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?

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.