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Why the best player in baseball won’t win MVP

Why the best player in baseball won’t win MVP

So, say there’s this guy – let’s call him “Jeff” – and he has an American League Most Valuable Player vote. Now, the rules say he is not allowed to talk about his vote until after the award is announced, and because “Jeff” doesn’t want to break the rules, he has no intention of revealing his ballot.

“Jeff” has a friend, though – let’s call him “Ffej” – and he and “Jeff” happen to think a lot alike. And so much of the discussion around the AL MVP vote this year really stupefies “Ffej.” It is 2016, “Ffej” says. How does a seemingly large and consequential number of baseball writers still not understand the meaning of value is not open for debate.

But, “Jeff” points out, the first words on the ballot state that it literally is: “There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means.” And he says this as a rhetorical device, because he needs to give “Ffej” an opportunity to point out the absolute folly of this, of giving an out clause to those holding onto an antiquated way of thinking.

Why thank you, “Ffej” says, because it’s true. Value does not have 30 definitions. Value is absolute. It is pretty close to quantifiable, too. Value is, quite simply, what a player contributes to his team. And the player who contributes the most to his team, by definition, should be the most valuable player. This, “Ffej” believes, is fairly obvious. No. It is painfully obvious.

And yet in six weeks or so, when the AL MVP award is announced …

1. Mike Trout is going to find himself on the wrong side of the results for the fourth time in five years. For half a decade, Trout has been the most valuable player in the American League, and yet only once will he have been the Most Valuable Player in the American League. Never have capital letters looked so diminished.

Trout capped off arguably the best season of his career Sunday, one that ended with this staggering line: .315/.441/.550, with 29 home runs, 100 RBIs, 123 runs and 30 stolen bases. He was the best offensive player in baseball, and it wasn’t even close, and to boot he plays center field, among its most demanding positions, and plays it well. There is nothing bad to say about Trout. There is no reason he shouldn’t win the award unanimously.

10/2/16: Chacin, Trout lead Angels over Astros

Unless “Jeff” and “Ffej” are severely misjudging the electorate, though, the AL MVP is likely to go to Mookie Betts, he of the delightfully great season in which he happened to make nearly 100 outs more than Trout. Some of which, yes, can be attributed to the splendor of the Boston Red Sox offense that gifted him more plate appearances than Trout. Most of which came because Trout is just better at getting on base than everyone, and a lot better than Betts.

Problem is, Trout’s teammates are not good at getting on base. They’re not good at hitting. They’re not good at pitching, either. (On the bright side, they can field a bit! Even baseball teams can put lipstick on a pig!) The Los Angeles Angels happen to be some kind of awful, and because of their ineptitude this season, Betts has been deemed more valuable than Trout.

How does this make any sense? How? How can we keep assigning an individual award based on team achievement? How can we constantly pass over the player who defines value and try to act like the electorate has evolved to reflect our modern knowledge of the game? There are things worth holding onto in baseball, pieces of nostalgia that honor the past without sullying the present. Refusing to vote the best player No. 1 on a ballot because of his team’s issues, but still including him on the ballot nonetheless, is not one of those things.

Thankfully, Yahoo’s Tim Brown brings some sanity to the proceedings. He does not have an AL MVP vote, but he graced us with his choices for all the categories except AL Cy Young, for which he did vote. Here is what his MVP ballot would look like:

1. Mike Trout
2. Mookie Betts
3. Jose Altuve
4. David Ortiz
5. Josh Donaldson
6. Manny Machado
7. Adrian Beltre
8. Robinson Cano
9. Edwin Encarnacion
10. Francisco Lindor

Since “Jeff” respects the rules, he wouldn’t dare tell you for whom he voted when he submitted his ballot Sunday. But since the rules don’t prohibit him from saying for whom he didn’t vote, he will say Mookie Betts will not be the unanimous AL MVP this year. On the other hand …

