Thursday, November 20, 2008

Howard vs. Pujols

It’s easy to like Ryan Howard. He’s got the homers and the RBIs, stands 6’4” and has a smile wider than Broad Street. He’s got a gravity about him. This year, he’s the signature face of the World Series champions, and for that, many people feel that he should be the National League’s most valuable player.

Unfortunately for them, even more people think Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals should be this year’s NL MVP. Pujols won rather handily, and Howard finished second, a direct reversal of the 2006 vote. Pujols led Howard in virtually every stat category except home runs, RBIs and team wins, but these categories—combined with a little intellectual elbow grease—are paramount to the MVP race in the eyes of some voters.

The cases for Howard and Pujols could hardly be more emblematic of the old school versus the new school of baseball thought. Both sides have compelling cases, because the Baseball Writers of America have made this award into an annual word game: What does it mean to be “valuable?” There are two schools of thought on this issue. The first is that the best player, as measured by individual statistics, is the most valuable. The second is the best player—as measured by individual and team statistics, performance in the “clutch” (usually September), and what we like to call in these parts general schtee—is the most valuable. It is surprising how often these are at odds, or maybe it’s not surprising at all: after all, you’d think the BBWAA’s main goal, if its members were acting in their own self-interest, would be to create better opportunities for themselves as writers. That is, the second definition allows writers to expound at length on each year’s definition of “value,” the subjectivity of which inspires passion amongst readers; you want impassioned readers, because they come back whether they love you or hate you.

Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post is an old-school writer who voted for Ryan Howard and is flabbergasted that Howard did not win the award. He wrote a column to this effect, stating, “Sometimes, you have to underline the obvious; for example, a first baseman with 146 RBI is ‘more valuable,’ especially when he plays on a first-place team, than a first baseman (Pujols) with 116 RBI on a fourth-place team.” Also: “It’s said that, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a modern baseball writer, unfortunately, reality often looks like an excuse to apply statistics and then torque our opinions to fit them.”

I like how he admits he’s not a modern baseball writer, except he very much is, by his own defition: he’s “applying” statistics (Really, how do you apply statistics? They are measurements. You don’t apply measurements; they merely exist.), they just happen to be very old-fashioned ones that even Cy Young talked about in between mustache waxings. (Did Cy Young have a mustache? I don’t know.) But I could write for hours and not strike at the heart of the argument as well as the inimitable Joe Posnanski (Whom I have, actually, been imitating this entire paragraph):
The key line in Boz’s column seems to be this:

When stats WILDLY contradict common sense, always doubt the stats.

That sounds good. It really does. I read that sentence, once, twice, five times, and each time I read it I liked the rhythms of it, I liked the construction, I liked the use of all-capital letters in WILDLY. When stats WILDLY contradict common sense, always doubt the stats. Yes, this seems a solid premise.

Only, you know what? It isn’t. It is, when you think about it, a horrifying premise — I cannot believe that Tom Boswell, my hero, really believes that. Common sense says that the universe revolves around the earth. Common sense says that thunder clapping means God’s angry. Common sense says that when your car is sliding you want to turn your wheel away from the skid. Common sense says that a fast guy with no power who might or might not get on base is the perfect guy to put in the leadoff spot. Common sense that the queen of spades is the middle card. Common sense says that if you put Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg together, you will get an entertaining movie. Common sense says that the best way to hit a golf ball far is to swing harder. Common sense says a lot of incredibly stupid things and if you are going to automatically choose common sense over, you know stats and facts and results, well, that’s a good way to crash into trees and lose your shirt in a card game and get stuck with Omar Moreno.
You can imagine where it goes from there, but I’ll sum it up: for Posnanski and others, the definition of the most “valuable” player in a given year is the one you’d most like to have on your fantasy baseball team, or “fairytale” baseball team, as my brother (and apparently Adam Corrolla) call it. Something that can be measured by a stack of computer printouts, or via a few visits to

Put it like that, and it seems less appealing. Would the award consistently go to the better individual player? Probably. But there’s that trick again: we’re measuring “value,” not “ability” or “performance.” Or, more accurately, the BBWAA is. For fun, I looked up “value” in an actual hardbound dictionary with a red cover and everything. Definition the first was “a fair return or equivalent in goods, services, or money for something exchanged.” Egads! I don’t think we’re measuring return in relation to salary, but if we were, Dustin Pedroia would have definitely won the AL MVP (Oh wait… he did). Okay, let’s skip ahead to the most relevant definition to the present circumstances:

value: to rate or scale in usefulness, importance, or general worth

Now we’re getting closer to the second definition I outlined at the top of this article. “General worth” would get rejected by Wikipedia as a “Weasel Words” term as fast as the site’s unpaid sentinels descended upon it, but it’s the BBWAA’s major arguing point when it comes to disputes. It’s powerfully vague, but maybe not powerfully enough: Howard did lose, after all. I generally think it’s disingenuous for Boswell to claim the end of an era based on one year’s vote, regardless of the speciousness of his reasoning, but I tend to get annoyed with statisticians who think that the numbers are the be-all, end-all of the MVP discussion, or pretty much any discussion for that matter (see, for example, this).

