It's a bit early in the baseball campaign to be writing about MVPs, though, that didn't stop some this spring from doing just that. Not too many endeavors as frivolous as pre-season prognostications on likely, after-season award winners. But it's a free country, fast becoming jobless, but free.
This piece isn't about predictions nor intended to depreciate award winners of the past.
It's about a bad standard many MVP voters are adopting before checking their ballots.
Today, more and more voters are making their choice by applying a team standard. Even when player-candidates have numbers easily differentiated, the player on the better team will take the trophy, regardless. A 'better' team can simply mean more victories but is more likely to be playoff-bound. No ifs, ands or bunts about it. It's all very tidy and misguided.
I'd been hearing about this rigid rule in recent years but never paid it much mind. That was until last month when I was leafing through my backlog of periodicals and happened upon a compilation of final statistics for MLB 2011.
One thing jumped out. That was the Dodgers' Matt Kemp not winning the NL MVP.
The winner, Milwaukee's Ryan Braun had a terrific season. And like that juror who's heard inadmissibles during trial and instructed to disregard, I've tried to not let Braun's two positive test results from 2011 color my view. Officially, his testosterone level was not twenty times higher than any ever recorded by MLB and he's as clean as a whistle.
By August it was a two-man race in the National. And it was close, but not that close.
Even as one applies a team standard, Kemp should've taken the hardware. Using those stats that bear directly on club success (games, runs, RBIs, Fld % and sacrifices), the Dodgers' star outfielder gets the nod:
Braun: G (150), SF (3), Fld%(.996 / 1E / 8A / 268 CH), runs (109) and RBIs (111);
Kemp: G (161), SF (7), Fld% (.986 / 5E / 11A / 361 CH), runs (115) and RBIs (126).
As long as the candidate has no PED-markers or Delmon-Milton tendencies, if he's got the numbers, he gets the trophy. That's a player performance standard. Simple & sound.
It's a criterion in line with today's stat-crazy fandom (fantasy), the baseball world's long love affair with individual numbers and formed the basis for the earliest MVP accolade.
Starting in 1910 with a car conferment for highest BA (Chalmers / Wikipedia), the MVP has been part promotion and part prize, its goal couched in idyllic vagaries like "most important and useful player to the club and the League (Gillette & Palmer / "The ESPN") and "the player who's of greatest all-around service to his club (Newman / "One of a Kind")." But popular perception has always been clearly & squarely focused on individual player output.
The MVP selection was never intended as a fashionable, feel-good party favor for writers as they pack their pens and board the baseball bandwagon for post-season play. Anyone given the privilege of casting-vote should have the requisite skill for finding fact or figure to distinguish close candidacies without the simple fall-back of better team record. Ugh.
If anything, shining statistically on a lesser team, where turmoil can reign and talent will beckon to opponents like a tourist in a Turkish bazaar (R. Steves), should garner more praise, more points from a voter who appreciates the full-flavor and nuance of the game.
For the first 60 years (1931) the BBWA, while giving no special favor to stars on pedestrian clubs, also never barred-the-gate to such men either. Cubs' Ernie Banks is prime example, winning back-to-backs on bottom-feeders in the late 1950s ('58 (72-82 / 5) & '59 (74-80 / 5)).
Some other non-PS recipients since the 50s include Shantz '52 (79-75 / 4); Burroughs '74 (84-76 / 2); Hernandez '79 (86-76 / 3); Murphy '83 (88-74 / 2); Dawson '87 (76-85 / 6); Schmidt '86 (86-75 / 2) and Yount '89 (81-81 / 4). Uncommon result, yes, but still, a real possibility.
With arrival of the 90s came the new, hoity-toity MVP standard. Now it was etched in stone: players on so-so clubs NEED NOT DREAM of an MVP. Cal Ripken '91 (67-95 / 6) and Larry Walker '97 (83-79 / 3) remain the last of a vanished breed (Baseball-reference.com).
Which is more laudable: riding the wave of success on a frontrunner with talent galore, or thriving in mediocrity by making the most of what you have? For many, it might be the latter as it speaks more to their own experience, their own vision of the American dream.
Playing on a contender (most MVPs) shouldn't work a penalty on a candidate, but it shouldn't work an advantage either and certainly not tip the scale and prove decisive in the vote. Along the same line, toiling on a cellar-dweller shouldn't hurt the player who's miraculously put together a stellar season against the odds.
Somebody's gotta' tell voters the MVP, in whatever sport, is not a team award.
Admittedly, it can get confusing these days, given the other troublesome trend where honorees feel compelled in their addresses to give credit to every man, woman & child they've ever encountered while taking none for themselves (Brees). You might want to plan ahead (S. Field / Oscars), but a measure of public, self-congratulation is acceptable.
In MLB, the team awards are called the Pennant (League) and Championship trophy.
Braun's pivotal play for a division champ gave him the edge with voters (LAD 82-79 / 3). And look how that turned out. Brewers were the class of the Central and then proceed to flame-out in NLCS to a rival that squeaked into the PS (STL). The Braves win umpteen divisions from 1991-05 but only one WS crown. And these are fairly typical outcomes.
One then has to wonder, what's the point of this better team standard when so many title aspirants prove to be paper-tigers, pretenders in the post-season? What exactly are these voters hanging their hats on anyway?
I take no joy in casting doubt on Ryan Braun's MVP bestowment. Using the player performance standard, Braun's numbers stack-up well against Kemp's. Reasonable minds could then have differed on who the more deserving candidate was in 2011.
I'm trying to show the fallacy of the current, prevailing team criterion. It's not just senseless, its proponents don't even apply it correctly. Not with style, at any rate.
If today's mass of voters were casting in the 50s, Mr. Cub's mantel would be as bare as Crash Davis' (Bull Durham). And that's what Annie Savoy would've called a sin in the "Church of Baseball (BD)." Amen.