November 13, 2006

My Ballot: AL MVP

As a lowly internet writer (as opposed to a slightly less lowly newspaper beat writer) I don't actually have a vote, but if I did here's what my ballot for American League MVP would look like ...

   AL MVP                PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     RBI     RUN
1 Derek Jeter 715 .343 .417 .483 97 118
2 Joe Mauer 608 .347 .429 .507 84 86
3 Johan Santana 923 .216 233.2 IP - 2.77 ERA - 245 SO
4 Grady Sizemore 751 .290 .375 .533 76 134
5 Vernon Wells 677 .303 .357 .542 106 91
6 Carlos Guillen 622 .320 .400 .519 85 100
7 Miguel Tejada 709 .330 .379 .498 100 99
8 David Ortiz 686 .287 .413 .636 137 115
9 Travis Hafner 563 .308 .439 .659 117 100
10 Justin Morneau 661 .321 .375 .559 130 97

Two things I've often been accused of being over the years is a Twins homer and a Derek Jeter basher, so the above ballot should change those perceptions at least a little bit. While it's true that I feel the mainstream media and most fans tend to overrate Jeter, sometimes to ridiculous levels, the fact is that his 2006 season was fantastic with or without a fawning public attempting to make it even better. His season stands on its own as MVP-caliber, whether you're a Jeter basher or a Jeter lover.

Jeter batted .343, supplemented his 214 hits with 69 walks and a dozen hit by pitches to get on base at a .417 clip, and used 14 homers and 39 doubles to slug .483. He appeared in 154 of the Yankees' 162 games, stole 34 bases in 39 attempts, scored 118 times, drove in 97 runs, and played nearly 1,300 innings defensively at shortstop (though not particularly well, despite what the Gold Glove voting would have you believe).

Of course, Joe Mauer is also an up-the-middle defensive player, beat Jeter for the AL batting title (.347 to .343), and topped him in on-base percentage (.429 to .417) and slugging percentage (.507 to .483) as well. Toss in Mauer being safely above average (at least) as a defensive catcher while Jeter is below par (at least) at shortstop and it should actually be Mauer in the top spot, right? At first glance, perhaps, but after further digging, not quite.

Jeter and Mauer play premium defensive positions and posted similar hitting numbers, with Mauer holding an edge both offensively and defensively. However, Jeter's superior base running eliminates Mauer's advantage at the plate and the difference in their playing time more than takes care of the rest. Jeter played 154 games, came to the plate 715 times, and fielded his position for 1,292 innings. Mauer played 140 games, came to the plate 608 times, and fielded his position for 1,059 innings.

Much of that gap is not Mauer's fault, obviously. New York's lineup was the best in the league, which enabled Jeter to come to bat more often than he would have on other teams. Similarly, the rigors of catching make it nearly impossible for someone to squat behind the plate for the same 1,300 innings Jeter manned shortstop. Whatever the reasons, at the end of the day Jeter played 14 more games, batted 100 more times, and played an additional 250 innings on defense.

There are some years when one player has a monster season to make himself the clear choice at MVP, but that wasn't the case in the AL this year. Instead, two up-the-middle defenders put together great seasons at the plate that were eerily similar. When that's the case--when no truly dominate candidate emerges from the rest of the pack and the race at the top in his absence is extremely close--Jeter's edge in playing time is the type of thing that makes a difference.

In a sense this is a choice of quantity over quality, although that's not really the case because both Jeter and Mauer were excellent in very similar ways. Mauer was better as a defender, but Jeter played 22 percent more innings in the field. Mauer was better as a hitter, but Jeter added more on the bases and came to the plate 18 percent more often. Both players are deserving MVPs who had tremendous seasons, but in terms of all-around total value I think Jeter has a slight advantage.

In situations like this, I look towards advanced metrics that are designed to go deeper than simply eye-balling the overall numbers. Here's what a few of them say about the Jeter-Mauer comparison:

          WS-AB      RC     VORP    WARP      WPA
Jeter 33-20 123 80.5 9.8 5.98
Mauer 31-20 114 66.9 8.9 2.36

They're tied at 20 Win Shares Above Bench (WSAB), but Jeter holds a small 33-to-31 edge in Win Shares (WS) and leads by nine runs in Runs Created (RC), 13.6 runs in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), 1.1 wins in Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP), and 3.62 wins in Win Probability Added (WPA). In other words, while the difference between the two players is relatively small regardless of what metric you choose to look at, Jeter does come out on top.

Even beyond Jeter and Mauer, the rest of the ballot is pretty interesting. Johan Santana will likely get almost zero support from the people who actually vote for AL MVP, but a convincing argument could be made for his deserving the award over both Jeter and Mauer. Santana was by far the best pitcher in the league, throwing 233.2 innings with a 2.77 ERA and 245 strikeouts, and his 923 batters faced dwarfs the number of plate appearances for any hitter.

On the other hand, Justin Morneau will receive a ton of support for AL MVP and reportedly may even win the award, yet I nearly left him off my ballot completely. Morneau's season was fantastic and his 130 RBIs had a huge impact on the Twins, but there were a number of defensively limited sluggers who put up similar numbers. In fact, just to get Morneau on the ballot at No. 10 I had to convince myself that he was more valuable than Jermaine Dye (.315/.385/.622, 44 HR, 120 RBI), which was a stretch.

It's no surprise that Morneau will get plenty of support from the writers who vote for AL MVP, because they've always looked primarily at batting averages, RBI totals, and team success with little regard for context. I choose to focus on all-around offensive value along with defense and positional adjustments, and give no weight to how good someone's teammates are, which is why Morneau's case for the award shrinks considerably in my eyes.

That's also why the top of my ballot is filled with guys who put up big offensive numbers and played premium defensive positions, whereas the top of most "real" ballots will be littered with power-hitting sluggers who added little defensively. It's certainly true that most of the biggest RBI totals every year are posted by first basemen, designated hitters, and corner outfielders, but that alone doesn't make them the most valuable players.

Defensive counts and big hitting numbers from an up-the-middle position are better than slightly bigger hitting numbers from a plodding slugger, which is how guys like Grady Sizemore, Vernon Wells, Carlos Guillen, and Miguel Tejada move past the assortment of "run producers" like Morneau, Dye, David Ortiz, Travis Hafner, Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Jason Giambi, and Paul Konerko.

As the number of sluggers on the above list should indicate (there were more where those came from), it's not particularly difficult to find a big bopper to drive in runs. What is tough is finding players like Jeter, Mauer, and Sizemore who can put runs on the board in bunches while manning important defensive positions and simultaneously keep runs off the board in bunches. Except for the top spot, my ballot won't look much like those cast by people who actually have votes, but that's just fine with me.

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