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What Money Can’t Buy

August 8, 2012 Leave a comment

I wrote a post last Saturday, Skyboxification, taking off from a review by Jeremy Waldron of Michael Sandel’s recent book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. On finishing the post, I thought that maybe I should read the book. Sunday I downloaded it and today I finished it. Not hard to do, given how short the book is. It reads more like an extended essay.

As Waldron pointed out, the book is loaded with examples in which money and markets have been introduced (or intrude) into parts of life that might better be kept free of them. This is what motivated me to turn to the book itself. Waldron discussed a handful of examples, all intriguing, and I was curious to see more.

One family of examples has to do with fines becoming fees. A particular case to which Sandel returns from time to time is a daycare in Israel that decided to fine parents who were late to pick up their children. The surprise effect? Tardy pickups increased. Without fines, parents felt properly guilty about keeping the daycare staff at work after hours. With the introduction of fines, tardiness was monetized and parents stopped feeling guilty. They could simply pay for being late — or so one imagines they reasoned, consciously or unconsciously — and they were happy to do so. How the staff felt is another matter.

Or what about gift cards? Giving someone a gift shows thought, interest, a connection. Sandel reviews arguments from economists that giving cash would be better, since the recipient can make better use of the money. But this doesn’t feel right to many. Are gift cards different? Apparently so. The gift card business has been booming. What’s up with that?

Sandel doesn’t so much offer answers to every situation. Rather, he describes the monetization of a traditionally non-economic behavior, discusses what may feel wrong about it, and often analyzes it in the twin contexts of fairness and corruption. For example, in discussing college admissions, he writes:

The idea of selling admission is open to two objections. One is about fairness; the other is about corruption. The fairness objection says that admitting children of wealthy donors in exchange for a handsome donation to the college fund is unfair to applicants who lacked the good judgment to be born to affluent parents. This objection views a college education as a source of opportunity and access, and worries that giving an edge to children of the wealthy perpetuates social and economic inequality.

The corruption argument is about institutional integrity. This objection points out that higher education not only equips students for remunerative jobs; it also embodies certain ideals — the pursuit of truth, the promotion of scholarly and scientific excellence, the advancement of humane teaching and learning, the cultivation of civic virtue. … allowing fund-raising needs to predominate runs the risk of distorting these ends and corrupting the norms that give universities their reason for being.

This is one case where perhaps the appeal to fairness is more compelling than the appeal to corruption. But what about developing a futures market on terrorism: a gambling site where people can place bets on terrorist attacks on certain targets? The logic for suggesting this, as the Defense department’s research organization DARPA did a few years ago, is that such a market would provide useful intelligence. Yet, betting on death makes many people queasy. Sandel devotes an entire chapter to death bets, with numerous examples, including basic life insurance, which was outlawed in many cultures for centuries.

A final chapter addresses naming rights: sports stadiums, schools, police cars, and many more. This happens to connect to the subject of a post I intended to write two falls ago. Perhaps I still will, so let me not try to produce a version of it here. The starting point was to be the line with which Waldron opens his review of Sandel’s book, “Pecunia non olet,” or “Money doesn’t stink.” Let’s turn to wikipedia for a quick review of the meaning:

The phrase is ascribed to the Roman emperor Vespasian (ruled 69-79 CE). Vespasian imposed a Urine Tax (Latin: vectigal urinae) on the distribution of urine from public urinals in Rome’s Cloaca Maxima (great sewer) system. (The Roman lower classes urinated into pots which were emptied into cesspools.) The urine collected from public urinals was sold as an ingredient for several chemical processes. It was used in tanning, and also by launderers as a source of ammonia to clean and whiten woollen togas. The buyers of the urine paid the tax.

The Roman historian Suetonius reports that when Vespasian’s son Titus complained about the disgusting nature of the tax, his father held up a gold coin and asked, whether he felt offended by smell. When Titus said “No,” he replied, “Yet it comes from urine.”

The phrase Pecunia non olet is still used today to say that the value of money is not tainted by its origins.

My never-finished post was inspired in part* by a NYT article on the transformation of MIT’s campus by top architects. Working my way through an accompanying slide show, I came upon the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. Yes, that David Koch, the libertarian multibillionaire whose political contributions have propped up the Tea Party movement and had a corrosive effect on our politics. (See Jane Mayer’s New Yorker article from two years ago for background on the Koch brothers.) Koch’s name is also on the former New York State Theater in Lincoln Center, home to the New York City Ballet.

