Handicapping the great — and sometimes absurd — team MVP debate

When I was a kid, we watched a documentary in my church youth group called Hell’s Bells: The Dangers of Rock ‘N’ Roll. It was pretty scary stuff; it turned out that a lot of popular musicians (like Kiss, as I recall) were trying to get me to partake in evil vices and, perhaps, even a bit of devil worship. Our leaders (clergy, parents, etc.) were clearly worried about what would happen if our malleable brains were exposed to this stuff.

Then, years later, I discovered the musician GG Allin. Allin was so evil and malformed that I doubt Kiss would ride in an elevator with him without security guards. Any description of his stunts (involving death, bigotry, violence, and coprology) wouldn’t be suitable for this site; his Wikipedia page is barely safe for work; but the point is that I realized something: Our parents were worried about the harmless stuff on the surface of culture. The real anarchy was below the surface.

Which is my longwindered analogy to get to this: Over the next couple months, we will all fight and yell at each other over the MVP ballot. There will be wrong votes, to be sure. But that’s a safe fight, a pre-screened fight. If you really want to see chaos and desperation, go down a level: Watch the Team MVP debates.

We’ve already seen it this year, where the sentiment in this tweet:

is a thing people say. Harrison has been good! He’s hit about as well as Yan Gomes. He’s nearly got enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title — though he doesn’t, and it’s not like he’s a threat to actually win the batting title. Yet Harrison has played a number of positions for the Pirates, and folks love to champion a guy who has played multiple positions. Harrison, by the way, plays on the same team as the guy who is second in the National League in Wins Above Replacement Player, Andrew McCutchen. Naming a utility guy the team MVP instead of, arguably, the league’s actual MVP is the truest outcome of the Team MVP debate.

But there are other outcomes. As the summer rolls along, keep an eye out for examples of all six-point-five categories of Team MVP rebellion.

1. The Relief Pitcher Team MVP

Example: Mike Remlinger, 2000. "…Remlinger, whom manager Bobby Cox calls ‘our MVP so far’ for his 1.47 ERA and four saves out of the bullpen …"

WARP: 0.9

Actual MVP finish that year: Did not receive a vote

A better choice, perhaps: Andruw Jones, 7.5 WARP, eighth-place finish

Whether he’s managing a terrible or a contending team, there’s no more disspiriting way for a skipper to lose than late in the game. There’s also, for a beat writer, no outcome more frustrating than the one that changes in the final innings, after the shell of a game story has already been written. So you can appreciate why managers and writers would feel indebted to the guy who comes in late and keeps things exactly as they were. Closer, situational guy, long man, setup ace — all have had and will get their moments as "our MVP": Shawn Camp in 2012, Tyler Clippard in 2011, J.P. Howell in 2008, Chris Ray in 2006, Scot Shields in 2004, Jeff Shaw in 1998. Or this quote, from Curt Schilling in 2001: "Next to our bench, the bullpen has been our MVP." Not quite as valuable as the bench, but still.

Oddly, starting pitchers are usually undervalued in MVP discussions, partly because, one argument goes, they don’t pitch every day. Neither do relievers, though maybe they get full credit for being available (almost) every day. Anyhow, it’s certainly not impossible for a reliever to be his team’s most valuable player, just as it’s not impossible for Jose Lobaton to outhit Miguel Cabrera over the course of a month, but it’s awfully rare.

2. The Sort of Pleasant Surprise Team MVP

Example: Scott Kamieniecki, 1997. "He did such a great job for us this year, that in some ways he was our MVP." — General Manager Pat Gillick

WARP: 1.0

Actual MVP finish that year: Did not receive a vote

A better choice, perhaps: Mike Mussina, 3.7 WARP, no MVP votes but sixth-place Cy Young finish.

It’s always two pleasant surprises in one, really. The first is that the guy you thought was going to contribute nothing — Kamieniecki was signed to a minor-league contract, and had been injured for most of the previous year — turned out to hold up, healthy and relatively effective. The second is that the position you thought was going to be a total loss — Kamieniecki filled in when No. 4 starter Rocky Coppinger got hurt — ended up not being a problem at all. So, in this scenario, Kamieniecki gets credit for turning an expected bad outcome into a so-so outcome. Meanwhile, the rest of the rotation was doing exactly the same thing, better — but the expectations that they would were already priced in. We were already counting on them. See how that works?

Others in the category: Dave Anderson, a part-time infielder who adequately filled in for an injured Alfredo Griffin in 1988. "I think he’s been our MVP," said Mike Marshall at the time. And Wilson Valdez, who narrowly cleared replacement level subbing for Jimmy Rollins in 2010. "I think he might be our MVP," said Charlie Manuel.

3. The Veteran Presence Team MVP

Example: Derek Jeter, 2012. "If you told me back in the spring that Jeter would be our MVP this season," the Yankee person said, "I would have said we were in big trouble."

