Monday, August 07, 2006

The AL MVP Question

Thanks to excellent fan support from Taiwan, as well as from loyal readership in the US, Canyon of Heroes has not only surpassed 20,000 hits in half the time it took to reach 10,000 but in less than 3 days we've also surpassed 25,000 hits!! Taiwan has been outstanding with a number of blogs and bulletin boards discussing COH content. It has come to my attention that a day or two ago, the 3rd largest daily newspaper in Taiwan, China Daily, ran an article featuring Canyon of Heroes artwork depicting Chien Ming Wang. I sure hope they gave me credit, but either way the fans know where it comes from and I hope you keep coming back for more. Xie xie. Kam sia.

Wang pithces tomorrow, so come back for a recap and some new artwork.

Today, I want to examine the question, "Who is the AL MVP?" I was browsing the web yesterday and came across a question being posed at Boston Dirt Dogs. They asked their readers, who are of course completely objective, non-partial, and always well-informed, MVP: Is Jeter a serious threat to Big Papi? At first glance, I thought that question was extremely AL East-centric, and neither of those players had been first in my mind. Jeter's lack of power surely affects his chances in a year when so many sluggers are battling night in and night out. Papi is always a consideration, but I've always held onto the premise that he's not even the best hitter on his own team. If any Red Sox player was to be named MVP it should be Manny Ramirez. But, I'm not one to leave these things to impressions without a real examination of the facts. Maybe Jeter is the MVP. Maybe Ortiz' highlight reel moments are an indication of something that will be more accurately depicted in the stats. Let's look.

Everyone's criteria for Most Valuable Player is a bit different. The actual guidelines for the award are vague at best. They leave the evaluation up to the individual voter to determine for themself, which is a dangerous proposition in some cases. I'm sure Jim Edmonds will get a vote or two for "grittiness" and David Eckstein will get consideration for his "spunky lead-off prowess". I won't claim that I have the sure-fire way to evaluate the MVP, that should be universally adopted by all voters, but I'll make my best attempt at what makes sense to me, as per the open criteria of the actual award.

First, I think we need to consider the guys who have produced the most outstanding individual offensive numbers. Those numbers should be broad-ranging stats that are easy for the average fan to digest. The field will be large as there are a lot of high production stars in the Majors. It's only after narrowing the field with precision metrics that we'll come closer to the real MVP. The basic stats will provide the jumping off point. I'd like to start with OPS as a base number for consideration. It includes a player's ability to get on base, and hit for power. Those are the most essential qualities of an MVP when separating them from the field of Major Leaguers.

The top 10 OPS in the American League are as follows:

1. Travis Hafner (1.060)
2. Manny Ramirez (1.055)
3. Jim Thome (1.050)
4. David Ortiz (1.027)
5. Jermaine Dye (1.025)
6. Jason Giambi (1.006)
7. Vernon Wells (.981)
8. Justin Morneau (.975)
9. Joe Mauer (.970)
10. Paul Konerko (.939)

Derek Jeter comes in 12th with a .913 mark.

What I notice right away is that 4 of the top 6 hitters on that list are DHs. I see this as problematic down the road, but I'll suspend that thought until later. A lot can happen between now and the end of my analysis, and I won't rule out a DH simply for excelling at the "position" he has been assigned to "play". I will say that I believe a DH can only be MVP if his offensive production is so outstanding as to be substantially better than the players who take the field. The only qualifier in that statement is that the guys who play the field actually have to have a positive impact on the team's success. If a guy plays the field but hurts his team, he also therefore hurts his case for MVP.

Keeping Jeter and Ortiz in the discussion, It seems that Jeter is not even in the picture in terms of raw offensive production. Ortiz is up there with a shot at the top spot but there are two full time DHs ahead of him, and his aforementioned teammate, Ramirez. I'd rule out Big Papi at this point too. Based on this extremely incomplete data set, I would consider the debate between Hafner and Ramirez. Ah, but that's why there is more complete data to measure player performance. Let's move on to another statistic that I like. Runs created per 27 outs.

RC27 is a nice number to tell us how many runs a player is directly responsible for creating before he makes 27 outs. Of course, 27 outs is the number of outs in a 9 inning game. Imagine the home run derby, if you will. A guy goes up against a batting practice pitcher and gets 10 outs to hit as many home runs as he can. This is not all that different. How many runs would a guy score if the team was made up of 9 clones of himself, and given 27 outs against a league average pitcher? I like this number because it eliminates a lot of the situational factors that go into OBP and SLG. The playing field is fairly level for everyone and you'll get a nice picture of how many runs a guy is worth to his team.