*I need to credit my son, Joel, for further inspiration for the still-to-be-written post. He introduced me to the Latin phrase in a different context.

Which gets us back to naming rights. A deal with the devil? Dirty money? Or just good economic sense? I’m not talking specifically about the MIT and Lincoln Center buildings to which Koch has contributed generously. Rather, I’m raising the question in general.

You must have your favorite example of a building you wish had its traditional name, or at least some name that wasn’t changing every few years as companies go out of business, are sold, or fail to keep their end of a naming deal. (Remember Enron Field, the original name of the Houston Astros’ home when it opened in 2000? No doubt millions of people first heard of Enron thanks to this naming deal. The name didn’t last. The field is now Minute Maid Park.) Sandel asks us not to decry this trend, or applaud it, but instead to think through what a suitable basis would be for objecting to monetization. He offers guidance, leaving us to engage in the process ourselves.

In closing, Sandel returns to sports stadiums, which have not only commercial names attached, but also skyboxes and frightful ticket prices. Like him, I remember the days just a few decades ago when all tickets were affordable. He writes about the modest pricing of tickets for Minnesota Twins baseball games. In the early 1970s, when I was a student, I would buy Celtics tickets just before game time at Boston’s North Station. They never sold out. You could just walk up to the counter a few minutes before the game, next to the train ticket windows, and pay $2, $3, $4, $5, or $6. (I sure wish I splurged for those $6 tickets just once.) Now that seems like a dream.

Sandel concludes that we

need to ask a bigger question, about the kind of society in which we wish to live. As naming rights and municipal marketing appropriate the common world, they diminish its public character. … commercialism erodes commonality. The more things money can buy, the fewer the occasions when people from different walks of life encounter one another. We see this when we go to a baseball game and gaze up at the skyboxes, or down from them, as the case may be. The disappearance of the class-mixing experience once found at the ballpark represents a loss not only for those looking up but for those looking down.

Something similar has been happening throughout our society. At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives. We live and work and shop and play in different places. Our children go to different schools. You might call it the skyboxification of American life. It’s not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.

Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share in a common life. What matters is that people of different backgrounds and social positions encounter one another, and bump up against one another, in the course of everyday life. For this is how we learn to negotiate and abide our differences, and how we come to care for the common good.

And so, in the end, the question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honor and money cannot buy?

Polo Grounds, New York, 1922

Whether you agree or not, you will find it a worthwhile exercise to work through Sandel’s examples. We learn in the Acknowledgments that Sandel has himself tested them in joint classes with economists who argue the other side. Those would be rewarding discussions to listen in on.**

**But why must Sandel make it a point to tell us that all these people are his friends? For example, he co-taught a course at Harvard with Larry Summers in 2005, and they were “joined for some sessions by my friend Thomas Friedman,” Summers having already been described in the text as a friend. And on occasion, “my friend Richard Posner … has joined me … for debates about the moral limits of markets.” Should I point out that I was once friends with Summers’ future wife? Really, I was. But so what?

Mariano Farewell

May 6, 2012 Leave a comment

[NYT, May 5, 2012]

It’s not that I hate the Yankees. Maybe I do. But what I hate more is the incessant coverage of them. Which is my loss, because it gets in the way of my appreciating the individual players, even when they are exemplars of the game or admirable human beings (though who ever knows the truth about that?).

Thus, when Mariano Rivera — generally accepted to be the greatest reliever ever and, just maybe, a pretty fine person as well — tore his ACL the other night while having his usual pre-game fun fielding batting practice, I reacted not with the appropriate dismay. Rather, I thought, oh no, we’re about to be overrun with coverage.

And overrun we were. Just check out yesterday’s NYT.

But amidst the noise, there was Roger Angell, the best writer on baseball of the last half century. He quickly put up a two-paragraph post at the New Yorker website. From the first paragraph:

No player of our time imposed his will and style more firmly on the game and in our minds than Mariano, or more quietly. In more than a thousand games, across eighteen seasons, we saw his pause on the mound, with the glove and ball held motionless at his waist, his downcast gaze, and then the easy, pleasing motion, with the arm well up and then slashing downward, and the ball—the cutter again, no doubt—quickly writing a final game stat across a sliver of the strike zone. The batter, whether he’d swung or just stood there, was also part of the process, and seemed to share Mo’s pre-pitch gravity as he turned away uncomplaining, almost agreeing, to begin the rest of his afternoon or evening. Game over.

