MVPs and RsBI

Sorry for a third consecutive Twins-related post (this one doesn’t have much to do with the Twins at all, it just starts out that way), but DicknBert really ticked me off the other day.

This was Friday night, the same night that Alexi Casilla made me (and apparently Billy Smith) wish the second base position had never been invented. It was the second game back after the All-Star break, and the “ question of the day,” or some similarly silly promotion, was: who are Dick and Bert’s picks for MVP through the first half of the season?

Both picked Albert Pujols for the National League MVP, which is the only pick a thinking person can make. But Bert goes first, and his AL MVP pick (stats up to the last date he could’ve made the pick, through July 16) is:

Jason Bay. .260/.380/.527, 20 HR, 72 RBI, 56 R, 125 OPS+. He’s a left fielder, and probably the worst one in the league; UZR says he’s already cost the Red Sox 8.1 runs, or essentially 1 win, with his defense alone.

Then it’s Dick’s turn, and he starts out by indicating he agrees with Bert on his NL pick, but disagrees on the AL. Thank God, I think. Dick’s pick:

Torii Hunter: .305/.380/.558, 17 HR, 65 RBI, 56 R, 140 OPS+. He’s a center fielder, and has always had a sterling defensive reputation, but the stats have never agreed, and this year UZR has him at -2.1 runs.

So kudos to Dick Bremer, I guess, for picking a much, much more valuable player as his Most Valuable Player than Bert did; Torii is the better hitter, plays the more important position, and has been the much less damaging defender. But it should go without saying that neither of these guys is anywhere near the actual most valuable player in the American League.

And then I started thinking: what do these guys have in common? And then Blyleven listed off all the other guys he could have picked: Miguel Cabrera, Justin Morneau, Mark Teixeira, Evan Longoria…and that’s about when it dawned on me.

1. None of these guys is Joe Mauer.
2. On a related note, each of these guys is near the top of the league in runs batted in.

Now, let’s be clear about this. He had a huge slump over the weekend that has muddied the waters a bit, but as of July 16, there was only one remotely reasonable selection for AL MVP, and that was Joe Mauer. There’s just no debating that. You could’ve made an argument for somebody else, but you would’ve been indefensibly wrong. Check it:

.373/.477/.622, 15 HR, 49 RBI, 49 R, approx. 182 OPS+. He wasn’t just leading the league in batting average, or on-base percentage, or slugging percentage, or OPS, or OPS+; he was leading the league in all of those things. And he’s a catcher, and one of the best in the business; consider that while the average AL LFer (Jason Bay’s position) has a .771 OPS and the average AL CFer (Torii’s) has a .743, the average AL catcher has just a .712 OPS…and that number is significantly buoyed by Mauer himself. Aside from Pujols, there is nothing in all of baseball right now that even has a case for being anywhere near as valuable as a great defensive catcher with an 1.100 OPS. And, yeah, he missed a month, but he was still leading the league in almost every cumulative stat that attempts to measure player value, too; that’s just how much better he was than everybody else.

So there are DicknBert, Mauer’s own home team announcers, and not only do they not pick him, they don’t even mention him as being in the conversation. Morneau, sure, but not the runaway best player in the league hitting right in front of him (incidentally, the only other player even arguably in the conversation is Ben Zobrist, who also went unmentioned).

So it’s really clear to me that all they did was look at the RBI leaders and pick the one they think is having the best year (Bert didn’t even do that, he just picked the #1 RBI guy, despite the fact that he’s hitting roughly as well as you’d expect a LF to hit, and much worse than you’d expect a terrible defensive LF to hit). That would be fine and all, since it’s just two guys on a small-market local broadcast filling air space, except I’m pretty sure that that’s what the writers do, too. Here’s an ordered list of how the leader in RsBI has fared in the MVP voting the last five seasons (so 10 total contests, AL & NL):

1, 1, 2, 2, 2, 2, 3*, 5, 7*, 23

The average of these numbers is 4.8; the median is 2. In the two races with asterisks, there was a very close second-place finisher in the RBI race who finished first or second in MVP voting. The 23 throwing the whole thing off is Vinny Castilla, who had about an average offensive year in the middle of the lineup for the 2004 Rockies…if the Rox had won 94 rather than losing 94, Vinny might have wound up as the worst MVP pick in modern history.