The top 10 players in RC27 are as follows:

1. Jim Thome (9.89)
2. Travis Hafner (9.58)
3. Manny Ramirez (9.37)
4. Jason Giambi (8.71)
5. David Ortiz (8.64)
6. Joe Mauer (8.63)
7. Jermaine Dye (8.45)
8. Vernon Wells (8.43)
9. Justin Morneau (8.15)
10. Derek Jeter (7.96)

Well, Jeter enters the discussion here, but he's still outside the leaders by a fair margin. Ortiz is still down the ladder in terms of DHs, with 3 ahead of him on this list. What do you know? His teammate is once again ahead of him as well. What to do about that? This number fluctuates a bit game to game, and week to week. Hafner was atop the list just a day or two ago. You can't really separate the top 3 guys very easily. Likewise, 4-8 are not to far apart. I'd say that the threesome of Hafner, Thome, and Ramirez are showing themselves to be the class of the AL with their bats. Two DHs and a lousy LFer.

I'll get into my feelings about DHs at this point, since we can readily see that they are the best hitters in the league. It's hard for me to vote for a DH this year because there are 4 of them at the top of the discussion. So far, Hafner gets the edge in my book, but Thome is close behind him. Ortiz and Giambi are at the 1A level in terms of their production, with all other DHs falling at 2nd-tier and below. Hitting is probably the most important contribution an everyday player can make to his team, so we have to weight this kind of production more heavily when considering MVP. The problem is, at DH a guy is spared the brutal task of fielding ground balls, running into walls, and generally standing out in the sun for hours at a time. He plays half the game. That's not enough though. Manny Ramirez can't really be accused of playing defense. Sure, he stands out in the sun and occasionally lopes over to catch a fly ball, but he's one of the worst outfielders in the game. How can we account for the defensive contrubution that guys make to their teams that may level the playing field in the MVP discussion?

A lot of effort has gone into measuring defense, but nothing is universally agreed upon as a decent determiner for a defender's direct impact on his club's success. It's complicated. A good pitching staff will give the players behind it less difficult circumstances in which to field their positions. Different ballparks produce different results. I'll hold off on using metrics to analyze this aspect of the debate for just a moment. I'd like to take a step back and look at the list of top hitters, and eyeball the players that play to the right of the defensive spectrum. That means 3B-> CF-> 2B-> SS-> C.

In terms of RC27, we see that Manny Ramirez, Joe Mauer, Jermaine Dye, Vernon Wells, Justin Morneau, and Derek Jeter play the field everyday. Of that group, Mauer, Wells, and Jeter play to the right of the spectrum. Mauer is both the highest player on the list, and the furthest to the right on defense. That would have him included in the discussion in my opinion. As it stands now, I am considering Hafner, Thome, Ramirez, and Mauer with my eyes still open on Ortiz, Jeter, and Vernon Wells.

I'd like to see how all this translates to the player's actual "value" though. These guys are great hitters, separated by only a few percentage points here and there. 4 of the top guys are DHs, a bunch of OFs populate the list, and two infielders who play difficult defensive positions. It's still hard to determine who means more to his team. What if he wasn't there? What if each of these guys was missing from his team's lineup and replaced by a AAA guy? The Yankees have played most of the year without Matsui and Sheffield and it certainly had an impact in spite of the good play by Melky and Bernie from time to time. Which one of these guys is worth more to his team as compared to the minor league replacement at his position? Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) should help us gain some perspective on that.

The top 10 players in the American League in VORP are as follows:

1. Travis Hafner (60.3)
2. Derek Jeter (55.6)
3. Vernon Wells (53.6)
4. Joe Mauer (52.4)
5. Manny Ramirez (52.3)
6. David Ortiz (51.9)
7. Jim Thome (50.6)
8. Grady Sizemore (50.5)
9. Miguel Tejada (49.1)
10. Jermaine Dye (45.2)

Ah, that's interesting. You see the manifestation of good offense at tough defensive positions on this list. It's far more difficult to find a good SS, CF, or C than it is a DH, corner OF, or 1B. To his credit, Travis Hafner is at the top of this list. His offensive production has been so good this season that he's outpaced everyone in terms of his value despite playing the easiest position in the sport. He's really leading the pack at this point. Jeter, Wells, and Mauer help their cases a little more, and Ortiz and Thome look to be falling back to the bottom of the pack a bit more. At this point, I'd have to rank my choices as Travis Hafner, Manny Ramirez, Joe Mauer, Jim Thome, Derek Jeter, and David Ortiz. Vernon Wells is in the discussion as well, but needs a miracle to enter the final lap.