As for yesterday’s blanket NYT coverage, there was a graphic worth studying (see above). What do you know? His nemesis was Edgar Martinez. Career batting average against Rivera: .625. Career on-base percentage: .700. Career slugging percentage: 1.188.

I suppose it figures. After all, Edgar was the greatest pure hitter in the American League for over a decade. His Hall of Fame case may be going nowhere (and these numbers aren’t in themselves reason for him to be enshrined), but his performance against Rivera is telling. I hope he finds his way into the Hall sooner, but if he is destined to wait years longer, I’d love to see him enter alongside Rivera.

Categories: Baseball

Green Monster South

March 17, 2012 Leave a comment

The Green Monster at Fenway South

[Stan Grossfeld/Boston Globe]

JetBlue Park at Fenway South (yes, really, that is its official name) opened last month in Fort Myers, Florida. It is the new spring training site for the Boston Red Sox. The great conceit underlying its design is that any proper Red Sox home must have a wall in left field. The Fenway South wall, as Stan Grossfeld explained in the Boston Globe last week, ” isn’t identical to the Old Wall. It’s higher, has seats inside, and there is no way to manually change the numbers from inside the scoreboard.” The scoreboard is manual, just like the one in the Fens. The problem is that it

sticks out only 6 inches from the existing wall, so manually dropping in the numbers from behind it is impossible.

The door that was part of the original scoreboard leads nowhere. The Sox had to put in another door, 50 feet closer to the left-field foul line. That leads on one side to the tiny 8-foot-by-8-foot scoreboard operator’s room. There you’ll find Kevin Walsh, 23, a perky Red Sox intern chosen from more than 650 applicants for this plum assignment.

But Walsh has some unique issues. Changing the scoreboard at JetBlue Park means dashing onto the field carrying numbered panels that weigh 2 pounds and measure 12 by 16 inches, and lugging a 6-foot ladder. And the view from the tiny window makes it impossible to see the entire field.

You can see photos here. Not all are interesting, but there are a couple of Kevin with his ladder, and a good one of Jim Rice.

I can’t think of a feature of Safeco Field that would be worth replicating down in Peoria. The retractable roof? Of course, the Mariners share the field with the Padres, who would want to incorporate a distinctive Petco Park feature. Maybe it’s best to leave this gimmick to the Red Sox.

Categories: Architecture, Baseball

Dwight Evans

February 19, 2012 Leave a comment

1986 Topps baseball card

Boston Red Sox right fielder Dwight Evans is one of my heroes. Of course, everyone on the 1975 Red Sox is one of my heroes, so that’s not saying much. But I was always impressed with how Dewey, regarded by all Sox fans as the greatest defensive right fielder of the time, turned himself into a great hitter too. In 1983, at the age of 31, despite winning a gold glove, he had a terrible year at the plate, with a batting average was .238, OBP of .338, slugging .436, with 22 homers and 58 RBIs. (See here for stats.) I thought he would only get worse. Instead, he got better. Four years later, an all-star year, his numbers were .305/.417/.569, with 34 homers, 123 RBIs, and a league-leading 106 walks.

You can study the numbers. Indeed you should, because what we’re talking about is a player with a Hall of Fame level career who has never gotten his due. Fortunately, Bill James has now made the case, in a persuasive piece published a week ago at Grantland titled An Open Letter to the Hall of Fame About Dwight Evans. (Hat tip: Joe Posnanski, without whom I would have missed this.) With James on the case, I needn’t say more. I’ll turn it over to him, quoting just the opening of his extended argument:

I hope you understand that I would never sacrifice my reputation by arguing that a player belongs in the Hall of Fame if I did not sincerely believe this to be true. Yes, Dwight Evans works for the Red Sox, and I work for the Red Sox, and I’m not saying this is not relevant to why I am writing, but … I wouldn’t argue that Dwight Evans had a Hall of Fame quality career if the kinds of analysis that I do all the time did not show this to be true. It’s not really that I wouldn’t; I couldn’t. I’ve spent years explaining to the public every step I take in evaluating a player. If I didn’t follow those steps, the people who have read my stuff over the years would know immediately that I wasn’t playing by the rules, and they would tear me a newbie over it right away.

