A few weeks ago, I argued that Curtis Granderson had been a more valuable player than Jacoby Ellsbury this season, using the “raw production” definition of value. Based solely on the numbers – and taking into account the error present in one-year samples of advanced fielding data – Granderson appeared to be the superior candidate.
The problem, when it comes to the real MVP balloting, is that there is no single definition of “value” to which all voters subscribe. Some require that the Most Valuable Player be on a playoff team; some refuse to vote for a pitcher; some cling to traditional stats, others to sabermetrics; and some remember a player’s “MVP moments,” like Ellsbury’s 14th-inning home run against the Yankees on Sunday, or Justin Verlander’s no-hitter in April.
Inevitably, some form of all these arguments circulates around this time of year, as writers provide their justification for the manner in which they will ultimately vote. To differentiate this from the other 1,000 MVP-related columns you’ve read over the last month, I decided to present a few, more unique approaches to determining the Most Valuable Player. In each case, I’ll use the seven players who will garner the vast majority of AL MVP votes: Ellsbury, Verlander, Granderson, Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, Miguel Cabrera, and Jose Bautista. I’ll also be leaning heavily on WAR (Wins Above Replacement, from Baseball-Reference) as the most accessible method of comparing hitters and pitchers.
One way to look at a player’s value is to consider where a team would be with a readily available replacement – brought on to the roster from the waiver wire or Triple-A –substituted in place of that player. If we subtract a player’s WAR (the wins he’s produced) from his team’s record, what would his team’s position in the standings look like?
At the beginning of September, this was the primary argument made in support of Verlander’s MVP case. The Tigers’ narrow lead in the AL Central, his proponents said, would instead be a sizable deficit without his contribution. After Detroit’s subsequent 12-game winning streak, this reasoning doesn’t carry the same weight; the rest of the team might have carried the Tigers to first place anyway. In fact, now this argument applies much more appropriately to the Red Sox under consideration, favoring Ellsbury the most.
What about the clutch factor? A player’s ability to come through when it matters most seems like a solid indication of his value to his team. For this measure, I’ll use Win Probability Added (WPA), a statistic that sums a player’s positive and negative contributions to the odds that his team wins a particular game over the course of a season. To put it in simpler terms, the home team might have a 70 percent chance of winning a tie game in the bottom of the ninth, with a man on first and nobody out. A walk-off hit, in this scenario, gives the hitter .30 WPA (his team’s chances of winning went from 70 percent to 100 percent) and takes .30 WPA away from the pitcher. A season’s worth of these changes in win probability are then added up to give us WPA. Here are the results for 2011.
A more technical definition of value, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a fair return or equivalent in goods, services, or money for something exchanged.” In other words, the Most Valuable Player might be considered the one who has produced the most “fair return” for his employers, given his salary – the most bang for their buck. We’ll measure this in dollars paid per WAR; again, this favors the young Ellsbury, a few years shy of his first free-agency bonanza.
This “fair return” could also be defined by a player’s popularity and marketability. To what extent does he generate interest in his team and bring the fans to the ballpark? As a rough measurement of this factor, I looked at the “Best Sellers Rank” of each candidate's Replica Home Jersey (Majestic) on Amazon.com, in the “Sports and Outdoors” category. Not surprisingly, perennial All-Star Miguel Cabrera, the most established superstar on the list, leads the way.
Some of these measurements are obviously more practical than others, but they all provide a broader outline for the term “value” than we’re used to seeing, particularly regarding the MVP voting. Realistically, the award will probably be decided in the next couple of days; if the Sox pull out of their current fiery tailspin, my guess is that Ellsbury will be the winner. His September has been the only thing keeping the Red Sox afloat, a fact that will be fresh in the minds of voters. If they crash and burn, look for either Verlander or Bautista, the most statistically compelling candidates, to take home the hardware.
As for my vote? Sorry, Jacoby – my gut reaction says Verlander. But if you right the ship in the next two days, feel free to prove me wrong when you square off in the ALDS.
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He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrateds 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.
Now living in Marblehead, hes focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.