Looking at the list I've compiled so far, I feel that I'm missing a couple of things necessary for me to feel good about naming an MVP. The first thing is some kind of data to evaluate defense. Jeter, Mauer, and Wells have been included in this race mainly because they play difficult positions and hit well to boot. I can stick Jason Giambi behind the plate every night and name him the MVP, if I can't qualify how much his play at catcher would cripple my team. The other thing I need for my MVP is an impact on the pennant race. I never liked the idea of A-Rod winning MVP while playing for the last place Rangers in 2003. He should receive consideration in that case, but the award should have been given to either Jorge Posada or Manny.

Fortunately, there is one statistic that helps to seal the deal when it comes to a player's impact with the bat and glove on a winning ballclub. That statistic is Win Shares. A jumble of offensive metrics is used to create Batting WS. A jumble of defensive metrics are used to create Defensive WS. Each team's Pythagorean Win Total is used to make these numbers, reflecting the appropriate imbalance in team success. For MVP I like this metric. It doesn't tell you who the best player is, but rather which player is most responsible for the success of the best teams. That suits my personal sensibilities in terms of awarding the MVP trophy. Let's take a look.

The Top 10 Total WS players are as follows:

1. Joe Mauer (22)
2. Derek Jeter (22)
3. Manny Ramirez (22)
4. Carlos Guillen (20)
5. Jim Thome (19)
6. David Ortiz (19)
7. Travis Hafner (19)
8. Justin Morneau (19)
9. Curtis Granderson (19)
10. Jason Giambi (18)
11. Ivan Rodriguez (18)
12. Carl Crawford (18)
13. Miguel Tejada (18)

Before I go any further, I want to add that the rankings exist this way for a lot of reasons. Win Shares takes into account some rough "clutch" hitting metrics, a team's under or over-performance according to the team's projected Pythagorean Wins, and some situational numbers as well. In essence, a guy gets rewarded for helping his team do better than the predictions,and for producing in "high leverage" situations. If you're interested in all the data and analysis you can research Win Shares a bit more on your own.

Where does this leave us? I'm ready to choose my MVP at this point, based on a heavy dose of Win Shares, a sprinkle of VORP, and a little peripheral vision on character, intangibles, and contributions to the team's 2006 storyline. Right away, Vernon Wells is gone. He's not among the leaders I've listed in Win Shares, although he's close at 17. I'll also go ahead and eliminate Thome and Ortiz. Both of them take a backseat to Hafner in raw offensive production at DH, but neither of them pass him in the Win Shares or VORP analysis. In addition, Ortiz has a teammate that's better in every measurable way. That leaves Hafner, Jeter, Mauer, and Manny Ramirez.

As much as it pains me to do so, I will go ahead and cut Travis Hafner. Despite his big numbers, he's on the worst team of the bunch. Manny Ramirez' production with the bat is close enough that his impact on a very good Boston club is more impressive than Hafner's similar contribution from DH on a bad team. Manny, Mauer, and Jeter.

It's interesting that these three players are also the top 3 in Win Shares. I didn't plan it that way, but now that I check the list, it doesn't contradict my logic. How to separate these guys? Manny is the best hitter. Mauer plays the toughest defensive position and is 2nd among these players in virtually all the metrics. Jeter is tops in VORP among these 3 and plays on the best ballclub. Okay I have my decision.

3rd place goes to Derek Jeter. He could easily leapfrog both of the guys ahead of him and win MVP, but he is surrounded by the best talent and features the lowest OPS and RC27 of the 3. If he continues his production until the end of the year and either of the other players falters a bit, he'll win it for sure.

2nd place goes to Manny Ramirez. I really wanted to give it to him, but he's such a bad fielder and is overshadowed by his more dramatic teammate. The Red Sox are in 2nd now, and are in serious danger of missing the playoffs. With a league average player at his position, there's no doubt in my mind that the Sox would finish below the Blue Jays in the AL East. That alone should win him the award. If he won, I couldn'r argue. It's that close.