Joe Sheehan at Baseball Prospectus has a passionate, fairly wonderful-to-read vivisection of this year’s voting over at Baseball Prospectus; sadly, it’s subscription-only (you should buy the subscription). By sorting through the ballots, even though “his guys won,” he gets the sausage-factory effect of being disgusted with the final result, calling for an evolution toward better accounting practices of player performance. It’s a fairly airtight argument. The only problem I have with it—and I’m not sure it’s really a problem—is that it acknowledges that the award exists solely for the purpose of propping up the BBWAA, which is pretty arbitrary in who it does and does not allow into its ranks. The main criteria is being a quote-gathering, on-site reporter, which leads to all sorts of closed-mindedness and stupid individual votes, in Sheehan’s eyes, and the exclusion of otherwise intelligent baseball writers. Sheehan says he’s waiting for an “evolution” in MVP voting processes, but doesn’t sound confident that it’s happening very fast, given the latest results. He seems to be trying to tell himself to stay calm in the face of a storm he expected to be long gone by now.

While his arguments are convincing, I wonder if statistics-minded people such as Sheehan (and, to a certain degree, myself), can’t learn something from these individual ballots. What do they tell us? I’m not content to say that it tells us people are “aggressively ignorant,” as Sheehan is—I’m not really repulsed by the sausage factory of making an MVP. If the end product it tasty, so be it. If it’s less tasty, it’s still good—it’s baseball. I understand that I’m likely conditioned by the fact that the MVP voting has never been particularly scientific; I think it would be just as dangerous to start handing out the award to the top WARP-er (Wins Above Replacement Level) as it would be to continue giving it to the cognescenti’s choice.

I think the mythos of baseball is important, even in the face of evolution. We go to museums to see crazy animals like sea cows and dodos that were obliterated because of evolution, and we do it because they’re awesome. If someone can rank Prince Fielder above Albert Pujols on their MVP ballot, I’d like to hear why they did it. Baseball invites a million perspectives, and for all Sheehan’s salient points about how the BBWAA is selectively restrictive, there’s no telling what the effect of expanding the membership base would have, or whether the results would be that much different if the voters were 50 random baseball fans. For all the complaints about the process, it, like annual Hall of Fame discussions, is endlessly interesting, and not in the fleeting way like the MVPs of other major sports. People will argue Pujols vs. Howard for decades, and would have, no matter the result. There’s the wisdom of numbers and the wisdom of crowds. Let’s try to respect both sides. Hell may be other people, as No Exit suggests, but even those characters eventually threw up their hands and said, "Well, let's get on with it." This is a long-haul problem. Let's get on with it.


cannatar said...

It seems to me that there are two separate areas of disagreement over MVP awards in general:

1. How to define "value"
2. Once "value" is defined, how to measure it

Essentially, the first part is a matter of defining the question and the second part is a matter of answering the question.

I'm respectful of a pretty broad range of ways to define "value"; I don't think there's one correct way to do it. Is the MVP simply the best player (the Joe Sheehan position)? Is it the player who did the most to help his team win games? Is it the player who did the most to help his team earn a playoff spot? Is it the best player who plays on a team that made it to the playoffs? Those all seem like reasonable definitions to me. If Boswell wants to take the position that the MVP should never go to a player whose team didn't make the playoffs, I think it's defensible.

I'm a lot less tolerant when it comes to the range of opinions on the second part. Everyone uses stats for these determinations, it's just a matter of which stats they use. If you want to simply figure out who the best player was, there are stats that do a good job and stats that do a bad job. If you want to figure out who was the most clutch, there are stats that do a good job and stats that do a bad job.

I'm not very tolerant of Boswell basing his entire argument on Howard's RBI numbers because he's using those numbers to make the point that Howard was great at producing runs and/or hitting in the clutch. There are better ways of measuring these things that reveal that Howard was not great at producing runs or hitting in the clutch.

Bryan said...

Fair enough.