Let us start with the proposition that Dwight Evans is one of the most underrated players in baseball history. There are certain things that make players underrated. The most important of these is that a player who does several things well will always be underrated compared to a specialist, just because of the way the human mind works. We absorb simple concepts more readily than complex ones. If a player hits .325, if he hits 40 homers, if he steals 70 bases, we get that immediately. If a player does many things well but no one thing spectacularly well, he may have equal value but it takes longer for the public to catch on.

Dwight Evans was a player who did many things very well — hitting almost 400 home runs, drawing a lot of walks, winning a long string of Gold Gloves, and even registering pretty decent batting averages, .290 or better five times in eight years. His batting average, however, was not his specialty, particularly early in his career, and given that batting average was at that time regarded as the center of the baseball universe, so to speak, this also caused him to be underrated.

On-base percentage is much more closely tied to scoring runs (and to winning games) than is batting average, and in the 21st century all baseball people know this. But in the 1970s very few people knew it, so Dwight Evans was evaluated by the baseball writers of his time more based on his batting averages, which were OK, than on his on-base percentages, which were outstanding.

Then there is the problem of first impressions, that when the place of a player is settled in the public’s mind, it is difficult for him to change how he is seen. The public image of Dwight Evans — as for every player — was formed by his first few years in the major leagues, and in those years he was not a great player; he was a good player, but not yet a great one. Dwight Evans is the very unusual player who had all of his best years in his thirties. About 40 percent of baseball players have all of their best years in their twenties; about 55 percent have some of their best years in their twenties and some in their thirties. Less than 5 percent have all of their best years in their thirties. Dwight Evans is that unusual case: someone who had all of his best years in his thirties, after the public image of him as a .270 hitter with 20-homer type power was set in stone.

James closes with the claim that “Dwight Evans is a Hall of Famer.” Amen.

Categories: Baseball

Hall of Fame Vote

January 16, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s been a week since the National Baseball Hall of Fame announced the results of the 2012 vote by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America for Hall membership. To be elevated, a former player must receive at least 75% of the vote. Only Barry Larkin reached that level. Baseball-Reference.com has kindly provided complete voting details, from which I have drawn the following list of the top fourteen vote-getters, with their number of votes (out of 573 ballots, with 430 needed for election) and their vote percentage:

Barry Larkin 495 86.4%
Jack Morris 382 66.7%
Jeff Bagwell 321 56.0%
Lee Smith 290 50.6%
Tim Raines 279 48.7%
Alan Trammell 211 36.8%
Edgar Martinez 209 36.5%
Fred McGriff 137 23.9%
Larry Walker 131 22.9%
Mark McGwire 112 19.5%
Don Mattingly 102 17.8%
Dale Murphy 83 14.5%
Rafael Palmeiro 72 12.6%
Bernie Williams 55 9.6%

The significance of this subset of the full list is that these are precisely the players (besides Larkin) who earned the right to stay on next year’s ballot, while those lower in the voting will drop off. One gets fifteen cracks at election, provided one stays above the 5% minimum vote threshold and gets carried over to the next year. Dale Murphy has only one year of eligibility left, Jack Morris two, Don Mattingly three, Alan Trammell four, and Lee Smith five. The rest have many more chances, with Mark McGwire the next in seniority at nine years to go.

With all the learned commentary that appeared in the days before the voting and then just after, it is difficult to have anything useful to add to the discussion. Joe Posnanski alone has written many thousands of words (here, for one), based on years of study and data analysis.

All I can do is add a few personal thoughts, minus the analysis. Just the thoughts of a simple fan, one who detests arguments based on “I know one [a Hall of Famer] when I see one” but has not done the research to rise to a higher level. So, based on the rejected premise that I really do know one when I see one, here goes. And let me point out that I have but one dog in this hunt, as may become clear. I’ll take the players one by one.

1. Larkin. Of course. He should get in. Good thing he did.

2. Morris. The consensus seems to be that with last year’s election of Bert Blyleven, Morris’s time has come. That was quite the controversy, arguments going back and forth on why one can’t get in unless the other does first, or why one shouldn’t be in at all. Well, Blyleven’s in. Morris is next. Should he be? I’ve read the arguments. I don’t know. Or care. I do believe that he shouldn’t get in on the basis of one game, yet that one game seems to underlie many of the passionate arguments in his favor. That game being the 7th game of the 1991 World Series (box score here), the one in which Morris pitched a 1-0 ten-inning shutout over the Braves to propel the Twins to World Series victory.

