Sep 14, 2011 by

A little while ago Bill Simmons published a piece over on Grantland regarding his interpretation of what MVP means.  It’s nothing revolutionary really, but it’s written in Bill’s familiar style of pop culture sports mash up, and as always, it manages to be both thoughtful and emotional.  It’s well worth a read.  So go ahead and read it, I’ll sit here patiently until you’re done.

Back already?  Alright, guess I’ll stop drinking whiskey and cleaning my gun and go ahead and finish up this post.

The Grantland piece is comprised of two main parts:  Simmons’ interpretation of what comprises an MVP and his justification for selecting Verlander as said MVP.

Before getting too far into this I want to make my position clear.  There is no right or wrong argument for what constitutes an MVP.  The MVP is beautiful in its obfuscation.  It doesn’t matter whether it was set up as such on purpose, or whether it’s just a happy circumstance.  The facts are we all get to interpret its meaning and vote and argue accordingly.  Proving the definition of an MVP is like proving the existing of God, in doing so, you’ve denied its proof.  Let it go, make your argument for your player, be prepared to defend your opinion, or change it in the face of facts you can get behind.  Then go eat a sandwich and drink a beer and relax.  It’s just baseball after all, it’s fun to argue about, but at the end of the day, it’s not going to change the world.

However, with that being said, Simmons does stake forth his claim for what makes an MVP, and in doing so, he opens it up for dissection, whether its “just an interpretation” or not.  Since this is what I get paid to do (Millions of dollars actually.  In fact, I’m sitting naked in a pile of money right now, it’s awesome.  You should try it sometime.), I’m going to go ahead and do just that.

First – He says “Doesn’t valuable mean that something positive happened”, he also explains, through bad tv shows and movies, that a performance can’t be valuable if the overall product isn’t valuable.  This all leads to the following passage:

“…the phrase “most valuable” means something different than “most outstanding.” In my mind it means had this player not been involved, his successful team would not have achieved the same success.”

In addition to defining his position on what constitutes valuable, he’s also starting to explain why the best player according to WAR, Jose Bautista, is basically ineligible for the MVP award.

The problem with Bill’s statement is the leap in logic he makes to arrive at his conclusion.  There is nothing about the word “valuable” that necessitates “successful team”.  It can mean that, sure.  It can also mean that the team that finished second behind the successful team would have really valued having that player on their team.  I’m sure the Cardinals, Giants, Angels, Braves and Rays would consider Bautista quite a valuable member to their team right now.  Yes, I know it’s not the “Most Coveted Player” award, but the point is that value is not solely dependent on its surroundings.  It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.

But again, this is the fun with MVP arguments, right?  With no clear rules, we make up our own, and this is Bill’s, so we are going to let him have it.

Bill uses voting history to set precedent for the following statement:

Here’s what I believe: The best player on a noncontender shouldn’t be considered “most valuable” unless (a) his numbers demolish everyone else’s numbers, and (b) there wasn’t a kick-ass candidate from a better team.

I guess I could pick apart what would constitute “demolish”, but I get his point, and there isn’t anything wrong with it.  I don’t necessarily agree with it, but I don’t have to, and it’s at least more thought out than “A player can’t be an MVP unless he’s on a contender” that so many sportswriters have followed in the past.

If you hadn’t already guessed at this point, the best player on a noncontender is Bautista, the “kick ass candidate” is Verlander.  So fine, let’s just go ahead and go with this and say that Bautista, even though he is a better player than Verlander, can’t be the MVP because he’s not on a winner and he doesn’t “demolish Verlander statistically.

So, at this point in the article, Bill has pretty well defined the Simmons Logic for MVP, or SLMVP for short. It’s also the point where he transitions from defining his interpretation for MVP to staking his claim for Verlander as MVP based on said logic.

Simmons goes on to explain that Verlander has been the “ace of a mediocre team” for five months.  That the whole pitching staff sucks, and that they are basically a 500 team without Verlander.  The point of the argument seems to be that Bautista has been unable to lift his sub 500 team into contention while Verlander has.  He slams this home with:

“If Bautista had been “average” this season, Toronto’s fortunes wouldn’t have changed. If Verlander had been “average” this season, Detroit would be headed for fourth place and total obscurity. Instead, nobody in his right mind wants to see Justin Verlander in a seven-game series right now.”

The problem with this argument is that he neglects to mention the Tigers offense.  He neglects to mention the Tigers division, and he neglects to mention other players for other contending teams who have actually put together better seasons than Verlander.

