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MVP debate will have no clear winner

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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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I understand why some sabermetricians freak out over the MVP voting every year, howling for the mainstream media to get a clue.

But you know what?

Those analysts need to get over it.

Ignoramuses in the MSM, including yours truly, continue to make greater use of sabermetrics; heck, we even elected 13-game winner Felix Hernandez the American League Cy Young Award winner in a landslide last season.

The MVP, though, is different. Always will be different. And heaven help us if the voting ever disintegrates into a reflexive regurgitation of the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) rankings.

Sabermetrics is the analysis of baseball through objective data. An MVP vote is subjective by design. Voters are instructed — yes, instructed — to vote any way they darn please.

“There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means,” the ballot says. “It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team.”

There you have it, a virtual invitation to mayhem, or at least, an intense debate involving fans in four countries — the United States, Canada, the Dominican Republic and Venuezuela — when the race is as hotly contested as it is this season in the AL.

Perfect.

It’s not like we’re debating how to fix the economy here. We’re debating an award that has a flexible definition, and anyone who pronounces his or her own definition superior to any other misses the point.

I vote for AL MVP this season. I am not sure what I will do. Less than three weeks remain in the regular season, and I can rattle off at least eight worthy AL candidates, any of whom would be a defensible choice.

My elite eight:

The Blue JaysJose Bautista.

The YankeesCurtis Granderson and Robinson Cano.

The Red Sox’s Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez.

And the TigersJustin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, who will appear Saturday against the Twins on MLB on Fox (4 p.m. ET).

The race is so wide open, I’m not even sure there is a sabermetric favorite, though I’m guessing it’s Bautista, who is first in one calculation of WAR and a close second to Ellsbury in another.

Everyone loves the idea of WAR, which is to encapsulate a player’s total contributions to his team in one all-encompassing number. But the two statistical websites that calculate WAR, baseball-reference.com and Fangraphs.com, use different formulas to produce their respective figures.

The leader in the WAR could be the MVP, maybe even should be the MVP, if you trust the stat completely. But how can you trust any stat completely, particularly one for which is there is not a universally accepted formula?

Let’s go back to the ballot.

The first two criteria are specific enough — “actual value of a player to his team; that is, strength of offense and defense,” and, “number of games played.” But the third criteria, “general character, disposition, loyalty and effort,” is a subjective grand slam.

Voters also are reminded, “Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and designated hitters.”

Interesting.

DHs flunk when considering “strength of defense.” Starting pitchers fall short on “number of games played.” But carry on.

The contradictions actually are rather amusing. The Baseball Writers Association of America developed the criteria long before the rise of sabermetrics. But it’s as if the BBWAA was trying to inflict a special form of torture on those who demand black and white from a sport that frequently is best viewed in shades of gray.

Players are so much more than their stats — and sometimes, they’re less.

Take Bautista.

To me, one of Bautista’s appeals as an MVP candidate is that he twice changed positions to help his team, opening the season in right field, moving to third base on June 28, then back to right on Aug. 5.

Bautista’s defensive value is a separate topic of debate — traditional numbers indicate that he is an excellent outfielder, but advanced metrics suggest that he is below-average in right. Regardless, the Jays think so highly of the way he carries himself, they used his character as part of their rationale to award him a five-year, $65 million contract last offseason when many still thought him a fluke.

Is any of that measurable? Of course not.

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Frankly, the biggest problem with Bautista as an MVP candidate is not that he plays for a low-profile team in Canada, as many of his fans will contend if he fails to win. No, the biggest problem is that he plays for a non-contender. By the All-Star break, the Jays were 11 games out in the AL East, 10 in the wild card.

Bautista, of course, was not the reason for the team’s inferior standing. He actually hit better while the Jays still were in contention, batting .334/.468/.702 with 31 home runs before the break. He since has cooled off considerably, hitting a mere .242/.398/.478 with nine homers.

Some sabermetricians — and even some mainstream writers — believe that an MVP candidate should not be penalized for a team’s poor performance. It’s difficult to argue that point, but I generally prefer my MVPs to play for contenders. Though no one can quantify the difference, the nature of the competition is not the same.

Yet, others in the debate argue just the opposite — that players such as Granderson and Ellsbury benefit from being part of powerful lineups and should be judged accordingly. Penalizing a candidate for playing on a good team? The point of view is not illogical. It’s just another way of seeking context — the forte of sabermetricians.

Then there is the question of whether a starting pitcher such as Verlander should win the award. As my colleague Tracy Ringolsby points out, the ballot reminds voters not to exclude pitchers from consideration. But I vote for a starting pitcher only when the race lacks strong position players (it doesn’t) and only when that pitcher’s performance is extreme (Verlander’s is not).

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Verlander’s ERA-plus — that is, his ERA adjusted to his league and ballpark — is 166, the same as Johnny Cueto’s and slightly lower than Josh Beckett’s. Pedro Martinez, who no longer is active, had an ERA-plus of 202 or better in five different seasons. He didn’t win MVP in any of them.

Meanwhile, the argument that the Tigers would be nowhere without Verlander is overstated. The team is fourth in the AL in runs. The back of the bullpen is performing at a high level. And the acquisition of Doug Fister — which admittedly might not have occurred without Verlander putting the team in position to win — gives the club a legitimate No. 2 starter.

Yet, even with all that, a case can be made for Verlander; he is second only to Bautista in WAR according to baseball-reference.com’s rankings. That’s how the MVP debates work; people view players through their own prisms.

The award, like so much in baseball, is not an absolute, the kind of definitive outcome sought by sabermetricians. If it is the ultimate of anything, it is the ultimate shade of gray.

Most arguments, like most statistics, are flawed. Truth be told, I eliminated certain paragraphs from this column because I was contradicting myself. But that’s all part of the process, one that has been enhanced by the sabermetric movement. Advanced statistical analysts not only require front offices to alter their decision-making, but also force the MSM to better defend its positions, consider additional data, be more accountable.

That part is great.

The part about determining the MVP by statistical formula, not so much.

Value is in the eye of the beholder.

That’s the nature of the award. That’s how it should remain.

Tagged: Red Sox, Tigers, Yankees, Blue Jays, Jose Bautista, Justin Verlander, Jacoby Ellsbury

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