2. Kris Bryant may well win the National League award outright. And if “Jeff” had an NL ballot, it would look like this:

1. Kris Bryant
2. Corey Seager
3. Daniel Murphy
4. Nolan Arenado
5. Joey Votto
6. Freddie Freeman
7. Anthony Rizzo
8. Justin Turner
9. Max Scherzer
10. Yoenis Cespedes

Tim’s picks:
1. Kris Bryant
2. Daniel Murphy
3. Anthony Rizzo
4. Corey Seager
5. Nolan Arenado
6. Freddie Freeman
7. Yoenis Cespedes
8. Joey Votto
9. Paul Goldschmidt
10. Justin Turner

Bryant hits for average, power, draws walks, plays a number of positions and plays them well, and even runs the bases like the really smart player he is. In other words, every time he’s on TV, the entire Houston Astros organization simultaneously wants to vomit.

Mike Oz of Big League Stew takes a look at Chicago’s playoff potential – including what you need to know, why they could win the World Series and how they could be eliminated early.

Before we anoint the 24-year-old Bryant as a surefire multiple-time MVP winner – and, consequentially, a likely future Hall of Famer – let’s not forget the second-place finisher is a 22-year-old rookie, and fourth-place finisher a 25-year-old with back-to-back 40-homer, 130-RBI seasons. This year wasn’t tough. Future years will be, though hopefully not as difficult as picking …

3. Max Scherzer as NL Cy Young winner. The ballot:

1. Max Scherzer
2. Jon Lester
3. Kyle Hendricks
4. Clayton Kershaw
5. Jose Fernandez

Tim’s picks:
1. Max Scherzer
2. Jon Lester
3. Kyle Hendricks
4. Madison Bumgarner
5. Clayton Kershaw

So. This one. This one was not easy. Jon Lester started 21 games this season in which he allowed zero or one earned runs. That’s really good! Nobody else did it more than 17 times. Scherzer did it only 13.

Max Scherzer drives a ground ball into center field, scoring his third and fourth RBIs to put the Nationals up 4-2 in the bottom of the 4th

Raise that threshold to two or fewer runs, though – still, in almost all circumstances, a really good start – and Lester’s number jumps to 24, while Scherzer’s is at 23. Add in the fact that Scherzer threw nearly 21 innings more than Lester (and almost 35 more than Hendricks), that Scherzer struck out the most hitters in baseball and had the second-best K%-BB% in the game behind Fernandez, that nobody period allowed fewer baserunners – all that, and it’s still close because Scherzer’s home run rate left his ERA about three-quarters of a run higher than Hendricks’.

So while Hendricks and Fernandez and Noah Syndergaard may have been better than Scherzer, they threw significantly fewer innings. Kershaw may have been worlds better (than Scherzer and everyone), but he didn’t even reach two-thirds of Scherzer’s innings total. And when it comes to the Cy Young, quantity matters, because in an era when managers yank a starter at first sign of trouble, the ability to pitch in volume and pitch well separates the best. It’s what made the American League Cy Young so tough to pick, too, and why …

4. Justin Verlander is the surprise selection there. The rest of the ballot:

1. Justin Verlander
2. Rick Porcello
3. Corey Kluber
4. Chris Sale
5. Zach Britton

Tim’s picks:
(Can’t reveal)

Instinct here said Sale. Momentum said Porcello. Consistency said Kluber. (Nothing said Britton because he’s a closer, and his inclusion here is a testament to him having about the best season ever for one.) Verlander, though, embodies all of those, and while he’s almost certainly not going to get a first-place vote in the real balloting, here’s why he deserves one.

Justin Verlander strikes out Tyler Flowers looking with runners on the corners to end the threat in the bottom of the 6th inning

Among the contenders, Verlander has thrown the most innings. By only a few, but still, in close races, little things matter. He allowed the fewest baserunners in the AL, too, and the lowest batting average. He also struck out the most hitters, and his K%-BB% – a measure that arguably reflects the value of strikeouts and walks better than the standard K-to-BB ratio – is tops in the league, too. Also best of the four: His 3.04 ERA.

