Most Valuable What?

One of the latest headlines was the news that St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols was the recipient of the National League Most Valuable Player Award, as voted by the Baseball Writers Association. Was Pujols really the “most valuable”, however? Is it even arguable that he was the “best player” in the NL during the 2008 season?

From the Merriam-Webster online dictionary:

circa 1576

1 a: having monetary value b: worth a good price2 a: having desirable or esteemed characteristics or qualities b: of great use or service

Based on the above, it can absolutely be argued that Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols is valuable. He does have monetary value, after all, and is worth a good price. He definitely has desirable AND esteemed characteristics and qualities. And, yes, he is of great use or service. But is he MOST valuable?

It has always been my belief that a baseball MVP should be the player who is “most valuable” to their particular team. Further, that he should be as close to indispensable as possible. In other words, it should be assumed that his team would not have been able to manage its success without him. Lastly, it is my opinion that an MVP should almost always come from a team that participates in the postseason, or at the very least a team that surprisingly finished in second. And that player should be so valuable, that had he been removed from his team, his team probably would not have been able to finish as successfully as they did.

Again, this is my hard-boiled opinion on what the MVP should be. Many argue that it simply should be the player who had “the best year”, regardless of where his team finishes.

In either case, it’s hard to understand the choice of Albert Pujols as the NL 2008 MVP.

Let’s get this out of the way: I hate Albert Pujols, while simultaneously respecting the fact that he is the second-most talented all-around ballplayer on the planet, next to A-Rod. He may even transcend A-Rod at this point in each player’s career. But, talent alone does not make him “most valuable”, and doesn’t make him “best” in a particular year. His performance in 2008 was very good — it was borderline outstanding. But it wasn’t the “best” of 2008, and it certainly wasn’t “most valuable”.

First of all, his basic, non-SABR numbers: .357 AVG., 37 HRs, 116 RBI, 100 Runs. I focus on the non-SABR numbers because these have been the ultimate, final distillation of the value of a player, in every era going back a hundred years. You want to know who is most valuable based on VORP, Runs Created, etc., go to Hardball Times or Baseball Prospectus (both fine resources) — we don’t do that here, and I’m openly willing to admit the atrocity of my old-school, hard-headed ignorance.

But I digress … back to the Pujols story.

Pujols’ .357 batting average is indeed outstanding. But it wasn’t the best. His 37 homers were also a strong output, but it was far from the best. The 116 RBI are good, but again, not the best. To score 100 runs is a great and unusual feat, but, not the best. What Pujols did better than anyone else in the NL was collect total bases, which led to his leading the league in slugging, and when combined with his high walk rate allowed him to lead the NL in OPS. So from the single-minded perspective of the Billy Beane worshipping sabermetrician, Pujols’ NL-leading 1.114 On-Base-Plus-Slugging percentage was enough to deem him the “best” player, or perhaps “player of the year”. But if that OPS is also evidence that he is the “most valuable”, I have a bone to pick.

The main reason for my argument is this: in spite of this monstrous OPS, the St. Louis Cardinals finished in fourth place. FOURTH PLACE. Say all you want about the value of getting on base — bottom line is, Pujols’ individual performance meant zilch to the Cardinals’ final win total. I don’t care that he also led the league in “batting wins” — those didn’t help the Cardinals smell the wild card. I may be going out on a limb here, but I believe sincerely that St. Louis would have finished in fourth place even if they didn’t have Albert Pujols. Crazy, I know, but I just don’t see either the Pirates or the Reds being much of a threat last year.

On the other hand, there is Ryan Howard, who led the NL in homeruns and in RBI. For those unaware, RBI stands for “runs batted in”. When a player bats in a run, that means his team scores. When his team scores more than the other team, it results in a “win”. The more “wins” a team has, the closer it gets to being the “world champion”.

In addition to batting in 146 runs (30 more than Pujols), Howard also scored 105 (5 more than Pujols). So it can be argued that Howard was 35 runs better than Pujols.

The knock against Howard was his low batting average — only .251. Well, nobody’s perfect. The point is, when Howard DID hit safely, he usually either drove in a run, or eventually scored one.

Those 146 RBI and 105 runs scored helped his team finish in first place, and win the World Series. Anyone who witnessed Howard’s barrage on NL pitching in September, when he mashed at .352 clip and drove in 32 runs in 25 games, can account for his “value” in propelling the Phillies over the Mets in the final weeks of the season. Yes, Pujols also had an outstanding finish, but all he did was help his team get a little closer to third place. I’m sorry but the drama leaves something to be desired.

