The BBWAA needs to fix the MVP award

I imagine that Mike Trout and Alex Bregman were getting hotly debated in the MVP race, and that it likely produced lots of vitriol from some Astros fans and those that believe an MVP has to come from a winning team. I am not going to read the comments sections for the writers that voted for Trout because I am afraid this would happen to me, but I am guessing “vitriolic,” would be an accurate description.

If you treat the MVP as the best player award, as I do, this year’s AL MVP was honestly a toss-up. Literally nobody has ever said that the MVP should be decided solely by WAR, but if that were the case, those two are virtually tied by all three versions of the model. I decided to give the edge to the better offensive player in Trout, despite the games played disadvantage, but I do not for a second believe that he was the objective correct choice and anybody who disagrees is wrong.

Of course, those who disagree with the AL MVP results do so not because they believe that Bregman was unarguably better than Trout — though I am sure that describes some of them — but because of the traditional belief that an MVP has to come from a winning team, that a player cannot be “valuable” on a team that does not even make the playoffs.

Look, I am not going to break down the “value” argument here, at least not in ways we have all heard a million times since the 2012 Trout/Cabrera debates. Honestly, the problem lies with the league refusing to define it. Here’s the criteria given to the voters that you can find on the BBWAA website:

There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.

The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931:

1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.

2. Number of games played.

3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.

4. Former winners are eligible.

5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

The BBWAA purposely leaves the definition of “valuable” vague. I can see how that could worked for the first 70-75 years of the award, because fans did not have access to giant databases of stats like they do now, there was no social media, and the sabermetric movement was not influential enough to insert some badly needed intellectual honesty into the discussions. Put another way, it used to be hard for fans to find the data needed to construct counterarguments and find a place to voice them. The writers made decisions and people accepted it.

That has not been the case at all this decade. Voting is not secret, stats are freely available, and fans do not hesitate to get Mad Online when the results do not line up with their definitions of “value.”

So why doesn’t the BBWAA address the value issue when it has progressed so much in recent years? Because article ideas can be hard to come by, and because clicks.

A writer can get a lot of attention and clicks by writing yet another article that rehashes the value debate, especially if it allows the writer to support an inferior candidate. This debate can also fill lots of air time for talking heads on television.

Here’s the thing about the traditional definition of value: it really is not unreasonable or stupid. “A player can’t be valuable on a losing team,” is a statement that is not without merit. The problem is that those on the other side of the debate, such as myself, do not see that as sufficient to outweigh the illogic behind giving out an individual award for factors beyond a player’s control, such as his teammates.

(Before anyone says that Trout chose to stay with the Angels earlier this year, it was not like other teams got a chance to outbid the Angels. Also, if you think any player would choose a competitive team over $430 million with a team that is not, I envy the innocence you have yet to lose. Had the Marlins offered Harper or Machado that much last year, I guarantee you they would have signed there.)

I don’t believe that making a separate Best Player award will solve things, either. I am concerned that nobody will care about such an award if the MVP award is still around.

Here is the criteria I would set for the MVP award:

  • Choose the best position player based on his offense, defense, baserunning, and position played.
  • Number of games played should be considered, but it should not automatically disqualify elite players who miss significant time (e.g. Joe Mauer in 2009).
  • Team record is to be completely disregarded.
  • This is an individual award. Only factors completely within the player’s control should be considered.
  • This is not the WAR award. One should not automatically vote for the player with the highest WAR.

You might notice that I wrote “position players” above. While I fully believe that a pitcher can be the MVP, that appears to be a lost cause even in the analytics community. If a pitcher could not even come close to winning the 2018 NL MVP, the baseball community has clearly given up on making it happen. It was an exceptional year for pitchers. I would have voted for Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, and Aaron Nola, before Christian Yelich, yet those three ranked fifth, tenth, and thirteenth, respectively.

Personally, I also want the BBWAA to define “value” because there is nothing dumber and less interesting to me than semantic arguments. I can’t be the only one who is sick and tired of listening to these value debates. Even if this results in the BBWAA mandating that MVPs come from winning teams, I will make that trade-off to never have hear another value debate again. While I am hopeful that the BBWAA will fix the MVP award someday, I am not foolish enough to believe that it will happen anytime soon.

. . .

Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.

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