Friday, September 23, 2011

Cy Jung: (Hopefully) Changing the Pyschology and Logistics Behind Baseball's Awards

Three weeks can be a lifetime in the stretch drive. Before the Braves and Red Sox started their simultaneous, precipitous spirals and made things interesting (or terrifying, depending on your perspective) again, the only thing baseball folks had to talk about was whether or not Justin Verlander ought to win the AL MVP. And talk they did. A lot. Now that the sporting media's gaze has shifted, like the Eye Of Sauron, to the Wild Card excitement/disaster zone, everyone is debating, pontificating, and making a big ol' fuss over the Sawx disintegration and, you know, occasionally mentioning that Atlanta is also choking. (That's definitely enough Beantown-centricity out of you, ESPN. I'd like to thank Drew Magary for handing you your butts already and saving me the trouble.)

East Coast bias notwithstanding, as a lifelong Braves fan who also has many dear friends in Boston, allow me to speak on behalf of both our fair cities: We miss the Verlander-saturated days of yore. God, do we miss them.

And because life was so much more joyful back then, and thinking about the present state of Wild Card affairs makes me want to cry like a small child who just dropped a brand-new ice cream cone on the sidewalk before licking it even once, I'm going to rant about Justin Verlander and the MVP some more.

The crux of the debate surrounding Verlander's candidacy for the award is essentially this: an awful lot of the people who vote on these things are predisposed somewhere between reluctance and obstinate refusal when it comes to handing a pitcher the MVP. Which is silly. I'm not going to rehash the same tired statistics that have been trotted out to make Verlander's case. Nor will I sit here and discuss the relative merits of his 2011 impact as compared to Jose Bautista, Curtis Granderson, Dustin Pedroia, and the rest of the guys in contention. You know the numbers, and you know what he's meant to the Tigers this year. The semantics of how "valuable" should be defined are interesting to debate, but it's plausible, at the very least, to say that Verlander has been at least as valuable to his team as anyone else has to theirs. And I don't think anybody who has a vote would especially disagree with anything in this paragraph. The problem here is that a little thing called the Cy Young Award also exists.

The pervading ethos seems to be that the Cy Young, which Verlander will almost certainly win in the AL, should be sufficient for a pitcher, and that concurrently winning the MVP is overkill, not to mention depriving some worthy position player of the honor. Apparently, Roger Clemens winning both awards in '86 was some sort of sin against the spirit of the MVP. Or something. Never mind that there is absolutely no hard policy, anywhere, that precludes a pitcher from winning the MVP. In fact, after Pedro Martinez was left entirely off of two voters' ballots in 1999, thus depriving him of the award that year, MLB changed the instructional language to specifically include pitchers for consideration. Which hasn't done much of anything to alter the anti-pitching prejudice of the voters, but still, the point was made. In an ESPN interview on the topic, Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins summed up the mindset of position players and voters alike:

" ... the MVP for the pitcher is the Cy Young Award. That's why they came up with it. That's their award. But the MVP -- that's for the most valuable player. And is he one of the most valuable players in the league? Yes -- for 35 games." (courtesy of

It's unclear whether Rollins intended "they" to mean MLB in general, or the pitchers themselves, or the writers who vote, or what. In any case, it's the wrong pronoun. In 1956, following the death of Red Sox pitcher Cy Young the preceding year, then-MLB Commissioner Ford Frick created the award in his honor, to be given to the best pitcher in baseball as voted upon by Baseball Writers Association Of America. So historically, it was not invented as a pitchers-only substitute for the MVP.

Rollins does raise one valid point: Verlander (or any other starting pitcher) only playing 35 games a year yet being considered for a year-long honor decidedly merits a pause, and apparently the BBWAA takes it seriously. (This is pure personal opinion, but that argument falls apart when a pitcher has been as transcendent and critical to team success as Verlander has this season.) Interestingly, in Cy Young voting, it's apparently the paucity of innings, not games, pitched that seems detrimental to candidates. In the past 20 years, only two relievers have won the award; Dennis Eckersley in 1992, and Eric Gagne in 2003. How in the hell has Mo' Rivera never won a Cy Young? Or an MVP, for that matter?