Writers (and most everybody else) have seemingly always been in love with the RBI; I stopped with 2004 because before that, Barry Bonds stepped up, was intentionally walked approximately 800 times a year, and forced them to get away from RBI for a couple years. And of course every now and then they’ll pick a middle infielder–like Rollins in 2007 or Pedroia in 2008–but they almost never end up with the right middle infielder. The only way they end up on a non-RBI guy is: when the RBI champ is playing for a bad team (and where your team finishes in the standings should have nothing to do with how valuable you are, but that’s a discussion for another day); when other big RBI guys all have something go wrong; and when some little middle infielder is bestowed with the tag of “heart and soul” or “team leader” of some first-place team. In 2008, Morneau was the big RBI guy for the contending team, but he fell flat on his face in September, so he finished “only” second to sparky ‘n’ scrappy little Dustin Pedroia, whereas in 2006 Morneau did well down the stretch, so he won it. In both years, Joe Mauer was far and away the Twins’ MVP, and you could’ve made a case for him for league MVP too (though Derek Jeter was in the discussion in ’06 and Pedroia actually had a decent case in ’08).

The thing about it is–and I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but whatever–raw RBI total has almost nothing at all to do with a player’s value. It’s remarkably easy for a decent hitter with some power who spends 160 games hitting 4th or 5th in a high-scoring lineup to wind up in the top two or three of the league in RBI, and to be an average or worse overall player (see Ryan Howard ca. 2008 and 2009). The work Mauer did in getting on base in front of all those Morneau RBI, and in playing impeccable defense at catcher, was just much, much more valuable to the Twins, in ’06 and ’08 and again in ’09, than the RBI themselves are. And I think people are starting to recognize that, or at least the writers who refuse to recognize it are retiring or dying off and being replaced by the Rob Neyers, Keith Laws and Christina Kahrls of the world. But when the two guys whose entire livelihood is made by watching Mauer do his thing and relaying the wonder of it all to the masses can’t get this down, it really makes you realize how far we still have to go.

10 Responses to “MVPs and RsBI”

  1. tHeMARksMiTh Says:

    But isn't that how Morneau won that MVP a couple years ago? All his RBI's.

  2. Bill Says:

    Yep, just as I said. That's okay, I wouldn't want to read a post this long either. 🙂

  3. Ron Rollins Says:

    Best player doesn't always equal most valuable. It's a matter of context.

    Uh oh, there's that dirty word again.

  4. tHeMARksMiTh Says:

    I don't know how I skipped that line. I think I saw Dustin Pedroia and didn't pay as much attention. I usually try to make sure I read better before making a snarky comment. 🙂

  5. The Common Man Says:

    I like what Ron has to say here. I mean, I think most of us here would agree that there is no such thing as a "clutch" hitter as in "someone who has the innate ability to drive in runs", the runs that are driven in are valuable, and the players who successfully drive in those runs should be recognized (especially when we consider how often they have opportunities to drive guys in, based on the players hitting in front of them). Personally, I think Mauer is more valuable than those other players when you take defensive position and on-base-ness into account, but let's not be too quick to disparage the old RsBI.

    Awesome video game though.

  6. lar Says:

    But when the two guys whose entire livelihood is made by watching Mauer do his thing and relaying the wonder of it all to the masses can't get this down, it really makes you realize how far we still have to go.

    This is definitely the biggest sin. Joe Mauer is quite possibly one of the best players in baseball but because a) he plays catcher, b) he's not a slugger, and c) he plays in Minnesota, a lot of people don't even realize it. When that's the case, you usually can count on the hometown guys to go out of their way to talk up and promote their guy. Usually to the point of ridiculousness. It may not make the player actually better respected around the nation, but at least the team and its fans can say that they know they have something special.

    But it doesn't sound like the Twins guys are doing that. And that just stinks. If Mauer can't get any love in front of his own fans and own announcers, then what? Maybe he needs to go to the "best baseball city in America" for it to happen. I don't know. I just think it stinks.

    As to the larger argument about RBIs (sorry, that's how I think of them), the problem is that good/great players do tend to get a lot of RBIs, so that muddies people's perceptions. I mean, Hank and Lou and Babe and all of them had tons of RBIs so, if this guy does too, it must put him in their company. Like TCM says (and I believe Ron made a similar argument before), you can't just discount the RBI as worthless. It is valuable. But when people turn it into their only metric (or even their main one), things go wrong. Yes, Hank and Lou and Mickey and Babe all had ridiculous RBI totals, but that's not what made them good. It's not even the main argument for them. It's just another example of their greatness.

    There is too much context that needs to be considered when looking at the RBI total – much more so than most other stats – and it all gets lost by way too many people.

