Best vs. Most Valuable

Josh Hamilton won the American League MVP award today in less-than-dramatic fashion, collecting 22 of 28 first place votes. While I can’t argue with Hamilton’s selection, I thought Evan Longoria had a strong case. While Hamilton was the almost certainly best player (or at least the best position player) in the league this year, it’s debatable whether he was the most valuable.

Every year, someone makes an argument that a player on a non-playoff team can’t be as valuable as a player whose team made the playoffs. I find this an odd interpretation of the word “value”. Let’s say I’m in a bachelor auction pitting two teams of four bachelors against each other for a charitable cause. I draw $1,000, but my teammates only draw $100 each. The other team’s bachelors each draw $500, so their team wins. Let’s say the winning team gets to pick a charity to receive another $100, so there’s an incentive for a team to win. Who was the most valuable bachelor? No matter how we allocate the incentive bonus, I’m pretty sure the recipient charity would pick me and my $1,000 contribution over anyone on the winning team.

It seems to me that the advent of Wins Above Replacement (and Win Shares before them) pushes the argument that only a player on a playoff team can be the most valuable to the brink of extinction. WAR attempts to aggregate every contribution a player makes toward his team’s wins and determine how many more games his team won with him in the lineup than it would have won with a replacement player. WAR is by no means perfect, but if one statistic aligns most closely with value, it has to be WAR. According to fangraphs, Hamilton’s 8.0 WAR was by far the best total in the American League, far outpacing Adrian Beltre’s 7.1. Sean Smith’s version of WAR (available at baseball-reference.org) disagreed with fangraphs’ opinion of Hamilton’s defense, and considered Longoria the league’s most valuable player at 7.7 wins, to runner-up Shin-Soo Choo’s 7.3. We could argue that the difference between the two calculations invalidates WAR in general, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make.

This afternoon, in the comments of an ESPN article about Hamilton’s award, I was disturbed to see someone use Hamilton’s remarkable 8 fangraphs WAR in an argument against his MVP case. Since Hamilton’s Rangers won the AL West by 9 games, this poster suggested, they would have made the playoffs even without him, as is not the case with Robinson Cano’s 6.4 WAR (the Yankees held off the Red Sox by 6 games). While Cano was a reasonable MVP candidate, I find this position absurd, since it suggests that any 2-win player on a team that wins its division by one game is more valuable than an 8-win player on a runaway team like this year’s Rangers.

Comparing marginal wins is a slippery slope. The value of a car is not measured by aggregating it with a house and a 401(k) to determine whether your net worth is more than your neighbor’s. A car is worth what a buyer would pay for it on the open market. In the same regard, a baseball player’s value should be determined by how many more games his team won with him than they would have won without him, not whether he contributed just enough to make a decent team a playoff team.

How, then, can a player be the best in his league without being the most valuable? Playing time. Hamilton played in 133 games this season, compiling an extraordinary .359/.411/.633 slash line that only bulky first baseman Miguel Cabrera came close to matching. Longoria, on the other hand, hit .294/.372/.507 in 151 games and 90 more plate appearances than Hamilton. Whether those 90 PAs, combined with superior defense at a more demanding position, made Longoria more valuable, is debatable. So much so, in fact, that two keepers of our most sophisticated value stat disagree as to who contributed more to his team’s success.

There may be one more aspect of baseball in which “best” doesn’t equate to “most valuable”. I think we can all agree that a baseball team’s foremost goal is to win, hence a player’s foremost goal is to contribute to his team’s wins. It’s possible, though, that the players we consider the best (or the most talented) aren’t always the ones whose contributions most directly aid the team’s cause. Phillies fans (and their front office) seem to think Ryan Howard has been their best player over the past few years. While Howard is a tall, athletic-looking black man with a beautiful swing, Utley is a shorter, whiter second baseman who will never be mistaken in a police lineup for Roberto Alomar. Fans watch Howard blast home runs and pick balls out of the dirt (“his defense is getting better”, they say) and think he’s well worth the $25 million/year he’ll be getting soon. Realistically, though, it’s Utley, more than anyone else, who has driven the Phillies to four straight division titles with his doubles, walks and impressive range at second base (Utley has 25.1 WAR [per baseball-reference] since ’07, to Howard’s 12.3). Even in 2006, when Howard won the NL MVP (with 5.8 WAR), Utley was equally valuable (with 5.7).

Of course, I would argue that Utley is a better baseball player than Howard, using Utley’s contributions to the Phillies’ wins as evidence of his greatness, but people who watch the Phillies much more often than I do still claim that Howard is more talented. The same could be said for Ken Griffey, Jr. and Craig Biggio in the late ’90s. Griffey was the ultimate athlete- quick and powerful, with a perfect swing. Biggio looked like a FedEx delivery guy, but he walked a lot, stole bases at an impressive rate, got hit by pitches, and played exemplary defense at key positions, contributing more to the Astros’ success almost every year of his prime than the great Griffey did for the Mariners. Jason Giambi was not the athlete Alfonso Soriano was, but he was a more valuable baseball player. The list goes on.

Of the tens of thousands of men who have played major league baseball, I’ve known one personally. This player played for the Twins in 2008, alongside Joe Mauer, one of the league’s most valuable players that year (5th in fangraphs’ WAR and maybe better considering the shortcomings in WAR’s treatment of catchers’ defense), and Justin Morneau, who had won the MVP in ’06 and contended again in ’08, despite compiling just 3.7 WAR. I asked this player who he thought should have won that year’s MVP (he was unimpressed with actual winner Dustin Pedroia), and he was quick to cite Morneau’s clutch hitting ability and superior base running in declaring that Morneau was the league’s best player. I would never claim to know more than an active major leaguer about what players are more talented than the rest, but from a distance, I’ve got a pretty good idea about value. Joe Mauer was more valuable to the Twins in 2008, but at least one of his teammates didn’t think he was the team’s best player.

I think the disconnect between visible talent and quantifiable value is the primary reason the statistical revolution in baseball has encountered such resistance. If you watch 100 baseball games and see Ken Griffey, Jr., performing physical feats you never thought possible, and I study 100 box scores and determine that Griffey was not as good as Craig Biggio, you’re likely to assume that my opinion, even one based on cold, hard stats, is invalid. And I’m likely to think that you’re closed-minded for believing in what you see over what the numbers indicate.

This disconnect will exist for as long as baseball exists and it’s just one more reason to love the game. That human beings are capable of hitting a 98-mph fastball 425 feet or leaping over the top of an 8-foot wall to reel in a would-be home run makes for extraordinary theater. That we can boil those human beings’ accomplishments down to a scant few numbers and determine which players were the most important to their teams makes for intriguing science. That the conclusions we draw from these numbers may or may not match what our eyes tell us is what makes baseball the best game in the world.

Congratulations to Josh Hamilton on an incredible, MVP-worthy season. Or at least an incredible 133 games.

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