Tuesday, November 15, 2011

IBA Ballot: MVP

My position on pitchers as MVP candidates is pretty simple: I think they absolutely should be considered. However, that doesn’t mean it’s a common occurrence for me to conclude that a pitcher was the MVP of his league. In general, I think that given modern workloads, it is much more likely for a batter to be the MVP than a pitcher. Additionally, when I conclude that a pitcher and a position player are indistinguishable in terms of value, I will usually hedge my bets and go with the batter. A corollary to this is that I’d like the pitcher’s peripheral statistics to indicate that he is equally or more valuable than his batting rivals, not just his actual runs allowed. This is a higher hurdle to clear, since the best pitchers in terms of runs allowed are more likely than not to have outpitched their peripherals.

The end result of this thinking is that somewhere around 2-4 pitchers are sprinkled through my MVP ballot, but rarely is one listed at #1. I’ve been formally writing up my ballots for this blog since 2006, which gives me ten league-seasons with which to quantify my thought process:

As you can see, on average I list three pitchers on my ballot, with the leading pitcher placed fourth. Obviously I’m biased, but I think this is a very fair treatment of pitchers.

All of this bloviating and laughably in-depth analysis of my own previous ballots is necessary because, for the first time since I’ve been doing this, there is a popular movement to vote a starting pitcher as MVP. I want to make it clear that, and I think I have, that if I don’t feel that Justin Verlander was the AL MVP, it’s not because of some bias against pitchers, but simply that I felt other player(s) were more valuable in 2011.

Verlander has gained traction as a candidate for two reasons. One, he pitched for a playoff team, and heavens knows that mainstream types will bend over backwards to try to give the MVP to a player whose contributions were “actually valuable”, or whatever argument they’d like to use to dismiss players whose teammates just weren’t that good. It also helps that of the AL playoff teams, Detroit was something of a surprise (they were certainly the most surprising to me, although the voters would probably give that nod to Tampa Bay), and they made a strong surge in August and September to run away with their division. That’s a good narrative.

Secondly, Verlander’s W-L record is very impressive (24-5), and we all know that the mainstream still is easily distracted by a shiny W-L record. And oh yeah, third, he pitched very well by any measure.

That last point, though, is where I’m not as enthusiastic about Verlander. The mainstream view is that Verlander was obviously the AL’s best pitcher in 2011--my view is that he was a solid #1, but Jered Weaver can’t just be laughed off. Verlander’s season is not historic by any means when viewed through the lens of RAR--for last five seasons, the AL pitching RAR leaders totals have been:

72, 84, 95, 76, 84

Verlander’s 84 is very good, but the average of the previous four AL leaders was 82. It’s a fairly typical league-leading type of performance, a very solid Cy Young-type season, but not one for the ages either.

However, I have Jose Bautista at 82 RAR/63 RAA, I don’t see any compelling reason to penalize him for his defense or baserunning (UZR doesn’t think much of him, but Dewan’s DRS and Wyers’ FRAA don’t share that evaluation), and I don’t care that his team finished in fourth place. Verlander does not look nearly as good when evaluated by dRA, and so when there’s reasonable doubt that the pitcher was more valuable than the position player, I side with the position player.

I also have placed Verlander’s teammate Miguel Cabrera ahead of him, albeit with much less conviction. Cabrera’s offensive value is essentially indistinguishable from Bautista’s--I estimate that Cabrera created 137 runs in 376 outs while Bautista created 134 runs in 363 outs (9.3 to 9.4 RG, 71 to 70 HRAA). However, Cabrera played first base and there’s reason to believe he’s a below-average fielder, putting Bautista ahead. Compared to Verlander, though, I think the case can be made that he was a little more valuable.

Among the other position player candidates to fill out the ballots, Jacoby Ellsbury ranks first in RAR, plus fielding and baserunning would seem to work in his favor. Adrian Gonzalez was right behind his teammate in RAR, and has a good fielding reputation and a decent showing in fielding metrics.

The other three spots all go to second baseman. I suppose one can argue that the positional adjustments I use are too kind to second basemen, but I just happen to think there is a collection of very talented second basemen in the AL at this time. Dustin Pedroia was just behind Ellsbury and Gonzalez in RAR. Curtis Granderson (56 RAR) and Mike Napoli (56) rank ahead of the trio of Robinson Cano (53), Ben Zobrist (52), and Ian Kinsler (50), but Granderson’s fielding raises at least a little concern. Napoli’s RAR gives him a full catcher position adjustment, but he actually played nearly as many games between first base and DH (53) as he did as a catcher (61). While his 8.5 RG ranked third in the AL behind Bautista and Cabrera, he also logged just 427 PA.

Among the three remaining second basemen, the offensive differences are small enough to throw a bone to Kinsler’s well-regarded fielding (at least by the various metrics)and baserunning, while keeping in mind that Zobrist like Napoli also played a fair amount at less demanding positions. Evan Longoria will probably get a lot more love from others, but he ranks 16th on my RAR list and would require more fielding credit than I am comfortable with (or a repudiation of the position adjustment for 3B relative to 2B) to make the ballot:

1) RF Jose Bautista, TOR
2) 1B Miguel Cabrera, DET
3) SP Justin Verlander, DET
4) SP Jered Weaver, LAA
5) CF Jacoby Ellsbury, BOS
6) 1B Adrian Gonzalez, BOS
7) 2B Dustin Pedroia, BOS
8) SP James Shields, TB
9) SP CC Sabathia, NYA
10) 2B Ian Kinsler, TEX

In the National League, there is no need for philosophical reflection about the value of a pitcher versus a position player, or any need for intricate comparisons of multiple players. There is only one question that needs to be answered: Can you make a case against Matt Kemp?

Kemp led NL hitters in RAR by 12, and was in a tied Ryan Bruan for the league lead with a 8.5 RG. His fielding is probably not great, but since no one else was particular close in RAR, you’d have to think he was pretty bad and that Ryan Braun or Prince Fielder or Jose Reyes was really good in the field to close the gap. I don’t see any reason to believe that, so Kemp is my runaway choice as NL MVP.

Filling out the rest of the ballot, Ryan Braun is a very strong candidate for #2. The three pitchers (Halladay, Kershaw, and Lee) that were very close for the Cy Young are all strong mid-ballot choices. Prince Fielder was very good, but inferior to his teammate at the plate and he’s not a strong candidate for fielding and baserunning credit. Jose Reyes and Joey Votto are also in the mix.

As you can see, I’m having trouble finding much to say about the NL ballot. My RAR list actually makes it pretty straightforward; obviously small differences are not meaningful, but I don’t see a lot of compelling reasons to step in and make changes. The only player who drops far below his RAR is Lance Berkman, who obviously is not much of a fielder at this point and who I would be loathe to argue was more valuable than teammate Pujols. And that leaves him without a spot:

1) CF Matt Kemp, LA
2) LF Ryan Braun, MIL
3) SP Roy Halladay, PHI
4) 1B Prince Fielder, MIL
5) SS Jose Reyes, NYN
6) 1B Joey Votto, CIN
7) SP Clayton Kershaw, LA
8) SP Cliff Lee, PHI
9) 1B Albert Pujols, STL
10) SS Troy Tulowitzki, COL

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