MVP award deserves robust debate

BY Ken Rosenthal • September 17, 2009

Joe Mauer is the American League Most Valuable Player.




How do I know?

The sabermetric community, through web sites, message boards and blogs, tells me so.

I'm inclined to agree with the choice of Mauer, but that's not why I'm writing. No, I'm writing because of the cyber-shoutdowns of anyone who offers dissent, anyone who dares suggest Derek Jeter, Kevin Youkilis or whoever is a legitimate alternative to Mauer.

There is more than one way to look at this. I can argue for Mauer. I can argue for others. Taking a contrary position does not make me just another unenlightened member of the MSM (translation: mainstream media). But it will subject me to a certain level of scorn for rejecting SGT (translation: sabermetric groupthink).

Don't get me wrong. Sabermetricians have significantly broadened our understanding of baseball — and by "our," I mean fans, media and club personnel, virtually everyone in the game. Advanced statistics reveal not only tendencies, but also greater truths. Smart teams effectively combine sabermetric principles with scouting orthodoxy. Very few, if any, disregard the numbers entirely.

Here's the problem: Sabermetricians were ignored for so long, they had to shout to be heard. Now they are getting heard — properly heard in the highest levels of baseball media and front offices. But some continue to shout, dismissing those who disagree as ignorant dolts.

Last I checked, it's a free country. Last I checked, the MVP is a subjective choice. Yes, voters from the Baseball Writers' Association of America occasionally screw up. But the beauty of the award, as outlined by the instructions given to voters, is "there is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means." Which, of course, drives sabermetricians nuts.


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The award is not for highest VORP. It is not for most win shares, most runs created, most wins above replacement player. It is for something that no one can quite define, and — goodness gracious! — voters sometimes apply different interpretations from year to year.

Which brings me to Mauer.

Some sabermetricians contend Mauer should have been voted MVP last season, when he finished fourth, or in 2006, when he finished sixth. Mauer won the AL batting title in both of those seasons but did not hit for great power. Now he is headed for another batting title — his third in four seasons — and his candidacy looks almost pristine.

Mauer has hit 27 home runs, more than doubling his career-high, and leads the AL in on-base/slugging percentage. He is primarily a catcher, further increasing his value, and the Twins stayed in contention long enough to diminish any argument he did not play in enough meaningful games.

What, then, is the problem?

The first criterion for the award is "actual value of a player to his team, that is strength of offense and defense." Twenty-four of Mauer's 114 starts this season — more than one-fifth — have been at designated hitter, a position that requires no defense. Mauer also trails other candidates in the second criterion, number of games played.

When Mauer first stepped onto the field on May 1, the Twins already
were 22 games into their season. Mauer obviously cannot be faulted for
needing to recover from offseason kidney surgery, but two other MVP
contenders — Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera and Jeter — have
appeared in 141 and 139 games, respectively. Mauer has appeared in 120.

Am I nitpicking? Perhaps. But Mauer's absence in April, combined with his time at DH, raises the possibility another candidate may — repeat, may — be worthier. It certainly creates the opportunity for debate, which is my entire point.

Baseball sparks the liveliest discussions of any sport, invites a myriad of perspectives. Slavishly adhering to sabermetric dogma reduces the level of discourse. We're talking about an MVP race, not geopolitics. We're supposed to debate. Good, old- fashioned quarrels are part of what makes the game fun.

So, the question becomes: Does anyone but Mauer deserve the award?



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