And when it comes right down to it, Pujols wasn’t even the second-most valuable player in the NL. I’d give that to Manny Ramirez, hands-down. Anyone who thinks the Dodgers would have made their way to the postseason without Manny, either wasn’t paying attention or doesn’t understand baseball. No Manny = no playoffs for the Dodgers. That in itself makes Ramirez more valuable than Pujols — he singlehandedly carried a .500 team to the NLCS.

Finally, there’s enough argument to suggest that Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, David Wright, Carlos Delgado, and C.C. Sabathia were more valuable to their teams than Albert Pujols.

But in the end, it appears that this year’s vote had very little to do with a player’s value to his team, and more about the player with the most INDIVIDUAL value. Hooray to the number-crunching SABR crowd — you’ve won this round. Maybe that’s why I’m getting more and more disgusted with MLB with each passing year. At every turn, it’s trying to be the NBA, focused on promoting individual players and the stats and awards they can accumulate, rather than the concept of team. Which is too bad, because it’s with a cohesive team that the best things get done in both sport and society.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
  1. sylvan November 18, 2008 at 2:06 am
    Yes, the Cardinals were a fourth-place team, but they won 86 games — two more than Manny Ramirez’s Dodgers, and three more than they won in the championship season in 2006. They were in contention for most of the season, for one reason and one reason only: they have Albert Pujols on their team.

    Their achilles heel was the bullpen, not hitting…sound familiar? If the Cards had acquired a good closer and overtaken the Brewers for the playoffs, would you be then handing the award to Pujols?

    Pujols can’t magically make the other 24 Cardinals into all-stars. He can’t turn Ryan Franklin into Brad Lidge, or Braden Looper into Cole Hamels, or Cesar Izturis into Jimmy Rollins. But if the Cardinals had traded him for Ryan Howard before the season, the Phillies would have won more games and the Cardinals would have won fewer games — guaranteed. And batting behind Chase Utley every day in Citizen’s Bank Park, Pujols would have more RBI than Howard — guaranteed.

    There’s already a Most Valuable Team award — it’s called a World Series ring. That’s what Ryan Howard has. Albert Pujols has the Most Valuable Player award, because that’s what he is.

  2. joe November 18, 2008 at 3:12 am
    The Cardinals were in contention for one HALF year. After July they really weren’t a threat.

    I beg to differ on the Howard-for-Pujols trade proposition, and your “guaranteed” projection that Pujols would have driven in more runs with Utley in front of him. Howard batted .320 with RISP, Pujols hit .321. According to those numbers, Pujols would have likely driven in the same amount of runs.

    Further, both Skip Schumaker and Aaron Miles had OBPs over .355 for the year … not too shabby. Yes Utley’s .380 was an extra baserunner getting on a ton in front of Howard, but when it came down to hitting with RISP, the players were virtually identical.

    Fourth place is fourth place — no matter what the division nor the year. The Cardinals would have finished in fourth place with or without Pujols. The Phillies would not have won the NL East without Howard. I’m not arguing Pujols is not a better player, rather that his contribution wasn’t as vital to his team’s success — because his team did not succeed. I don’t see much value in a team that misses the postseason.

    And I agree, Pujols cannot make the players around him better.

    They really should just change the name of the award to “Player of the Year” to avoid all this nonsense. Then you can hand it to the guy with the best stats without an argument.

  3. isuzudude November 18, 2008 at 9:22 am
    Joe, I’m in your corner here. You hit the nail on the head when you say baseball is trying too hard to promote individual statistics, and that the MVP has basically become the “Player of the Year” award. Nobody is saying Pujols had a bad year, or that he doesn’t deserve some MVP consideration. But determining an MVP should be pretty cut and dry, and the question you have to ask is how valuable can a player be if he couldn’t propel his team into the playoffs? Howard’s batting average and high strikeout total are not attractive, but in the thick of a pennant race, Howard took the bull by the horns and put his team on his shoulders. Every game he was knocking in key runs, making great plays at 1B, and coming up with big atbats. No, the MVP award should not solely be based on who had the best September, but Howard’s league-leading HR and RBI totals make him a very deserving candidate despite his other sub-par stats. But again, the MVP award should not be based on stats, it should be based on whether a team would have been as successful without the player in question. And if you take Howard away from the Phillies, especially down the stretch in September, they are not making the playoffs. And thus they win no World Series. You take Pujols away from the Cardinals and the worst they can do is finish below 4th. Essentially, all Pujols could do was get his team to finish 4th. Good for St Louis’ win total, but it’s fairly easy to build up wins when you’re playing 18 games a year against the lowly Reds and Pirates. There should be more to an MVP winner than just great overall statistics. It should be about who was most clutch, who had the best performance when pressure was greatest, who could a team least afford to be without, and who single-handedly made his team as good as they were. In my mind, Howard is the answer to all those questions, and that is why he is my MVP.