The argument against Verlander? Well, he gives up too many home runs. And that’s never good. Except it’s 2016. Everyone gave up home runs, which doesn’t make it all right but at least more understandable. And even as he was yielding those home runs, it wasn’t affecting him all that adversely. Over the season’s final two months, nobody in the AL was better than Verlander, not even Porcello. In his 80 1/3 innings, Verlander had a 2.13 ERA, struck out 99 and walked 17.

Either Porcello or Britton is going to win this, and if Porcello does, he’ll be deserving. Just not as much as Verlander. Give …

5. Rick Porcello the AL Comeback Player of the Year award, paired with Tanner Roark winning the NL version, and all will be well with the world.

(Tim’s choice for AL Comeback Player is Ian Desmond and Jean Segura for NL.)

This is the same Porcello, after all, whose contract contributed to the firing of former Red Sox GM Ben Cherington, and whose 4.92 ERA in 2015 was the fourth worst among all qualified pitchers in the major leagues. Look past the 22 wins this year and focus on the strikeouts and walks and home runs and … uh … they’re not all that different than last year, you say? Not really. Porcello is just giving up way, way fewer hits this year, and whether that’s an anomaly or a trend isn’t known yet. It’s a reality, though, and attributing that entire change to luck on balls in play is perhaps presumptuous.

Mike Oz of Big League Stew takes a look at Boston’s playoff potential – including what you need to know, why they could win the World Series and how they could be eliminated early.

Roark, like Porcello, was Mr. Consistent this season, and his peaks were even higher. In 10 starts this year, Roark didn’t allow an earned run. It was a far cry from last year, when the Nationals shuffled him off to the bullpen despite nearly 200 innings of 2.85 ERA ball in 2014. This season, Roark threw 210 innings, posted a 2.83 ERA and gives the Nationals an excellent fill-in for the injured Stephen Strasburg in the playoff rotation’s second slot. Unlike Roark …

6. Michael Fulmer won’t be pitching this October for the Tigers. But he should be taking home some hardware as well, in a razor-thin margin over Yankees sensation Gary Sanchez for AL Rookie of the Year.

1. Michael Fulmer
2. Gary Sanchez
3. Chris Devenski

Tim’s picks
1. Michael Fulmer
2. Gary Sanchez
3. Tyler Naquin

Had Sanchez not gone almost 0-for-the last week, his numbers would’ve looked even gaudier than the .299/.376/.657 line with which he finished. It’s phenomenal. It’s also two months of work. Fulmer was really, really good for five months. He logged 159 innings of 3.06 ERA baseball. And while innings are far from a strict arbiter, they speak to a consistency borne out over a long period of time.

This was closer than it had any right to be, and a vote for Sanchez is eminently justifiable (and, in multiple incarnations of this column, existed). In the end, very good for a while beat greatness that had a time limit. Combine the two and you get …

7. Corey Seager , the NL Rookie of the Year in a landslide. The rest of the ballot:

1. Corey Seager
2. Trea Turner
3. Kenta Maeda

Tim’s picks:
1. Corey Seager
2. Trea Turner
3. Aledmys Diaz

Mike Oz of Big League Stew takes a look at Los Angeles’ playoff potential – including what you need to know, why they could win the World Series and how they could be eliminated early.

