Tuesday, November 17, 2009

IBA Ballot: MVP

Disclaimer: Presented below is my ballot (and some justification) for one of the categories in the Internet Baseball Awards hosted at Baseball Prospectus.  I’m just one person, and the whole point of having a vote like the IBA is to get a wide variety of (intelligent) perspectives, and so I will not feel in the list bit slighted if you don’t give a flip about this.  You've been warned.  Also, the RAA and RAR figures that will be cited are my own estimates, detailed here.  Any Leverage Index, WPA, or UZR figures cited are from FanGraphs; any quality of opposition or baserunning figures are from Baseball Prospectus.

The AL MVP debate will not be much of a debate after all--with the Twins' September surge, Joe Mauer should coast to the award. As you will see, I ultimately agree with this, but I think there's a solid case to be made that Zack Greinke was the most valuable player in the American League. The statistical comparison between the two hits on any number of hot spots--pitcher v. hitter, DIPS and fielding support, evaluating fielding, what the most appropriate baseline is--and depending on the judgment calls you make on those matters, it is not that hard to come down on Greinke's side.

RAR favors Greinke, +91 to +82. Mauer is generally considered a solid defensive catcher--let's call it five runs in lieu of a more rigorous estimate. On the other hand, that RAR figure assumes that Mauer is a full-time catcher, when in fact he appeared in 109 games behind the plate and 28 as a DH. That knocks around three runs off his position adjustment, leaving him at +84 (please note that I am overstating the precision of the initial estimates and the subsequent adjustments for the sake of discussion). BPro estimates his non-SB baserunning at -3 runs, which would lower his RAR accordingly.

Greinke's RAR is based on just taking his actual runs allowed into consideration. Suppose that you were to use his dRA (basically, simple DIPS RA) as the fuel for RAR instead. In that case, he would drop to...you guessed it, +84. Greinke allowed a high BABIP (not really a surprise with KC's poor fielding behind him), but DIPS throws the situational pitching baby out with the fielding bathwater.

There's also the matter of baseline. If you use average, Mauer is ahead +67 to +61 before considering his defense. If you use something in the middle, you're liable to end up with another statistical tie.

I'm not going to try to argue for one or the other, just that they're too close to call. The deciding factor for me is that Mauer is a position player and Greinke is a pitcher. I have no problem voting for a pitcher for MVP--my ballots probably average around 2.5 pitchers per league season. But if a pitcher and a position player are in a dead heat, I'm going to side with the position player more often than not. Last year I went with Cliff Lee for AL MVP as no position player turned in a comparable season.

Behind them, Roy Halladay and Felix Hernandez had seasons that would often be good enough to win Cy Youngs, and the rest of the AL hitters collectivley had another year without any real jawdropping performances. So the two hurlers go 3-4, with Ben Zobrist and Derek Jeter the next two position players.

Why Zobrist over Jeter? Zobrist does well in the defensive metrics, but you don't have to put a lot of weight on that to make a reasonable case for him over Jeter. I have Zobrist and Jeter even as offensive players without considering position (60 to 59 RAR, Zobrist's superior rate balanced by Jeter's extra 100 PA). So you only have to believe that Zobrist's fielding was more valuable than Jeter's, not that it was truly spectacular.

Evan Longoria's +52 RAR leave him down the ballot if you go just by hitting, but of course he has a good defensive reputation and his UZR was a whopping +19. Even if you only want to credit him as a +10 fielder, it's enough to vault him past some not particularly impressive fielders.

After yet another pitcher (Verlander), the last two spots on the ballot go to first baseman--Mark Teixeira and Miguel Cabrera. Kevin Youkilis might be the most surprising omission from my ballot, and you can certainly make a case for him over either of those two. Even giving him credit for his time at third base, I have him at +48 RAR versus +55 for Teixeira and +53 for Cabrera. My RAR figures lazily omit hit batters, but giving him another three runs for getting plunked and two runs for fielding (Fangraphs' estimate) leaves him in a dead heat. I went with the other two, but reasonable people will surely differ on this one.

Kendry Morales, on the other hand, will get mainstream MVP support but at +42 RAR, he's well behind the other first baseman, and even a generous (and likely unwarranted) fielding estimate just gets him into the mix. Was he a better value than the man he replaced? Absolutely. But I can't call him a more valuable player.

Victor Martinez ranks fourth in RAR among position players, but doesn't crack the ballot. Why? For one thing, the aforementioned RAR figure treats him as a pure catcher, but in reality 46% of his games played were at first base or DH. Incorporating that into his positional adjustment drops his RAR to +48, thirteenth in the league.

1) C Joe Mauer, MIN
2) SP Zack Greinke, KC
3) SP Roy Halladay, TOR
4) SP Felix Hernandez, SEA
5) 2B Ben Zobrist, TB
6) SS Derek Jeter, NYA
7) 3B Evan Longoria, TB
8) SP Justin Verlander, DET
9) 1B Mark Teixeira, NYA
10) 1B Miguel Cabrera, DET

In the National League, there is one super candidate with no real competition. Despite tailing off a bit in the second half, Albert Pujols recorded what is IMO the best season of his career (although picking between Pujols seasons is like picking between...nah, I'm bad at analogies), finishing second in BA, first in OBA, SLG, secondary average, Runs Created, and all four of the baselined categories I track. His RAR lead is a whopping 21 runs over Hanley Ramirez, and there's no amount of finessing the numbers that will close that gap.

Behind him, it is too close to call between Hanley Ramirez and Chase Utley once you give Utley credit for fielding and getting hit...Ramirez is +80 RAR, but you can't give him a big fielding number, while Utley is +64 with a very believable +12 UZR and some runs lying around from plunkings and baserunning. I went with Ramirez because I trust the offensive numbers more, but I wouldn't argue one bit if you think Utley was more valuable. Utley's oft-overlooked contributions allowed him to pass the two big first base bats, Prince Fielder and Adrian Gonzalez, but they are next on my ballot, with Gonzalez getting a narrow edge due to his fielding prowess (he trails 77-74 in RAR).

Ryan Zimmerman had a +18 UZR, which at full credit would put him ahead of the first baseman. I hedge a little bit and place him behind them, followed by a cavalcade of pitchers and Troy Tulowitzki:

1) 1B Albert Pujols, STL
2) SS Hanley Ramirez, FLA
3) 2B Chase Utley, PHI
4) 1B Adrian Gonzalez, SD
5) 1B Prince Fielder, MIL
6) 3B Ryan Zimmerman, WAS
7) SP Tim Lincecum, SF
8) SP Chris Carpenter, STL
9) SP Adam Wainwright, STL
10) SS Troy Tulowitzki, COL

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