15 September 2005

The Great AL MVP Debate: Ortiz or A-Rod?

Is it just my imagination, or does it seem also to you that every year there is some ridiculous argument about the MVP or Cy Young Award going to someone who clearly does not deserve it, at least by any objective measure?

In 2001, Ichiro won the AL MVP even though he wasn't even the best player on his own team (that was the now-unemployed Bret Boone), much less the best player in the American League (which was Seattle's Alex Rodriguez).

And lest you think I'm Yankees-biased, also in 2001, Roger Clemens won a Cy Young Award that probably should have gone to Freddy Garcia, who had an ERA nearly half a run lower and 19 more innings pitched than the Rocket, but went only 18-6 instead of 20-3, as Clemens did, due largely to the run-support he garnered from being a Yankee. Clemens became the first starting pitcher in the history of major league baseball to win the Cy Young Award without a complete game to his credit.

In 2002, A-Rod (now a Texas Ranger) was refused, nay, cheated out of another MVP Award when Miguel Tejada got some clutch hits in September and the Athletics won the AL West. Miggy got all the good press, while A-Rod, stuck on a last-place team, hit 23 more homers thasn Tejada, leading the AL in numerous offensive categories and winning a gold glove for his work at shortstop.

In 2003, some writers tried to convince you that Albert Pujols was the NL MVP, and not Barry Bonds. "Bonds only played 130 games", they said, "...Bonds didn't even drive in 100 runs," they said, while ignoring the fact that when Bonds did play, the rest of the league was so scared of him that he got walked 148 times in those 130 games. Mercifully, the press didn't buy their own argument, and Bonds won his 6th MVP in a landslide.

Last year, despite leading the NL in WHIP, opponent batting average, starts and strikeouts, being second in innings pitched, shutouts and ERA (to Jake Peavy, who pitched only 166 innings) and "winning" 16 games, including a perfect game against the Braves in May, for a team that lost 111 of them, Randy Johnson did not get the NL Cy Young. Instead, Roger Clemens became the first starting pitcher in the history of major league baseball to win two Cy Young Awards without a complete game to his credit. (In case you're wondering, this year Clemens has one complete game, or one less than Zach Greinke.)

And this year? Well, it seems that there are MVP and Cy Young debates in both leagues, but I'll just take the issues one at a time, and handle only the AL MVP for now. More on the rest later.

The two main contenders for this crown are:

"...in the white trunks with blue pinstripes, standing 6'3" and weighing in at 225 lbs, playing Gold-Glove defense at third base for the New York Yankees...Aleeexxx Rrrrrrodriguez!!!"

"...and in this corner, wearing the white trunks with red trim and (appropriately enough) red socks, standing 6'4" and weighing in at 230 lbs (on the Moon, maybe...), leading the American league in homers, RBIs and successful efforts to make sure his team's bench doesn't float away while his teammates are playing the field, Daviiiidd 'Big Papi' Oooorrrtiizzz!!!"

Let's look at some of their basic stats, where the numbers in parentheses is the player's current rank in the American Leage for the given stat:

        R      HR     RBI       BA       OBP      SLG       OPS
Papi 108(1) 42(1) 130(1) .297(16) .396(4) .603(1) .999(2)
A-Rod 108(1) 41(2) 112(4) .319 (3) .419(2) .596(2) 1.014(1)

Neck-and-neck, as they say. Or at least they would, if Ortiz had a neck.

These are the (mostly) traditional statistics, which is all that most of the BBWAA members look at, if they look at anything at all. Ortiz holds a very slight lead in homers and slugging percentage, while A-Rod has a slight lead in on-base percentage and OPS. Rodriguez has 18 fewer RBIs, good enough for only 4th in the AL, but Ortiz has a sub-.300 batting average that is good enough for only 16th in the AL. What I have not shown you here is that A-Rod has 13 steals in 19 attempts, and is generally considered a good baserunner in general, able to advance two bases on a hit when necessary. Big Papi was successful in his only stolen base attempt, probably because the opposing catcher was so dumbfounded at the sight of 250 lbs of Dominican Thunder rumbling along the basepaths that he forgot to throw the ball. For an hour.

In any case, there is no clear-cut winner emerging from this type of analysis, so let's dig a little deeper, shall we?

       RCAA  WARP  VORP    EqA     EqR     RAP    RARP
Papi 50(2) 7.1 73(2) .334(4) 121(2) 41(5) 62(2)
A-Rod 69(1) 9.2 86(1) .345(2) 129(1) 61(1) 81(1)

Now for the explanations:

RCAA is a stat created by Lee Sinins, and it stands for Runs Created Above Average. It's a measure of how many runs a player created for his team above an average player playing the same number of games at that position. A-Rod has a considerable edge here, which was as of Sunday, 9/11/2005. Remaining stats are all as-of Thursday 9/15.

WARP is a Baseball Prospectus stat, and stands for Wins Above Replacement Position. It takes offense and defense into account, even pitching, if that were applicable, and combines it to see how many more wins a player is worth than a replacement-level (not an average) player at that position. BP does not have this stat available on a page where I could check ranks, but the only player I could find with a number higher than Rodriguez's 9.2 Wins was Baltimore's Brian Roberts, at 9.6. For reference, Mark Teixeira, Miguel Tejada, Vladimir Guerrero and Derek Jeter all had WARP numbers equal to or higher than Big Papi's 7.1 Wins.

VORP, another BP stat, stands for "The number of runs contributed beyond what a replacement-level player at the same position would contribute if given the same percentage of team plate appearances. VORP scores do not consider the quality of a player's defense." Again, Rodriguez has a notable edge here (13 runs) because Ortiz is essentially a DH, and while he's a great one, there are lots of good and really good designated hitters, but only a handful of good thirdbasemen.

EqA is Equivalent Average, Baseball Prospectus' all-encompassing rate stat, where EqR (Equivalent Runs) is the counting stat that goes with it. These numbers adjust for a player's home ballpark, the quality of the pitching he faced, and other factors that make people think Jim Rice belongs in the Hall of Fame. A-Rod holds a slight edge in both categories.

RAP is Runs Above Position, and is defined by BP as "The number of Equivalent Runs this player produced, above what an average player at the same postion would have produced in the same number of outs." This is where the case for Ortiz gets a little thin. Because he's expected to be a great hitter, Ortiz ranks "only" 5th in the AL in this category, behind Brian Roberts, Mike Young, Miguel Tejada, and of course A-Rod.

And finally...

RARP is Runs above Replacement Position, which Baseball Prospectus says "...compares a hitter's Equivalent Run total to that of a replacement-level player who makes the same number of outs and plays the same position." Again, A-Rod and Ortiz are ranked #1 and #2, but 19 runs is a big gap, even bigger than the one between David's front teeth!

None of this is to say that A-Rod will win the MVP, just that he should, if the season ended today. But since there are two and a half weeks to play, anything can happen. Ortiz might hit ten more homers while A-Rod goes 3-for-37 and makes nine errors, in which case Ortiz probably should win the MVP, especially if such events result in the Yankees missing the playoffs for the first time in a decade. But that's all speculation.

Given the facts, as you can see, despite what certain on-air radio personalities will tell you, Rodriguez has been the better player this year. Sure, Ortiz has some impressive numbers with runners in scoring position and such, and that gives him a few more RBIs, but in just about every other regard, A-Rod has been the best player in the AL, has led a contending team all year, and is therefore the Most Valuable Player, any way you slice it.

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