History tells us that Ty Cobb was awarded the American League Most Valuable Player award unanimously in 1911. History declines to mention the name of the scribe that ranted five minutes afterwards about how Eddie Walsh was robbed, but I think we can safely assume that happened.
More recently, lambasting the baseball writers’ choice has shifted from pastime to bad habit. Now the outrage emulates from every corner of the baseball universe as bloggers, statisticians, fans and sportwriters scramble for a new viewpoint on one of the oldest debates in baseball. If you don’t have a differing viewpoint on the MVP, you’re robbing yourself of an easy story, as well as a chance to storm the moral high ground.
So I guess we should have expected the reaction we received this December when Justin Morneau won the closest MVP vote since 2001. Morneau edged out Derek Jeter by 14 points, or the equivalent of one first place vote.
And the chum hit the water.
In the feeding frenzy that followed, we were told that the writers overvalued power numbers. That they undervalued defense. They overvalued a team’s record. But they undervalued leadership. We were told that we should consider a player’s lifetime of work. And that pitchers should win. And that Morneau wasn’t the most valuable Twin. And that he wasn’t even the second most valuable Twin.
Nobody thought that Morneau didn’t warrant consideration, but they all agreed that the baseball writers had used the wrong criteria. And had they used the right criteria, the award would have gone to Jeter. Or David Ortiz or Frank Thomas or Jermaine Dye or Johan Santana or…
Sorry guys. It turns out that the MVP isn’t defined the way you might want it defined. It isn’t an award for the best offensive stats or the preferred sabremetric stat of the day. It isn’t an award for the best player or even “The Most Valuable Player”. It isn’t defined by a rule book or metric or baseball czar. It isn’t even defined by this year’s baseball writers.
The MVP award is defined by its history, and more heavily by its recent history. It’s defined by a historical collection of opinions that have shaped it little by little for the last 100 years. If you want to know what an MVP is, you look at who its been awarded to. And so you find the criteria:
“Most valuable” beats out “best” – This isn’t an award for the best baseball stats, whether you’re using something traditional like RBI or more advanced like VORP. A player who has the best statistics will finish second to a player that may have put up slightly smaller stats in more critical situations. Or to a player that was the critical difference between his team making or missing the postseason.
A starting pitcher doesn’t get the award unless they have an absolutely ungodly year – The Cy Young started being awarded in 1956, and soon after, the MVP has been almost exclusively reserved for position players. Only one starting pitcher has won it has since the mid-70s – Roger Clemens in 1986.
It’s not a lifetime achievement award – It’s based on what a player did for a given year. It’s not uncommon for a fairly mediocre player to win the award based on an absolutely exceptional year (see Versalles, Zoilo). A lifetime’s worth of success probably helps, especially for a player who is popular with sportswriters, but the lifetime achievement award is called “The Hall of Fame”.
Defense gets extra points, but offense is more important – This has shifted a little, as a few of the more recent awardees have been shortstops, but when an award has been given to Mo Vaughn, I think we can all agree that defense might not be the top consideration.
Team success counts – A player gets extra credit for a team that achieves. This is especially true if the team isn’t loaded with other superstars.
God knows there’s plenty of room to debate those rules, but there isn’t a lot of doubt that they are, in fact, the rules. So let’s evaluate:
- Morneau was one of the top performers in the league in a year that nobody else stood out.
- He didn’t just put up big numbers, he consistently performed in important situations.
- His young team went from execrable to division champion at exactly the time he started hitting well.