I can tell you where I was. At home, with the game on on a tiny TV in the bedroom while Halloween craziness filled the rest of the house. Joel, then four years old, had said something to Gail about his vision or Halloween that she interpreted to mean he wanted his pre-school class over for a party. Something may have gotten lost in translation, but Gail ran with it, and the whole class came over, parents in tow. It was standing room only. Gail also invited our friends Cynthia and Rich over with their children. Rich, a former college baseball player and big fan, would retreat to the bedroom with me every so often to check on the score. But for the most part, we were part of the party. I missed a classic. And maybe that’s why I’m not an enthusiastic Morris backer.

3. Bagwell. Of course he’s a Hall of Famer. First ballot. He’s paying the penalty for being part of the steroids era without even being accused of being a steroids user. The suspicions are there, though, so he must spend time in purgatory.

4. Smith. I don’t see the case. Apparently, a lot of voters don’t either and he’s probably not going to make it.

5. Raines. Of course. Vote him in already.

6. Trammell. Ditto. Unfortunately, he might not make it.

7. Martinez. That’s my dog. More below.

8. McGriff. I’m thinking he’s not going to make it. But I supported Jim Rice, who finally did, and I see McGriff as a similar player. He should be in.

9. Walker. The knock is the big numbers he put up thanks to the welcoming environs of Coors Field. Maybe so, but he was a beautiful hitter. A great one. I think he should be in.

10. McGwire. How can there be a Hall of Fame without McGwire? It’s a joke. Enough with the steroids penalty already. He did nothing illegal. Blame Selig. Blame the owners. Blame the networks. Blame everyone, but let him in.

11. Mattingly. Nope. Sure, he had some great years, but not enough. He would have fallen off the ballot long ago but for the Yankee hype.

12. Murphy. Posnanski has argued for him. I didn’t follow him closely enough. No opinion.

13. Palmeiro. Another steroids case, of course. I imagine he won’t make it. And it’s still a mystery how he put up all those huge career power numbers when no one was paying attention. Funny case. I don’t know.

14. Williams. See Mattingly.

Back to Edgar Martinez. I already played the “how can there be a Hall of Fame without him” card on Mark McGwire, but this deck has two. I’m playing it again.

How can there be a Hall of Fame without Edgar Martinez? He was a great hitter, maybe the best pure hitter of his time other than Barry Bonds. Yes, that good.

I won’t make the arguments. They’ve been made elsewhere. I’ll just point out that he had his Jack Morris moment. Two of them, on successive nights.

Let’s go to game four of the Mariners-Yankees 1995 playoff series, on October 7, at the Kingdome in Seattle. I wasn’t there. I should have been. I was at home watching in the basement with Gail and Joel. The Yankees won the first two games of the series at home and were up 2-1 in games at this point, with the score tied 6-6 in the bottom of the 8th and Yankees closer John Wetteland pitching to the top of the Mariners order. A walk to Vince Coleman, Joey Cora bunts safely, Ken Griffey is hit by a pitch, and up comes Edgar. The season is on the line, and he wallops a magnificent home run. As we jumped up and down, screaming, I announced that we were going to game five the next day, whatever it took.

That wasn’t the end of the game, of course. Buhner would hit another homer two batters later, the Yankees would come back with two runs in the 9th, but the Mariners held on to win. The next morning we saw an ad in the Seattle Times for a ticket broker, made a call, Gail drove to a Bellevue hotel with Joel for a furtive meeting with the broker, and came home with three tickets for the decisive, all-or-nothing game five. Great seats, between home and third in the section where the Yankees wives and families were sitting. Some Yankee must have put the tickets up for sale.

I needn’t tell the story of game five. The greatest game in Mariners history. The greatest game in Kingdome history. The game that saved baseball in Seattle. The game that helped renew baseball’s popularity after the strike that prematurely ended the 1994 season. So many great moments in a back-and-forth game, but none greater than the end, with dual heroes. Edgar and his glorious double to left field in the bottom of the 11th, Griffey scoring from first with that electric smile peeking out as he lies on home plate at the bottom of a pile-up. The Yankees hopes dashed, though they would have the last laugh with four World Series victories in the next five years.

