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My AL MVP Pick: Cliff Lee

18 November 2008

As the site has done for every MLB awards pick, ESPN.com has its survey of 27 baseball writers up for AL MVP. The real award will be announced at 2 p.m. ET, so I wanted to comment on the picks now, before the news comes out.

First, here’s the survey.

Dustin Pedroia 14 votes
Joe Mauer 4 votes
Justin Morneau 4 votes
Francisco Rodriguez 2 votes
Grady Sizemore 1 vote
Kevin Youkilis 1 vote
Cliff Lee 1 vote

Which of those picks would you say jumps out at you? Let’s evaluate each of these candidates one by one:

Dustin Pedroia: By far the most common pick, and also the player I expect to win the award. A Yankee fan friend and I have taken to calling him Dusty McHustlePants (my buddy because he hates the Sox and Pedroia drives him crazy, me because I delight in writers and broadcasters who praise Pedroia’s grit/hustle/scrappiness, while ignoring the fact that he’s also a very talented athlete). Pedroia has a decent case for the award, hitting .326/.376/.493 while playing excellent defense at second base. I see very little difference between a player who had a great season on a 50-win team and a player who had a great season on a 100-win team. But if you like your MVPs to hail from playoff squads, Dusty meets that requirement too.

Joe Mauer/Justin Morneau: The fact that the same number of panelists voted for Morneau as for Mauer just leaves me shaking my head. There’s no adjustment made for position (high-offense first basemen are a dime a dozen; catchers who hit like Mauer are surefire Hall of Famers), and too much emphasis placed on context-dependent stats like RBI, with too little emphasis placed on a far more telling stat like OBP (Mauer finished 2nd in the league at .413, even won the batting title to placate the Wee Willie Keeler-voting set). Aside from adjusting for positional averages, I give catchers bonus credit for playing the most grueling position on the diamond, and for the fact that playing 162 games (or even 150) at C is impossible, resulting in a built-in disadvantage in counting stats both traditional (HR, RBI, R, H) and sabermetric (VORP, Win Shares).

Joe Mauer was the best position player in the American League this year. While I only ranked a personal Top 7, I’m not sure that Morneau would’ve made my Top 10.

Francisco Rodriguez: I’m not going to pick on any specific voters for this pick, ESPN or otherwise. Let’s just say that if you believe the 4th-best closer in the league should be the MVP, Jerome Holtzman is shedding a tear from the afterlife at the monster he created.

Grady Sizemore: Keith Law goes it alone on this one, and it’s a highly defensible pick. There are some voters who’ll have a hard time voting for anyone who hit .268 (well, not the geniuses who picked Ryan Howard in the NL, but other folks). Many others will ding Sizemore for playing on a non-contender. But name any advanced stat — VORP, WARP, WPA, Win Shares — Sizemore is very near the top in every case. He’s the second-highest position player on my ballot of seven, for the record.

Kevin Youkilis: Now here’s an interesting pick, by Buster Olney. Youkilis trumps Pedroia, Mauer, Morneau and almost everyone else in the league with a lovely line of .312/.390/.569. He played on a playoff team and played his usual strong defense at first base (while filling in capably at third when needed too). My preference of Mauer, Sizemore and Pedroia over Youkilis just comes down to those three playing tougher positions. Youkilis gets dinged a bit for missing 17 games too (even Mauer played 146 to Youk’s 145).

And lest we forget, Youkilis is the star of the best clip in the history of the Internets. I’ve seen the clip about 6,000 times, and I’m still never sure if Orsillo and Rem-Dog are going to make it all the way through without having a coronary.

Cliff Lee: Wait, what insane asylum escapee picked a starting pitcher on a .500 team for AL MVP?! Why, it’s the horribly unphotogenic Canadian in this photo, of course!

