Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Awards go to ...

I guess it's time for me to weigh in with my two cents about who wins what award. When it comes down to it, the result of the MVP or Cy Young Awards are not that huge, but it's really just an extension of the on-going "stats .vs. intangibles" debate that's consuming baseball. It's not really an argument over who was better, but an argument about how to determine who was better. And so I'll reveal where I stand ...

NL MVP: Albert Pujols
Well, this can't be seen as such a surprise. Albert's batting line was 430/609/330. The only person who comes close is Derrek Lee, with his 418/662/335, but of course Lee hits in a much friendlier home ballpark. On the other hand, Lee has an edge over Pujols in defense. It's a close call, I admit, but I'll go with Albert and his superior hitting.
Okay, so what do I think about Andruw Jones? He's the other candidate, along with Lee and Pujols?
I think Andruw Jones was the 16th-best player in the National League. And considering that he's probably going to win the MVP Award, I'll be facing down mainstream baseball writers (and my fellow Braves fans) unless I can come up with a damn good reason for rating him there.
We can throw away the numbers. No one is making Andruw's case with his numbers, because his numbers aren't that good: 347/575/263. He has a lot of HR and RBI, and bully for him, but the most valuable thing a hitter can do is get on base. Pujols' OBP is 430, Jones' is 347. And Pujols has an edge in slugging and a huge edge in batting average. Andruw is a good center fielder, but it does not make up for the absolute gulf in quality between him and Pujols. Statistically, Andruw Jones isn't even close to being the best player in the NL.
But no one is using stats to make Andruw's argument. Andruw is the favorite for the MVP because he "carried the team on his back to the postseason." I'll make it simple: Can anyone prove this?
The answer is no. People are saying that Andruw is the MVP, because that's the conclusion they've come to, and when simple-minded people make up their minds, they close them to any alternate explanations, regardless of evidence. Did Andruw carry the team on his back? Or was the team saved by the arrival of many talented rookies (remember them?) who replaced the dreadful Brian Jordan and Raul Mondesi with quality in the lineup? Why have we given Andruw all the credit for the accomplishments of an entire team?
The Braves are struggling, Andruw hits, the Braves win. So did the Braves win because Andruw hit? Or from some other reason? No one can prove that Andruw did anything to cause the team to win other than play baseball. Can you prove that it was Andruw that made the Braves win? Because I can prove that it was Andruw combined with several other players that did it. I can prove my point. Can you prove yours?
But everyone will still say that Andruw is the MVP, because what he did as a person was more valuable than anyone else in the league. I'll ask a question: How valuable was Andruw's leadership? Was it more valuable than Albert's hitting? Can you prove that Andruw's leadership had any concrete effect on wins? I can prove that Albert's hitting did, more so than Andruw's. So what the hell argument is left?
The concept that "leadership" and "chemistry" are valuable has been convincingly debunked by statistical analysis. There are certainly instances where qualities other than pure baseball play come into account in the game. But statistics tells us that we regularly overestimate the actual impact that "intangibles" have on the game by a factor of roughly 3 billion.
If "chemistry" is important, how can teams who hate each other (Bronx Zoo, Moustache Gang) establish dynasties? How can teams that love each other (the '02 Reds, any number of others) not win it all? Chemistry is a factor, but it is a phenomenally smaller factor than hitting, pitching, and defense. And despite evidence to the contrary, no one wants to believe it. Everyone wants to believe that an average player can use determination and guts to turn himself into a star. It's a pretty lie. And most people would rather believe a pretty lie than confront an uncomfortable and complex truth. And because statisticians often come bearing these truths, it makes us unpopular with the majority.
The problem with analysis in baseball today is that people just believe what they're told. There is conventional wisdom in baseball; things that everyone believes for no reason other than the fact that it's what everyone has always believed. This is true in any arena: sports, economics, philosophy, politics, morality. Conventional wisdom is a powerful force.
Well I (and my SABR brethren) hate conventional wisdom. Because it's often wrong and also sometimes harmful. I want to know the truth, and you'll forgive me if I don't trust other people to do my thinking for me. I don't like to believe something just because someone tells me to. I'm funny that way. As a wise man once said, "We have faith in God. All others must bring statistics."
But all this will not convince those who do not wish to be convinced. They say that you can't measure value in baseball. It's something that you just have to feel; it can't be measured.
Well, this may be true in art or ethics, where there is no quantitative goal. When it comes to "entertainment" or "feeling good" there is no right answer, and I'm as broad-minded as the next guy when it comes to that. But winning baseball games is very measurable. And finding out who does the most towards helping his team win games is also very measurable. Our tools are sometimes crude, but they're the best we've got. So does winning really matter? Or does someone who feels like an MVP, feels like a Hall of Famer matter more than who actually realistically helped his team win?
I know I haven't convinced the doubters. They're not here to be convinced. They find something and believe in it. They exercise the psychological fallacy whereby you look for evidence (however specious) that supports what you already believe and subconsciously ignore or discount anything contradictory. A good sabermetrician (and a good thinker) looks at the evidence and then decides. Making decisions contrary to evidence would get you killed in real life; in baseball it gets you a job as a color commentator.
But still there are those who remain unconvinced. That's why I've saved my best argument for last. You say that Andruw deserves the MVP because he went above and beyond the call of duty by taking the team on his back and carrying them to victory through adversity. Well, Albert Pujols did the exact same thing, and he did it better and under more extreme circumstances than Andruw.
What "adversity" were the Braves facing that Andruw helped them through? Chipper Jones was injured, yes. Chipper's a darn good hitter, All-Star quality. They lost some pitchers, too, but the last time I looked, Andruw's forkball needed some work. They were also wasting time with Mondesi and Jordan, but the credit for cutting them and bringing up Langerhans, Johnson, and Francoeur goes to Scheuerholz, not Andruw. So Chipper gets injured, Jones has a career year. Did Albert accomplish even more than this, intangibly speaking?
Absolutely. The Cardinals last year had 3 MVP-quality players: Pujols, Rolen, and Edmonds. They lost Scott Rolen (just as valuable, if not moreso than Chipper) for almost the whole season to injury (and he wasn't hitting like himself when he did play). Jim Edmonds missed 20 games due to injury, the steady-hitting Reggie Sanders missed 69, and the still-potent Larry Walker missed 62. Catcher Yadier Molina also got on the injury bandwagon, with 48 games missed.
So not only did the Cardinals lose more players and much more production from their lineup, Albert "carried" the team with even better offense than Andruw was able to supply. And here's the kicker: The Braves without Andruw are a better-hitting club than the Cardinals without Albert. So I guess you could say that Albert is more "valuable" than Andruw ...
There is no good reason to support Andruw Jones for MVP. He's just been lucky enough to get a lot of good publicity for doing exactly what Pujols did. It's just luck that the voters focused on him instead of Pujols, and luck (and stupidity) are not exactly strangers to MVP voting.
So you still want to vote for Andruw? Go ahead. Just promise me you won't vote in the next presidential election ...

And after all that, I am plum tuckered. I'll give you my list for the ten best players (in order) in the NL this year. This list is still fluid, as I want to give it some time to sit and digest before I put my absolute stamp of approval on it. But, to the best of my knowledge, here are the NL's 1-10 MVPs this season (more awards to come tomorrow, with hopefully less vitriol):

  1. Albert Pujols
  2. Derrek Lee
  3. Brian Giles
  4. Jason Bay
  5. David Wright
  6. Miguel Cabrera
  7. Jeff Kent
  8. Bobby Abreu
  9. Morgan Ensberg
  10. Chase Utley

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