A few days ago, I explained that I’m looking at my American League MVP vote a little bit differently this year. I’m going to vote for the best player. That’s all. I’ve only voted for the MVP one other time, I believe, and I voted for who I thought was the best player then too — that was Joe Mauer in 2009. But I readily admit that I used to try to dissect that word, “valuable,” until it carried all sorts of vague and winding meanings. How did his team do? How often did he deliver clutch hits? How much value did he add as a leader? I’m not saying that’s wrong, but I’m saying that stuff is (1) Difficult, perhaps even impossible, to know; (2) Of uncertain value; (3) Possibly beside the point.
The way I’m looking at it this year: The most valuable player is the best player. Determining the best individual player — with an infinite number of variables affecting game — is hard enough without trying to feel the intangibles.
I’ve heard from numerous people who disagree with my new method, and I certainly understand their main points. But there’s one point I don’t quite understand, one point that has been brought up countless times through the years though I’m not sure the people who bring it up ever really THINK about it. I know I didn’t.
The point made by so many: “Players who are not in pennant races can’t have their seasons taken at the same value because they don’t face the same PRESSURE as players who are in pennant races.”
I suppose the people who say this might mean it one of two ways — maybe both ways.
(1) It’s easier for players not in pennant races to play well because they are not under pressure.
(2) The production of a player who is not in a pennant race is not particularly meaningful (or valuable) compared to the production of a player in a pennant race.
Like in the old game show “21,” I’ll take the second issue first. What they’re saying is that Jose Bautista’s production in 2011 isn’t worth as much as the production of Dustin Pedroia or Jacoby Ellsbury or Curtis Granderson because his team isn’t in contention.
Baseball is won by a collection of players The MVP is an individual award. It’s easy to confuse those — easy and tempting — but I think it’s largely unfair. Seems to me that if a college golfer shoots the lowest score, he’s the most valuable player of the tournament even if his team finished 26th. Seems to me that if an individual wins the 100-meter, 200-meter and long jump, she’s the most valuable track athlete even if her team is no factor in the overall standings. Or, in another track scenario, the fastest runner in the 4×100 relay is the most valuable runner in the race, even if his teammates run like Molinas and the relay team finishes last. Seems to me that if person on a quiz team answers the most questions, she is the most valuable player even if the rest of her team happens to be filled with dunces and the other team happens to win.
Of course, you could say that these are largely individual sports and games … but no sport or game more meticulously or lovingly charts and measures and records individual achievement than baseball. I couldn’t tell you how many great picks Derrick Rose set last year or how often Andre Johnson sprung a teammate with a great downfield block. But I can tell you exactly what percentage of the time this year, say, Michael Cuddyer swings at pitches out of the strike zone (32.5%) or how many infield pop-ups Brandon McCarthy has instigated (14). If we are so eager to record these individual statistics — and we have this overwhelming record to draw from — I think we should be able to determine who is the most valuable player in baseball without having to dive into the shady world of chemistry and momentum and reflected greatness. I’m not saying these things don’t exist. I’m sure they do. But I think when it comes to determining who is the most valuable player, baseball has plenty of mystery in it already without us having to guess how much leadership and mentorship and gamesmanship and bullship a player provided.
Of course, people disagree. People will say that MVP should come from a winning team — otherwise his production has little value. That’s fine. In fact, that’s the been the default position for more than 70 years. There’s no point in arguing if you disagree — your side has already won. But I don’t buy it. I’ve come around to believing the MVP is the best player. How good or bad his teammates are is no longer in my equation.
Back to No. 1. That’s the real point of this post. I’ve just heard so many people say through the years that it’s EASIER for players on lousy teams to put up good numbers. After all, they are free from expectation and tension. They generally don’t have to play in front of big and involved crowds. They don’t face that daily pressure that a pennant race provides. This year’s victim of the theory is Bautista. Sure he’s having a good numbers year, the line goes. The Blue Jays are out of it.
It seems to me that people often say knee-jerk things in sports — that is, stuff that makes no sense if you actually put any thought in it. For instance, people all the time say about a management group or a coaching staff or a group of players something like: “They don’t want to win.” Isn’t this kind of dumb? Who doesn’t want to win? They used to say this in Kansas City constantly about former Chiefs GM Carl Peterson. He doesn’t want to win — he just wants to fill up the stadium.
