Well, I just found out that this year I have an American League MVP vote. This means that I will spend the next six weeks or so in a constant state of panic as I break down every candidate game-by-game, out-by-out, until I fill out my ballot or go insane, whichever comes first.
I have been coming around to a new way of thinking about the MVP for a few years now. I would say that 15 years ago, I was as traditional about the award as anyone. I bought entirely into the idea that the word “valuable” meant something different from the word “productive.” Those words are synonyms, but I believed in the lofty notion that a player — through his leadership, through his clutch performances, through his RBI totals, through his team’s won-loss record (or his own), through his big plays in the most timely moments — could be significantly more “valuable” than “productive.”
The worst MVP choice of the last 20 years was almost certainly Dennis Eckersley in 1992. The guy threw 80 innings all year. In 38 of his admittedly impressive-looking 51 saves, the Athletics won by at least two runs. There was an argument to be made that Eckersley wasn’t even the most valuable right-handed relief pitcher in his own division in 1992 — Jeff Montgomery was probably every bit as good. By Fangraphs WAR, there were more than 100 players in the American League who were more productive than Dennis Eckersley in 1992. I don’t know if it’s quite that stark … but, yeah, it’s pretty stark. That was a big miss.
So why did Eckersley get the MVP vote? Right: It’s that word, “Valuable.” It shakes the voters. For a few years there, when the save was still a fairly new statistic, writers got it in their heads that the men who closed out victories in the ninth inning were men of magic. Never mind that teams — with or without designated closers — have been closing out ninth-inning leads at almost exactly the same percentage since at least the 1950s. Starting around 1980, and culminating with the Eckersley fiasco in 1992, closers got much love in the MVP voting.
1980 (AL): Goose Gossage finishes third.
1981 (AL): Rollie Fingers win the MVP award.
1982 (NL): Bruce Sutter finishes sixth.
1983 (AL): Dan Quisenberry finishes sixth.
1984 (AL): Willie Hernandez wins the MVP award.
1985 (AL): Donnie Moore finishes sixth.
1988 (AL): Dennis Eckersley finishes fifth
1989 (NL): Mark Davis finishes sixth
1989 (AL): Dennis Eckersley finishes fifth
1990 (AL): Bobby Thigpen finishes fifth
1992 (AL): Dennis Eckersley wins the MVP award.
That’s mostly when the closer fetish ended. There have been a few other bursts of madness since — Jose Mesa finished fourth in the MVP voting in 1995 (really, he did), Randy Myers finished fourth in the MVP voting in 1997 (it’s true), Eric Gagne finished sixth in 2003, K-Rod finished sixth in 2008.* But generally, it seems like the voters have come to their senses.I don’t think a closer or any other part-time player will win another MVP award … unless someone concocts some new narrative that resonates with voters and redefines that concept of “valuable” the way the save did.
*Interesting, I think: The near-unanimous choice for the best closer ever, Mariano Rivera, has never finished higher than ninth in the MVP voting. There’s a weird thing that goes on with the Yankees and awards. There’s this constant drumbeat about how Yankees players are overrated and over-decorated, but Derek Jeter never won an MVP award, Mariano Rivera never won a Cy Young and was never even close in the MVP, and the only Yankees player to win an MVP award the last 25 years was Alex Rodriguez, who supposedly gets no respect. Strange.
Over time, I’ve grown less and less interested or bewitched by that word, “valuable.” Along the way, I had a fun argument with Bill James about value and poker; I was trying to make the argument that a 7 was more valuable than an ace if it helped complete a hand-winning straight. Bill made the rather definitive point that the ace was, in fact, always more valuable than the seven, and that the ace cannot be held responsible for the lousy cards around it. That had an effect on me. I started learning a bit more about the illusions of the stats that I had held so close throughout my childhood — stats like batting average and RBIs and wins and so on. I started trying to quantify those vague notions of leadership and guts and all the other things announcers talked about.*
*How in the world, if we don’t even know which players used steroids, are we supposed to know which players exhibit great leadership?
And, also, I started to pay closer attention to how little one man, no matter how great, can do for a baseball team. In 2003, Albert Pujols had one of the greatest seasons of the last 25 years. His basic numbers: .359, 51 doubles, 43 homers, 137 runs, 124 RBIs. He played left field and first base, and played them both exceedingly well. He was a phenomenon, though it went almost unnoticed because 2003 was right in the middle of the Barry Bonds’ absurdity tour. But my point is not about individual achievement. My point is that Albert Pujols in 2003 was about as good as a player has been … and the Cardinals finished third behind not-especially impressive Houston and Chicago teams. What could Pujols do to change that? Hit for an even higher average? Bang even more home runs? Come through in the clutch even more often?
And directly to the point: What does that have to do with whether or not he’s more valuable than another player who isn’t nearly as productive?
I’ve been pulling away from my old way of thinking for a while now. But this year, I’m fully breaking away. I don’t think I’m making some kind of bold announcement here, but this year my MVP vote will be based entirely on who I think is the best player in the American League. I’m not giving that word “valuable” any more meaning or consideration than it deserves. I realize that many people disagree with this line of reasoning and still think that valuable means something different, and that the “most valuable player” and “player of the year” are two different things, and that the MVP should be a player who affected the pennant race and come from a team in contention. I hear from these people every week. I’m not saying they are wrong. I’m saying that I’m going a different way. I’m picking the best players, as best I can determine them.
Right now, I firmly believe the best player in the American League is Jose Bautista. And, right now, he’s my MVP. There are plenty of good candidates who can catch him — and most of them are on teams in contention. The Red Sox have Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury, both are having great years. One of my favorite players in the game, Curtis Granderson, is having a marvelous season for the Yankees. Ben Zobrist, one more time, is having the best year nobody’s noticing. Miguel Cabrera continues to slug. It’s difficult to compare pitchers and hitters, but Justin Verlander has been almost unhittable — at time actually unhittable — and others like C.C. Sabathia and the Angels pair of Dan Haren and Jered Weaver are pitching extremely well.
But, for me, it’s Bautista by two or three lengths heading into the home stretch. Somebody has to catch him. And, no offense to the quality of leadership or hustle or RBIs or wins or any other sort of unnoticed value, but they’re going to have to catch him with production I can see.