Edgar is a Hall of Famer. A great hitter, who proved it when the stakes were highest. The Kingdome had those crazy exterior ramps you had to walk down, back and forth and back and forth, round and round and round, to get the heck out of there. Usually a drag, as if sitting in the Kingdome itself wasn’t drag enough. Not that night. Thousands of us looped around, chanting in unison “Eeeeeeeed gaaaaaar, Eeeeeeed gaaaaar” [Short e, not long e]. Years later, Griffey has become the face of that moment, with his mad dash from first to home. That night, Edgar was our hero.

Categories: Baseball

MVP: Correction and More

November 22, 2011 Leave a comment

Matt Kemp

[Christian Petersen / Getty Images / September 27, 2011]

I realized this morning, in reading about Justin Verlander’s receipt yesterday of the American League Most Valuable Player award, that my post on the matter last night had some errors. Tyler Kepner’s NYT article mentioned the last pitcher to receive the MVP, Dennis Eckersley in 1992, and I thought simultaneously “of course” and “how did I forget that last night?” I can blame the supposed list of MVP pitchers I relied on in Sports Illustrated, but I should have known better. And when I next checked my email this morning, there was a polite note from Joel suggesting that I might want to revise my post. This is my correction.

On being reminded of Eckersley, I also thought of Willie Hernández, who sure enough won the MVP in 1984. Like Eckersley, he was a relief pitcher. And Rollie Fingers in 1981. Oh, but maybe that’s the point. Maybe the SI list consisted of starting pitchers who received the MVP, not all pitchers. Well, if that’s the case, then they missed a starter too, Don Newcombe in 1956. Who knows? It was just a lousy list. I should have checked a more reliable source, such as baseball-reference.com. I apologize for my sloppiness.

As long as we’re on the subject, the National League MVP was announced today: Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers. With Verlander’s award in mind, I decided to take a look at the vote to see how pitchers fared. See for yourself. You’ll find that highest placed pitcher was Roy Halladay, named on 14 of 32 ballots and finishing 9th. Clayton Kershaw was on 11 ballots and finished 12th. Starting two positions lower, in 14th, players got just a handful of votes, with two more pitchers, Ian Kennedy and Cliff Lee, appearing in 14th and 15th and being named on 4 ballots each.

What to make of this? Not much, I suppose. But why did Halladay finish ahead of Kershaw after Kershaw dominated the Cy Young voting announced last week? (Kershaw received 27 first place votes along with 3 seconds and 2 thirds, while Halladay received just 4 first place votes along with 21 seconds and 7 thirds, both appearing on all 32 ballots.) Does it have something to do with Halladay’s team, the Phillies, making the playoffs, whereas Kershaw’s Dodgers, through no possible fault of his own, didn’t?

Speaking of the Dodgers, the more important question is why Matt Kemp finished second to Ryan Braun in the MVP voting. The two dominated the voting, the only ones to appear high up on all 32 ballots: 20 first place votes and 12 seconds for Braun; 10 firsts, 16 seconds, 6 thirds for Kemp. Shift six of Braun’s first place votes to second and six of Kemp’s second place votes to first and Kemp is the MVP. But as long as enough voters believe the MVP is an award for members of playoff teams only, we’ll keep having skewed elections.

There are bigger issues out there, I know. But as long as I was correcting yesterday’s post, I thought it worth exploring this theme again in light of today’s data.

PS In looking for a photo of Kemp, I found this column by Bill Plaschke in tomorrow’s LA Times (and the photo at top). Let me quote from it, the boldface emphasis being mine:

I need some dirt to kick. I need a base to throw. I need a big blue chest to bump. I need an explanation

How did the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp not win the National League most-valuable-player award?

Somebody tell me. Somebody show me. Use sabermetrics. Go to the video. I don’t care. If there is one piece of concrete evidence that says Kemp should not have been voted MVP over Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun, I want to see it.

This is a robbery greater than a Kemp leaping catch. This is a steal more blatant than a Kemp sprint. This is a hosing more definitive than when Kemp puts on his socks.

In voting by my fellow members of the Baseball Writers’ Assn. of America, Braun won the award Tuesday over Kemp, and it wasn’t really close, and it shouldn’t have been close. Kemp should have easily won, and if baseball ever needs instant replay, it is right now.

Kemp had more home runs than Braun. He had more runs batted in. He had more runs scored. He had more stolen bases. He had a better on-base percentage.

When you throw everything together and calculate the hot stat known as wins above replacement, which determines how many wins a player is worth to his team, Kemp led the NL and Braun finished second.

All this, and Kemp batted in a lineup filled with mediocrity while Braun had the benefit of batting in front of the man who finished third in the MVP voting, the mighty Prince Fielder.

