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Yankee Panky: VORP for MVP

The word “value” has numerous definitions and interpretations. The noun form, per dictionary.com, has 15 listed meanings. The first several apply to some kind of monetary distinction.

But if we’re looking at value in terms of a baseball player and a certain annual regular season award that’s handed out in November, we need to looking at the adjective, or maybe even the verb. The best definition of the three verb lines that apply here: “to consider with respect to worth, excellence, usefulness, or importance.”

Because of the way the MVP vote is constructed, the discussion surrounding the debate comes down to a subjective analysis of who should be considered the most worthy, excellent, useful, and/or important player in the league. The miracle of modern technology has made taken the level of debate to new heights. Please to enjoy, for example, Tyler Kepner’s tweet on August 14, moments after Mark Teixeira’s tiebreaking home run at Safeco Field:

“By the way, this is probably obvious by now, but Teixeira’s the AL MVP. ‘No question,’ as Joe Torre would say.”

The statements themselves seemed innocuous. They were an impulse reaction to a great moment among many that Tex, ye of the 8-year, $180 million contract, has provided in Year 1 of the megadeal. That was until you followed the thread to catch the jibes about Tex’s negative Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and the running joke it’s become, and scoured the Net to read criticisms from Rob Neyer, Joe Posnanski, and my esteemed former colleague Steven Goldman – although Goldman’s retort wasn’t immediately directed at Kepner.

The criticisms of Kepner, save for broader strokes from Goldman and JoePos in SI, read like they traded in the horses that were driving the Joe Mauer Bandwagon for rocket fuel.

Put bluntly, it was an all-out Internet war with Neyer wielding a sabermetric sword (yes, pun intended), Pos casting spells with his wizarding words, and Kepner responding with a gun that instead of bullets, fired the stick with the flag that reads, “BANG!”

From Neyer:

What inspired this particular post? An essentially meaningless home run, hit well after midnight (back in New York). I mean, I’m sorry, but the Yankees aren’t exactly in the middle of a pennant race anymore. They’ve got a huge lead over the second-place Red Sox. And if the Red Sox should somehow mount a late charge, the Yankees have a huger lead over the Rangers for that other postseason berth. … Joe Mauer currently leads the American League in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. I don’t suppose anyone’s forgotten this yet, but he’s a catcher. Teixeira’s a first baseman. Are we really supposed to go for a power-hitting first baseman again, even when there’s a better-hitting catcher playing for a competitive team?” Neyer went on to say that he’s worried the writers are conspiring to rob Mauer of what should be a third MVP award for him.

He continued his fact-based rant 48 hours later, saying, “You know what? Let’s just be honest. The argument for Teixeira is an argument for doing it the way it’s always been done. Teixeira is just another big RBI guy on a team with a great record. If he were a Twin and Mauer were a Yankee, Teixeira would hardly be an afterthought. Some of you are OK with that. I’m not.”

Six days later, Neyer felt compelled to write about convincing Pete Abe on Super Joe. The goal, apparently, is to not only campaign for Mauer for MVP, but to have him win unanimously.

OK … now to Mr. Pos:

Look, could you make a case for Mark Teixeira over Joe Mauer? Well, you could make a case for anything. You could say that Mauer missed the first month of the season — so Teixeira has about 120 more plate appearances. You could say that the Yankees are going to the playoffs and the Twins are not unless they make a late season rush that looks more and more unlikely. But it sure seems to me that we need to start jabbing holes in this Teixeira MVP thing before it becomes a fait accompli.

Joe Mauer is having a much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much, much better season than Mark Teixeira. I’m not sure I put enough muches in there. Mauer is on pace to win his THIRD batting title as a catcher — and no other American League catcher has ever won even one. He leads the league in on-base percentage AND slugging percentage, the two most important stats going, and the only catcher to ever do that in baseball history was … oh, wait, nobody. He throws out base runners and hits .395 with runners in scoring position (hits .457 with runners in scoring position and two outs) and even runs the bases well.

And three days later, JoePos had this to offer: “Not to slam this MVP thing again, but we do realize that even forgetting all those kooky ‘advanced stats’ that seem to annoy people, even with Mauer missing a month of the season with injury — Mauer has now scored as many runs at Teixeira and he’s only 13 RBIs behind, and his batting average is 95 points higher. We do realize that the last seven days, while the Twins have been in desperate need of victories (and not getting many), Mauer is hitting .552 with three home runs and a .931 slugging percentage. And he’s probably the Gold Glove catcher.”

