Why Most Valuable Players Matter

Elsa

It's awards season. The awards themselves are just shiny bits of swag, but how we decide who gets them reveals quite a bit.

This week should be a fun one here in the baseball interwebs, with baseball's major individual awards being announced. The festivities will begin today with the Rookies of the Year, and proceed through Manager of the Year, Cy Young, and finally MVP. That last, of course, will be the most fun, as the debate over AL MVP has become the latest battleground in the ongoing war between old-school sportswriters and we who blog from the basement. You all know the protagonists: Mike Trout, the Angels rookie phenom who put up 10.7 rWAR at age 20, clubbing homers, flashing leather in center field, and giving nightmares to opposing catchers on the basepaths; and Miguel Cabrera, the best hitter in the game, winner of baseball's first Triple Crown since the Johnson administration.

MVP arguments are a lot of fun for me generally, partly because I enjoy debate and baseball award arguments are significantly less stressful than political ones. Additionally, it was an MVP debate that really got me to reconsider how I looked at sportswriting and at baseball more generally. The year was 1999, I was 16 years old, and my favorite player ever got robbed of an MVP because of lazy traditionalism.

For those of you who weren't watching the Red Sox every night in 1999, it's hard to describe exactly what you missed. Every fifth day, the Sox would hand the ball to Pedro Martinez, and we'd all anticipate something miraculous. The next day, reading the box score, you would actually find yourself saying things like, "He only struck out eight? That's weird, was he sick?" An audible groan of surprise would go up at Fenway whenever the first hit found grass, or a lone run scored. Pedro was dominant in a way that comes along once in a generation. Justin Verlander, when he's on, is probably the closest equivalent now. To get an idea of Pedro's 1999, imagine Verlander on a good night, when the fastball's rising, the curve is popping, and the change is twisting hitters in knots; now imagine he does that every time out.

At season's end, Pedro had put together the following line: 23-4, 2.07 ERA, 213.1 IP 313 K, 37 BB, 9.5 rWAR. No other pitcher came near these marks, the next-best ERA was David Cone's 3.44, the next-best strikeout total was Chuck Finley's 200. It was a season for the ages, the sort of thing people tell their grandkids about. And when it came time for awards season, it was clear to me that Pedro was the no-doubt MVP. And so announcement day rolled in, the BBWAA held their press conference, and they congratulated Texas catcher Ivan Rodriguez on his award.

It's not that Rodriguez had a bad year. Far from it, he hit .332/.356/.558 with 33 HR while playing his typical stellar defense at catcher. But an excellent season simply shouldn't win MVP over a historic one. As I went through the ballot, it turned out that Martinez had actually received more first-place votes, but that two writers had left him off their ballot entirely. As it turned out, this was because they had decided, all on their own, that since pitchers have the Cy Young, they shouldn't be eligible for MVP.

That was the moment, looking back, that sent me looking for better writers. It wasn't so much the ignorance involved, or the inability to see past their own prejudices, that turned me against that sort of writer. It was the air of entitlement, the idea that they, and only they, had the right to decide what made a good ballplayer, common sense and the rules be damned. And looking at this year's MVP voting, it's clear that the same atmosphere exists.

When you see arguments over Trout vs. Cabrera, or once we get past MVP and enter the long death march of Jack Morris fighting this winter, you're watching a battle over who gets to tell baseball's story. It's not simply a stats vs. tradition argument, as it's generally described. After all, AVG/HR/RBI are stats, and fifteen years ago, before defensive stats were even remotely reliable, would more stat-oriented writers be as committed to Trout?

The explosion of internet-based baseball writing over the last two decades has given us all new ways to look at the sport we love, and allowed new voices into the telling of its story. This is a wonderful thing, and it's made the experience of being a fan richer. But it's also broken the monopoly of the traditional columnist and beat writer, and that's created a backlash, one which tends to rear its head most notably in awards season. Awards season, after all, is the one time when the old school has control of the platform. That's changing, of course, with writers from ESPN.com and Baseball Prospectus, among other sites, having BBWAA membership and voting rights. And that change has been great to see. It provides an argument where before there wasn't one.

So on Thursday, if Miguel Cabrera wins the MVP, don't worry too much about it. Don't start screaming that Trout was robbed (unless you're an Angels fan, in which case go nuts). Don't swear vendetta against Jon Morosi. Just remember that the debate's not settled, and that ideally it'll never be settled. I don't want to trade the old grit-and-hustle orthodoxy for a new WAR-is-all orthodoxy. I want a thousand different voices telling a thousand different stories about baseball. Those stories, as they get written and bounce off each other and clash with one another, are how we build the overall tale of the sport. Sometimes that story will include an award that went to the wrong guy, and that's ok.

But Pedro was still robbed.

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