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Useless Rant Department: MVP Voting

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To add to Scott’s point and to reiterate what I argued earlier, I think that the debate over this year’s AL MVP has wandered into the absurd. Let’s establish a few points that should be indisputable. First, Alex Rodriguez had a statistically better offensive season that David Ortiz. As far as I’m concerned, this is beyond debate. For those who insist that RBI totals are a viable indicator of offensive prowess, I introduce you to the door. Feel free to slam it on the way out.

Second, Alex Rodriguez plays a defensive position, and plays it well. David Ortiz does not. Now, that’s not quite as important as you might think, and I don’t believe that a DH should be disqualified from ever being the MVP. If the competition here were between Ortiz and Giambi, or Ortiz and Ramirez then it could be reasonably objected that defense shouldn’t be considered all that important. That Ortiz didn’t play first very much and Giambi did reflects a managerial choice more than their respective talents and capabilities. Someone, after all, has to play at DH. In the case of the Red Sox, a different set of managerial choices might have put Millar in left, Ortiz at first, and Manny at DH. This would probably have been slightly less optimal than what was decided, but really wouldn’t have made a huge difference on the field. Thus, it’s not quite right to point out that A-Rod was worth 156 runs defensively and Ortiz 8, because the difference isn’t really quite that drastic.

It is, however, a difference. The spread between a good defensive third baseman and a good defensive first baseman is at least forty or fifty runs. Third base is harder to play than first (or DH, of course). A player who can hit very well and fill a difficult defensive position is considerably more valuable than one who can only hit well. There’s nothing staggeringly difficult about this analysis, and it doesn’t even require having reliable defensive statistics to appreciate. I doubt that even Ortiz’ backers would consider putting him at an even mildly difficult defensive position; that his managers have decided to play him in the outfield exactly zero times in eight years speaks to their attitude about his defense. Conversely, A-Rod can play any position on the diamond, with the exception of catcher and (possibly) centerfield. And Jayson Stark should be made to understand that while “leadership” really IS intangible, in that we can’t come up with any quantitative measure of it, defense is not. Our measures may be crude (although they are getting much less so), but even a crude analysis can demonstrate beyond question A-Rod’s superior value.

Now, on to the “clutch” question. Like all right thinking people, I don’t really believe in clutch hitting. There’s just not very much convincing evidence to suggest that some hitters are consistently better in difficult situations than others. General offensive quality is the best predictor of how a hitter is going to perform in late and close situations. Now, it’s fair to say that this only matters as a predictor; it’s possible that, even if there was no systematic cause, that the offense provided by David Ortiz was more important to the Red Sox than the offense provide by A-Rod. Stark does a fair amount of this analysis, and it seems to suggest that, in fact, Ortiz did perform better than A-Rod in the situations normally described as “clutch.” Does this clinch it for Ortiz, in spite of all the other reasons to prefer A-Rod?

Not at all. I have tired of arguing with Derek Jeter partisans who insist that “if you’re late in the game, down by one, and need a hit, accept no substitute for Jeter.” There’s a whole wall of logical and empirical fallacies that need to be torn down to refute that, and I don’t typically have time or the spit to yell at someone for an hour. My pat response is this:

The difference between A-Rod and Jeter is that the game isn’t close if you have A-Rod. He hit a three run home run back in the fourth inning and didn’t let three grounders hit four inches to his left get through, resulting in two runs for the other side. You can have your clutch, and I’ll take my blowout.

The same applies to Ortiz. Good teams don’t win a lot of close games. They win a lot of blowouts. Great players don’t win games in the final at bat, or in late and close situations. They win games by preventing runs and scoring runs, and those runs count whether they come in the first or in the ninth. It’s more exciting to win a game with a walk off home run, but a good team more often wins with a home run hit in the first.

As a final note, let’s take seriously for a moment the leadership angle. Lance links to Michael Geffner, who thinks A-Rod is a loser and not a team leader. His column is a tragic mishmash of virtually all the nonsensical thinking on leadership in baseball. My first question is this: How much leadership does one team need? All those who take leadership seriously credit Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams with having lots of it. Does it magically disappear when A-Rod joins the team? Is he an anti-leader, capable of destroying leadership wherever he finds it? Or are columnists simply blathering nonsensically because they want to explain the failure of the Yankees with reference to the players they don’t like (A-Rod, Sheffield) rather than the (much worse) players that they do like? Moreover, let’s think about this historically. All of those guys who love to spout nonsense about leadership invoke the ghost of Don Mattingly, who carefully “led” the Yankees to their worst extended run of the twentieth century. It’s enough to make someone wonder if leadership actually matters at all…

My deep affection for Lance cannot blind me to this statement:

Frankly, I think Ortiz was more valuable to the Sox than A-Rod was to the Yanks, but I suspect that the reason they were the top two vote getters has more to do with their playing in Boston and New York than their comparative values to their teams.

Fine. Prove it. Demonstrate how Ortiz’ intangibles make up for all the extremely tangible reasons why A-Rod should be preferred. The teams had identical records. Without Ortiz the Red Sox would have played Ramirez at DH, someone better defensively than Ramirez in left, with the result that they would have scored and allowed fewer runs. Without A-Rod the Yankees would have played someone mildly worse defensively and much worse offensively at third base, resulting in more runs allowed and fewer runs scored. Moreover, it’s a lot harder to find a decent hitting third baseman than a decent hitting left fielder, so the Red Sox would actually have an easier time than the Yankees in replacing the lost offense.

Rant over.

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