Would today's debates change past awards?
Current availability of many statistical rulers might have led to different outcomes
By Zack Meisel / 11/19/12 10:00 AM ET
Everyone had an opinion.
Baseball experts and sports enthusiasts chimed in. So, seemingly, did everyone's mother, brother, cousin and uncle.
It was a familiar predicament, really. One slugger appeared deserving based on the merits of an offensive achievement not seen for decades. Another player warranted strong consideration for his entire body of work, polished off by a rare blend of power, speed, defense and the ability to wreak havoc on the basepaths.
This year's much-ballyhooed American League Most Valuable Player Award debate involving the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera and the Angels' Mike Trout bears similarities to the 1961 race between Yankees teammates Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle.
That year, Mantle had historic statistics, but Maris clubbed a record 61 home runs, surpassing Babe Ruth's mark of 60 that had stood for 34 years. Five decades ago, baseball analysts didn't have modern statistics such as WAR or UZR or ERA+ or FIP to judge players. Those once-intangible elements have now been converted into applicable measurements, providing voters with newer, more detailed references should they choose to incorporate them into their voting strategy.
Using today's methods of valuing players, however, how many past awards might be redistributed? Should there exist a standard set of criteria for which to judge players to create a level, objective voting process, or should the debate be part of the process -- and the fun?
"There are always going to be points of view, and I think civil discourse between reasonable people always benefits the game," said Paul Hirsch, a member of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) board of directors.
Selecting MVP and Cy Young Award winners has always been a subjective practice, and in the case of MVP, the term "valuable" often leads to arguments over what voters should focus on when considering candidates. Sometimes it takes the perfect confluence of factors for a particular player to garner an award, since there are no guidelines for determining the criteria to be considered in voting.
Should one favor a hitter's ability to hit for power and drive in runs, or endorse his foe's knack for stealing bases and robbing home runs? Where does team performance fit into the picture? Should a pitcher be held responsible for a lack of run support? In certain instances, even a player's reputation or rapport with the media can influence balloting.
In 2010, Mariners ace Felix Hernandez earned 21 of 28 first-place votes to win the American League Cy Young Award. His 13-12 record paled in comparison to 21-7 and 19-6 marks by southpaws CC Sabathia and David Price, but the right-hander flourished in regard to the less-mainstream statistics. His 6.8 WAR stood out among his competition, as did his 4.85 Wins Probability Added (WPA) and 174 ERA+. The voting demonstrated the devaluation of a pitcher's win total -- a number sometimes dictated by run support and fortune.
"I have a hard time computing that," said Paul Hoynes, who covers the Cleveland Indians for The Plain Dealer, and has voted for BBWAA awards since 1993. "Runs and wins, those are an essential part to a baseball team. For a starting pitcher, I know there are pitch counts and limits and a lot of things out of his control, but in almost every game there's a crucial time for a starter where he can make a pitch or get an out or get a double-play ball and that would allow him to continue to pitch to qualify for a victory. I think that's important and that tends to get overlooked."
In 2005, Roger Clemens finished behind Chris Carpenter and Dontrelle Willis in voting for the National League Cy Young, despite having a better WAR, WHIP, ERA+ and WPA. Carpenter's 21 wins and Willis' 22 victories trumped Clemens' 13-8 record in most voters' eyes, as The Rocket received just two of 32 first-place nods.
Pirates shortstop Dick Groat claimed the NL MVP in 1960 on the merits of his .325 average and leadership on a Pittsburgh club that won the pennant and eventually the World Series. His two homers, 50 RBIs and 6.0 WAR didn't stack up well against Willie Mays (29 homers, 103 RBIs, 107 runs, 9.2 WAR) or Ernie Banks (41 homers, 117 RBIs, 7.5 WAR), but voters placed a higher value on winning. Three Pirates players shared the 22 first-place votes, with Groat capturing 16 of them.
"I actually thought that I had a much better year when I finished second in the MVP voting in 1963," Groat said. "I just think the MVP goes to somebody on a winning team. Winning is the most important thing. That's what we are all paid for."
Yet, Banks captured the trophy in each of the two years prior to Groat's feat, despite his Cubs squad finishing with a losing record both times. His individual numbers spoke volumes: In 1958, Banks hit .313 with 47 homers, 129 RBIs, 119 runs and a 9.2 WAR. A year later, the shortstop batted .304 with 45 homers, 143 RBIs and a 9.9 WAR. Clearly, voters revised their criteria after Banks' second triumph.
"I thought for years the MVP was strictly based on individual performance, because Ernie Banks played with bad baseball teams and won the MVP twice," Groat said. "Those were great seasons, but I still think the MVP should go to somebody who had a great year on a winning team."
When Red Sox left fielder Carl Yastrzemski had a Triple Crown season in 1967, he received 19 of 20 first-place votes. He didn't have the competition that Cabrera did this year, but Hoynes believe the milestone should carry a good deal of weight.
"He won the Triple Crown, and I think the story should end right there," Hoynes said. "You lead the league in average, home runs and RBIs, that hasn't been done since Yaz in 1967. No matter how advanced sabermetrics are, they can't top that."
Many voters agreed. Cabrera earned 22 of the 28 first-place votes, while Trout collected the other six. Still, the debate wages on as everyone constructs their own arguments based on however they choose to define "most valuable."
"I think the subjectivity is healthy, because one of the things baseball thrives on is conversation about the game," Hirsch said. "The subjectivity promotes that conversation. If there were some sort of objective point system, if Cabrera had 191 points and Trout had 189, or vice versa, what's interesting about that? This is more fun."