And finally, Goldman:

Unless Teixeira leads the league in home runs by a significant margin, or Mauer cools dramatically, it’s hard to see him emerging from the pack when his season is unremarkable by the standards of his position. Of the last 60 awards (both leagues), first basemen won only 11 times. No first baseman won without hitting .300 (I am treating the 1979 Keith Hernandez/Willie Stargell split like an honorary Academy Award for Pops). All but one, Mo Vaughn in 1995, were well over the .300 mark. An average of those 11 seasons comes to roughly .333/.428/.624, and many of them, like Don Mattingly and Keith Hernandez, both included in the 11, were fine defenders as well. Teixeira’s not having that kind of season.

Some harsh words in there. Kepner, following Posnanski’s initial commentary, issued a rebuttal at Bats, noting that “obvious” was a poor choice of words in his Tweet. In a way, he invited the storm and I thought he handled himself admirably among some respected, admired and talented industry heavyweights. I thought the degree to which he was made to be the piñata for “traditional baseball opinions” was a bit extreme. He’s entitled to his opinion, and opinions are subjective, just like the MVP vote.

As much as I like and respect Kepner, and as much as a fan of Mark Teixeira as I am, going back to seeing him play at Georgia Tech 10 years ago, I have to say that while he’s certainly a valuable piece to the lineup, he’s not the MVP. You can equate his value to many things, mainly 1) Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon hitting in front of him and getting on base 38 percent of the time, and 2) Alex Rodriguez protecting him in the cleanup spot.

Which brings us back to the original definition of value. Can it be quantified? If so, can we put that quantification to good use? Look no further than the MVP race of 2006, when Justin Morneau edged Jeter – robbed, really – of the award. When I heard the news of Morneau’s victory, I joked with Goldman that the voting error was so egregious that the privilege should be revoked from the writers and determined solely by Baseball Prospectus’s VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) statistic. I don’t know how VORP is calculated and don’t pretend to. What I know is that VORP is defined as “the number of runs contributed beyond what a replacement-level player at the same position would contribute if given the same percentage of team plate appearances.” VORP scores do not consider defense.

Simple enough, right?

Jeter led the American League in VORP in ‘06, while the winner of the award, Minnesota first baseman Justin Morneau, was 13th. Morneau also scored 21 fewer runs than Jeter, walked 16 fewer times, hit 22 points lower and had an on-base percentage a full 42 points lower.

The other year Jeter was robbed – 1999 – was perhaps an even greater injustice. Jeter finished sixth in the voting on a team that went on to win the World Series. Again, Jeter led the league in VORP. The writers’ MVP, Pudge Rodriguez, was 11th.

Forgetting VORP for a second, let’s take a more traditional look at the 1999 seasons of Pudge and Jeter:

Pudge 116 199 35 113 25 24 .332 .356 .558 .914
Jeter 134 219 24 102 19 91 .349 .438 .552 .989

Jeter was better than Pudge in six of the 10 categories listed.

For all the Jeter haters who believe the opinions of him are largely based on intangibles, check those numbers again. Jeter had a more complete offensive season in 2006 than Morneau while playing a more demanding defensive position. Was it an historic season for a shortstop? Hardly. But outside of the historic context, doesn’t that argument sound similar to the one being made in favor of Mauer now? Ten years ago, outside of the physically demanding defensive position argument, couldn’t we make the same case for Jeter over Pudge?

Why is all this pertinent? If we’re going to talk VORP and apply it to the MVP race, then Mauer is this year’s winner, hands down. Mauer is the league leader in the category by almost 23 points over Tampa Bay’s Jason Bartlett, and if you need other reasons, consult the Kansas City law firm of Posnanski and Neyer. Those who argue Jeter over Tex to be in the discussion are right, by VORP. Jeter is fourth while Tex is 14th.

Only four MVP winners this decade have also led the league in VORP. Three of them were Alex Rodriguez in 2003, ’05 and ’07. Vlad Guerrero in ’04 was the other. Maybe it’s time the community as a whole looked at the Value Over Replacement Player item as a legitimate means of determining the Most Valuable Player award. Not only will it give legitimacy to the nerds – and I say that affectionately – it will end the ridiculous subjective back-and-forth arguments that only spawn more arguments year after year.

If the vote truly is what Neyer believes, an RBI-based award, then give it to Morneau again and anger the entire baseball fan populace.

