By In Stuff

Alex Gordon and the M-V-P chants

KANSAS CITY – Every time Alex Gordon steps to the plate at Kauffman Stadium these days, fans chant, “M-V-P, M-V-P,” which is fascinating on so many levels. Let’s start with the most basic of those.

At the moment, Alex Gordon is hitting .281 with 16 home runs and 59 RBIs. Nothing at all about that looks MVPish. He is not in the American League Top 10 in any offensive category, save hit by pitch. On this Royals team he does not lead the team in batting average, he’s tied with Omar Infante (yeah, Omar Infante) in RBIs, and he has just one more home run than Mike Moustakas, who spent time in the minor leagues this year.

Still, people chant “M-V-P.” And they SHOULD chant M-V-P. Why? Well, I think it really comes down to three reasons:

1. The Royals are having their best season in a generation and what fun is that if you don’t have an MVP candidate?

2. Nobody else on the team is even a remotely viable MVP candidate, save one unusual case.

3. WAR.

We’ll get to WAR in a minute … let’s start with more traditional numbers. Look around baseball these days. Sean brings up a potentially fascinating statistic: There’s a chance this will be the first full season in baseball history without either a 40-home run hitter or a 20-game winner.

Think about that for a second: First time ever. Now, it might not turn out – Nelson Cruz, Chris Carter, Jose Abreu and Giancarlo Stanton all have a shot at 40 homers, and Clayton Kershaw among others might win 20 games. But the fact this is even a possibility as we enter September speaks to how dramatically the game has changed. The numbers that used to define baseball are disappearing on us. There are no more .350 hitters. Twenty game winners are almost extinct. And now, with the dramatic drop in power across baseball, home runs are becoming rare events. The home run rate across baseball is lower than at any point since before the 1994 strike. Kansas City, in particular, is going to have to hustle just to get to 100 home runs as a team.

With those sorts of numbers down all over baseball, we need to look a little deeper to find our MVP candidates. There are players – Abreu, Trout, Stanton and Victor Martinez – who are putting up what you would call traditional MVP type numbers. They’re all hitting in the general range of .300, are on pace for 30-plus homers and 100 plus RBIs. But those are the only four, as of right now, who are good bets to get there, which is crazy.

In 2001, there were TWENTY EIGHT players who hit .at least 290, 30, 100.

In 2006, there were 15 of those players.

In 2011, there were nine of those players.

Last year, there were three.

This year, I’m guessing there will be four – so the very idea of MVP numbers is changing on us. This is one reason why I think Gordon is getting the MVP chant. In another year, his .281, 16, 59 through August would look utterly pedestrian. In a season like this, those numbers are more valuable than you might thing..

And … the Royals have to chant M-V-P for SOMEBODY. When a team potentially breaks through for the first time, there’s just a powerful need to believe that one great player led the way. This has long been true in MVP voting. Zoilo Versalles famously won the award in 1965 with ordinary numbers because the Twins won the pennant more or less out of nowhere. When the Angels reached the postseason for the first time in team history in 1979, Don Baylor won the MVP award as a DH with the 10th best slugging percentage in the league. When the Atlanta Braves went from worst to first in 1991, Terry Pendleton won the award with somewhat drab MVP numbers. The same was true for Jimmy Rollins in 2007, when his Phillies made the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.*

*In all four of those cases, a teammate —  Tony Oliva in 1965, Bobby Grich in 1979, Tom Glavine in 1991 and Chase Utley in 2007 – almost certainly had better years than the MVP. Just kind of interesting.

This is one of the absurdities of  the MVP award – baseball teams do not win because of one player. This is why I have become a pretty strict literalist when it comes to MVP voting – the MVP to me is the best player. Period. I no longer care at all how his team did — not for that individual award. Mike Trout was the best player in baseball the last two years and the Angels were irrelevant. This year, he’s the best player in baseball and the Angels are winning. He should be (and should have been) the MVP all three years.

Still, he Royals are winning, and so they must have someone to shout MVP for, and there really isn’t anyone else, certainly not in the lineup. Gordon has created 17 more runs than anyone else on the team because he leads the team in doubles, homers, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. It should be said his slugging percentage is a somewhat plain looking .455. It is still 40 points higher than anybody else in the lineup.