Actually, picking Lee wasn’t that difficult for me. While it’s not a perfect measure of value, VORP has Lee (76.5) well above the best AL position player (A-Rod at 62.4, surprisingly). In fact, Roy Halladay is much closer to Lee in that category than A-Rod, Mauer, Pedroia, Sizemore or anyone else.

VORP doesn’t account for defense, though. And here’s where picking a pitcher gets tricky. Those who would never pick a pitcher for MVP are almost always right, even if a simplistic reason like “That’s what the Cy Young is for” misses the mark. Basically, when you’re a position player who get to double-count your value, with a full season of both offensive and defensive contributions. Even the best defensive moundsman gets only 35 stats (or 80ish relief appearances) to make his mark with the glove.

So for a pitcher to win the award, I like to see a truly incredible performance from said pitcher, combined with no truly dominant position players in the league in that given season. Use Cliff Lee’s 22-3 record and 2.54 ERA if you’re a traditionalist, or his terrific Support-Neutral numbers if you’re a stathead, and you arrive at the same conclusion: In the era of the five-man rotation and closely monitored pitch counts, this was a season for the ages. So too, while we’re here, was Roy Halladay’s. That’s why I have Lee 1st and Halladay 2nd on my fake ballot.

My top seven:

Cliff Lee
Roy Halladay
Joe Mauer
Grady Sizemore
Dustin Pedroia
Alex Rodriguez
Kevin Youkilis

You might still disagree, and that’s cool. Just please, when you concoct a derisive name for me and my lame-brained pick, insert the adjective “Outlier” in with all those fine curse words. Like my colleague Rob Neyer’s defensible/lone wolf Lance Berkman pick for NL MVP (tops in the league in WPA thanks to great numbers in “clutch” situations, as well as better defense and baserunning than Pujols according to several sources), I prefer to be thought of as a thoughtful (though quite possibly wrong) contrarian. A true outlier.

And if you think I’m just pandering to my countryman Malcolm Gladwell on the day that his new book drops…well, you’re right.

Eh.

Update: Pedroia won, Morneau finished 2nd, as most of the world predicted. My pick Cliff Lee finished…12th!

Two other fun facts:

Jason Bartlett got a 5th-place vote, probably from the same TB contingent that named him Rays MVP this season.

–Manny Ramirez finished third in NL MVP voting thanks to two months of NL play. Mark Teixeira was likewise traded to the AL at the trade deadline. He hit an off-the-charts .358/.449/.632 with the Angels, and was up against a weaker field of MVP competitors in the AL. Teixeira got 1 point in the voting. ONE POINT.

Update 2: Jay Jaffe has a rundown of the top AL players this season by WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) at Baseball Prospectus. #1 on the list? You guessed it, Cliff Lee.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. sorekara323 permalink
    18 November 2008 9:49 pm

    see what you are saying but…still think a pitcher has to be even BETTER than Lee was this year. like Ron “Gator” Guidry in 1978 type good..and even he didn’t win MVP. (didn’t Willie Hernandez win for the Tigers in 84?? what was going on back then?)

    Jason Bartlett vote…speechless…

  2. 19 November 2008 10:53 am

    Bartlett finished ahead of Ichiro, Ian Kinsler(who was my favorite, until his injury) and Teixeira. Longoria should’ve finished in the top 10.

  3. Jonah permalink*
    19 November 2008 12:59 pm

    Lee’s 2008 wasn’t THAT far off from Guidry’s 1978. It’s a crude instrument, but ERA+, which compares park-adjusted ERA to league average, had Guidry’s season at 208 (1.74 ERA vs. league average of 3.63), and Lee at 175 (2.54 ERA, but vs. a much higher league average of 4.44). Guidry did throw a lot more innings, though, much to his credit (granted, higher innings counts were the norm at the time).

    Willie Hernandez threw SO many innings in ’84 that you can start to make a case for him, even as a RP. He was a totally different animal than the one-inning-only K-Rods that now pervade.

    I’d have probably had Longoria in my top 10 too.

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