In the end I give the AL MVP to Joe Mauer. It was a tough choice. The Twins have been the best team in baseball since breaking their last 4 game losing streak on June 8th. Their record since that time is 40-11 and they've turned around a season that looked like it was about to flame out before the Spring Training enthusiasm died out. Big parts of this success have been Francisco Liriano's emergence, Johan Santana straightening out his early season funk, and the health of Justin Morneau. No player has had a bigger impact on this amazing story than Joe Mauer who is currently the AL leader in average by .017 over Derek Jeter. He would be the 1st catcher to win the batting title in the American League....EVER.

In the end, any of these 3 players could win the award under the right circumstances. I'll have to revist this debate when the season comes to an end to sort out the final data and analysis. If the Sox and Twins drop out of the playoffs, with the White Sox beating them out, Jeter may be the right choice. If the Red Sox can overcome their recent collapse and make the playoffs, or win the AL East outright, Manny surely deserves it. If the Twins win the wild card and Mauer takes home the batting crown, he's a no-brainer to me. Both Thome and Ortiz still have an outside shot to factor in this race, but I think the original question at Boston Dirt Dogs has been answered. Yes, Derek Jeter is a threat to Big Papi for MVP. Actually, the question should either be, "Is Big Papi a threat to Jeter for MVP?" or, "Is Jeter a threat to Manny for MVP?"

That's it for today. Good luck King of New York. May your sinker sink, and the White Sox balls in play stay on the ground. See you tomorrow. Go Yanks!


RollingWave said...

I think it's going to boil down to who makes the playoffs, out of those three guys they each represent a team that may or may not make the playoffs, at least ONE of them will not make the playoffs ... (barring a historical scale collaspe from Detroit anyway... ) and at least one will make the playoff.

If it winds up being Yankees making the playoffs while the other two not (which is certainly a possibility) then Jeter could definately win the MVP

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this excellent analysis, Mike. It's great to finally see a discussion of the hard factors which might determine an MVP's value, as opposed to the constant beat of the mass media drum raising emotions for Shrek.

The problem is, at DH a guy is spared the brutal task of fielding ground balls, running into walls, and generally standing out in the sun for hours at a time. He plays half the game.

My feelings exactly.

Anonymous said...

I'm starting to think Giambi needs to be in the MVP conversation. Without his bat the Yankees aren't in the playoff picture.

Anonymous said...

I really like the analysis, but without home runs, will someone really be selected as MVP?

Cliff said...

Good work, Mike. Well reasoned and presented.

Someone asked me to make a mid-season pick and I went with Mauer without really checking any of the stats. If Liriano's injury sinks the Twins, it could (unfairly) sink Mauer's candidacy (as might the natural late-season decline in batting average that is the reason no AL catcher has ever won a batting title), but I agree he's the top candidate through the seasons' first four months.

canary said...

First of all, congrats to your new record of blog hits. I've been a regular reader since early of this year. Thanks for all your great posts along with those awesome, humorous pics!

With all the uncertainties, it is hard to make the call. All of the MVP candidates are playing fairly close now. As some have already mentioned, those whose team will make it to the playoff will probably have a better shot at winning the title. And it never hurts to be a big contributor to your team during those important games and leave a last impression for the voters. But of course, that shouldn't always be the case.

Rob (Middletown, CT) said...

I did a similar comparison recently and came up with a very similar answer. I left Wells in the discussion, though.

What Mauer is doing is amazing. Manny is overlooked, perhaps because he does this sort of thing every year (and because he's a terrible defensive LF). I've give it to Mauer right now, with Jeter, Manny, Wells and Ortiz in the discussion.

Melin said...

Thanks for the evaluation. I had never really heard of 'win shares' before. It sounds interesting.

To be honest, I think if Jeter didnt get the MVP in 1999, he's nevr going to get it. Unless he belts at least 30 jacks. The avg. fan just doesnt see the season he's had, especially when the Alex Rodriguez talk is really what has dominated the entire Yankee season.

Manny Ramirea, is sort of the unsung hearo to David Ortiz in my opinion. Interestingly enough, Rob Dibble ALSO mentioned Joe Mauer's name as the MVP, said he couldnt in good conscience vote for a DH.

In closing, Travis Hafner is a beast.

Kevin said...

I agree with you - I think Mauer should win this year. I don't really know when "Valuable" became synonymous with "Makes playoffs", but that's how everybody treats it these days.

One thing I feel like I should mention - Bill James warns in his book that Win Shares should only be used to measure a full season, not parts of a season. But I think you'll find similar stats once the season ends.

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