There isn’t a whole lot to discuss here, other than exactly where Seager’s rookie season ranks among all time in the NL. Albert Pujols’ in 2001 may set the standard, with Mike Piazza’s eight years earlier not far behind. Dick Allen turned in an underrated gem in 1964, and Frank Robinson’s in 1956 wasn’t bad, either. Doc Gooden. Jose Fernandez. Ryan Braun. There have been plenty. None played shortstop like Seager, though, and between that and his .308/.365/.512 line, he’s in the conversation for the best. Speaking of the best …

8. Joe Maddon deserves his second consecutive NL Manager of the Year award and fourth overall. The rest of the ballot:

1. Joe Maddon
2. Dave Roberts
3. Dusty Baker

Tim’s picks:
1. Dave Roberts
2. Terry Collins
3. Dusty Baker

Look, this award is difficult to quantify. But the Chicago Cubs finished the season with a +252 run differential, Maddon kept his clubhouse controversy-free and the team had its division won by May. Could pretty much anyone have managed the Cubs to the NL Central crown? Probably. And while the exact same can’t be said for Roberts’ injury-riddled Dodgers or Baker’s talented Nationals, the Cubs were so much better than everyone else that to overlook their manager – who, as the industry was shifting more, agreed to eschew defensive shifts and wound up with the best defense in four decades – would feel like an oversight. Of course, to then give …

9. Jeff Banister the AL Manager of the Year award when his team finished with only a +8 run differential feels sort of consistent, doesn’t it, now, “Jeff”? To which “Jeff” will say: But it’s different! Really! Just look at the rest of the ballot first:

1. Jeff Banister
2. Buck Showalter
3. Terry Francona

Tim’s picks:
1. Terry Francona
2. Buck Showalter
3. Jeff Banister

Mike Oz of Big League Stew takes a look at Cleveland’s playoff potential – including what you need to know, why they could win the World Series and how they could be eliminated early.

While the Cubs ran roughshod over everyone, the Rangers’ AL-best 95-67 record certainly did not reflect the runs they scored and allowed. It did show their insane 36-11 record in one-run games. The .766 winning percentage is the best in history. And, yes, some of this is luck. But Banister had a hand in all those little late-game maneuvers that won the Rangers at least a few games, and for that he deserves credit – more than Showalter rescuing the Orioles from their underwhelming starting pitching (again), more than Francona blitzing the Central despite injuries to his great rotation and more than John Farrell, from whom a first-place vote is certainly justifiable with the job he did in Boston. In this category, like almost every this year, the choice is not clear cut. With …

10. Mike Trout, of course, “Ffej” says a vote otherwise is like a vote for – “Ffej,” you’d better not call Mookie Betts the baseball equivalent of Electoral Voldemort. Don’t. DON’T. That is not fair to Mookie. Fine, “Ffej” says, a vote for Mookie Betts is merely a vote that could be cast in a better fashion.

It’s not just the writers, though. Much as they are to blame for the MVP, the players, too, are culpable. Last week, they nominated three American Leaguers for MLB Player of the Year: Betts, Ortiz and Altuve. And while Betts and Ortiz play for the AL East champ, Altuve will be spending his October in the same place as Trout: home. And that’s what can be so infuriating about this. What is the threshold? Does a player’s team simply need to be over .500? Contending in the last week? Two weeks?

One of the most trite arguments is that if you want the MVP to go to the best player, rename it the Most Outstanding Player award. “Jeff” isn’t asking you to rename the award Most Valuable Player On A Winning Team Except In Years When There Isn’t Someone Good Enough On A Winning Team In Which Case We’ll Deign To Give It To A Guy On A Non-Winning Team.

A better question to ask is what, exactly, the MVP is for if not to reward the best player? The goal is not to rob voters of subjectivity in their votes, because they should be allowed to judge who they believe was the best. But when that argument depends so fully on a team’s performance, as it does in the case of Betts, as it has in the case of so many others, it does not uphold the standard to which the Baseball Writers Association of America’s MVP award, the single greatest in all of American professional sports, should be held.

So “Ffej” thinks it’s time to change the criteria, since that’s what it’s seemingly going to take. Tell voters their duty is to vote for the best player. Because that’s the point. That’s the duty. Enough screwing Mike Trout. He gives his best. He deserves as much in return.


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