    By the way, Joe, do you really believe Cecil Fielder had a better season than Pujols? I know Big Daddy can put away about 30 hot dogs a game and let loose some pretty nasty farts, but I’m still ranking Albert ahead on my list. Prince Fielder might be a different story, though ; )

  4. sylvan November 18, 2008 at 9:49 am
    You can’t tell me that Pujols has as many RBI opportunities batting behind Aaron Miles (.350 OBP, 15 2B, 3 SB) as Howard has behind Utley (.380 OBP, 41 2B, 14 SB). I also notice that Pujols was intentionally walked much more often, which also likely drives down his RBI. Another reason a hitter needs a good supporting cast.

    As for the playoffs thing, I guess we just differ philosophically. I don’t think making the playoffs should have any bearing on the MVP. Howard’s “value”, as you describe it, is simply that he happened to be playing for a team that was JUST good enough to make the playoffs with him, and thus wouldn’t have been quite good enough if you took him away. And even if you go by that method, the Phillies would have been hurt as bad or worse if you took away Utley or Hamels or Lidge. Utley is the guy who makes that team go.

  5. joe November 18, 2008 at 11:23 am
    “Cecil” Fielder … that was pretty funny of me, thanks for catching it! Believe it or not I was thinking of Cecil Cooper and Prince Fielder at the same time. I was thinking of the year Cooper hit .352, 25 HR, 122 RBI but only finished fifth in the MVP voting — partially because George Brett hit .390 that year, and partially because the Brewers finished in third place (Willie Wilson, Rich Gossage, and Reggie Jackson all placed ahead of Cooper).

    Sylvan, this is the great debate amongst baseball fans — what is the MVP? One camp believes you look first at the winning teams to find the MVP, while the other believes you look at the player independent of his team’s success. Obviously we sit in different camps … but hopefully we’re roasting the same marshmallows.

    One point: I didn’t tell you that Pujols had as many RBI opps (I can’t find a damn resource that publishes OBI%). What I did state is the players had virtually identical averages with RISP, which suggests that Pujols, if given the same amount of RBI opps, might have driven in the same amount of runs — and vice-versa (actually, Howard might still have hit a few more in, because he drove himself in about ten more times with HRs). Again, I wish I could find a damn site that posts the percentage of runners driven in.

    I would agree with you that Lidge, Utley, and Hamels all deserve MVP consideration ahead of Pujols — due to the way I look at the award. It’s the same reason I agreed with Kirk Gibson winning the award in 1988, even though there were about a dozen players who accumulated better stats that season.

  6. upson November 18, 2008 at 1:12 pm
    Joe, I actually agree with you that Howard should have received the MVP – although I think it’s much more debatable. I totally agree that this award should not be about individual numbers. However, the eligibility for this award should not be based simply on making the postseason…

    What if Pujols made a 74-88 team a 86-76 team while Howard made a 88-74 team a 92-70 team? Does this make Howard more valuable than Pujols? I don’t think so. If the above impacts were indeed true (no way to establish this), I’d say Pujols deserves the title. But maybe this is just because I do not agree that 4th place 74-88 is the same as 4th place 86-76.

    Also, the argument that “it’s easy to build up wins when you’re playing 18 games a year against the lowly Reds and Pirates” does not work when the Phillies play 18 games against (the lowly) Nationals and Braves. As a matter of fact, the Cardinals playd 10-5 against the Reds and 7-10 against the Pirates. The Phillies played 14-4 against the Braves and 12-6 against the Nationals. It’s the Phillies who made the play-offs thanks to beating lowly teams!

  7. joe November 19, 2008 at 9:25 am
    I wanted to add this …. it is the wording on the BBWAA MVP ballot, which refers to the criteria of how the voter should choose players for the MVP:

    “1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense. 2. Number of games played. 3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort. 4. Former winners are eligible. 5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team. “