How does one define value? It’s a rather unambiguous question when dealing with precious metals, but when the v-word comes up in the context of baseball, it seems as if everyone has a different opinion. Each year, as August, and the dog days of the season, comes to a close, the MVP debate begins. And, each year, we are left without formal parameters that describe what it means to be valuable.
For a long time, I thought that MLB was irresponsible, that the league had an obligation to define exactly what the MVP should be. But more recently, I’ve come to understand the rationale behind this system. By refusing to rigorously define “valuable,” baseball puts the debate in the court of public opinion. The fans personalize it. Reporters write sprawling editorials defending one player’s worthiness while assailing another’s. Logic is tossed by the wayside and emotion rules the day. With football dominating baseball — even playoff baseball — in the Nielsen ratings, this is a stark reminder that batting gloves retain their grip on our national psyche.
To cast a vote, indeed to utter a player’s name as an MVP candidate, is to elevate him to a historic status. For while other sports may generate more headlines or more advertising dollars, baseball is rooted in Americana like nothing else. To insult baseball is to insult the United States. It is only fitting, then, that our most valuable players are scrutinized like our presidential candidates. Kerry, Dean, Clark. Bonds, Pujols, Gagne. Even charisma counts; you’re not going to convince me that Mo Vaughn had a better season than did Albert Belle in 1995. But Mo was far more likely to hand out Halloween candy than try to run people over, and in a pinch, that can sway the vote.
It’s not a responsibility that we accept lightly — this freedom to determine what constitutes value in major league baseball. Consequently, we create our own rules. Perhaps we do this to organize our thoughts, or maybe we do this so we can better frame the debate. While these rules don’t exist in any official MLB documents, one can’t rightfully say that they are unwritten. Every day in every September, newspaper readers will flip to the sports section of their hometown paper and be reminded that the MVP can’t legitimately come from a last place team. “After all,” our sportswriters like to remind us, “they could have finished in last without him.” But there is an exception to this rule that goes like this: If no player on a contending team truly stands out, then a player who was statistically superior can be deemed more valuable…despite the fact that his team would have finished in last without him. (See Andre Dawson, 1987.) Of course, the rule and its exception are abided only by those who value its merits.
Similarly, pitchers are also a contentious subject. After all, how can a player who was involved in a mere 35 games by more valuable than one who played in 150? “You’re missing the point,” thinks the opposition party, “A dominant pitcher can essentially win a game single-handedly. His contribution in any given game is greater than a position player’s.”
“But pitchers have their own award,” comes the reply. “And the Cy Young is really prestigious — essentially an MVP for pitchers.” Generally, each side agrees to meet in the middle, i.e. no pitcher should win the MVP award except if there is no dominant position player that year or if you’re one of those people who thinks a pitcher should never be eligible. Clear? I thought not.
As the MVP race heats up, we become victims of bias crimes, or put more clearly, victims of recency bias. Despite a 162 unweighted season, baseball — like life — is concerned with one question above all others: “What have you done for me lately?” Indeed it was Miguel Tejada’s flair for the dramatic down the stretch in 2002 that sealed his MVP campaign. The Oakland shortstop’s average was more than 30 points higher after the all-star break and he hit more homeruns in fewer at-bats. The A’s enjoyed a mind-boggling 21-game win streak, coming back from a seemingly insurmountable deficit to win the AL West, and it seemed as if SportCenter featured daily replays of Tejada’s walk-off shots. While it could hardly be said that Tejada floundered during the early part of the season (he played quite well, in fact), one has to wonder — if Miggy had torn it up in the first half, would he have had the dramatic showcase in the second half? And isn’t it true that wins in April count the same as wins in September?
Peter Gammons and Jayson Stark don’t seem to think so. Each acknowledges that Alex Rodriguez enjoyed a fantastic season, but both point to the fact that A-Rod wasn’t playing too well when the Rangers really “needed him.” While this eliminates the need to lean on the “MVPs don’t come from last-place teams” argument, it ignores what the Rangers really needed all season — quality pitching. In any case, had Rodriguez started off with a bang and finished in a slump while posting the same final numbers as he did, I imagine that there would be a chorus of voices who would be saying that his late-season struggles make him unworthy of the MVP.
So I’ve taken everything into consideration, reigned in my recency bias, contemplated the merits of voting for pitchers, and have come to some sort of internal accord regarding the effects of the standings on a particular player’s candidacy. I have read (Bill) Jamesian analyses of the numbers, listened to managers plead their cases for their most “clutch” players, and looked at historical precedent. What I’ve found is truly amazing: You just have to go with your gut and then argue about it.