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!”
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:
R H HR RBI SB BB BA OBP SLG OPS
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?