  7. Bill Says:

    I'm going to go ahead and disagree with, well, everybody. Except Mark. Mark's cool.

    First of all, when you're talking about the MVP award, "most valuable" simply has to mean "best." It's the only way that it makes any sense. It's valid, in some senses, to define "valuable" in a context-dependent way; we can say the guy who scored the most game-winning runs or was the best player on a playoff team or, yes, happened to rack up the most RBI is the "most valuable" because his contributions appear, to us, to have meant the most in the end. In the same way, if you have a thousand lottery tickets, the one that happens to hit all the winning numbers is the most valuable lottery ticket. But why do we want to reward that? Why do we want to create an award called the "Most Valuable Player Award" and give it to, not the player who provides the most value to his team, but to one of a handful of good players who happens to be placed in the most fortuitous position? And before you get too far into that line of thinking, you run into "guy X didn't even make the playoffs, so how much value can he really have?" And if that's the measure of value, how can anyone save the (perceived) best player on the team that wins the World Series ever have any value at all? There's no logical stopping point in that analysis. Obviously a LOT of people (including most writers) think this way, but it's never made any sense to me at all.

    Second, I'm just going to say it: RBI (and I use "RBI," "RsBI" and "RBIs" interchangeably, just to be obnoxious I suppose) ARE, in fact, completely worthless. Sure, guys that rack up a lot of RBI tend to be good players. If a guy has around 100 or more RBI, especially repeatedly, he's probably a good hitter (though certainly not always). But that's all it tells you. If dude A has 100 RBI and dude B has 140 RBI, you have no idea which one of them is the better player. Maybe there's a 55% chance it's the guy with 140. Or for that matter, a guy like Mauer, or Hanley (when he was leading off) or Soriano (when he was good)–these guys might not even hit the 75 RBI mark, but are unquestionably better hitters/players than a lot of guys with 120 or 130 of 'em.

    I guess what I'm getting at is: the fact that a statistic reflects value, to a certain very limited extent, doesn't make the statistic itself valuable. Same as with batting average, though at least that attempts to measure a real skill (there are just much better ways to measure the same skill). RBI measures opportunity and luck at least as much as it measures anything else, to the extent it even DOES measure anything else. So while I absolutely value and appreciate the skills that typically lead to a player having a lot of RBI, I have no problem entirely dismissing the RBI statistic itself.

    (OK, OK, everybody else is cool too.)

  8. lar Says:

    I get what you're saying, Bill, and I think, for the most part, that we're on the same page. I'm just a little more hesitant to write anything off completely with such absolute terms. Anything has value with proper context (and weight). That's all I'm saying. It's just that that context and weight can get lost when people see such heavy hitters at the top of the lists…

  9. tHeMARksMiTh Says:

    I'm cool! Did you guys hear that? I'm cool!

  10. Ron Rollins Says:

    Yeah, you're cool. We all get it.

    Okay guys, here's a theory I have, and I would like to get your opinions on it.

    To me the most valuable player (and here I mean valuable, not best – not disagreeing with you Bill, just using a different standard) is not usually the guy on a team that makes the playoffs.

    Most times, teams that make the playoffs are good teams and it's very rare that one player stands out above all of his teammates to make a difference. In other words, 'Value of Replacement'.

    Think A-Rod. He was hurt but now the Yankees are in first place. Because they are a good team with good players.

    Think Ortiz. He sucked, but the Red Sox are contending. Because they are a good team with good players.

    Think Mannny. He missed 50 games, but the Dodgers are in first place. Because they are a good team with good players.

    Good teams are good because of a sum of the whole. They win because of the team, not a specific individual.

    The '85 Royals and the season Brett put up are an exception. See where I'm going with this?

    The true MVP (the guy that is most valuable) is the schlub on a bad team that has such a great year that he elevates his team to another level that they couldn't get to without him.

    See Pujols, Albert – every year.

    See Beltran, Carlos – 2004

    See McGriff, Fred – 1993

    See Wright, David – every year. (I know people might disagree with that, but the Mets really suck, people just don't realize it)

    Even a case of Ryan Zimmerman or Dan Haren, who can make their team better because they are in the lineup.

    So that's my theory. The true MVP every year (most cases) is not a player who plays for a team that finishes first. The good teams are supposed to finish first and usually do.

    It's the guy on a 75-win team that somehow makes his team into an 87-win team because of his prescence. Or at least significatly better. The guy that gives his team a chance to compete when they really shouldn't be.

    How bad would the Cubs have been in '87 without Dawson?

    Thoughts, comments, suggestions?

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