But ask yourself: what’s the value in that?


1 Alex Belth   ~  Aug 25, 2009 10:19 am

I winced when I saw Tyler's original tweet, not so much because I disagreed with his take but because it was like putting raw meat in front of a pack of hungry dogs. Every summer now, the MVP debate is rehashed with...relish. It is the same old argument, and so I winced because I knew the dogpile was coming.

2 Will Weiss   ~  Aug 25, 2009 10:47 am

[2] Agreed. It was like Sonny Corleone at the toll booth. Just left himself open.

3 Alex Belth   ~  Aug 25, 2009 10:51 am

He did. I wonder if it wasn't too easy to slam him, but at this time of year, any slip will open this debate, which on some level to me, has become boring.

4 Joel   ~  Aug 25, 2009 10:55 am

Small town, midwestern guys and they just can't stand the Yankees.

No reason why Tex or Jeter shouldn't win the MVP. Joe Mauer plays with no pressure and no expectations for a sub-.500 team in the middle of nowhere. In Minnesota, if the Twins win, that's nice. If they lose, that's nice too.

As Will pointed out, Jeter has already been robbed of the award twice. I don't recall Neyer's or Posnanski's sabremetric outrage when Jeter lost his MVPs. In '06 some midwestern beatwriter actually got on "Mike and the Mad Dog" and explained why he voted Jeter 6th!

Let them use sabremetrics or some other imperfect science to advocate for their guys. In my book the best players on a 100+ win AL East Champion Yankees team--playing in the cauldron that is New York--are always legitimate MVP candidates.

5 a.O   ~  Aug 25, 2009 10:58 am

Kepner spent the first month of the season writing nearly exclusively about ARod's PEDs admission. It's hard to believe he has been paying attention to actual baseball closely enough to comment meaningfully on the MVP race.

On the other hand, I know that would never stop a baseball writer from offering an opinion anyway. Other than reporting the news, it's just so much mental masturbation and should be treated as such. If you have some doubt about that last statement, just witness how defensive Kepner becomes when someone calls him out on Bats, the world's most pathetic excuse for a blog.

6 vockins   ~  Aug 25, 2009 11:00 am

I'm I the only one that thinks UZR is garbage? I agree that Mauer is the MVP, but that stat seems worthless to me.

7 Shaun P.   ~  Aug 25, 2009 11:05 am

[1] Ditto.

However, I thought Kepner handled himself incredibly well. Nothing wrong with starting some excellent banter.

[0] Will, there's one obvious problem with using VORP - it doesn't include defense. To me, whatever value is, its silly if it doesn't include defense.

There may be a much bigger, less obvious problem, with relying on VORP, and I'm not sure this has been changed yet. Ever since I read this, I've looked at RARP instead if I wanted just offensive value.

I always preferred WARP and, as best I can tell, it seems like WARP is fine.

8 Will Weiss   ~  Aug 25, 2009 11:29 am

[7] Shaun, I think WARP is great also. I think if there was a combined formula for VORP and WARP, we'd have an MVP item. I didn't use WARP because of the two other variations of the stat. Wins Above Replacement is about as clear as it gets. It answers the question "Where would this team be if you pulled X player out of the lineup?" To me, that's a great way to define a player's value.

9 Will Weiss   ~  Aug 25, 2009 11:31 am

[6] Looking at Teixeira, who may well win the Gold Glove this year, having a negative UZR is ridiculous. I agree with Kepner that there isn't a truly accurate measure of defense. Keep it to errors and have a minimum number of chances to qualify for a certain metric.

10 seamus   ~  Aug 25, 2009 11:32 am

[7] i generally think that formulas that try to capture offensive stats all in one place are bunk for a variety of reasons. the devil is lost in the details.

11 Will Weiss   ~  Aug 25, 2009 11:38 am

[10] Could you elaborate on that?

12 Raf   ~  Aug 25, 2009 11:40 am

Small town, midwestern guys and they just can’t stand the Yankees.

The rest of your entry is part of the reason they can't stand the Yankees. The "cauldron" bit is certainly a tired myth. I don't know who started it, but I'd really wish they would stop. If you have game, you can play, whether it's NY, MIN, or SD.

13 seamus   ~  Aug 25, 2009 11:49 am

[11] not while at work. not looking for a debate either. It isn't that i think that they lack all value, but without saying more, when you combine too much information into a stat it often becomes over-generalized.

