My ballot: American League MVP

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Later today the Baseball Writers Association of America will announce their choice for AL MVP, but first here’s how my ballot would look:
1. Joe Mauer, Minnesota
2. Derek Jeter, New York
3. Ben Zobrist, Tampa Bay
4. Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay
5. Zack Greinke, Kansas City
6. Mark Teixeira, New York
7. Miguel Cabrera, Detroit
8. Kevin Youkilis, Boston
9. Felix Hernandez, Seattle
10. Roy Halladay, Toronto
Let’s make a few things clear right away. First, when a Gold Glove catcher leads the league in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage–which no AL catcher has ever done before and no AL player of any position has done since George Brett in 1980–he’s the most valuable player. There’s no real need for any type of serious argument beyond that unless you’re just trying to be difficult. Second, pitchers are on my ballot because, you know, they’re “players” and have “value.”
Third, my definition of “valuable” has everything to do with how many runs a player contributed offensively and defensively, and nothing to do with the quality of his teammates. MVP is an individual award, and as such I’m interested in player performance rather than team performance. You don’t get extra credit for being on a good team or reduced credit for being on a bad team, you simply get credit for how many runs you contributed to making the team good or bad.
In addition to winning his third batting title and the sabermetric triple crown, Mauer also led the league by a wide margin in Value Over Replacement Player. According to VORP he was 91 runs better than a replacement-level catcher offensively. For comparison, last year Dustin Pedroia was 60 runs better than a replacement-level second baseman on his way to the AL MVP and Mauer’s closest competition this season was Derek Jeter at 73 runs better than a replacement-level shortstop.
In other words, based on VORP at least Mauer was 50 percent better than last season’s MVP and 25 percent better than the anyone else this year. And that’s counting only offensive contributions, so his value rises even further once you factor in 939 innings at the most demanding defensive position. He should be a no-brainer choice, but at least a few BBWAA voters surely won’t see it that way. In terms of where my ballot is mostly likely to differ from the BBWAA results, I’d guess Ben Zobrist, Zack Greinke, and Mark Teixeira.
Zobrist probably won’t receive many votes, let alone finish anywhere close to third, but he should. He hit .297/.405/.543 with 27 homers, 91 walks, and 17 steals to rank third in VORP and fourth in OPS. He also played primarily second base (with some outfield and shortstop mixed in) and graded out extremely well defensively. He was largely an unknown prior to this season and no one seems quite sure what to think about his future, but for 2009 he was clearly one of the AL’s best handful of players.
Greinke rightfully won the AL Cy Young, but will probably finish behind multiple pitchers in the MVP balloting because voters are funny that way. The argument against pitchers for MVP is usually that they only take the field every fifth day, but in doing so Greinke actually faced 915 batters this season. By comparison, Aaron Hill led the league with 734 plate appearances. The amount of runs that Greinke prevented stacks up against the amount of runs that any hitter added, and that’s basically the criteria for my ballot.
Teixeira may end up finishing runner-up to Mauer, but if that happens it’ll be due his AL-leading RBI total and MLB-best teammates. Thanks to batting in the middle of a great lineup Teixeira had 508 runners on base when he came to the plate, which led the AL. By comparison, Mauer batted with 355 runners on base. Teixeira had 153 more runners to drive in, so it should be no great shock that he ended up with 122 RBIs compared to 96 for Mauer. However, take a look at these stats from four first basemen:

                AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Player A       .305     .413     .548     .961
Player B       .292     .383     .565     .948
Player C       .324     .396     .547     .942
Player D       .306     .355     .569     .924



Those lines belong to Teixeira, Miguel Cabrera, Kevin Youkilis, and Kendry Morales, and the point is that unless you memorized the numbers it’s tough to tell which is which. Yet because one of those four guys had the league’s best teammates and most runners to drive in he’ll be singled out by voters as much more valuable. Teixeira put up very good numbers at a position where lots of guys put up very good numbers every year. Mauer put up extraordinary numbers at a position where few in baseball history can compare.