This is obviously illogical. OF COURSE, he wanted to win. AND he wanted to fill up the stadium. AND even if you believe the second was more important to him (unlikely, I might add), well, there is no way to fill up the stadium without winning. Was there anyone out there who really believed that Peterson was sitting in his office 12 to 16 hours a day while thinking: “You know, in the end, I don’t really care if we win.” But people kept saying it (still say it) out of sheer frustration. It’s easier I think — rather than admit that the world is complicated, that honest effort doesn’t always pay off, the good plans fall apart, that luck isn’t spread out evenly — to question a person’s heart.
This line — that it’s easier to put up numbers without pennant pressure — is a lot like that. Nobody can possibly believe this. First of all, there’s the obvious flaw: If it was easier to put up numbers in non-pressure situations, then players would consistently and obviously have better years on lousy teams than they do on good ones. Does this ring even the slightest bell of truth? Does anyone believe Derek Jeter would have put up better numbers had he played for Kansas City? Does anyone believe Albert Pujols would be so much better if he had spent his career playing in the carefree world of the Pittsburgh Pirates? Roy Halladay was great for mediocre Blue Jays teams and is great for outstanding Phillies teams. Hank Aaron was the same great player with the same great numbers when Milwaukee won, when Milwaukee almost won, when Milwaukee wasn’t very good at all.
Second of all, many of the numbers that people have historically treasured — wins and RBIs in particular — are team-driven statistics. That means that it should be significantly easier for players to put up those numbers when they play on GOOD teams. Example: Jose Bautista has ONLY 82 RBIs, while Curtis Granderson has 98 RBIs. Why?
Well, Bautista has come up with runners in scoring position 133 times — and 16 of those was intentionally walked. In all, he’s come up with 306 runners on base.
Granderson has come up with runners in scoring position 159 times — and he’s not been intentionally walked. In all, he’s come up with 360 runners on base.
So, you tell me in which situation it’s easier to knock in a lot of runs.
But the third thought is more personal. If you’ve read this blog at all you know: I’ve covered a lot of bad teams in my life. I’ve been around some good ones too. And as far as “pressure” goes … well, from my observation, it’s not even close. There is infinitely more pressure on players on lousy teams than on good ones. Obviously, this depends on how you define pressure, but if the textbook definition of pressure is “the feeling of stressful urgency cause by the necessity of achieving something,” well, absolutely, there’s way more pressure on the lousy teams.
Think about it: What pressure is there on players in pennant races? The pressure to win? Sure. But players come to the ballpark energized. Everyone on the team is into it. The crowd is alive and hopeful. The afternoon crackles. Anticipation. Excitement. There is nothing in sports quite like the energy in a baseball clubhouse during a pennant race. Players arrive early to prepare. Teammates help each other. Everyone’s in a good mood. There’s a feeling swirling around: This is exactly the childhood dream. The added importance of the moment could, in theory I suppose, create extra stress. But the reality I’ve seen is precisely the opposite. The importance sharpens the senses, feeds the enthusiasm, makes the day brighter. Baseball is a long season. Anything to give a day a little gravity, to separate it from yesterday, to make it all more interesting … anything like that, I think, is much more likely to make it EASIER to play closer to the peak.
A losing clubhouse? Exactly the opposite. The downward pressure is enormous and overwhelming — after all, who cares? The town has moved on. A Hawaiian vacation awaits. Teammates are fighting to keep their jobs or fighting to impress someone on another team or just plain fighting. The manager might be worried about his job. The reporters are few, and they’re negative. Smaller crowds make it easier to hear the drunken critics. Support is much harder to come by, and there is constant, intense force demanding that you just stop trying so hard. After all: Why take that extra BP? You’ve got the swing down. Why study a few extra minutes of film? You’ve faced that hitter before. Why take that extra base? Why challenge him on that 3-1 pitch? Why? You’re down 9-3 anyway.
It’s absolutely AMAZING to me when a player puts up a fantastic year even when the team around him stinks. Cal Ripken’s 1991 season is like a miracle. For him to play every inning at shortstop for a 95-loss Orioles team, for him to hit .323 with 34 homers and drive in 114 runs for a team that finished 10th in runs scored, for him to play Gold Glove shortstop behind a legendarily bad starting pitching staff … yeah, miracle is the only way I know to describe it. It’s one of the great seasons of the last half century, and it was accomplished against a howling wind. He did win the MVP award that year, but by only 30 points over Cecil Fielder, who who hit .261/.347/.513 (all dramatically lower than Ripken) but did bang 44 homers and drove in 134 RBIs for a high-scoring Tigers team that was vaguely in contention.
Ripken was three times the player Fielder was that year. The argument for those who chose Fielder, I can only assume, is that Fielder’s numbers mattered more or that Fielder’s numbers came under more pressure. The first argument seems unfair to me. The second seems ridiculous.