I mentioned one other player who could (and I suspect will) get some MVP consideration — that’s reliever Wade Davis. There’s precedents for relievers having absurd statistical seasons getting a lot of MVP love (and, in the case of Jim Konstanty, Willie Hernandez and Dennis Eckersley, actually getting the away). Davis is having an absurd statistical season. He went 38 straight appearances without giving up an extra base-hit, which is truly absurd. He has not given up a run since June. The trouble with Davis is that he will probably throw just 70 innings this year, which just isn’t much and (I suspect) willl prevent people from giving him the award. That said, I’m wagering he gets some real MVP consideration, especially if he keeps pitching like this through September. On the sabermetric side, he does lead all relievers in baseball with 3.2 WAR.

Anyway Davis doesn’t pitch enough to get all the M-V-P chants, so the focus is on Gordon even if his basic offensive numbers inspire yawns.

That’s where Wins Above Replacement come in.

Gordon’ is second in the major leagues in Fangraphs WAR – that would be AHEAD of Giancarlo Stanton. He’s fourth in the American League in Baseball Reference WAR. How is this possible? Well, he plays spectacular defense in left field (and it really is special defense). He’s also an excellent base runner. We’ve already pointed out that his offensive numbers, in context, are better than they look. When you add it all up WAR style – you get a legitimate MVP candidate.

Or do you? This, to me, becomes a more and more interesting question. I’m working on a piece now about the statistical revolution in baseball, and among the statistical people I’m speaking with there seems to be a growing concern that we as a so called “advanced-statistics community” are beginning to make many of the same leaps of faith and broad generalizations that doomed the old statistics. I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but it’s fair to say there’s a growing sense among some that WAR is becoming the advanced version of RBIs or batting average or pitcher wins – that is to say that people, to quote Vin Scully, are using WAR the way a drunk using a lamppost, for support and not illumination. Heck, I might be the Foster Brooks of WAR.

So, I’m not sure of the answer on that one. I’m a huge Alex Gordon fan and have been for some time. I really do believe he has been one of the most underrated players in baseball because he does a lot of things well. I think he SHOULD be an MVP candidate. That said, is his defense in left field SO GOOD that it makes up for the 25 or so more runs that Jose Abreu and Victor Martinez are creating offensively? Can you even BE that good in left field to make up such a gap?

WAR says yes. I want to believe it’s true. So I believe WAR.

That’s definitely support and not illumination.

Anyway, Gordon is the Royals best every day player, and if the Royals continue this miracle he will get a lot of MVP support. I don’t think he will win, but there’s a month yet to go — and he’s in the conversation. He will hear a lot of M-V-P chants. And that’s fantastic because an M-V-P chant at Kauffman Stadium in late August sounds to me a lot like Springsteen live.

38 Responses to Alex Gordon and the M-V-P chants

  1. Zach says:

    Nice column, I was at the game last night and wondered if I’d hear an MVP chant, I could’ve missed it, but I can’t say I heard one at all. I love Gordo and Royals as much as anyone, but I can’t justify chanting MVP or him being the MVP right now. I think he should probably finish about 3rd in MVP voting, which as a Royals fan is still so cool! Go Royals!

  2. NevadaMark says:

    Baylor played 162 games in 1979, 97 of them in the field.

  3. BobDD says:

    Dayton Moore will think those chants are because of Gordon’s RBIs . . . which may prompt him to look this off-season for another Jose Guillen or Juan Gonzalez (shakes head miserably).

  4. MoreHRs&LesNorman says:

    Joe–Please find video of the two “extra base hits” Davis has given up. The first was hit like a single but hit to left-center. It didn’t get to the wall, but it was enough for a double. The second was an opposite field bloop hit against the shift. Davis has not allowed a ball over the wall, a ball hit to the wall or a ball hit up the line ALL SEASON!!!

  5. Jake Bucsko says:

    Not to be nitpicky, but the 2012 Angels won 88 games, 1 more than Miggy’s Tigers that year. They weren’t irrelevant, and anyway it’s just more support for the idea that he was robbed of the MVP.