Pardon that digression. At any rate, as I said, "the MVP for the pitcher", as Rollins put it, is not "why they came up with" the Cy Young Award. It was intended as a tribute to a legendary player who had passed away, not to relegate an entire position out of consideration for the MVP by giving out a separate award. You can see why it might feel that way to a position player, though, and Rollins is merely giving voice to that feeling. It's not as if the BBWAA might award him the National League Cal Ripken Jr. this year for being the best NL shortstop in 2011. Pitchers are alone in their special-award-getting status. In that light, the Cy Young does seem to have an unfair cast to it, and everyday players' resentment over pitchers possibly also winning the MVP is understandable. To them, it accentuates the age-old Hatfields/McCoys scenario between the guys on the mound and everyone else on the diamond.

But those sentiments shouldn't be echoed by the writers voting on these awards. Per MLB, they are supposed to consider every relevant player, and doing otherwise, which they clearly are in the case of pitchers, is disingenuous.

So here's a crazy thought: if the Cy Young is being interpreted as a separate, special MVP for pitchers, and that interpretation is largely responsible for elite pitchers being denied proper consideration for the actual MVP, why don't we just change the meaning and/or context of the awards in question?

I know, I know. Baseball people hate and fear change. No game clings more fiercely (and ofttimes irrationally) to its history and traditions, and the mere suggestion of altering something ingrained in baseball's fabric like the Cy Young can earn a body the torches-and-pitchforks treatment. Just bear with me.

There are three ways in which pitcher-for-MVP parity could be achieved.

Door # 1: Vote on Everything. Voters choose the Offensive and Defensive Player(s) Of The Year in football; why can't baseball adopt a similar tack? The BBWAA already votes to award the Cy Young and the Gold Glove (basically subsets of the DPOY). Why not have them vote for the best offensive player as well? That way each category of performance (hitting, pitching, fielding) gets a unique, voted-on award, and the MVP vote can be reserved for the player who most fully and directly contributes overall to his team's success regardless of position. This could work, but if we get the writers voting on everything under the sun, the end-of-season awards are going to become as convoluted and debatable as the BCS system, and it's likely more quirks and biases would emerge in the voters' thinking than would be solved. Moving on ...

Door # 2: By The Numbers. Since the whole MVP/Cy Young problem resides with the BBWAA being crotchety grumblers about their voting in the first place, we could take this thing completely out of their hands and expunge all subjectivity from the awards process. Best batting average gets the Batting Title, best ERA gets the Cy Young, best UZR gets the Gold Glove, and best WAR gets the MVP. Quick, clean, easy ... and wrong. Not only would this be phenomenally soulless and boring, but the metrics crowd is going to pitch a fit about how ERA and batting average are quasi-meaningless stats and can't possibly be the criteria for major awards. Then they're going to want to turn it all into some kind of hyper-complex algorithm and it'll be 3 years before we settle on the efficacy of a "correct" equation. Drat. OK ...

Door # 3: Compromise. It's my belief that the MVP, by necessity, has to be voted on, so in our grand hypothetical awards shakeup, we're leaving its process of determination unaltered. In general, the voters are highly knowledgeable and observant people who try to take into account not only the relevant statistics but also the psychological impact that players can have on their teammates. As hackneyed and overused as these words can be in the wrong hands, "leadership", "guts", "heart", and their ilk pretty much have to be weighted properly if your intent is to accurately assess the "value" of an individual in the context of his team. Those words don't show up in box scores, so we need thoughtful human analysis to account for their importance. So much for the MVP; it's fine as is.

Now, let's address the Cy Young problem. Awarding it seems to bias the BBWAA pretty heavily against pitchers when it comes time for the MVP vote. The question is: does the Cy Young, in fact, need to be voted upon? I say no. Advanced metrics have been refined to the point that a thorough perusal of Baseball Prospectus can pretty much tell you who the dominant pitchers are in a given season. All we need is an equation to determine the most dominant guy from each league, preferably one that gives relievers equal consideration, and we're good to go. I'm no statistician, but surely some clever baseball junkie/MIT grad somewhere can come up with a crazy amalgam of WHIP, ERA+, K/BB, FIP, and whatever else they deem necessary to accurately determine the "best" NL and AL pitchers in a given year. If someone baseball- and math-savvy could get on this, please, I'd be ever so grateful. There would likely be a few stumbling blocks and more than a few misplaced awards early on if we implemented this. The working-out-the-kinks period would undoubtedly yield some flawed results. However, I believe that in the long run, it would result in MVP voters bringing less bias and skepticism to the table regarding pitchers.

