Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Counterpoint: Who Cares?

In the six months I've been writing here, rarely have Jay and I disagreed on any major points. We disagreed about a hypothetical recall of Austin Jackson in the wake of a potential Melky Cabrera injury, and we differ as to how the Yankees should approach Hideki Matsui this off-season. But in instances like these, I think we both can understand, if not agree with, the other viewpoint.

Today though, I think we may have an instance of us being distinctly on opposite sides of the coin. This morning, Jay parsed the AL MVP results and had some valid criticisms of the order of finish as well as some of the more obscure individual votes. Moshe Mandel at The Yankee Universe had something similar yesterday, and I've seen traces of the same sentiment elsewhere in the blogosphere. To which I say: who cares?

Perhaps this is hypocritical of me. Just last week I put up a post here essentially criticizing the "stats based community" for not calling out Tyler Kepner, Zack Greinke, and Brian Bannister for their misuse and misunderstanding of advanced metrics in the wake of Greinke's Cy Young Award victory. Though perhaps I didn't make the point as clearly as I wanted, my issue wasn't so much with the misuse and misunderstanding as it was that everyone was so happy that Greinke both won and acknowledged FIP in the process, that they withheld the usual cantankerousness and I'm-smarter-than-you responses that normally follow such a slip up. Now, when the reaction is a bit truer to character, once again it's me who's complaining about the complaining, just as last week I complained about the lack of complaining.

That said, I still think this is really, really unnecessary. Yes, by any worthy metric Derek Jeter was more valuable than Mark Teixeira. Yes, Ben Zobrist probably finished much lower than he deserved. Yes, there were several players who received individual votes that were higher than they deserved or not deserved at all. Yes, I'm surprised/disappointed that Jason Bartlett didn't receive a single vote. Yes, a first place vote for Miguel Cabrera is so patently stupid that it's probably a waste of energy to even explain why.

But still, do we really need to break down all the grave injustices that happened behind Joe Mauer's cavernous margin of victory? Should we even care what happened beyond Mauer taking the hardware? Isn't the whole point to get the winner right, not whoever comes after him? Don't we often preach about sample size, and isn't the point of casting 28 ballots with 10 slots each for a pool of over 400 players that the "most valuable" player will rise to the top? Sure there will be some oddball votes in there, but the right guy won, and he came within one vote and five points of doing so unanimously. Does any of the rest matter?

Please don't take for me anti-statistic. If you read here with any degree of regularity during the season you know that I often sigthed OPS+, wOBA, UZR, WAR, FIP, etc. That isn't the point. The point is how much is enough? We've seen the deservedly-maligned BBWAA get all four major awards "right", and three of the votes weren't particularly close. In doing so they've eschewed traditional biases that would have favored less deserving candidates in years past. Shouldn't this be enough to keep us content for now? Remember, this round of off-season awards represents the Battle of Saratoga, not the Treaty of Paris.

At their core, the MVP, the Cy Young Award, and even the Hall of Fame for that matter are subjective, loosely-defined awards that have little value beyond whatever worth we assign to them. I have a hard time understanding the utter outrage year after year as the awards season comes and goes. While we'd all like to believe that "objective journalists" are the stewards of these institutions, the fact of the matter is we're not talking about Edward R. Murrow or Walter Kronkite here. These are sportswriters. And while many may still exhibit signs of homerism or may be hopelessly clinging to archaic and ineffective means of measuring performance, I still think they're in a much better state today than they were in the days of Grantland Rice, or Ford C. Frick, or Jimmy Cannon. We're not seeing even the likes of Barry Bonds getting jobbed out of a deserved MVP because he's an asshole to the writers. Ask Ted Williams' frozen detached skull what he thinks about that.

So, with a plethora of better methods to assess value at our disposal, why do we even care who wins these things anymore, let alone who finishes second through tenth? If we want to know who is truly valuable, then why not just pull up the WAR leaderboard, or whichever future metric proves to be the most accurate means of assessing performance? Why do we care which pitcher is given an award named after the all-time wins leader, when we know wins are a misleading indicator of true performance, and we know that Cy Young was an inferior pitcher when compared to contemporaries like Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson? Do we even need the BBWAA to give the awards to the "right" players to validate what the metrics have already told us?

As Joe at RAB pointed out in the wake of the Cy Young voting, this isn't a culture war anymore. This is the true state of baseball these days, and it's an amalgamation of what were once two distinct schools of thought. As much as some seem to define themselves by it, this is no longer us vs. them, Moneyball vs. old-school, stats vs. scouts, RBI vs. WAR. The game - or more specifically how we look at the game - has changed, is changing, will continue to change, and will do so across the board. It's no longer just Bill James, a few forward thinking executives, a handful of enlightened websites. It's widespread; it's prevalent.

Few if any of GMs are traditional "baseball men"; nearly all have a business background in addition to their baseball experience. Every front office has some sort of statistical analysis taking place. Bill James, Voros McCracken, Tom Tango and others were or are employed by, or are consultants to, Major League clubs. David Cone's routinely referencing Fangraphs on Yankee telecasts. Keith Law, Will Carroll, and other Baseball Prospectus folks were given votes in the post-season awards process. High-profile national sportswriters like Rob Neyer and Joe Posnanski are at the forefront of the "statistical revolution", and if their work wasn't enough to force their colleagues to learn about advanced metrics it was at least enough to create a palpable buzz about the truly worthy candidates.