14 Rich   ~  Aug 25, 2009 11:51 am

I’m I the only one that thinks UZR is garbage?

I hope so, but the reason you think that is probably because you don't understand that any given season's UZR is subject to sample size variation.

MVP in order: Mauer, Jeter, Teix

15 Will Weiss   ~  Aug 25, 2009 11:55 am

[13] That's enough for me. Thanks Seamus. I wasn't looking for a debate, either. Was just curious what you meant.

16 Joel   ~  Aug 25, 2009 12:02 pm

[12] Playing for the Yankees in front of 45,000 every night with eight newspapers, endless talk radio, and a have-to-win-it-all fanbase is just like playing in Minnesota. Right.

And these guys are small town, midwestern guys who just can't stand the Yankees.

17 Rich   ~  Aug 25, 2009 12:04 pm

Reporters once went to John Elway's house outside of Denver to see what kind of candy he was giving out to trick or treaters. I have never head of a similar level of scrutiny in NYC.

18 Shaun P.   ~  Aug 25, 2009 12:15 pm

[16] Attack the factual basis of their arguments if you like, but attacking Posnanski and Neyer for being "small town, midwestern guys who just can’t stand the Yankees" is pointless. Ad hominem argument FAIL.

[6] [9] [14] I've got a post that's hung up in the works - probably too many links in there - but yeah, with UZR, sample size is a problem. Lichtman (UZR's creator) says so anytime anyone asks him.

For me, the best thing to do is to look at a range of metrics: Dewan's +/-, UZR, Pinto's PMR, and BP's FRAA. None are perfect alone, but together, you get a very good picture.

Relying on errors, though, is just silly. The variations in official scorers gives way too much variance on errors.

[8] But Will - WARP does include VORP (or at least its somewhat-related cousin BRAR, which is a variation on RARP, I think).

19 Raf   ~  Aug 25, 2009 12:16 pm

[12] It's the same game there as it is here. 8 newspapers mean they have to answer the same questions a few more times. I would suspect players couldn't care less about "endless talk radio" or a "have-to-win-it-all fanbase." It's nice to have, I guess, but it shouldn't impact they job they have to do on the field.

There have been players that have succeeded and failed in NY & MIN. I find it difficult to believe that a player will fail in MIN because he stinks, yet, the same failure in NY would be attributed to him because "he can't handle the pressure of playing for NY."

20 RIYank   ~  Aug 25, 2009 12:19 pm

That's interesting, Shaun. I had always just assumed that VORP 'worked', so to speak. So, if you sum up the VORP of everybody on each team, you should get a value for each team that does predict the number of runs each team scores -- not the absolute number, because there's still an unknown left (God doesn't tell us what a team full of Replacement Players would score), but the relative number. And the prediction for any given season may be off, but over a decade the expected values should be about right.
But if Tango is right, then there's a systematic (undervaluing walks) bias in VORP. That's really surprising. Why does the sabermetric community stand for this? ;-)

I won't squawk of Mauer wins the MVP. He was robbed (by his teammate) too, after all.

21 Yankster   ~  Aug 25, 2009 12:30 pm

[0] My favorite part of this great post is the very fair question of where Neyer and Pos's outrage is on Jeter's exclusion. Without outrage there, I can't help but feel that they are biased (against either front runners, a team, or a city). Shouldn't they attack Morneau's win, thus stealing with the left while giving with the right?

Although I'd like to see Jeter win it, because I think he's the most valuable player in the American League, I think it's fair, sabermetrics in or out, to be astonished at Mauer's season. I hope Yankees fans can keep respecting this great baseball player's astonishing achievement while they advocate for whoever they want to win.

22 The Hawk   ~  Aug 25, 2009 12:31 pm

[7] I tend to agree.

I think the VORPal sword ought to be sheathed for MVP consideration, for the most part. Measuring against other players at your position may be good for determining relative value but I don't think it is the right measuring rod for overall value. What if everyone else at your position sucks? On the other hand, just cause you play a "big numbers" position shouldn't mitigate your MVP chances. Great production is great production, whether it's expected or not.

23 monkeypants   ~  Aug 25, 2009 12:35 pm

[21] Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't Neyer advocate Jeter for MVP in 1999, and advocate Jeter and Mauer over Morneau in 2006.

24 monkeypants   ~  Aug 25, 2009 12:39 pm

[23][21] For what it's worth, here is an article by Neyer from last year in which he complains about Pedroia winning the MVP, and also about Morneau winning two years prior over Mauer.


