Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Most Vacuous Post

I hate to even write a post like this because it is the kind of thing that sportswriters love to write about--controversial, timely, and of very little actual importance in the grand scheme of things. So if you’re not interested, don’t read it.

There is a lot of opinion involved with this topic, on all sides. By stating your own opinion, some people will inherently conclude that you are disrespecting others. While there certainly are views on this topic that I don’t particularly respect, because I think they are inane or ridiculous, my intention here is simply to present my position, arguing against others only in the limited way that is required when you try to state your own.

The other problem is that this topic has been discussed by so many people for so many years that there really is nothing new to say. So there’s certainly no claim that any line of argument here is unique.

Nonetheless, here are my thoughts on the criteria for the MVP award, presented here so that I don’t have to cover the topic when I actually pick my IBA ballot.

First, let me reprint here the actual instructions that are sent to each BBWAA MVP voter:

Dear Voter:

There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.

The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931:

1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.
2. Number of games played.
3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.
4. Former winners are eligible.
5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

You are also urged to give serious consideration to all your selections, from one to 10. A 10th-place vote can influence the outcome of an election. You must fill in all 10 places on your ballot.

Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, and that includes pitchers and designated hitters.

Only regular-season performances are to be taken into consideration.

As Larry Mahnken points out in the THT piece in which the quoted text appeared, the first line basically allows the individual voter to define “most valuable” any which way they want. So how should an individual, whether they are a BBWAA voter or not, define “value”?

That is a question that, to paraphrase someone who is in the news a lot now (and with any good fortune at all will vacate that position in six weeks or so), is above my pay grade. The definition of “value” is by no means clear and is not agreed upon even in the sabermetric community where matters like definitions of terms are taken seriously. In this case, I do believe that it is a matter of personal discretion. Therefore, I will try to explain my personal approach. And it is just that, and if any BTF readers think this is indulgent, then by all means, stop reading now.

The fundamental starting point from which I come from is: The name that was chosen for the award need not be viewed through the lens of how a sabermetrician would define “value” in its most literal sense. This could also be called the “WPA is not the boss of me” principle.

Some people in the sabermetric community seem to see “valuable” and immediately jump to using what I in the past have called “literal value” methods. The most prominent example is WPA, but there are other methods that would qualify.

This response is completely understandable if the name chosen for the award is taken literally. However, I think that it is a little bit silly to read more into the name itself than its creators put thought into it. I seriously doubt that the BBWAA, when deciding to start a year-end award to honor an individual player, put a lot of effort into debating whether it should be called “Most Valuable”, “Most Outstanding”, “Best”, etc. If they did, the instructions that they left for the voters to make their choice leave scant evidence of it, as they are very bland and do not demand any particular viewpoint on what the award represents.

Had the award been called something else, I wonder how the debates about the award down throughout the years would have gone. If it was a “Most Outstanding Player” award, would there be a large group of people claiming that one could only truly be outstanding on a contender? Is the wish to recognize players from contenders a product of the award name, or a product of a natural desire that would manifest itself even if we were discussing the “Top Performing Player”?

In fact, I wonder if even our sabermetric perspective on what constitutes value has not been shaped by the MVP Award and the ensuing debates. I don’t mean to suggest that what is measured by the “value” metrics (WPA, Win Shares, Value-Added Batting Runs, etc. depending on how exactly you define the term) is not meaningful or that they are not worth calculating. However, I don’t dismiss the possibility that people have attached the “value” label to these metrics at least in part due to the fact that they incorporate context in a way that a baseball fan expects thanks to the MVP debates. All I’m suggesting is that the language may have evolved a bit differently in their absence.

Anyway, I choose to not take the “value” literally, as I don’t see compelling evidence that the original intent of the award was to do so, and I don’t see anything in the criteria for the award that compels me to do so. So let me give my take on each one of the criteria:

1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.

Again, “actual value”, interpreted sabermetrically, can lead to a conclusion at odds with mine. However (and also again), I don’t believe that interpreting the letter of the rules set out by a group of 1930s baseball writers through the eyes of a 2000s sabermetrician is required. For a non-sports analogy that will get me in trouble with some of you (but it’s September of an election year and I don’t do it that often), I believe this is similar to interpreting the Constitution. The original intent of the authors and the commonly understood meaning of the words at the time of their writing trump any modern reading of the document.

