Sunday, September 20, 2009

An Easy Call-Even for Sportswriters

Ken Rosenthal and Joe Posnanski are two former colleagues whom I both admire professionally and like a great deal personally. They had a little Internet dustup this week over the American League Most Valuable Player award. Joe had the better of the dispute, since he took the only sane contention that Joe Mauer of the Twins should win it.

That was only the surface of the argument. Typography does not exist to duplicate the loud sigh the following words deserve, but the heart of their postings was a battle over, yeah, you guessed it, baseball statistics, a dead horse so well-beaten it ought to be made into a souffle.

Ken's contention was that Mauer was only the MVP if you used what I call derivative stats, the newfangled metrics (not really so new, most of 'em were introduced into public discussion in the 1980s) like OPS, etc. Otherwise, using just the good old standards by which voters managed to screw Ted Williams out of an MVP in a year he won the Triple Crown, Jeter was at least as good if not a better candidate for the award.

Joe, who is a believer in derivative stats, disagreed strongly. I agree with Joe, but what strikes me about the 2009 AL MVP award is that the statistics argument shouldn't figure into it at all. Ken was venting about an issue which was not relevant to his essay's alleged point. It can be demonstrated that Mauer and not Jeter should be MVP simply by using the information available in that most old-fashioned of sources, the baseball agate page of a print edition Sunday newspaper.

Start with the standings, since MVP voters have an historic if to my mind wrongheaded preference for picking players on pennant winners or at least contenders. The Yanks are in first place in the AL East. The Twins are coming on strong in the AL Central, live contenders with two weeks to play. No advantage for either man.

We move to the letters in the box scores that identify each man's defensive position. Jeter is the Yankee's shortstop. That's the second-most important fielding position on the diamond. Mauer is the Twins' catcher. That the most important one.

(I will omit the customary stupid discussion of Jeter's fielding. In my mind that's merely a way for fans to express their Yankee hatred. Both he and Mauer fall into the useful defensive assessment "plenty good enough considering how they hit.")

Check out each player's position in the lineup. Jeter hits leadoff. That's theoretically the second most important spot in which a player could hit. Mauer bats third. That's number one. The guy batting third should be the team's best hitter, batting both for average and power.

Finally, let's turn to the league leaders list and scan the most retrograde, ridiculed, old fogey's statistic of them all -- batting average. Jeter is hitting .330. That's terrific. Mauer is hitting .370. That's just sick. He also leads Jeter in the second and third most conventional hitting categories homers and RBI.

This is not close. A catcher batting .370 for a contender is more valuable than a shortstop batting .330 for another contender, and if he also hits for more power, why is there an argument? Joe Mauer would win the AL MVP over Derek Jeter if the two guys were playing in 1939, and the stats Ken hates so much hadn't been invented yet.

Were Mauer not in the league, then Jeter would be a deserving MVP. But Mauer is, and Jeter isn't. It may be Jeter's destiny to never win an MVP in his distinguished career. It happens. Hank Aaron, a somewhat more valuable player than Jeter, only won one. There weren't any sabermetrics back in 1960 when Aaron led the National League in slugging percentage, homers, runs scored, RBI, and stole 31 bases and wasn't named MVP. There was, however, Sandy Koufax, who was.

Jeter will have to be content with being a damn near unanimous first ballot Hall of Famer.


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