    Andrew McCutchen is the reigning MVP and I believe his triple crown stats were .321, 21 HR, 83 RBI. I didn’t check baseball reference, but that’s close. So there is extremely recent precedent for an MVP winner with “pedestrian” traditional stats from a long suffering team that makes a miracle playoff run. Alex Gordon has a better shot than you might think.

  6. Mark says:

    WAR is a really interesting statistic. I was looking at it in baseball-reference.
    Do you know who’s the NL’s leader among position players? It’s Jason Heyward, with 6.1 who has just passed the suposedly clear no pitcher favorite for MVP in the NL, Giancarlo Stanton.
    What does that mean?
    Maybe it means WAR is a flawed stat specially when measuring defense.
    Maybe it means nothing.
    Maybe it means we’re all more traditionalists than we’d like to admit and Jason Heyward is a way better and more valious player than we use to think.

    • Jack Campbell says:

      I don’t think enough people look under the hood at the WAR engine and assess it with a critical eye. Probably for the same reason many people don’t look at car engines – the average person doesn’t have the comfort level with math to make an informed assessment. But we can ask questions.

      Here’s the non-detailed explanation for fWAR for offensive players per the Fangraphs Library:

      “Offensive players – Take wRAA, UBR & wSB, and UZR (which express offensive, base running, and defensive value in runs above average) and add them together. Add in a positional adjustment, since some positions are tougher to play than others, and then convert the numbers so that they’re not based on league average, but on replacement level (which is the value a team would lose if they had to replace that player with a “replacement” player – a minor leaguer or someone from the waiver wire). Convert the run value to wins (10 runs = 1 win) and voila, finished!”

      wRAA = weighted Runs Above Average
      UBR = Ultimate Base Running
      wSB = weighted Stolen Bases
      UZR = Ultimate Zone Rating

      So many quesions. Here are just a few:

      1) If you add four things together to compute a value (WAR in this case) – much like finding the average of four numbers – aren’t you saying that all four things carry an equal proportion of the end value? What’s the average of the following four numbers: 10, 50, 7, 48. Answer: 28.75. Let’s say we were calculating a new stat called Male Attractiveness, which involves the following elements: Facial Symmetry, Shoes, Body Fitness, and I don’t know, Hair. On a 50 point scale this guy scores a 10 for Facial Symmetry. Not good, kinda tough to look at. But he’s got a new pair of Cole Haans: 50! He’s got a 7 for Body Fitness – in the Chris Farley/John Belushi range. But his hair is near perfect! Overall, he’s solidly above average (if 25 is average).

      My question: how and why did they decide to give each of these attributes equal say in what makes a good player (or an attractive man)? If you’re scoring near the bottom in wRAA, but a great base runner, great base stealer and have a decent UZR, how much should the latter 3 stats compensate for your terribleness at wRAA? If I’m out of shape and ugly how much can shoes and hair help me?

      My larger point: isn’t there some degree of subjectivity in what makes a good player? To what extent can one defender out of 9 on the field impact overall run prevention? I’m not confident a variable like Ultimate Zone Rating really captures that. I love the notion of trying to compute these things – trying to reach an objective standard with data – but how much mystery still exists in between these numbers?

      One last thought: in grad school, studying political science, I never saw a regression analysis without subjectivity baked in. The very process of choosing variables and weighting them is subjective by definition. Reinforcing this point is the fact that fWAR and bWAR have sometimes vast differences.

      • George says:

        Those four components aren’t weighted equally in determining WAR, because they never get averaged. In your math example above, the computed value wouldn’t be 28.75 it would be 115 – the simple sum of the four parts.

        In the attractiveness analogy, you present a scenario with four non-comparable normalized scales that get averaged to get a score. This is a bad comparison for two reasons. First, the components of WAR aren’t normalized – they aren’t put on, for example, 0-50 scales. They’re raw run values, so you can just add them up (see above). Second, unlike in attractiveness, where it is subjective and difficult to define the relative importance of shoes, hair, etc., the fact that we can define all four components of WAR in units of runs means they are easily intercomparable.