Now, here come The Baseball Writers. "But, but ... we VOTE on this award! We've ALWAYS voted on this award!" To you I say the following:

First of all, the "We've always done it this way!" argument is quite possibly the dumbest, least sensible stance to take on anything. It's infuriating. As I noted earlier, baseball loves its traditions, but maintaining tradition at the expense of improvement is flat-out ridiculous.

And second of all: the reason you vote on this award has nothing to do with your being the "best way" to determine its recipient. You vote on this award because when Ford Frick implemented it, he was desperately trying to avoid a repeat of the Chalmers Award disaster, and having you do it instead seemed like a good idea at the time. It does not automatically endow you with the right to select the best pitcher from each league in perpetuity.

An objective, statistically-based Cy Young would, hopefully, disabuse the BBWAA of their MVP anti-pitching bias and force them to fairly evaluate pitchers as MVP candidates. If we render the Cy Young objective and the MVP subjective, that should at least recalibrate things in a positive direction, right? The voters wouldn't think twice about awarding the MVP to a position player who won the Batting Title, so if we can objectify the Cy Young with raw statistical data, it will hopefully be perceived in a similar fashion to that award, and cease to be a perpetual obstacle to the MVP.

Please understand, I'm not saying every 20-game winning pitcher should automatically receive MVP consideration. I think the "only plays every 5 days" mentality is fairly legit. But in a case like Verlander's (or Pedro's in '99) it seems ludicrous to ignore their contributions simply because they're not everyday players. If you have someone who makes you feel completely bulletproof every time they take the mound, whose mentality/invincibility/swagger is consistently off the charts, that absolutely has to be considered in a discussion of the Most Valuable Player. This is particularly relevant in Verlander's case, as he ended 16 separate Tigers losing streaks this season by pitching lights-out for a victory the following game. His very existence prevented several potentially season-ending skids. How is that not "value"?

Extended side note: why is the Batting Title still awarded to the highest batting average holder in each league? As long as we're vigorously reshuffling the Baseball Awards deck, we may as well amend this to be commensurate with modern times, starting with the name. It's inane to have something called "The Batting Title" while its counterparts are dubbed the "Cy Young" and (officially, although nobody calls it this) "The Kenesaw Mountain Landis Memorial Baseball Award." Also known as the MVP. To level the playing field, let's call it the "Rogers Hornsby Award." I went with Hornsby over everyone else for two reasons: 1. he won the Batting Title six consecutive times, along with two Triple Crowns, and 2. I liked the symmetry of having one award named for an AL player and one for and NL guy. (The only player with more Batting Titles? Ty Cobb, with either 11 or 12 titles and either 9 or 5 consecutive, depending on which sources you believe regarding the 1910 Cobb/Nap Lajoie dispute. From a purely baseball-oriented standpoint, his name would be the best choice, but I don't think this award should be fake-rechristened by a guy who was, by nearly all accounts, a total jerk, do you?)

Anyway, someone can ameliorate this award too, and cook up an equation involving BA, BABIP, OPS+, etc. for "The Hornsby." I'm not nearly math-y enough to synthesize the correct formula out of the numbers, but someone is. The Hornsby/Batting Title could have actual statistical meaning in the future. Let's make this happen.

Extended side note part deux: As for the actual Triple Crowns, let's leave them be. Sure, some of their core stats have been proven to be quasi- irrelevant, but we can afford to let them alone. It's a nod to Venerable Old Baseball Tradition, which we certainly don't want to dismiss completely. The mythology and scarcity of Triple Crown winners is just ... well, cool. We can live with the statistical shortcomings. Also, if you actually win a Triple Crown, you are qualified for all time as "really effing good at baseball." To lead the league in batting average, homers, and RBIs (or) ERA, Wins, and K's simultaneously is insanely difficult. Yeah, yeah, BA, RBI, Wins, and ERA are dependent, to varying degrees, on factors that the player in question does not have direct control over. (Actually, so are homers, if you take Park Effect into account.) I don't care. The rarity of the event justifies its significance. It is very, very hard to garner a Triple Crown Award. So there.

After that extremely protracted diatribe, the rant ceases. I'm not saying Justin Verlander deserves the MVP, but if people aren't considering him because he happens to be a pitcher, that's a problem. You get the idea, and I'll shut up now. Go Braves. And, for my Boston brethren, go Sawx.

At least playoff spots aren't voted on.

No comments:

Post a Comment