Wednesday, October 05, 2005

No love for Papi

Thus I continue my own personal 2005 awards:

AL MVP: Alex Rodriguez
The AL MVP debate is much the same "intangibles debate" that rages in the NL, except that the two candidates (A-Rod and David Ortiz) are much closer. So I cannot dismiss out of hand David Ortiz as the MVP, but I can make a very good case that this distinction goes to A-Rod.
In terms of numbers, it all goes to Alex. His 421/610/321 line as a right-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium is amazing. Ortiz's line is 397/604/300, which is certainly impressive, but less so in Fenway Park. So when you take parks into account, A-Rod has an edge in hitting. And when you take into account that A-Rod is a good third baseman and Ortiz contributes nothing to the defense, it becomes a much easier choice. It's not that DH can't win the award -- he just has to hit that much better to make up for the 0 contribution on defense. And Ortiz is actually hitting worse than A-Rod. So thus I cast my vote.
The argument for Ortiz is (again) not based on stats, at least not on these stats. It's based on Ortiz being "clutch." Clutch isn't intangible; it is measurable. The only question is whether we can give a player credit for hitting inthe clutch.
The question of whether clutch hitting is an actual ability possessed by hitters or simply luck is a hairy question even in the sabermetric world. Your anti-Moneyball faction believes in clutch absolutely, but there is a growing feeling among stat-heads (with Bill James the most visible), that there actually does exist an ability to hit better in clutch situations.
As for myself, I've not seen any evidence to convincingly contradict the accepted sabermetric notion that clutch hitting is not an ability. Some people hit better in the clutch, yes. Some people hit better on Wednesdays; it doesn't mean there is an innate ability to do so. The fact that a hitter's performance in clutch situations tends to deviate widely from season to season is a strong suggestion that it is determined more by luck; if some people were good clutch hitters, we would expect them to do so with some degree of regularity. This is not the case.
But we cannot simply discount the fact that Ortiz has done well in clutch situations. I can't dispute this. Everyone arguing for Ortiz will quote you a list of stats describing his clutch ability, with the latest example being that 20 of Ortiz's homers either tied the game or gave the Red Sox the lead. But this is not the question. The question is not if David Ortiz is a good clutch hitter; Is he a better clutch hitter than A-Rod? Because he would have to be a much better clutch hitter to make up for the fact that he's a noticeably worse hitter in non-clutch situations. No one of the Ortiz faithful have looked to see how good A-Rod is; they don't know. So no one can say for sure if Ortiz is such a better clutch hitter than A-Rod. The answer is yes, but not by as much as you'd think. 18 or 19 (depending on the source) of A-Rod's homers either tied or gave his team the lead. That's not exactly enough to make up the difference between them, is it?
And we must point out that not all clutch situations are created equal. The problem with stats like RBI is that they gave an individual credit for a team accomplishment. They give Ortiz all the credit for those 148 RBI without mentioning that he was lucky enough to play on a team that gave him 148 chances for RBIs. If Ortiz played on the Royals, we wouldn't even be having this conversation. Ortiz wouldn't be able to win all those close games in the late innings if the rest of the team weren't keeping the game close in the first place. Maybe Adam Dunn has as many clutch homers as Ortiz, except that his team was already too far behind for it to make a difference. We are once again giving Ortiz all the credit for a team accomplishment.
But none of this will convince the Ortiz faithful. They will say (as the otherwise reliable Peter Gammons did in ESPN The Magazine) that "no one can carry a team like Ortiz." This is to say that Ortiz makes the other people around him play better. This is another bit of baseball conventional wisdom with absolutely no evidence to back it up. On the contary, research tells us that we tend to wildly overestimate the impact one player has on his team's success. There is no proof that the Red Sox would be a significantly worse team without Ortiz, other than the lack of his hitting skills.
But everybody likes David Ortiz. I'm sure if I met him, I'd like him too. I have nothing against him as a person; I'm sure he's as wonderful and vibrant a character as everyone says he is, and I'm sure he really brightens up the clubhouse. And we'd all like to think that this makes his team win more games. But I'm sorry to say that there's no proof that this is true.
Nobody likes A-Rod. I don't really know why. It's probably because he's more withdrawn and polished; he says everything that is supposed to be said and goes about his business. And that will hurt him in the MVP race. A player's personality and the affection he merits from the media should have no bearing on the MVP balloting, but of course they do. Voters vote for people they like; they tell themselves that it's because of "chemistry." Albert Belle deserved to win at least 1 MVP Award, but he didn't because everybody hated him. This is true. Can you prove that Belle's attitude stopped his team from winning more games? No, and neither can you prove that Ortiz's attitude helps the Red Sox win.
Ortiz is a fine hitter; one of the 10 best in baseball, I would say. But while I will give him some extra credit for his personality, I will not give him a huge boost past A-Rod's obviously greater value on the baseball field.
Having said that, here are my top 10 players in the AL this season. My MVPs are:
  1. Alex Rodriguez
  2. Brian Roberts
  3. Derek Jeter
  4. Mark Teixeira
  5. Miguel Tejada
  6. David Ortiz
  7. Manny Ramirez
  8. Michael Young
  9. Grady Sizemore
  10. Jhonny Peralta

I'll be back later with Cy Youngs.

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