The Tigers are 4th in the American League in Runs Scored and in OPS, behind only the Yanks, Boston, and Texas.  The Tigers have scored 5 runs or more in 14 of his 22 wins.  Verlander has 16 wins against sub 500 teams (the benefits of playing in the worst division in baseball).  So yes, Verlander has been dominant, he’s been better than any other pitcher on his team, and he’s done what good pitchers should do – he’s beat up on the bad teams.  However, he didn’t do it all on his own.  He was supported by the 3rd or 4th best offense in the American league in the worst division in the AL.  I don’t doubt that Verlander is the most valuable player on the Tigers, but that’s not what we’re talking about is it?

The whole notion that the Tigers would be in fourth place without Verlander is fallacious argument.  That division sucks.  The 4th place team right now is the Royas with 62 wins, so basically Simmons is saying that Verlander’s  average Replacement would have 0 wins, hardly average.  Right now, the 2, 3, and 4 starter for the Tigers, whom Verlander has made a case for being below average, all have 10 or more wins.  So let’s say they get someone who can fumble his way to 10 wins in place of Verlander, that means the Tigers would have 13 less wins than they have right now and they would be in a virtual tie with Cleveland and the White Sox for first place.  That’s certainly not as good as being in 1st place all by themselves, but it’s not 4th place either.  It’s also a conservative guess, as Verlander isn’t the only one winning right now, all the starters are (In fact two of the Tigers starters have 14 and one has 10.  Not because they are particularly great, but because the Tigers offense is good.).

So, if we use the SLMVP and say that a performance can’t be valuable unless the team is valuable, i.e. winning, then can’t we also say that if one team is more valuable than the other, then an equally valuable performance by a player on the more valuable team must be more valuable?  In other words, Sabathia has been just as good as Verlander for a better team, therefore Sabathia is better.

I know, it’s starting to get silly, but that’s what happens when an argument’s logic is tenuous at best.  But ok, I won’t actually use that extension of the SLMVP, less just go ahead and look at the rest of the article and see if Simmons can make a case for Verlander to be MVP.

The next bit starts with:

“Which brings us to another polarizing question: “Can a starting pitcher really be more valuable than an everyday player?”

The short answer: Lefty Grove won the first American League MVP award, so yes.”

Just because someone is elected something, doesn’t mean they should be that thing – think Jethro Tull and Best Heavy Metal Band Grammy.   Bill does go on to talk about the Clemens and Martinez MVP winning seasons.  Those seasons, especially Pedro’s ’99 and ‘00 were pretty monstrous.   But it’s really hard for a pitcher to be that dominant.  Clemens had a WAR of 8.0 and Pedro had 12.1 and 10.1 in 99 and 2000 (holy shit!).  Pitchers only have a chance to affect the outcome of 35 games or so.  Position players not only have the chance to affect more, but they are busy backing up the pitchers the rest of the time.

Using the principles of SLMVP,  I’m fine with a Pitcher winning the MVP as long as he “demolishes” the stats of every other position player (Which Pedro did.  Clemens didn’t, but he was pretty close- his teammate Wade Boggs was actually a little better.  However, Clemens was the stronger emotional pick, which essentially, with all of his stats and reasoning, is what Simmons is arguing with Verlander.).
Verlander’s 23 wins and counting is nice, but as much as he’s demolishing the stats of his pitching teammates, he’s got real competition from a few position players around the league, and not just Bautista, but players from winning, and therefore valuable, teams.

Verlander currently has a WAR of 6.4.  That is MVP status for sure.  The only problem is its less than Dustin Pedroia at 6.8, Curtis Granderson at 6.7, Ian Kinsler at 6.6 and it’s a lot less than Jacob Ellsbury at 8.2.  Hell, it’s even less than another pitcher, CC Sabathia at 6.8.  To be fair, the differences between Pedroia, Sabathia, Granderson, Kinsler and Verlander are minor, but the difference between Ellsbury and Verlander are pretty huge.

It’s easy to say that the Red Sox are loaded with talent.  It’s easy to think that the Sox wouldn’t be as affected by the loss of Ellsbury as much as losing Verlander would hurt the Tigers.  But if you think that, you neglect to take into account just how hard it is for the Sox to be where they are.  They play in the American League East, keeping up with the Yankees and the Rays takes massive talent, and losing someone like Ellsbury could be the difference between a Wild Card spot and Third Place.  This is the real difference.  Losing Verlander might make the Tigers tied for first, losing Ellsbury might make the Sox fall behind the surging Rays and out of the post season.

Verlander is pretty much a lock for the Cy Young.  There might not be as much of a difference between Sabathia and Verlander as there appears on the surface, in fact, Sabathia might even be a little bit better, but it’s hard to ignore that many wins and strikeouts and I don’t think you should.  Verlander isn’t even a bad choice for MVP, but I just don’t think he is the right choice.  I say this using the stats that I believe the measure the best players and I also say it using the SLMVP, there’s just too many players, on winning teams, who are as good or better to pick from.  But to quote Bill, “it’s an interpretation” – you can take it or leave it.

I’m going to go eat a sandwich now.



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