Value menu

It is soon time to begin the debates (especially if your rooting interests are currently in “wait ’til next year” mode) about the offseason hardware department: the MVP and Cy Young awards. I am not going to get into specific candidates here but rather deal with criteria that I feel should be given more play in voting than might otherwise be considered.

To many, it comes down to things like WARP1, WARP3, VORP (‘scuse me … that three-bean chili was potent—don’t a lot of saber measures sound like flatulence?) *BRAA…FRAR…FRAA…VORP!* (I always said THT was a gas). Statistically speaking, it does give a pretty good picture about which player had the most productive season, well … statistically.

Of course, the MVP/Cy Young isn’t all about the numbers, but other factors related to them do come into play.

Obviously, I have some “out there” thoughts on the subject that I am going to bring “in here”—the thing is … I guess the numbers, or certain numbers mean things to me that might not mean much to others. Regardless, when folks ask me about whom I think is deserving I don’t use bottom line sabermetric or mainstream numbers as the final authority.

To begin with, last year, I didn’t think Jimmy Rollins was a poor NL MVP selection because of certain factors I feel are important.

This is going to come across as a bit of stream-of-consciousness. However, to folks who regularly sacrifice precious minutes of their lives perusing my synaptic flatulence (a recurring theme it seems), this will be business as usual.

Using Rollins as a template: The awards are about “value,” and for a player having a season that is worthy of consideration I do think certain things trump somewhat superior stats. Probably the biggest is simple playing time; a player who’s out there every day (or close to it) to me has more value than one with better numbers who has missed a significant number of games. Rollins didn’t miss a game last season, meaning his team wasn’t obligated to play an inferior replacement at his position. To me, that made him more valuable to the Phillies than Chase Utley, who played in just 132 games. It matters little how the replacement played.

Further, when I look at a player’s adjusted numbers I examine what kind of season he had compared to his usual level of performance. For example, Rollins’ 2007 118 OPS+ (I’m using OPS+ as an example of a stat that may be used—not as the main criterion of MVP consideration) was significantly higher than his career mark of 98. If another player is under consideration at the same position with somewhat better totals (say, an OPS+ of 122) but below his career norms (suppose he has a career OPS+ of 130), I would look more favorably at Rollins’ totals. I have difficulty saying a player who underperformed his career norms had more value to his club than a player who exceeded his usual level.

Yes, 122 is better than 118. but the team with the shortstop who posted the 122 OPS+ expected more of its player, whereas Rollins delivered far more than what was expected of him. Therefore, his 118 OPS+ provided more value than what was expected going into the season.

To use a fun example: Suppose this season Toronto Blue Jays shortstop John McDonald batted .279/.342/.462 (108 OPS+) over 150 games, had 25 homers, 90 RBI and 20 stolen bases and provided his usual highlight-reel defense and the Jays were in the playoff hunt right to the end of the season.

Did he have the league’s best numbers? No.

Did he have the best numbers for a shortstop? No.

Did his value to the team far exceed expectations? Yes.

Was that extra value key to the team’s success? Yes.

To me, that would make him among the league’s most valuable players to his team (which is what the MVP is about). In a sense, there has to be a bit of a Keltner List aspect to deciding the MVP in that it helps to ask certain questions to establish the value behind the numbers.

To use a counter example, let’s look at Alex Rodriguez—do you think he’ll receive many MVP votes this year? A-Rod is .309/.395/.579; 29 HR 85 RBI 155 OPS+ … by far, the best third baseman in the league and the best offensive player on the team. Interestingly, his OPS+ this season is comfortably above his career total (148). Let’s ask the same questions we asked of our hypothetical Johnny Mac:

Did he have the league’s best numbers? No, but his OPS+ is second best in the AL and he has played more games than the league leader.

Did he have the best numbers for a third baseman? Yes.

Did his value to the team far exceed expectations? No. He scored 143 runs, hit 54 homers and had 156 RBI with an OPS+ of 177 last year. I think most expected better numbers than he produced this season.

Was that extra value key to the team’s success? No. The Yankees might miss the postseason for the first time since the strike.

Rodriguez is having an MVP-type season but I think you’d find most will consider 2008 to be a disappointment (I wish I could be disappointed like this by a Blue Jay this season). Yes, I am aware of his .255/.398/.409 and five homers with runners in scoring position, against .346/.411/.707 with 20 HR with bases empty. Heck, he’d still be among the better clutch bats on the Jays this year … how sad is that?

Now you get some kind of idea why I don’t simply look at the adjusted numbers when assessing my MVP. I’m not saying I would necessarily award McDonald the MVP. I am saying what I perceive the “V” in MVP to mean.

Moving on…

The Cy Young is a little more straightforward. Like many, I realize the BBWAA is hung up on won-loss records even though it is a poor assessment of a pitcher’s worth. Leaving aside the obvious shortcoming of other pitching stats, one number I use when assessing starters is innings pitched. To me, the best starting pitcher is the one who delivers the most quality innings. Thankfully, the voters are aware of the importance of this, although it doesn’t receive the weight it deserves.

(For the record, this isn’t just because of Roy Halladay vs. Cliff Lee … as of this writing, Lee gets my vote by a whisker but September will decide it. Halladay is a career 2.40 ERA pitcher in the season’s final month while Lee is over four.)

As to relief pitchers: Saves are generally the sexiest stat, but innings pitched and appearances should receive more weight. People are talking about Francisco Rodriguez being a contender—he may finish with 60 saves—but when you look at sheer baserunner/run prevention, factoring in workload, F-Rod isn’t even the best relief pitcher in the AL this year. To use but one example:

Pitcher      G    IP    H   BB   SO   ERA  WHIP
Rodriguez   64   58.1   42  29   67  2.47 1.217
Scott Downs 59   63.2   45  21   54  1.27 1.037

I’m not saying that this makes Downs a Cy Young candidate. What I am saying is that I have a difficult time saying that Rodriguez is a bona fide contender for the award.

I also look closely at the type of saves accumulated: Are there a lot of one-plus inning type? How narrow were the leads they were protecting? Did they start with men on base? Did they come into the game in high-leverage but not necessarily traditional “save situations?” As in the case of starters, it comes down to the number of quality innings pitched, but when dealing with firemen, the number of quality high-leverage innings pitched.

So, when you read an article about my choices for the league’s top prize and decide that I have again taken leave of my senses, at least you know the method to my madness … or rather the madness behind the method.

Look on the bright side: At least I don’t use RBI as the deciding metric.

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