[snip]

Braun won the MVP award because many writers have come to associate “most valuable” with “postseason,” and while the Brewers won the Central Division the Dodgers went nowhere.

Never mind that five other NL MVPs since 2000 have come from teams that didn’t reach the playoffs. Never mind that the last time a Brewer won the MVP award, Robin Yount led the 1989 team to a fourth-place finish.

And, really, never mind that the actual MVP ballot contains the mandate: “The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifiers.

Categories: Baseball

Justin Verlander’s MVP

November 21, 2011 1 comment

Justin Verlander throwing no-hitter, May 7, 2011

Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers was named the 2011 American League Most Valuable Player today. This wasn’t exactly a surprise, but it’s notable, as he is the first pitcher to be named the MVP since Roger Clemens in 1986. As you can see in the table included in the linked article, there was a time when pitching MVPs were common. From 1931 to 1945, pitchers were named MVP nine times (Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell twice, Dizzy Dean, Bucky Walters, Mort Cooper, Spud Chandler, and Hal Newhouser twice). However, since then, pitchers were named MVP only seven times. There was Jim Konstanty in 1950; Bobby Shantz in 1952; a sixteen-year gap until the 1968, the famous year of the pitcher, when both leagues’ MVPs were pitchers (Denny McLain and, of course, Bob Gibson); Vida Blue just three years later, Clemens in 1986, and Verlander today.

I don’t have a lot at stake in this, but for what it’s worth, I’m in the group that believes pitchers shouldn’t be MVPs. Gibson in 1968? Well, maybe. What a season! But otherwise, forget it.

What I find especially frustrating is the distortion introduced into MVP balloting by the belief of many voters that the MVP has to be on a playoff team. The reasoning is that if a player can’t “lead” his team to the playoffs, other players, on playoff teams, must be more valuable, essentially by definition of the word “valuable.” This is a year when that distortion had a visible effect. Let’s take a look.

First, a review. In each league, MVP voting is done by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, two for each of the league’s teams. Since the American League has 14 teams (for now, until Houston moves over in two years), there are 28 voters. Each voter ranks up to 10 players, from first to tenth. A player gets 14 points for each first place vote, 9 for second place, 8 for third place, 7 for fourth place, and on down to 2 points for ninth place and 1 point for tenth place. Those first place votes carry an extra premium, thanks to the weighting.

In this year’s voting for the American League MVP, which you can study at either of the two sites I’ve linked to, Verlander was on 27 of the 28 ballots, with 13 first place votes, 3 seconds, 3 thirds, 4 fourths, 1 fifth, 2 sixths, and 1 eighth. This yielded 280 points. Jacoby Ellsbury of the Red Sox was second with 242 points. He appeared on all 28 ballots, with 4 first place votes, 13 seconds, 4 thirds, 1 fourth, 4 fifths, 1 sixth, and 1 tenth.

Here’s the problem, or what I see as the problem anyway. The Red Sox collapsed in September, a historic collapse. But through no fault of Ellsbury’s, and even with their collapse, they were one pitch away from making the playoffs. Papelbon had two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth of the last regular season game (which we missed while eating at Poppy) and nearly got the out that would have put them into the playoffs. Let’s say they made it. I’m thinking that instead of Verlander getting 13 first place votes and 3 seconds to Ellsbury’s 4 first place votes and 13 seconds, they would essentially have been reversed. But let’s say even just four voters reversed them. Four voters who put Verlander first and Ellsbury second instead putting Ellsbury first and Verlander second. Had that happened, Ellsbury would have finished with 262 points to Verlander’s 260.

So, if I have this right, and I think I do, Ellsbury lost the MVP because Papelbon failed to throw one last strike against Baltimore in the bottom of the 9th of their final game (box score here). With Ellsbury suddenly reduced to being a member of a non-playoff team, and the other obvious MVP contender among everyday players, Toronto’s José Bautista, also on a non-playoff team, the holier-than-thou purists who had to uphold their theory that only players on playoff teams are worthy of being MVPs scrambled to elevate Verlander to the top of the ballot, costing Ellsbury and Bautista the MVP that one or the other deserved.

And that’s how a pitcher won the MVP for the first time in a quarter century. Verlander had a great season. He deserves recognition. And he got it, as the unanimous choice for the Cy Young award. But he shouldn’t have received the MVP.

Categories: Baseball