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November 22, 2011

Evan Grant's MVP Vote

I put little stock in individual awards, and I'd bet most of you reading me now don't either. My memory of prior MVPs and Cy Youngs fades every year. I usually have to look them up on Baseball Reference. That said, I'll admit my dim view of awards is partly a defensive reaction against years of occasionally dumbfounding votes by the media, both by individuals and as a collective. So, despite myself, when Evan Grant bestows his personal MVP vote upon Michael Young, I pay attention and carefully examine his rationale.

In light of the often callously personal reactions to his ballot, I'll first stipulate:

  • Grant is not an idiot. Far from it. Let's be civil.
  • Grant should not be barred from voting in the future.
  • More than most beat writers, Grant is willing to explain his opinions thoroughly.
  • I don't think Grant voted for the attention or page views. He doesn't seem the type.
  • Omitting or changing Grant's ballot would still leave Young 8th, Verlander 1st and Ellsbury 2nd.
  • Plenty of other voters thought very highly of Young.
  • The MVP criteria are explicit but imprecise. Opinions of value vary.
  • The 2011 ballot contained several worthy MVP candidates and was destined for controversy.
  • Young's salary, tumultuous offseason drama and mostly dismal postseason are irrelevant to the discussion.

Along with numerous tweets, Grant linked to his paywalled explanation at the Dallas Morning News yesterday. Though I don't subscribe, the link magically revealed the full article to me. I won't excerpt it except in very limited circumstances. To summarize:

  • Grant would've voted for Verlander and Cabrera based purely on statistical dominance.
  • WAR is non-standardized, complex, and not a stand-alone basis for picking the MVP.
  • Young separated himself from the contenders in non-WAR ways.
  • Young performed best when Hamilton, Cruz and Beltre were hurt.
  • Young hit in the clutch.
  • Young hit well in three different positions and three spots in the batting order.

So, what makes Grant's choice (in my opinion) so profoundly egregious?

Young's statistics aren't MVP-worthy.

I need not resort to WAR (which Grant mildly disparages in his article) or other nouveaux statistics to show how far Young trails his contenders. Here's a comparative ranking of vanilla statistics, most of them in use for over a century:

Hits 1 5 26 1 31 3 7
Batting Average 3 1 11 2 45 3 12
RBI 5 6 10 3 1 6 2
Times Reached Base 7 1 2 2 10 5 15
OBP 8 1 2 3 17 11 26
Doubles 10 1 62 6 48 3 3
Total Bases on Hits 10 3 6 2 5 1 4
Runs 15 4 6 5 1 3 7
Slugging 25 2 1 7 5 6 9
Walks 42 2 1 16 7 34 63
Homers 74 10 1 19 2 5 17

Cells shaded green are categories where the player ranks better than Young. That's a lot of green. Aside from average, hits and RBI, Young grades out poorly. He had a great season at the plate, but many others were better.

More specifically, Young loses the battle with Adrian Gonzalez.

Reached Safely
Outs Made
Young 0.338 213 88 47 11 106 49 6 262 446
Gonzalez 0.338 213 108 48 27 117 80 1 293 450

Young and Gonzalez were tied or virtually tied in batting average, hits, doubles plus triples, and outs made. Young has a small handful of additional steals. On the whole, Gonzalez and Young were remarkably similar except for two critical statistics: Gonzalez led Young by 16 homers and 31 walks plus HBPs. Gonzalez also led Young by 20 runs and 11 RBI (both team-oriented statistics, but still vital to the typical voter). The point being, even sticking only to basic stats, Young doesn't measure up to Gonzalez. Factoring in defense (Gonzalez a worthy Gold Glover, Young a glorified DH) and parks (Boston merely favors hitters, Arlington is Hitter Heaven) greatly magnifies the difference between the two.

To cast a first-place vote for Young, one must find value that surpasses Gonzalez's 16-homer advantage, 31 additional times reaching base, and vastly superior defense. Where is it? Young's clutch hitting, a critical aspect of his value per Grant, earns no advantage over Gonzalez, who batted .303 in two-out RISP situations, .321 in close/late situations, and .345 in tie games. Only intangibles remain. If Young's intangibles were strong enough to overcome all of Gonzalez's measurable advantages, his leadership aura would be visible from space.

Likewise, Jacoby Ellsbury.

Reached Safely
Outs Made
Young 0.338 213 88 47 11 106 49 6 262 446
Ellsbury 0.321 212 119 51 32 105 61 39 273 479

Ellsbury has 21 additional homers, 12 walks plus HBPs, and 31 more runs. Like Gonzalez, Ellsbury is a strong defender and hits in an inferior park.

So, Young clearly doesn't measure up to Gonzalez or Ellsbury. They hit (almost) identically to Young in batting average and surpassed him in other repsects. On to Grant's other arguments…

Boston's collapse had nothing to do with Gonzalez or Ellsbury.