        You’re right to be skeptical of how individual components are calculated, but the math of adding them up and baselining to replacement level is pretty bombproof.

      • BW says:

        If you add together the number of dollars a politician raises from direct mail, dialing for dollars, website ads, and fundraisers, are you saying all four have equal importance or are you just adding up four different categories that contribute to the same larger pool of value?

        The latter. Same with WAR.

    • I am a huge fan of Heyward, but I was surprised earlier in the year when I saw him among the league leaders in WAR. That said, while he’s been inconsistent at the plate and hasn’t delivered the monster year we’ve been expecting, he has delivered MORE in the less obvious ways. He does walk and get on base to the tune of a .350 OBP…. Which I realize is not lights out. He’s stolen 14 of 18, is very fast and consistently scores from second and goes from first to third. His defense has improved from raw athleticism and big arm to add great anticipation and great routes to the ball. He might be the best defensive outfielder in the league. Other things to love are that he hustles down the line EVERY time and beats the play if there is a bobble or double clutch and his mental errors are at near zero. He’s a player that consistently hits the cutoff man, throws to the right base, and though aggressive on the base paths, rarely gets thrown out on the bases or gets picked off. His offensive numbers may be pedestrian, but the rest of his game is top shelf. Imagine his WAR number if he’d hit .290 with 25 HRs, which he is more than capable of doing. Oh, and he’s still just 24 years old. I still believe the monster season is coming.

      • BTW: when a guy like Heyward is juxtaposed against a numb nuts like BJ Upton it’s real obvious. No lackadaisical jogs after balls. No dropping the ball on the warning track. No heaving the ball over the entire infield after not hustling, bobbling the ball and trying to bail out the play with an impossible to make throw. No brain farts on the base paths. The two players couldn’t be more opposite. Even Justin Upton has some really bad moments in the field, but he is having a big offensive year, so it gets overlooked.

      • Chris M says:

        The Braves just played a series against the Mets where Juan Lagares caught every single ball that wasn’t caught by the catcher* and you’re gonna suggest that Heyward is the best defensive outfielder in baseball? Repent!

        *only a slight exaggeration

        • NormE says:

          As a NL fan I’d just say that Heywatd looks like the best defensive RF in the league and Lagares looks like the best defensive CF in the league.

  7. DJ MC says:

    Why can’t it be that, instead of looking at Gordon’s WAR and using that only as support for your view on the stat, you are looking at the WAR list, seeing him that high despite “pedestrian” numbers, and being illuminated?

    I love that line about support vs. illumination, but drunks need to see to make their way home (or to the next bar), too.

  8. Fuzzball says:

    The “Zoilo Versalles was a lousy MVP pick” story has become accepted truth over the years, but it’s just not true. Versalles was a mediocre shortstop who had one year that was an anomaly, a year that happened to be the year that his team, the Minnesota Twins (who hadn’t won a pennant in more than 30 years), became only the third American League team other than the Yankees to win the pennant in 17 years.

    His teammates Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva had much better careers, but for that one year Versalles outperformed them. Playing in an era when the vast majority of great players were in the National League, Versalles lead all A.L. position players that year with 7.2 bRef WAR. And while a significant amount of that WAR comes from his 3.0 defensive WAR, Versalles led the Twins in offensive WAR as well with 5.3, ahead of Oliva (4.8) and Killebrew (4.0).

    The problem is that those of us who are old enough to remember Zoilo Versalles also remember the rest of his career, during which he accumulated less total WAR than he earned in his MVP year alone, which colors our memory. But Versalles unquestionably had the best season of any American League player in 1965.

    • NevadaMark says:

      Killebrew played only 113 games, had a mediocre year (at least by his standards), and STILL finished 15th in the MVP voting.

  9. MisterMJ says:

    I believe in WAR but sometimes it’s a bit off kilter. Juan Lagares, an outfielder on the Mets has a 5.4 WAR this year (5th among all NL players). It’s bolstered by a 3.7 dWAR. But .712 OPS and a 5:1 K to BB ratio (15:76)? Does anyone think he is more valuable than Andrew McCutchen (who has a 5.0 WAR and -0.8 dWAR)?

