008, Albert Pujols was the real-life incarnation of Paste from Jersey. If you know what I'm talking about, you win a cookie.)
Here's the thing about Albert Pujols' season: He did all of that with a bad elbow. But because he played on a team that didn't quite have enough to make it to the postseason, everything that Pujols did was... not valuable? I understand where the idea comes from. A baseball season has a binary outcome. Either you make the playoffs or you don't. The Cardinals didn't. But in essence, that leaves open the thought that we are punishing someone, in this case Pujols, for not hanging out with the right crowd. He wasn't valuable because he was on the wrong team.
Ryan Howard has been mentioned as a possible winner, along with Carlos Delgado. Then there are the wild cards of Manny Ramirez and C.C. Sabathia, who both had a good half-seasons in NL uniforms, and (to be fair) good seasons overall. Both were likely the difference between their respective teams making the playoffs and not.
Howard and Delgado again make me scratch my head. According to VORP, Howard was the third most valuable Phillie (from an offensive standpoint) behind Chase Utley (what does that guy have to do?) and Rollins. Delgado is the fourth most valuable Met behind David Wright, Jose Reyes and the other Carlos on the team, Carlos Beltran.
On the issue of whether Manny or C.C. should get votes in the NL, let's for a moment assume that they both had spent the whole season in the NL. Pujols still bests Manny in VORP, OBP, OPS, BRAA, WPA/LI and of course, the most important stat, stolen bases (seven to three). What about C.C.? In spite of my general aversion to voting for pitchers for the MVP (they have their award!), C.C. was out-VORPed by Pujols, as well as out WPA-ed and WPA/LI-ed. I need to stop turning acronyms into verbs.
The voters liked Lance Berkman in second place, then Utley in third. Berkman probably will get a few votes, but he committed the great sin of MVP voting by having his good half of the season be the first half. Utley seems doomed to a career of chronic under-appreciation.
(Tie) Joe Mauer, c, Minnesota Twins and Grady Sizemore, cf, Cleveland Indians
My grandmother will be happy. She got into baseball in the mid-'90s (the decade, not her age), when the Indians became a force. She's been hooked ever since and she loves Grady Sizemore... primarily because he's a "sharp lookin' fella." I've never asked her about Joe Mauer. Maybe I should.
The AL MVP ballot was a little more convoluted than the rest. Five players received at least one first place vote (Alex Rodiguez, Dustin Pedroia and Milton Bradley being the others) and 12 players overall were mentioned on ballots. Sounds like what probably will happen on the actual BBWAA voting.
Sizemore and Mauer each got six first-place votes, and I can't really argue with either pick. Justin Inaz's offense and defense combo ratings put Sizemore's contributions at the top of the league, while Mauer led the league in WPA. A-Rod led the league in VORP. Bradley led the league in OBP and OPS.
Oddly, though, the candidates who seem to be generating the biggest buzz for the BBWAA version of the award weren't the ones picked out by the Sabermetric bloggers. Sizemore played on a .500 team and didn't lead the league in home runs or RBI, which means that he is a bad player, so he's not getting much buzz. The players who are getting mentioned are Justin Morneau (really good season, wrong Twin), Carlos Quentin (his season came "out of nowhere" and he did put up good numbers, but...), Pedroia (again, a good season and he is short...) and K-Rod. Please don't get me started on K-Rod. Yes, it's great that he got all those saves. Any competent major league reliever could have had 50-something saves if used in the same way that K-Rod was used.
The AL this year just didn't have a guy who was head-and-shoulders above everyone else. The BBWAA ballot probably will reflect that as well. But somehow, I doubt that either Mauer or Sizemore will end up on top.
NL Cy Young
Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants
Lincecum garnered 14 first place votes, with Johan Santana coming in second with the other four top spots on the ballot. Cole Hamels and C.C. Sabathia tied for third place. All these gentlemen seem to be getting serious consideration, although I worry about how much play Sabathia will get. Santana led the NL in VORP and WPA/LI (with Lincecum second), while Lincecum led in WPA (with Johan in second) and FIP. Even pretending that Sabathia was a National Leaguer the whole year, he still finishes behind both Santana and Lincecum in terms of stats.