Report: Koji Uehara close to signing with the Cubs

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 10:  Koji Uehara #19 of the Boston Red Sox pitches in the eighth inning against the Cleveland Indians during game three of the American League Divison Series at Fenway Park on October 10, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Evan Drellich of the Boston Herald reports, citing a source as well as Nikkan Sports, that reliever Koji Uehara is close to signing a one-year, $4.5 million deal with the Cubs.

Uehara, 41, finished the 2016 season with a 3.45 ERA and a 63/11 K/BB ratio over 47 innings. He missed some time in the second half with a strained right pectoral muscle. When Uehara returned from the disabled list on September 7, he tossed 11 scoreless innings with 12 strikeouts and two walks through the end of the regular season. So there’s at least some evidence, albeit in a very small sample size, that Uehara has stuff left in the tank.

The Cubs recently acquired closer Wade Davis from the Royals. Uehara would join Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Carl Edwards, Jr., Justin Grimm, and Mike Montgomery in what is once again a very deep bullpen.

MLB implements another player-unfriendly rule, this time targeting draftees

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 28:  MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks to the media before Game Three of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field on October 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Jon Morosi of MLB Network and FOX Sports reports that the MLB draft has a new program in which the top-50 pitching prospects are asked to undergo a voluntary pre-draft MRI on their throwing arm. At first glance, it seems reasonable because, hey, pitchers are injury-prone and players sometimes hide injuries. It would feel bad if my favorite team drafted a lemon!

The reality is that this is just another player-unfriendly rule that shifts financial risk away from the owners and onto the players. The players, in this case, are often not wealthy and are about to begin life in the minor leagues where they earn less than $8,000 per year. Signing bonuses help alleviate some of the immediate financial discomfort of minor league life.

The pre-draft MRI is “voluntary” with quotes around it. Choosing not to undergo the MRI will only give prospective teams more reason to be skeptical of one’s durability. It’s a lot like those voluntary workouts in football that aren’t so voluntary due to superior and peer pressure. You don’t show up, you’re lazy, entitled, a bad teammate, etc. In this case, a pitching prospect refuses to undergo the MRI, it’s because he’s hiding an injury.

Ian Anderson was the first pitcher taken off the board in the 2016 draft, going to the Braves at No. 3. He got a $4 million signing bonus. Let’s say this new MRI program had already been instituted and Anderson refused, or something came up that caused the Braves to change their minds. Anderson’s draft stock falls, let’s say to 21 where the Blue Jays took T.J. Zeuch with a $2.175 million signing bonus. Falling 18 spots in this case costs Anderson about $2 million, perhaps more because he loses a lot of negotiating leverage. Maybe he falls further, even to the second round.

In a column for FanGraphs nearly two years ago, Nathaniel Grow showed that, as a percentage of total league revenues, player salaries have been declining since the early 2000’s. In 2002, player salaries made up 56 percent of league revenues. In 2014, it was only 38 percent.

In isolation, the MRI program isn’t a big deal. The injured player loses stock, but another player moves up to take his place and earns a bit more money. As part of the bigger picture, however, this is part of an ongoing trend in which owners abdicate financial risk and push it all onto the players. The new collective bargaining agreement, for example, capped international signings at $5-6 million per team per year. That removes any incentive for overseas stars like Shohei Otani from coming over to play Major League Baseball. If he wanted to anyway, he would make much less money than he otherwise would on an open market. The amateur draft itself is almost entirely risk-avoidant for owners and it’s terrible for the players because they, too, would earn much more on an open market. And let’s not forget how owners have fought tooth-and-nail to keep minor league salaries suppressed.

Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick once paid $2.8 million for the Honus Wagner T-206 baseball card. Let’s not act like these owners can’t afford to shoulder the risk on young pitchers.

EDIT (4:40 PM EST): As I’ve seen others mention it, it’s worth bringing up the Astros/Brady Aiken issue. The Astros took him first in the 2014 draft, but they took issue with his elbow health. The two sides had agreed to a $6.5 million signing bonus, but the Astros wanted to reduce it to $5 million as a result. Aiken didn’t end up signing with the Astros. He underwent Tommy John surgery and was later selected by the Indians 17th overall in the first round of the 2015 draft. He got a $2,513,280 signing bonus.