Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Parsing The AL MVP Vote

Good morning, Fackers. To the surprise of essentially no one who followed the 2009 Major League Baseball season, Joe Mauer won the A.L. MVP yesterday. He led the league in batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, runs created, wOBA, wRAA, VORP and would have in WAR if Ben Zobrist's UZR's wasn't propped up by small sample sizes or the stat gave any credit for a catcher's defense behind the plate.

With the exception of one writer from a Japanese newspaper based in Seattle (who inexplicably voted for Miguel Cabrera), Mauer was the unanimous choice. He didn't have 30 HR or 100 RBI, but the man from Minnesota was close on both counts. He didn't play in a game until May 1st, but at bat for at bat, he was the best hitter in the American League by a country mile.

While credit should go to the BBWAA for another award winner properly selected, the reality is that, even if you don't understand the concept of positional adjustment, there's no one else that had a legitimate case. And judging by the respective finishes of Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira, it's apparent that many writers still don't grasp that concept.

Teixeira received 15 second place votes with only 3 voters ranking him lower than 4th. Nine voters ranked Jeter second, 16 others placed him between 3rd and 6th with the remaining three identifying him as the 8th, 9th or 10th most valuable player in the league. In other words, the general consensus was that Teix was a notch above Jeter.

According to Weighted On Base Average or wOBA, the statistic that most accurately measures a hitter's ability to get on base and hit for power, Teixeira (.402) led Jeter (.390) by fairly slim margin. However, wOBA doesn't take into account that Jeter played a much more difficult defensive position and, at least according to UZR, had a much better year in the field.

Perhaps UZR is selling Teixeira short, which most observers would argue is the case. Maybe Teixeira even saved Jeter a few errors by scooping balls in the dirt, although John Dewan's research doesn't seem to indicate that. But even if you grant both of those assumptions, it's unlikely they close the gap from Teixeira's 5.1 wins to Jeter's 7.4.

Of course, most voters don't care about players' wOBA or WAR. The biggest reason that Jeter finished lower than Teixeira on the majority of the ballots was that he only drove in 66 runs while Teix led the AL with 122. Runs Batted In are to the MVP vote what pitcher's wins are to the Cy Young: a context-driven, luck-determinant counting stat that depends largely on the production of one's teammates.

What was the biggest reason that Teixeira was able to drive in 122 runs despite a batting average (.264) and a slugging percentage (.471) with runners in scoring position well below his season marks (.292 & .565)? Derek Jeter and Johnny Damon's on base percentages of .406 and .365, respectively. The same thing happened to Mauer in 2006 when his .429 OBP teed up Justin Morneau for a huge amount of his 130 RBIs. That total was second in the league to David Ortiz and Morneau won the MVP award but Mauer ended up finishing 6th and was behind his teammate on every single ballot.

There were some other oddities within the voting aside from Miguel Cabrera getting a vote for first place but 3 votes for 10th and Teix topping Jeter. Mariano Rivera placed ahead of Zack Greinke although he didn't receive one Cy Young vote and Greinke won the award. Robinson Cano got three votes - all for 7th place. A-Rod netted a third place vote despite being left off 3/4 of the ballots all together.

A commenter over at BBTF took the liberty of compiling a "bizarro ballot", made up of actual selections writers submitted:
1. Miguel Cabrera
2. Kevin Youkilis
3. Alex Rodriguez
4. Jason Bay
5. Aaron Hill
6. Chone Figgins
7. Jason Kubel
8. Michael Cuddyer
9. Placido Polanco
10. Ian Kinsler
Sure, I'm nitpicking a little bit here. The writers have thus far got the 3 major award winners right, but with the exception of Tim Lincecum, they have been absolute no-brainers. When people have to list out 10 players, there are going to be some perceived sleights, but how many of those 10 actual placements do you think you could legitimately justify with statistical evidence?

Maybe we're not quite as far along the road to statistical enlightenment as we thought after Lincecum won the NL Cy Young. Perhaps, as Moshe Mandel from The Yankee Universe contends, we aren't seeing the voters wise up but the ability of sabermetricians (or at least those who are stat savvy) to influence the "buzz" surrounding players. And make no mistake, this is in large part due to the increasing influence of the internet which has given people like Rob Neyer and Joe Posnanski a national voice.

Is anyone going to remember who finished second or third in the voting when next year rolls around? Probably not. But that doesn't negate the fact that many voters (ostensibly "journalists") who have the privilege of voting for these awards are so severely lacking in objective analytical skills when that is one of the most important parts of their job description.

1 comment:

  1. Good analysis. Mauer was the right choice, it was just a matter of who was going to finish second in the voting.