Yes, C.C.'s a great story line. The Brewers made a gutsy trade to get him. He was phenomenally good down the stretch, single-handedly lifted Milwaukee into its first postseason since I was in pre-school (and they were in the American League) and had the habit of throwing magnificent complete games, including his disputed no-/one-hitter. His total numbers are a little tainted by the fact that his time in Cleveland early in the season was a little rocky.
But what I wish BBWAA members would realize is that this isn't the Oscars. If they want to create an award for "Best Story," that's fine. But in terms of a pitcher helping his team win, C.C. just wasn't the best pitcher in the National League this year. Top five? Yes. He'll get votes, though, because his team went to the playoffs, and Lincecum's Giants didn't come close. Plus, the only story that writers are allowed to tell about the Giants is about that one guy who they think might have taken steroids.
Then there's the issue of Brandon Webb and his 22 wins. I don't deny that the man had a very good season on the mound, but is it really that hard to explain why wins aren't a good barometer of performance? Really?
AL Cy Young
Cliff Lee, Cleveland Indians
Maybe the voters all knew my Indians-philic leanings and voted to make me happy. Cliff Lee does deserve the nod, although I am actually most impressed by what I saw in second place. Lee garnered 13 first-place votes, while Roy Halladay got five. When I filled out my ballot a few weeks ago, I said that if justice (or at least Terry Pendleton) is served, Halladay will get some first-place votes. To the folks who voted on this award, I salute you. You have correctly perceived how close a race this actually was.
The media have all but engraved the award for Lee already. I did vote for Lee, but as I did, I wished I could give Halladay a first-and-a-half place vote. Halladay had a season almost as good as Lee's, but he didn't win 20 games and did not spend time at Triple-A last year like Lee did. I don't mind if Halladay doesn't win this season. I do mind that he gets no recognition for his work.
And I'd like to point out to the credit of all the voters involved that Francisco Rodriguez did not garner even a single third-place vote. Mariano Rivera, on the other hand, did get a couple of votes (can't blame people there).
It will cause me great pains if people who cover baseball for a living and follow it every day don't understand why Francisco Rodriguez is not the best pitcher in the AL this year. Top 20? Sure. Good at getting three outs before the other team ties it up or takes the lead? Absolutely. But do they not understand that the Angels were built for manufacturing a lot of save situations and that K-Rod had 69 save opportunities? Only one other reliever had as many as 50 save opportunities in 2008. (Jose Valverde of the Astros had 51.) Writers, if you are out there, do you see where I'm going with this?
Rookies of the Year
Geovany Soto, c, Chicago Cubs and Evan Longoria, 3b, Tampa Bay Rays
These were both unanimous choices on the part of the Saber-voters, and my guess is that they'll likely be the same in real life. Both were far and away better than anyone else in their leagues, so I can't complain too much here. Although, I suppose given the history of some players who have won the award (paging Pat Listach), maybe they don't want the award. In the AL, the Saber-voters had Mike Aviles second and Alexi Ramirez third, while in the NL, Joey Votto and Jair Jurjens rounded out the top three. Sounds about right.
So what will actually happen?
The voting already has taken place, so it's just a matter of when the BBWAA releases the results. The thing that scares me is that the writers probably will drop the ball on the NL MVP, and probably will pick one of the lesser candidates for AL MVP (not that there's a clear winner there). The Cy Young voting probably will produce the right winner in the AL with Lee and either Lincecum or Santana in the NL, but I have nightmares about the awards being swept out by Webb and Rodriguez.
Awards season is always a good case study on how far apart are the ways that the writers view baseball and the Sabermetric folk view baseball. A good story is not the same thing as a good player. But when the BBWAA inevitably messes up one of the awards, you can come back to this article and think "if the BBWAA were run by folks who were a little more Saber-savvy, here's what it would have looked like." Through the winter, it will keep you sane.
References and Resources
I owe a big debt of gratitude to THT's Dave Studenmund and Statistically Speaking's Eric Seidman for their help in putting this project together. Thanks to Dave for asking me to guest here on THT.
Pizza Cutter has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, and uses all that education not to rid the world of depression and anxiety, but to study baseball. His work has appeared at Statistically Speaking.