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:
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.