A political story: A few years ago, back when George Bush and Al Gore were still locked down in their post-election hanging-chad Florida tango, I saw something on television that surprised me. There was a politician, no idea his name, who stepped on camera and said something like this: “Look, this is an election for the President of the United States, and we should go to any and all extremes to make sure that we fulfill the people’s bidding. If that means hand-counting every single vote in Florida, then we should do that. This is too important to allow political squabbling to interfere with what I believe is the most important aspect of our Democracy, the power of the people.”
What made it surprising was that a Republican said that — this was at the time when Republicans had already declared victory and Democrats were screaming about the unfairness of it all. Anyway, it said “Republican” below his name. I’m certainly no more above partisanship than anyone else, but at some point during that whole mess, I had just grown so tired of the repetitive predictability of it all, Democrats making their arguments that conveniently tilted toward Gore, Republicans making their arguments that conveniently tilted toward Bush, the screaming partisanship that wasn’t at all surprising but was at least a little bit disappointing. Wasn’t this bigger than partisanship? When I saw one person cross the aisle — and I would have been just as surprised and happy if it had been a Democrat making an impassioned case for the country rather than for his or her party — I felt just a little bit happy.
Well, it turned out that my surprise wasn’t justified. They had made a mistake on TV. The next time they showed a close up of the guy, they had changed the words below his name — he was actually a Democrat. And just like that his impassioned words that only seconds earlier had inspired me disappeared into the drain hole of, “I really want my guy to be President.”
This, I guess, is how I am beginning to feel about this American League MVP race.
Not that sports are politics: Detroit fans SHOULD want Justin Verlander to win (or Miguel Cabrera, depending on their feelings about pitchers as MVP). Boston fans SHOULD want Jacoby Ellsbury or Adrian Gonzalez to win. Toronto fans should want Jose Bautista, Yankees fans should want Curtis Granderson or Robinson Cano, Texas fans should want somebody on their team (Michael Young seems to be the majority choice though several Rangers are having good years) and so on. This is part of what it means to be a fan, to root for your team, to carry the banner for your guy, I do this too, I have probably done it more than most. When I was in Kansas City, I fought hard in print for Zack Greinke to win the Cy Young in 2009. I honestly believed it, but hey, I was also a Kansas City sportswriter. I wrote more than once that Angel Berroa should win Rookie of the Year in 2003. I understand the feelings of fans. Nobody could possibly be more valuable out there than that guy who is helping your team.
The thing that is tough, though, is that these emotions are cloaked by statistics. When it comes to the MVP, everybody seems to choose the statistic that happens to benefit the guy who they want to win the award. It was like machine counting or hand-counting votes back in 2000. As far as I know, whether to machine or hand count votes in a close election is not a political issue. There’s no reason for one party or another to favor one way over another — indeed, if I remember correctly, a lot was made about the fact that in Texas, George Bush had pushed a law that automatically triggered hand counting in close elections.* But when it mattered, suddenly Democrats were all about the accuracy of hand counting and the fallibility of machines, while Republicans were suddenly about the unbiased nature of machines and the danger of human error.
*I could be getting that a bit wrong — I’m really not trying to use politics except as an example.
Every day now, I hear from Justin Verlander fans who have a new way to use statistics to show that pitchers are every bit as important as hitters. They point out how many batters Verlander faces (comparing that to hitters’ at-bats) or what kind of impact he has on each game and so on. Jacoby Ellsbury fans point out Fangraphs WAR, which Ellsbury conveniently happens to be leading. Jose Bautista fans point out Baseball Reference WAR, which Bautista conveniently happens to be leading. Granderson fans show that he leads the American League in runs and RBIs, and most of the time when that happens in the AL, the players tend to win the award.*
*Here’s one for you Granderson fans: The RBI/Runs combination has happened eight times in the in the American League the last 50 years — A-Rod in 2007, Ken Griffey in 1997, Albert Belle in 1995 (he tied for the lead in both), Don Baylor in 1979, Reggie Jackson in 1973, Yaz in 1967, Frank Robinson in 1966 and Roger Maris in 1961 — and six of those men won the MVP award.
And all of this is fine, like I say everybody should be making their case, but it seems to me that to make their case people choose statistics that they would not care much about if it didn’t suit their candidate. If Ellsbury was leading Baseball Reference WAR instead of Fangraphs WAR, I’m sure Ellsbury fans would be trumpeting that. If Granderson was leading in OPS+, I’m sure his fans would be trumpeting that. If Michael Young was leading the league in runs scored and RBIs, I’m sure we’d be hearing a whole lot more about than than his leadership.
Keith Olbermann, who I respect very much as a baseball fan, wrote this about Justin Verlander the other day: “The Tigers are where they are because Verlander has won 24 games. Period. The Tigers have one twenty-homer man (Cabrera), one 100-RBI man (Cabrera), one six-steal man (Austin Jackson, 22), one nine-hold guy (Joaquin Benoit), two .300 hitters (Cabrera and (Victor) Martinez) and, until Doug Fister came along, they had one pitcher with an ERA under 4.30 (Verlander). … He’s a one-man team.”
Now, Keith isn’t a big Tigers fan, so his case for Verlander is not driven by partisanship. But it is driven by narrative, and there are a few problems. For one thing, he seems to be making the case that the Tigers have a terrible offense — the whole bit about how many 20-homer and six-steal guys they have. That’s fine except, last I checked the Tigers have the third-best record in the American League. And, not coincidentally, they have scored the fourth-most runs in the American League.
The nine-holds thing Keith says suggests that their bullpen has been lacking, but every Tigers fan knows that Jose Valverde has not blown a single save all year, and while the ERAs of starters other than Verlander and Fister might not be sparkling, I would suggest that the Yankees or Red Sox or Rangers would probably be happy to go into the playoffs with Max Scherzer or Rick Porcello as their third or fourth starters. There are no one-man teams. Never were. Never will be. Not in baseball.
But this is what happens. Arguments get overheated. Statistics are wielded like knives. The truth — at least as I see it — is that there are a bunch of worthy candidates for MVP. There is no clear-cut or obvious choice here, no matter how loud people scream it. A whole bunch of Red Sox fans wanted to make the argument that Ellsbury sewed up the MVP Sunday with his key home run against the Yankees. Maybe he did — we do love our narratives — but think how ridiculous that is. The Red Sox have been in total free fall for three weeks. Were we supposed to BLAME Jacoby Ellsbury for that? Did he first LOSE the MVP award because his team completely fell apart — even though Ellsbury played well during the stretch — and then get it back because he had a big game in the bleakness?
I am an MVP voter this year, and this is the toughest vote I can remember because there are several players having true MVP seasons, and at least one of them is a pitcher — it’s so hard to compare the contributions of pitchers and hitters. I have already written than I am going to choose the player I think is the best, regardless of the team he played on. I have not made up my mind yet, which is not a great thing with the season almost over. I feel good about the fact that whoever I choose will be a worthy choice — this has been a great year for individual players. I also know that whoever I choose, a whole lot of people will know that I’m an idiot, and they will have the numbers to prove it.