Even if I did feel compelled to hold the opposite viewpoint, they had to go mess it up by clarifying the definition of value, and talking about “strength of offense and defense”. What immediately jumps to my mind here is rate statistics, context-neutral or not. I believe that this interpretation is supported by:

2. Number of games played.

I have a rate, and now I have to balance it against playing time, and I feel comfortable in using value above replacement to address the first two considerations, regardless of what you use to fuel the RAR/VORP/WARP/etc.

Personally, I use a linear weights formula based on the player’s overall statistics as the starting point for my RAR estimates. That means that I am not considering the game situation in which his performance occurred. I adjust for park, but only for the value of runs in the park--if there is some other characteristic of the park (like being doubles-friendly or benefiting left-handed pull hitters) that the player is able to exploit, I don’t care. The player is creating actual wins for his team if he his able to do so.

I do tend to consider situational performance as a tiebreaker. If two candidates are very close, and one has a WPA or WPA/LI or VABR clearly superior to the other, then I might bump him ahead. However, I do not use those metrics as a starting point.

Why? Why not? It’s a matter of personal preference. I think that an award that honors the player who demonstrated the most ability (not a precise term for what I described above) is more interesting than an award for the player who had the best combination of performance and timing. And again, I don’t feel that the “valuable” part of the title needs to be interpreted in a sabermetric sense. Maybe you do, and I’m okay with that.

I also do not believe that WPA and similar measures are necessarily the correct way to measure literal value. They are a measure of real-time value. You could also consider a backwards-looking perspective, in which all runs were equally valuable in the end. You could take this viewpoint a step further and claim that any performances in team losses really didn’t have any value, since they were for naught in the end. A forwards-looking definition of value would not measure value in the sense that sabermetricians generally do; rather it would measure what is often referred to as “ability”. The point is that there are a number of different perspectives from which value can be defined, and any number of roads that you can take from that point. I do not accept the premise that WPA is necessarily the best road.

3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.

This serves, as Bill James might say, as a BS dump. I’m not a psychologist/sociologist/behaviorist and I try to avoid playing one on the internet, so I’ll give everybody equal marks here in the vast majority of cases. My point is not that you should look only at the statistics--it is just that I will not be bullied into incorporating the common perceptions for individuals on these points (ARod is a choker, Jeter is clutch, Bonds is a cancer, etc.) If you feel you have insight, go ahead and use it. Just don’t feel compelled to follow the crowd, and don’t expect others to treat your opinion as hard evidence.

In defining the two criteria above in terms of numbers, I’m NOT saying that you should take the list of RAR leaders and simply copy it onto your ballot without taking anything else into account. However, I do think it is helpful to use such a list as a starting point, and make adjustments as you deem necessary.

4. Former winners are eligible.
5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

These anachronisms are necessary because at least one earlier incarnation of the MVP award had the opposite rules, and so the voters needed to be reminded of things we all take for granted now.

An ancillary point that has been brought to the forefront this year due to the performance of Sabathia and to a lesser extent Ramirez is how to deal with players who switch leagues during the season. My position has always been that it is an award for NL MVP, and thus only performance that creates value in the National League should count. However, this is admittedly sort of arbitrary, particularly in this brave new world of interleague play. With the lines between the leagues blurred more than ever, and one could argue that some of a player’s performance in the AL (against NL opponents) is providing value by damaging the opponent of his new team. Or one could just argue that holding on firmly to an AL/NL schism is outdated. Nonetheless, I’m sticking with my position, but without a whole lot of conviction and no desire to claim any sort of high ground.

Fianally, a brief bit on the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards. It is incredibly hard to find information online about the rules for these awards. I have always approached the Cy Young as being the best pitcher, and not incorporated batting value into the mix. However, I don’t have any compelling reasoning behind this and have absolutely no qualms with the viewpoint of anyone who wants to include non-pitching contributions. You can probably chalk up my exclusion of offense to sheer laziness.

For Rookie of the Year, I have always treated it exactly as I have the MVP, except limited to rookies. I have never made any allowances for age, potential, or players with top-level experience (in modern times, read Japanese veterans, although Negro Leaguers fit the bill in the early years of the award). It seems that the BBWAA has had a little bit of a backlash against Japanese players in the last few years after giving awards to Nomo, Sasaki, and Suzuki, but I see no compelling reason to follow along.

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