WARP: 3.0

Actual MVP finish that year: Seventh

A better choice, perhaps: Robinson Cano, 6.9 WARP, fourth-place finish.

Perhaps a better example would have been Jason Giambi, who last year batted 216 times with a worse slash line than Zack Cozart’s and no appearances in the field — and yet Terry Francona said, "I think Jason Giambi is our MVP." But that’s a pretty clear instance of Francona weighing an immeasurable value and asking us to trust him. I’m fine with that.

Jeter and Cano, meanwhile, are more comparable. Each played the middle infield and batted toward the top of the order. Cano did both things much better. Declaring Jeter the more valuable of the two is like doing a magic trick, showing me the wrong card, and declaring that I must have picked the wrong card. In a sense, getting away with that is more impressive than actual sleight of hand.

Others: Andres Galarraga, 2000 Braves; Bobby Abreu, 2009 Angels.

4. The Hustly Middle Infielder Team MVP

Example: David Eckstein, 2009. "The roller-coaster Padres are regaining their enthusiasm, which Kevin Towers thinks they never lost because of the intense spirit of David Eckstein, who Towers calls ‘our MVP.’"

WARP: -1.2

Actual MVP finish that year: Didn’t receive a vote.

A better choice, perhaps: Adrian Gonzalez, 7.9 WARP, 12th-place finish

The ability to stand at a middle infield position really is valuable. This value is accounted for in all the major total-value stats, but managers love to mix it with some baking soda and sell it at twice the volume when MVP discussions come up. Jose Vizcaino in 1995: "By season’s end Dallas Green was calling Vizcaino the team MVP, as much for his day-to-day hustle and attitude as his performance." Mike Gallego in 1989: "When Weiss went down, Mike Gallego — no better than ordinary as a career fill-in infielder — filled in so well at shortstop that LaRussa and teammates began calling him ‘our MVP.’" Tad Iguchi, 2005. Jason Bartlett, 2008, who actually won the local BBWAA chapter’s vote.

4b. Subset: The Leadershippy Catcher Team MVP

Example: Mike Matheny, 2000. "’To me, he’s our MVP,’ closer Dave Veres said. ‘We couldn’t have won without him, and I’m sure a lot of guys feel the same way.’"

WARP: 1.2

Actual MVP finish that year: Didn’t receive a vote.

A better choice, perhaps: Jim Edmonds, 6.3 WARP, fourth-place finish.

Dioner Navarro is another one in this category, as teammate Scott Kazmir noted in 2008 that "he’s our leader. He’s very mature for his age." So we’ve now got Bartlett, Navarro and J.P. Howell for that 2008 Rays team. We don’t have Carlos Pena, who finished ninth in league MVP voting that year, or Evan Longoria, who finished 11th. Team MVPs are the weirdest things.

5. The Speedster Team MVP

Example: Juan Pierre, 2009. "’Juan Pierre is our MVP,’ Hudson said. ‘What he’s done in 50 games (when Ramirez was out), a lot of people don’t do all season.’"

WARP: 1.8

Actual MVP finish that year: Didn’t receive a vote.

A better choice, perhaps: Andre Ethier, 4.6 WARP, sixth-place finish.

The leadoff hitter is the middle-infielder of the lineup.

6. The Humble Role Player Team MVP

Example: Mark McLemore, 1995. "It would be difficult to argue with anyone who believes that Mac has been our on-field MVP." — Manager Johnny Oates

WARP: 1.1

Actual MVP finish that year: Didn’t receive a vote.

A better choice, perhaps: Ivan Rodriguez, 3.6 WARP, no votes.

Harrison, as it happens, hits four of these categories: He’s batted leadoff some, played in the middle infield some, moved around a lot, and produced much more than the Pirates expected out of him (or than they expected out of right field). So what are we to conclude about him from this hyperbolous fribble? That, yet again, we’re smarter than everybody and once again these so-called elite experts at the top of their field can’t see the facts right in front of their eyes?

Heck no! Just the opposite. Yes, the team MVP debates are madness, violence, confusion and chaos. But from madness, violence, confusion and chaos often come art, discovery, invention and revolution.

The Unappreciated Team MVP trope tells us that there are certain qualities, roles, skills, and characteristics that are deemed essential by the very people with the most incentive to win, and by the people with the closest relationship to the ingredients of victory. If these insiders tell us, year in, year out, for decades without stop, that these things are more important than we’re giving credit for, we should listen. Not necessarily believe it, full stop, but listen. And if Josh Harrison in particular checks off a number of these boxes, we shouldn’t draw the conclusion that he’s overrated — but appreciate that, just maybe, he’s underrated.

(Or, maybe, it’s that manager and teammate quotes aren’t worth a whole lot. Your call!)

Article written by Sam Miller.