I think, perhaps, accusations of "selective outrage" are exaggerated.

25 monkeypants   ~  Aug 25, 2009 12:42 pm

MOre Rob Neyer ortrage from 2006, after Morneau undeservedly won the MVP:


26 RIYank   ~  Aug 25, 2009 12:50 pm

[25] Ortrage, n. : The feeling of intense irritation bordering on fury upon discovering the crumbs your housemate left all over the sofa during a late night Oreo binge.

27 sonyahennystutu   ~  Aug 25, 2009 12:57 pm

[19] Sorry Raf but I'm going to have to disagree with you. Completely. If you think playing here - and succeeding here - are the same as playing and succeeding anywhere, then I simply don't know what to say.

28 Will Weiss   ~  Aug 25, 2009 1:13 pm

[25] Thank you for those links. I didn't remember Neyer's reaction, and didn't want to make this column an attack on him and Pos, because of the respect level there. I also didn't want to extend it to Bill Simmons-level word count.

29 Shaun P.   ~  Aug 25, 2009 1:17 pm

[24] [25] I had a couple of other links in the post that's sitting in moderation land, but yes - Neyer absolutely advocated for Jeter in 2006, and complained that Morneau won over both Jeter and Mauer.

[19] FWIW, I agree with you completely.

30 Raf   ~  Aug 25, 2009 1:17 pm

[27] Ed Whitson's a commonly cited example. He had bad years before he came to NY, he had bad years after he left. Were they the result of not being able to handle playing in the "cauldron" of San Francisco or San Diego? What about Jeff Weaver? He couldn't handle the pressure of playing in Seattle, Anaheim or Los Angeles? Javier Vazquez? Did he all of a sudden realize that he couldn't handle pitching in NY after 1/2 a season? Is pitching for NY is any more stressful than pitching for the Cuban National team? Or defecting from Cuba, like Contreras did? Have you ever seen how hot the crowds are at Hanshin Tigers games? Is there a different kind of pressure pitching for them than there is pitching for the Yankees?

31 Will Weiss   ~  Aug 25, 2009 1:17 pm

[25] The hitch to Neyer's argument re: Morneau's victory is that Jeter is not mentioned. At all. It's about Mauer in the context of where he finished in the voting. He said Mauer was more valuable than Morneau in '06, and makes a great and proper case for it. But he should have mentioned Jeter, who was more valuable than both.

32 Will Weiss   ~  Aug 25, 2009 1:19 pm

[29] Sorry, Shaun. I was posting and didn't see your comment. Please pass along those Neyer links advocating Jeter. I'd love to see them.

33 vockins   ~  Aug 25, 2009 1:55 pm

[14] Should team UZR and defensive efficiency be corallated? If not, why not?

34 Shaun P.   ~  Aug 25, 2009 2:35 pm

[32] Hmm, let me try this again and see if it works this time.

35 Shaun P.   ~  Aug 25, 2009 2:36 pm

You have to be an insider to read the full stories, but let me be clear that the first link is what I say it is. Here's how its summarized on this page:

Two different debates converge with Jeter
Rob Neyer, ESPN Insider

Whether you're an empiricist or an intuitionist, your best choice for AL MVP is Derek Jeter.
ESPN Insider Story | Conversation | November 21, 2006

36 rbj   ~  Aug 25, 2009 2:45 pm

There are good arguments for Mauer over Tex, based on stats & difficulty of the position.

"An essentially meaningless home run, hit well after midnight (back in New York). I mean, I’m sorry, but the Yankees aren’t exactly in the middle of a pennant race anymore. They’ve got a huge lead over the second-place Red Sox. And if the Red Sox should somehow mount a late charge, the Yankees have a huger lead over the Rangers for that other postseason berth"

is crap. You want to penalize a guy because he helps his team have a significant lead over #2? I want a sizable lead in order to get guys rest, get the rotation in order and get Mo rested for October. A large lead is valuable and shouldn't be counted against someone. Nor should the fact that he plays with other great players. What should Tex have done, gone to Baltimore and put up great numbers with a crappy team and gone home after September to prepare his MVP acceptance speech?

Now Mauer is having a phenomenal season, especially for a catcher, but base the award on his stats vs. other players' stats.

37 sonyahennystutu   ~  Aug 25, 2009 4:29 pm

[30] Different kind of pressure = yes. There's also more of it. Lots. To think otherwise seems silly to me.

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