The times they are a changing folks. And while we might not yet be living in a sabermetric utopia, we've seen great strides made this past week. As we approach Thanksgiving and presumably stop to reflect upon what we are thankful for, shouldn't we at least be satisfied, if not grateful, that the most deserving candidates won both MVPs and both Cy Young Awards rather than griping about the idiot who voted Jason Kubel seventh? I think we should; what about you?

8 comments:

  1. I never got this point of view. Why can't we do both? Why can't we be pleased with the right guy winning while pointing out that there are still some big changes that need to happen. There isn't always a Joe Mauer to save the voters from themselves- if Mauer had been more seriously injured and never returned, the wrong guy would have won the MVP. It suggests to me that we haven't learned much.

    An argument that bothers me more is the "why should we care" point. As someone who blogs about the sport for fun, I would think that you would understand that we care because we invest a lot into the sport, and we want to see "justice" done. Seriously, you could probably ask why we care about 75%+ of the stuff we write about on our blogs. You don't start a blog unless you feel that you have something valuable to add to the conversation, and essentially you want to "educate" people as to your viewpoint. So while you and I may look at WAR and know who is more valuable, a lot more people will look at MVP voting. It bothers me when so many people are being misinformed on a topic I care about. Being that you write about the sport as well, I'm sure you can understand the sentiment.

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  2. Moshe -

    Firstly, I hope my referencing your post wasn't construed as a personal attack. I merely intended the reference to be an example of the same sentiment I saw with Jay and elsewhere. It's not that I don't think the points were valid, only that I don't think they're remotely as important as all four awards going to the most deserving candidates.

    In a perfect world, yes, I'd like to see the entirety of the voting results in lockstep with my personal opinion or with WAR. But if I have to choose, I'm far happier with Mauer winning and Yuniesky Bettancourt finishing second than I am with Bettancourt winning and two through ten being "right". A month from now no one is going to remember, let alone care, about the results beyond Mauer.

    I suppose it boils down to a matter of perspective. It's not that I don't care; it's that I don't care about this specifically. Personally, knowing how flawed the system is, I don't put a ton of stock into these awards. I guess that's why I have a hard time getting fired up about an "incorrect" winner let alone a few injustices further down the pecking order.

    Perhaps your right - in absence of a Mauer this year, maybe we would have been subjected to the same old, same old. But in thinking back to the outrage after T-Kep's mid-August tweet about Teix being a "no doubt MVP", and taking into account all that the likes of Neyer and JoePos wrote in the aftermath, I didn't think it was any sure thing that Mauer would win. But he did, and he did so overwhelmingly. Maybe that, coupled with deserving wins for Greinke, Lincecum, and Pujols, truly is an indication that the tide is turning. Only time will tell.

    Whatever the gains made this year - and I think we'll need a few years to gain perspective and see if it's a trend or a blip - it will never be a perfect system. Voting is subjective by nature; so long as these awards are determined by voting we're going to find something at which to nitpick.

    We've made strides in finding new and better metrics to replace old and misleading ones. Perhaps we should take the same tact in this regard. New, more objective awards. A Hall of Merit rather than a Hall of Fame. I just don't understand why these other archaic measures of worth are so closely clung to while we've so easily moved on from so many others.

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  3. Of course not, I understand it wasn't a personal attack, and I think my response may have come off a bit defensive, so sorry about that. It's just a topic that riles me up a bit, because in a way it calls into question all the time I (and any big fan) put into sports. At the heart of it, we can always ask "why should we care" about anything to do with sports.

    "I just don't understand why these other archaic measures of worth are so closely clung to while we've so easily moved on from so many others."

    I think this is where the issue is. Those of us complaining are not clinging to the old measure of worth. However, we know that most fans are more likely to use this flawed measure of worth than most other measures, and therefore want them to get it right. Meaning, I would never look at the voting to judge a player. But fans do, HOF voters do, etc. We want them to get it right.

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  4. I posted a reply that did not show up. If it is lost, I am too lazy to retype it, but I did want to say that I on no way took your post personally, and I hope my response wasn't too defensive.

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  5. No problem Moshe. Little glitch with Blogger there; I got the email notification but the reply wasn't readily visible. Probably bogged the system down with my rambling on and on.

    I agree with you - why should we care so much about sports? I don't know; but we do, because we're emotionally invested in it I suppose. I'm just of the opinion that this particular issue isn't something we should care about as much.

    The type of fan who truly values these awards is generally also the type who values the old measurements - or at least isn't aware of the new ones. I suppose in that regard it's sort of appropriate then - the "MVP" is in the eye of the beholder, voters and fans alike. Rather than trying to get these awards to conform to our view of things, maybe it's time to look at these awards the same way we looks at wins, and saves, and RBI, and batting average.

    You're also right in that it does matter as far as HoF voting is concerned. But it's the same people voting for the Hall as these awards - just on a more massive level. I hold the Hall in the same regard as MVP and Cy Young - I'm not going to let it drive me nuts.

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  6. Jorge Washintonguiez11/24/09, 4:15 PM

    I will argue that the Battle of Saratoga was of more overall significance than the Treaty of Paris.

    The Battle of Saratoga is widely known as the turning point of the American Revolution, while the Treaty of Paris was just the formal end to the war, which was already over.

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  7. WHO cares?

    Come on thats why you're blogging!

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  8. Generally yes, but specifically no. I blog because I care about baseball and particularly about the Yankees and because I like to write.

    I don't particularly care about post-season awards however, and I certainly don't care about who finished second through tenth. If Jeter or Teix or whoever were a deserving winner and didn't get the award, yeah, I'd have a bit of a problem with that. But this time around, all four awards were right. Let's give credit where credit is due and maybe even enjoy this one before we start tearing it apart.

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