Baseball’s eternal question

What does the MVP Award actually reward?

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One of the wonders and challenges of baseball is the way it blends the team and the individual. I suppose this was never more clearly spoken than by Robert DeNiro, as Al Capone, in David Mamet’s unforgettable words as writer of “The Untouchables:”

“A man becomes preeminent, he is expected to have enthusiasms. Enthusiasms. Enthusiasms. What are mine? What draws my attention? What is that which gives me joy? Baseball!

“A man … a man stands at the plate. This is the time for what? For individual achievement. There he stands alone. But in the field, what? Part … of … a … team. Teamwork. Looks, throws, catches, hustles. Part of one big team.

“Bats himself the live-long day. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and so on. If his team don’t win, what is he? You follow me? Sunny day, stands are full of fans. What does he have to say? I’m going out for myself. But I get nowhere unless the team wins.”

Yes, it should be said that DeNiro as Capone then whacks one of his people by repeatedly hitting him in the head with a baseball bat, but, you know, the point still stands.

Baseball, more than any sport I know, has a powerful and hard-to-penetrate tension between the team and the individual. I think that’s why baseball stats work so much better than statistics in any other team sport – because, in a way, baseball is NOT a team sport. The hitter stands alone. The things he does at the plate – hits, homers, walks, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, strikeouts, infield pop-ups – are essentially his own.

This is a tough thing to accept when you consider that baseball is, in fact, a team sport. And so we have tried – and tried and tried and tried – to incorporate the team into that players individual statistics. For a long time (and to many still) RBIs proved the worth of a hitter. At salary negotiations you often would hear some version of this:

Player: But I hit .300.

Team: That was for you. For the team, you only knocked in 75 RBIs.

There were and are obvious problems with glorifying RBIs but most chose not to look for them. When a hitter sacrificed himself – bunting over a runner or driving in a runner from third with a fly ball – people decided to shove that into the individual statistics (“Hey, let’s not count that out, you were just trying to help the ballclub”). When a runner drove in a run with a double-play ball, people decided the run batted in would be stricken from the player’s ledger (“You hurt the team with that double play, so we are debiting an RBI from your account”). And so on.

This is the constant friction of baseball. What is individual achievement? What helps the team? And how do you measure it? This comes up daily for baseball fans, but around the country comes up MOST around this time of year. This time of year is when people start thinking about who should win the MVP award. Bryce Harper? Anthony Rizzo? Zack Greinke? Paul Goldschmidt? Yoenis Cespedes? Who?

* * *

The word “valuable” derives from the Latin word “valere” which means strong, powerful, influential, healthy, that sort of thing (“valiant” also comes from this word). It worked its way through French word valoir (“to be worth). This became the English word “value” – meaning the monetary worth of something. Sometime in the 18th Century or earlier, value expanded to valuable meaning “of great value or price.”

In many ways, “valuable” is the most argued about word in sports. It is one of the few words I can think of that can spark etymology debates in sports bars. “If the award was called the ‘Player of the Year,” a guy says while munching on hot wings and drinking a beer, “yeah, I could see your point about Harper. But it’s MOST VALUABLE. There’s a difference.”

CALCATERRA: No comparison between Harper and Cespedes

Is there a difference? Is an award called “Player of the Year,” by definition, different than an award called “MVP?” We are back again, talking about baseball’s eternal question: Where does individual play end and where does team play begin?

Take this year’s National League MVP race. By just about any measure, Bryce Harper is having the best season. He is, in fact, having one of the great offensive seasons in baseball history. He leads the league in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, home runs, runs and every version of Wins Above Replacement you can find. He would almost certainly be in prime position to win the Triple Crown, except for the inconvenience that he comes to the plate with fewer runners in scoring position than any of the RBI leaders.

National League RBI leaders:

1. Nolan Arenado, Colorado, 111 (176 runners in scoring position)

2. Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona, 100 (210 runners in scoring position)

3. Matt Kemp, San Diego, 94 (176 runners in scoring position)

4. Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh, 93 (174 runners in scoring position)

5. Kris Bryant, Cubs, 92 (178 runners in scoring position)

6. Bryce Harper, Nationals, 90 (155 runners in scoring position).

Harper has also been walked a lot when there are runners in scoring position, sometimes intentionally, sometimes semi-intentionally. So there’s the RBI problem when trying to determine a player’s value. The point is, Harper is having a not just the best offensive year of any player now, he’s having one of the best offensive years of the last 50.

So, why would he not be MVP?

