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The MVP system is not broken, but could be fixed

Yes, the “best player” doesn’t win sometimes. How do we fix that? Do we even want to?

David Ortiz will not win the MVP award. Barring a Gary Sanchez-like September, neither will Mookie Betts.

This is okay.

Out of all the things fans get worked up about, the MVP awards live in the sweet spot between all-star selections (frivolous) and Hall of Fame cases (overwrought). MVP discussions are both of-the-moment and last forever, with the idea being that we can always re-litigate them in the moment or on our own time, if we so choose.

We have, in fact, chosen to do so: Baseball Prospectus’s Internet Baseball Awards exist as an ostensible corrective to the moving-target logic of assigning the Most “Valuable” Player award to someone who may not have been the best player in the league in a given year. There are several examples of this in the IBA’s history, the most notorious case being the internet’s 1995 choice of Cleveland’s Albert Belle over the BBWAA’s pick of Boston’s Mo Vaughn, whose numbers trailed Belle’s in virtually every respect.

Of course, the BBWAA giveth and taketh away from Sox fans in equal measure: In 1999, Pedro Martinez lost out on the MVP award when two writers decided that pitchers did not deserve MVP votes whatsoever (despite being baseball players, as far as I can tell). Ivan Rodriguez, a fine player, won the hardware instead, and the world kept spinning.

This year’s race is about as nutty as you can get, with candidates from several teams vying for the honor. There are enough good candidates who play the field that I’m pretty sure Papi has no chance, though making his case is fair enough: It passes the time, and that’s what baseball is here for, after all.

This year more than ever, I think it’s more helpful to explain why a player might not win the award even if he has the best WAR or wRC+ or however you want to measure it at season’s end. I’m not saying these are disqualifying criteria, just that it is instructive to remember how people choose to vote when we’re attempting to gauge how they will vote. Furthermore, I’m not saying how anyone should vote, because I think the system works fairly well, and I respect the idea of “value” meaning different things to different people… but I’m getting ahead of myself, and will address that particular elephant in this particular room shortly.

To the candidates!

Mookie Betts: Mookie’s case is obviously hurt because he plays on a team with so many dynamic offensive players, and that’s okay with me. He’s a great back-of-the-order candidate a la Moises Alou in 1998, when Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were the only two real choices but Alou was grafted onto many discussions just to make the whole thing seem comprehensive. Like Alou, Mookie’s a great player, and that’s enough on its own.

Kansas City Royals v Boston Red Sox Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images

Mike Trout: He’s the best player in baseball but he plays for a crappy team, one that’s going to drag down his chances of winning again. This is unfortunate for him, but I don’t think it’s one worth getting upset about. Whether we like it or not, inherent in the “value” proposition we’re discussing is the chance to be “valuable” to a recognizably positive end. Obviously the Angels’s roster construction is not Trout’s fault, but the hallmark of MVPs on crappy teams — call it the A-Rod rule — is that your season has to be so much better than the second-place guy’s that you erase all doubt, and Trout hasn’t done that this year, through no fault of his own.

Josh Donaldson: A really interesting case, especially if the Blue Jays win the division. There are two ways of looking at his candidacy: 1) He won it last year, so there’s no need to give it to him again, and 2) Wouldn’t it be cool to have back-to-back MVPs sort of out of nowhere? I’d say he has a considerable chance of repeating.

Jose Altuve: If the Astros make the postseason, he’s my pick to win, and if I had a vote, he’d probably get it. If the MVP award, flawed as it is, doesn’t exist to celebrate the 4’11” guy who wins the batting title by 100 points while also hitting for power and helping his team to a playoff berth, I’m not sure it’s worth much at all.

Therein lies the joke, of course: It’s not worth very much, from a nuts-and-bolts perspective, because of the “valuable” tag, which mucks it all up. Instead of arguing that this is “stupid logic” — which is not a quote I made up — I’m interested in why it’s appealing to so many people, and what we can learn from it… and maybe even how we can fix it.

My conclusion is that making the award subjective, rather than “objective” (though advanced stats are ultimately a little subjective, and susceptible to changes over time), is the very thing that makes it interesting. The MVP award exists to tell a story and always has. Calling this “stupid logic” is ignoring the logic of the award altogether to make it something it is not. It’s like saying you’re mad Car & Driver magazine has bad chimichurri steak recipes. You’re just not talking about the same thing.

At the same time, it must be frustrating to those that look at “value” as “value produced on the field, independent of everything else,” and I’m sympathetic to the Belles and Martinezes of the world, who got royally screwed. I think there’s a cushion of a couple WAR inherent in the process that allows for “legitimate” MVPs that don’t top the table, and I think the changing and varied WAR formulae make it fairly clear that this is a good policy.

For those who disagree, I have a solution, though: A Player of the Year award, given to the person who has contributed the greatest statistical season in any campaign, independent of the MVP and Cy Young awards. This wouldn’t supplant the other hardware, and there wouldn’t be one for pitchers and hitters, just one overall. This would engage a considerable amount of discussion, obviously -- and that’s the point. Maybe being forced to look at stats would help voters revise their MVP ballots downward, and take them more into account when considering the “value” of MVP candidates.

In this way, the MVP awards themselves could be a corrective to the Player of the Year balloting, instead of a dark-ish stab toward what “value” means in the MVP context. At the very least, I don’t think this would make our choices worse, but they may make them better. Given that they’re already pretty good, this would be some accomplishment. Until then, we’re stuck in a trap of our own making, and like any animal in a trap, trying to wiggle free of its confines is only going to make it worse. The only thing we can do is pass the time and tell stories. So that’s what we do.