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MVP, Cy Young award, and how people vote for them

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How to divine the voters perceived difference between the terms best and valuable.

Are these two men the likely 2013 MVP award winners?
Are these two men the likely 2013 MVP award winners?
Duane Burleson

My personal view here is that there is no difference between the best player, and the most valuable player. A debate that focuses on the process of awarding either the Cy Young or MVP for a given baseball season, is an issue that delves solely into the role of an individual member within a team game. Addressing how that individual affects his other teammates can be a part of that determining process. His defensive ability, and even intangible impact from leadership qualities in the clubhouse, can be a part of that vetting process as long as the weighting is appropriately lower than the actual production on the field.

I'm also going to admit that I really don't care at all who the BBWAA votes for anymore in these awards. They completely lost me in 2006 when they voted Justin Morneau the MVP of the American League. He wasn't even the best player on his own team. Both Joe Mauer and Johan Santana had better seasons than Morneau by a majority of conceivable metrics. However, I have to admit that the big debate last year over Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera was at least interesting and the thing that I kept hearing about from the Cabrera supporters was this notion of a difference between the terms best and value.

The first problem with all of these debates is that you're arguing between really great players. How can I get fired up choosing between two players like Cabrera and Trout? I do probably side with the group that argued Trout should have won it last year with his historic rookie season, but Cabrera probably should have won it in at least one of the previous two seasons. So how can anyone argue against giving him an MVP last year? They're just great players.

There does appear to be a split, however, in the way that the Cy Young and MVP awards are being viewed by the voters. This is where this interesting separation between best and most valuable occurs. On their website, the BBWAA provides a FAQ that gives us the MVP ballot question as it is stated to the voter. Right at the very beginning though the BBWAA dodges the issue:

Dear Voter:

There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.

Unfortunately, they do not provide the same availability of the question as it is posed to the voters for the Cy Young award. However, it is pretty clear that people assume it is about awarding the best performance in a given season by a pitcher.

So where is the linguistic-line being drawn between best and value? Despite the BBWAA's statement above that an MVP doesn't have to be on a playoff team, in actuality playoff contention is clearly an important element to winning the award. This probably doesn't come as a surprise, but I still wanted to look at the data itself. I pulled together a list of the last 20 seasons for both Cy Young and MVP award winners. I also calculated each team's total wins that the award winners played for, and whether or not they made the playoffs that year. The results are conclusive to the accepted interpretation. If you want to be the MVP, then your team needs to make the playoffs, and that's particularly true in the AL. The Cy Young, however, is much more forgiving towards the best pitchers playing for poor teams.

Cy Young

Team Wins


American League



National League




Team Wins


American League



National League



The NL MVP playoff data is a bit skewed by Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols who both won multiple awards consecutively, but whose teams did not qualify for the playoffs in a given year. Still, it's at least cosmetically interesting that it's been a bit easier to win an MVP in the NL without your team's success. The only player to do so in the last 20 years in the AL was Alex Rodriguez in 2003 when the Texas Rangers won only 71 games.

It seems pretty clear from this that the division between best and most valuable, as determined by voters, is to be about the team's overall success. In this day and age that is measured by the playoffs. There's still a problem with the voters interpretation of the question, however. Clearly, they're interpreting value as being determined by playoffs which in their minds nullifies the statement that the player doesn't have to be associated with a playoff team. The issue I have with their view is in the second sentence that says the MVP is determined by the most valuable player "to" his team, but the voters are interpreting that as because of his team. That is how they come to the conclusion that you can have the best player on the worst team, and therefore not have the best player be the most valuable. That team still sucked even with the best player. That ignores that the best player would still be the most valuable player to his team, let alone every team.

So what is the metric that seems to exemplify the notion of most valuable to the voters? I'm guessing that most of you would assume it's RBI, and I think the data shows that to be correct. I listed every MVP award winner for the last 20 years with the position he finished in terms of RBI leader-board in his given league. The few times that either a middle infielder or catcher won the award, you would see someone in the teens or lower position in terms of total RBI. For this reason, instead of taking the average where the few outliers skew the data, I chose to use the median average (middle number) of the group as a whole. For the AL, the median average was three and the NL was four. So you basically had to be in the top five in terms of RBI in the league to have the best chance. If you came in first in total RBI, then you had a 20% chance to win the award as eight of first place finishers received the award out of the last 40 handed out.

This probably irks some people, because of all the traditional statistics, there are none more team dependent than the RBI. There has to be ducks on the pond for hitters to drive in and where you are in the batting order is going to affect how many opportunities you have to do so. I think that the best argument for Trout over Cabrera last year was that he was just as good in delivering an RBI when runners were in scoring position as Cabrera was. He just had significantly fewer opportunities to do so due to his position in the lineup and his teammates. This might not be what BBWAA voters are saying when they justify their ballots, but their votes are clearly changing the question. It's gone from MVP "to his team," and changed into MVP because of his team. We know this because they are primarily using the RBI as the metric of choice to determine such value, and it is in coordination with the playoff viability of his team as a whole.

I don't think these findings come as a surprise, but I definitely view the voters' interpretation as incorrect. They are clearly ignoring the very question as it is posited to them, despite the lame vagueness of its format. This is probably why I don't care that much about it, which is the whole problem with the BBWAA to begin with. If you're losing the fans' interest in these things because you're doing such a bad job of issuing them, then you've lost your legitimacy for having the right to do so in the first place.

Considering that we sort of have a format here for determining voters' tendencies, what are the theoretical standings for MVP in each league right now? Well, despite Cabrera limping into the regular season finish, (he's only batting .220 this month, probably due to his injuries), he's the only member of the top five RBI leader board that looks to be on a playoff bound team. The best candidate to upset his repeat would be Chris Davis, who is tied for first with him in RBI. Unfortunately, his team's chances of making the playoffs are fading. Josh Donaldson has been given some consideration, but he doesn't match the front runners in wRC+, he doesn't play a position up the middle, and he's not in the top five in RBI. Too much of his overall value is generated with his glove, and voters clearly haven't been weighting that metric for players fielding a corner position.

The NL is more interesting this year. Paul Goldschmidt is having the best overall offensive season and does lead in RBI, but again, is lacking the playoff team element. The next four RBI leaders are all playing for likely playoff bound teams: Jay Bruce, Brandon Phillips, Freddie Freeman and Adrian Gonzalez. If we look at wRC+ and playing time, then Andrew McCutchen enters the equation with a better mark than Goldschmidt. He has the playoff team box checked, and the fact that he plays a position up the middle can mitigate his lack of top five RBI leader board status. I think he's the favorite in the NL followed by Votto. Goldschmidt could still have an outside chance if he wins the RBI title with a figure significantly higher than everyone else, but time is running out on him.

By the way, just to show you how little I've cared about whom the BBWAA gives the awards to, I'll admit that I was shocked to see that Alex Rodriguez won the MVP title twice while with the Yankees: 2005, 2007. I honestly just didn't remember.

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