Well, the argument begins with a simple fact: Harper’s Washington Nationals are having a terribly disappointing season, one bordering on calamity. The Nats were the consensus choice as the best team in the National League before the season began and, even through a barrage of injuries and some old-fashioned underachieving, the Nationals still led the division at the end of July. Then, just as their injured stars began to return, the team went into the tank. A 4 1/2-game lead on the New York Mets on Independence Day disintegrated into a five-game deficit on Labor Day.

No one BLAMES Harper for this, not exactly, but there’s your discord between the achievement of a man and the success of a team. What good are all those home runs and all those walks if they can’t prevent the Nationals from falling on their faces?

Now, take a look at Chicago’s Anthony Rizzo. Yes, his batting average is 60 points lower, his slugging percentage 150 points lower, but, you know, his Cubs are winning when few expected them to win (“Part … of … a … team!”). The mind can work with this. Maybe Rizzo is hitting better in more important spots.

Wait, let’s look at the high-leverage situations, when the game is most on the line:

Harper: .244/.411/.442 with 5 homers and 26 RBIs.

Rizzo: .393/.508/.730 with 5 homers and 37 RBIs.

Whoa, whoa, whoa, the argument goes, maybe we’re on to something here. Maybe Harper’s numbers, while impressive in total, are largely empty. Maybe Rizzo’s numbers, while less impressive at first glance, are in fact more VALUABLE over the season.

Yes, the argument often goes back to that word “valuable.”

And then, there’s Cespedes who was having a good year with Detroit – and who has nice season-long numbers (.296/.332/.558 with 35 homers and 103 RBIs) but, more to the point here, has been miraculous the last six weeks after coming to the Mets.

Mets fans can list off the games off the top of their heads. There was the five-hit, three-homer game in Colorado. There was the homer, two-double game against Washington in the opener of that pivotal series and then, two nights later, he he hit the game-winning homer off Washington’s Drew Storen. There was the homer he hit in Atlanta to help win a close one. He homered Monday against Miami in a one-run victory. It has felt like every time the Mets pulled off another huge victory, Cespedes was at the center.

This has led to a sense – only a sense, but a powerful one – that Cespedes has been the one to energize the Mets, to trigger their late season magic.* Cespedes will end the season with only about 60 appearances for the Mets. But, again, people talk about that word, valuable. Is Cespedes 60-game spark worth more than all the great things Bryce Harper has done for a team going nowhere?

* Is this actually true? There’s a fun statistic called “Win Probability Added” which attempts to measure exactly how much a hitter adds or subtracts to a team’s chances in every at bat. For instance, if you come up with your team down three runs in the bottom of the ninth and you hit a grand slam, you have basically turned around an almost sure loss into a victory, adding an immense number to your WPA. On the other hand, if you strike out with the bases loaded and the score tied, you have hurt your team’s chances of winning quite a bit.

In any case, Cespedes’ WPA since arriving in New York is 1.58, which is very good. But you know what? Harper’s WPA over the same period of time is 1.77, which is obviously better. It isn’t that Cespedes is ACTUALLY helping his team more. It’s that (1) his team is winning more and (2) his performance in Mets wins are memorable.

Finally, there’s the issue of the Dodgers’ Zack Greinke or the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta … maybe a great PITCHER is more valuable than Harper, especially if their team is winning. Heck, last year pitcher Clayton Kershaw won the MVP.

These are the arguments, and they rage on and they will rage on because so far the efforts to quantify what an individual player does for a team have proven unconvincing to large segments of the audience. Statistical efforts like WAR leave many people cold. But traditional efforts like vague discussions of a player’s intangibles don’t impress many either.

So … what to do? In the end, the MVP – and the word valuable – will say as much ore more about the voter that it does about the player. I’d vote Harper: To me, the MVP should be the best player. Some will vote Rizzo: To them, perhaps, the MVP should be player who has the biggest impact on the pennant races.

And some will vote Cespedes. I have a friend who thinks the MVP should be Cespedes. When I asked why, he explained it this way: The baseball season is a story, and Cespedes is the protagonist. “The season is not about the Nationals,” he says. “They’re done. Yes, the season is about the Cubs, but Rizzo isn’t the dominant figure there. You could vote for Kris Bryant. You could vote for Jake Arrieta. You could vote for Joe Maddon. The Mets were floundering and then Cespedes came along. I look at it like a novel. There are greater wizards than Harry Potter, but the book is about him. This season is about Yoenis Cespedes and he should be MVP.”

I like the artistic vision my friend has. I also told him I’m glad he doesn’t have an actual vote.