  10. BlindedByTheLight says:

    Seems to me that if you have a basic understanding of how WAR works, and you take it into consideration when you evaluate players in general, then you shouldn’t have to ignore it on occasions that it confirms your personal biases.

    Also, it seems to me that one crucial role of evidence is to support claims. If you say, “Player X should be MVP,” a reasonable response would be “What evidence supports that claim?”

    WAR isn’t perfect–no stat is. But if you’re going to try to evaluate a player how are you going to do that? With RBI and traditional stats? With OPS+ and WAR and other advanced stats? The eye test? What sports writers say? Again, what evidence do you use?

  11. Herb Smith says:

    I don’t mean to nit-pick, but I do want to say that Zoilo Versalles definitely deserved the 1965 AL MVP. It’s true that Tony Oliva had a fine year; he was second in the league in a number of important offensive categories. But in almost every single one of those, Versalles was FIRST.

    Versalles was also, by a good margin, the best defensive player in the AL. According to Fangraphs, he was the best baserunner in the league !

    These were his qualifications for the ’65 MVP award:
    -best offensive player in the league
    -best defensive player in the league
    -best baserunner in the league
    -his team came out of nowhere to win the pennant by 7 games

    How is this even arguable?

  12. Dan says:

    Joe, I’m an advanced stat guy (heck, I got my first baseball abstract in 1982, at age 12), but I am a little squeamish about the defensive metrics used in WAR. They seem to me to be like pitching wins, in the sense that they are pretty good indicators of greatness over a career, but don’t necessarily mean that much for any one season. Like pitching wins, only the very greatest defensive players can put up consistently excellent defensive WAR’s. That in itself is a little dubious. There just doesn’t seem to be enough consistency.. When I do rudimentary analysis on MVP’s all-star voting, etc.., I usually half the defensive WAR and reconfigure. I would rather vote for a player with a 7.0 offensive WAR and a 0.0 defensive WAR than a player with a 4.0 offensive and 4.0 defensive WAR. Josh Donaldson has been great, but I don’t buy that he’s been better than Trout, Stanton, or McCutchen.

    • Can’t players have an unusually awesome defensive year? Is it somehow assumed that offense goes up and down, but defense should be more of a constant? I’m not sure I would follow an argument like that. Players do have up and down defensive years.

  13. otistaylor89 says:

    I hate war and defensive WAR.

      • otistaylor89 says:

        I don’t think players have big up and down defensive years, but they do have random teammates from year to year that affect defensive play and random pitchers. Is a 33 year old Vernon Wells in LF and 36 year old Tori Hunter next to you in 2012 affect your dWAR more than a 28 year old Collin Congill and a 26 year old Kole Calhoun in 2014? Probably. Having said that, there is also a total randomness to hitting year to year, but there is no positional adjustments for hitting as there is in defense.

  14. Shewchef says:

    I am struck by the numbers comparisons from 1994 to the present and the decline to “pedestrian” stats. Sadly, only one word comes to mind: Steroids….

    • Yup. You’ll get the argument that, well, it was smaller parks…. Smaller than before, but they are largely the same parks as today. Watered down pitching talent is another one, but the league size is the same today, and this argument should imply that the hitting would also have been watered down….and expansion doesn’t impact the level of play for more than a couple of years. Baseball is pulling high level talent from all over the world. You also get the “juiced baseball” theories which some swear are facts. But, baseball denies it and the argument is dubious at best. What’s the variable that’s been removed? Not parks. Not pitching, at least not to the extent that it would explain the explosion of 50, 60 and even 70 HR seasons….and not just for a year, or two of expansion baseball. The ball? I don’t buy it. What’s left? Hmmmm.

  15. Badhand says:

    I blame the fans.

  16. Richard says:

    This is why it’s a good thing that these awards are based on pollings. You don’t just give the award out to the player with the “highest aggregate WAR based on weighted formulae from different sources”. You let a large number of people who are at least nominally intelligent about baseball vote. All their differing opinions balance out, rarely if ever giving the award to a player who is blatantly undeserving. Has Mike Trout had MVP-level seasons? Certainly. But you cannot say that Miguel Cabrera wasn’t equally deserving of his MVP awards.