Grant tweeted: " Truth: I couldn't with clean conscience vote for a Boston player after that collapse." This argument just doesn't stand. During September, when Boston closed the season with a 7-20 record, Gonzalez batted .318/.455/.523 with four homers, 16 RBI and 21 walks. Ellsbury hit .358/.400/.667 with eight homers and 21 RBI. Both were stellar performances exceeding their numbers during the previous five months. Furthermore, they hit well while Kevin Youkilis was injured and Carl; Crawford was being Carl Crawford. This nullifies Grant's claims of Young's superiority in the clutch and in place of other important hitters.

Indeed, Boston scored 5.4 runs per game in the final month, identical to the rest of its season. Conversely, the Sox allowed a ghastly 6.4 runs per game in September compared to just 4.2 earlier. Pin the collapse on Boston's injured and weary hurlers, not the offense, and certainly not Gonzalez or Ellsbury.

Grant's tweet wouldn't bother me much except that in his paywalled article, Grant promotes several very narrowly defined statistics in Young's favor -- batting in close and late situations, as a replacement for the injured Beltre, and in specific spots in the order. Grant credits Young for hitting well in certain instances while chastising Gonzalez and Ellsbury for a collapse that isn't remotely their fault. I suspect Grant knows the minutiae of Young's statistics but far less about Gonzalez, Ellsbury, and others.

Young's positional versatility is more bug than feature.

Young's so-called versatility directly results from being an incapable defender. This isn't conjecture. Perhaps you believe Young's defensive shortcomings are overrated, but what of the men who assembled Texas's back-to-back pennant winners? They really loathe Young's defense, contract be damned. Management evicted Young from shortstop before he cashed the first check on his $80 million contract. Two years later, they removed him from the field entirely, at least as a regular. That Young could fill in for an injured Beltre and supplant a struggling Moreland was certainly useful, but his defense remains a net negative. It doesn't pass the eye test or any statistical methodology. Young's versatility has some value, but not as much as someone who plays one position really well.

Texas played better with Young at DH.

Per Grant, Texas "didn't suffer" when Young played the field, going 52-38 (.578). But that means Texas was a superior 44-28 (.611) when he DH'ed or sat, so Grant's argument withers on the vine. With Young, the Rangers were "only" 95-64 (.597). Texas was 77-43 (.642) when Hamilton started, 67-35 (.657) with Napoli, 76-46 (.623) with Cruz and 75-48 (.610) with Beltre. Doesn't that make them more valuable than Young, and hence, more deserving of the MVP?

Actually, I'm trolling myself now. "Team record with and without Player X" is meaningless over the course of a single season, as I've argued many, many, many times.

How about Michael Cuddyer?

Responding to a critic, Grant tweeted: "Embarrassing to vote a guy who hit .338, 106 RBIs, played three diff. INF positions and had at least 100 Abs in 3 key lineup spots MVP?"

I found four AL hitters with at least 100 appearances in the #3, #4 and #5 spots: Young, Michael Cuddyer, Billy Butler and Hideki Matsui. Cuddyer is interesting. Like Young, he played at least ten games at three different positions: 1B, 2B and LF instead of Young's 3B. He batted .284/.346/.459, seemingly inferior to Young's .338/.380/.474 but nearly identical in OPS+ (124 to 127) and offensive WAR (3.2 to 3.3). Cuddyer played in 20 fewer games; he badly trails Young singles and doubles but managed nine more homers and one additional walk. Young was the better player, but not by a gigantic margin. I'd argue that the difference between Young and Cuddyer at the plate is less than between Young and any of the contenders listed in my first table.

As for batting order, Cano had at least 100 PAs from the #4 and #5 spots. Granderson had 100+ from the #2 and #3 spots. Does that make them more valuable than Bautista, a beast of a hitter who spent every single day in the three hole? I don't see why. Lineups are functions of talent, injuries and managerial whim. Do you downgrade of Young's stellar 2005 (.331/.385/.513) because he spent 85% of his time in the same spot in the order? Of course not. There's nothing inherently valuable about a significant number of plate appearances from multiple lineup spots.


Grant notes that WAR is complex, calculated differently at Baseball Reference and Fangraphs, and not sufficient in and of itself to determine the MVP. I heartily concur that voters shouldn't simply rely on WAR rankings. Baseball Reference's WAR believes Jose Bautista is the MVP by a wide margin. Fangraphs picks Ellsbury over Bautista by nearly as wide a margin. Nevertheless, his statements that "WAR is… a projection," and "projections don't win games -- performance does," are confounding, since WAR by definition is player performance distilled into a single number. It's just math, not alchemy.

Let's pretend both WAR methodologies unfairly malign Young's defense and offense. If I completely ignore position played and defensive ability, and I further assume that both Baseball Reference and Fangraphs undervalue Young's offensive contributions by a full 100%, he still ranks behind Cabrera and Bautista in both systems and also behind Gonzalez in Fangraphs. But Grant believes Young is more worthy of the MVP than those players because he hit well from more than one spot in the order, and he hit well when certain other players were injured, and hit he well in the clutch. And leadership/intangibles, I suppose. It's his opinion, and I credit him for defending it, but it doesn't survive much scrutiny.

Bruce Springsteen, "My Best Was Never Good Enough," from The Ghost Of Tom Joad, 1995.

Posted by Lucas at November 22, 2011 07:53 PM