  17. Mark Daniel says:

    Defense and baserunning are skills possessed by the utility guy that everybody fears will come to the plate in a late/close situation with men on base after they served as pinch runner/defensive replacement.
    With WAR, you take a pretty good hitter, throw in skills possessed by the typical utility guy, and voila – MVP.

    It makes perfect mathematical and baseball sense, but I think for the utility guy reason, it just doesn’t seem right.

    • Patrick Bohn says:

      Two issues with your argument:

      1. While the skills possessed by the utility guy may be common, that doesn’t mean adding them to a great hitter isn’t a big deal. Finding parts is easy. Finding a complete player is hard.

      2. You might be the only person I’ve ever seen describe a .323/.432/.557 hitter as “pretty good”

    • Mark Daniel says:

      I understand that finding a great hitter, who hits for power and average and gets on base, and who can also run and field well, is rare indeed.
      I’m just trying to find some rationale why people often don’t buy into WAR, and it is because the skills involved in playing defense and running the bases are not necessarily something we see as extraordinary.
      Also, I never said Trout was pretty good, I was referring players such as Alex Gordon (career .270/.346/.438) or Josh Donaldson (.269/.348/.462) who are now MVP candidates in large part because of the value they provide via baserunning and defense.

  18. […] Posnanski looks at the case for Alex Gordon for MVP. He doesn’t think it’s a particularly strong case and maybe WAR is becoming the new RBI. […]

  19. dfj79 says:

    Wade Davis has a chance to become just the second pitcher ever (joining Dutch Leonard, who did it exactly 100 years ago) to have a season with 10 wins, 100 strikeouts, and an ERA under 1.00. If someone wanted to contrive an MVP case for Davis, that’s probably the statistical feat they’d have to try selling to voters (though it’s unlikely to find as many buyers as it might have 30 years ago).

  20. itchiemayer says:

    I think WAR and win shares are generally reasonable, but still have to be looked at with a critical eye. Last year, Joey Votto had a good season, but not nearly as good as WAR and WS would have you believe. They do not take into account performance in clutch situations.
    Votto’s numbers last year were poor in clutch situations. Also, given his position of first base and his position in the lineup, Joey Votto only getting 74 RBI’s is not acceptable in my opinion. Also, walks are fine, and if Votto had scored 140 runs last year I would say they were worth it. However, especially in the second half of the year he wasn’t scoring so many runs and perhaps his team needed him to muscle up a bit instead of being so picky at the plate. Say a guy hits .500 in late game situations with his team down by five or more runs and when his team is up by five runs, it skews his stats. When judging a player we should look at the traditional stats, sabermetrics, and study the situational stats. Over the course of a career, WAR and WS should be accurate indicators of a player’s performance, but within an individual year these numbers can overrate or underrate a player. This year, Matt Holiday is on pace to be about a 3 WAR. He has 20 game winning RBI’s, more than anyone else. In his case, WAR underrates his actual importance to the team. If player A has a WAR of 6 and player B has a WAR of 7, I do not believe we have enough information to say player B had a better year, or is more deserving of an MVP award. It’s a good starting point for the discussion, but there is more to discuss. I find it hard to believe that J. Peralta is one of the 10 or so best positional players in the Major Leagues this year. Yet that is what WAR tells us. He is having a good season, worthy of a top 40 or 50 positional player, but not top 10.

    • Patrick Bohn says:

      The problem with discussing WAR and RBIs is that one is an individual stat, and one isn’t. Outside of home runs, a player can only earn an RBI if *someone else* has done something. Votto is probably a bit too selective at the plate, yes, but RBI totals are a lousy way to judge how good a hitter is. For example

      Hitter A: (Played in 162 games) .305/.435/.491, 30 doubles, 3 triples, 24 home runs
      Hitter B: (Played in 158 games) .233/.288/.390, 23 doubles, 5 triples, 22 home runs

      Which hitter would you guess drove in nearly 30 more runs? Which would you rather have?

  21. […] Cabrera in 2012, and it’s helped create some unlikely MVP candidates in the years since. As Joe Posnanski highlighted on his website, Alex Gordon was one in […]

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