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Defining MVP - and why it matters for voting

Taking a deeper dive into the MVP award.

MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees at Houston Astros Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The other day, one of our posters made a comment in regards to writers “getting it right” in regards to the Most Valuable Player voting. The MVP award is of particular interest as we eye the end of the season and Alex Bregman potentially having a case to take home the award.

The MVP criteria is seemingly an endless battle between two sides - is it the best player in baseball or the “most valuable”. (usually puts an emphasis on necessity to making the playoffs.) So I figured we shall dig into the history, definitions, and some commentary before opening it up to our readers to get your take.

The MVP award, actually named the Kenesaw Mountain Landis award (I didn’t know this - was the fist commissioner and the award is named after him), has existed since 1931 with votes taking place BEFORE the post-season by 2 voters per city. Taking an initial look, the BBWAA specifically did NOT define what the criteria is for MVP selection. Here was the letter from the BBWAA to voters:

Dear Voter:

There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.

The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931:

1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.

2. Number of games played.

3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.

4. Former winners are eligible.

5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

You are also urged to give serious consideration to all your selections, from 1 to 10. A 10th-place vote can influence the outcome of an election. You must fill in all 10 places on your ballot. Only regular-season performances are to be taken into consideration.

Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and designated hitters.”

So unfortunately, there isn’t a clear cut answer or direction from the BBWAA. (which makes sense considering the consistent debate on this topic.)

The argument consistently heard is the most valuable to their team and not necessarily the best player. The letter above would lend some credence to that message despite spelling out in particular that post-season is not a requirement. Since the voting takes place before the playoffs occur, it eliminates the “winning the World Series is the only thing that matters” argument, and some people then fall back on making the post season.

To try to define Most Valuable, I figured we’d start with valuable. Here was the definition as per Google:

I mean, Mike Trout has the largest contract and is seemingly worth it every year. Boom he should automatically be the MVP! (kidding of course)

Merriam Webster expands the definition to include “having desirable or esteemed characteristics or qualities” and “of great use or servce.”

It’s interesting, I feel like the actual definition leans more towards “best player” than the argument people present for it being the definition of most valuable. You could argue that even someone hitting .500/.600./.800 isn’t of great use on a terrible team, but it does seem like a great service and shows the character, disposition, loyalty, etc.

I did find the instructions interesting, asking voters to take “General character, disposition, loyalty, and effort” into account. This seems largely subjective, particularly when we’re talking about the perception to (2) voters in each city about players across the entire MLB.

There are components of the MVP selection process that are still “heated” in regards to debate. For example, Jose Bautista argued that pitchers should not be eligible for the award saying in a NY Times article:

“I don’t think so,” Bautista said. “They have the Cy Young, and it’s kind of like the same thing for pitchers.”

Additionally, there’s a constant debate in regards to which statistics to use. In the NY Times article, there’s a discussion on using the traditional stats as far as HR, RBI, Runs, etc as it is what they “actually produced”, although even that received some debate from players.

“No matter what the other ones are, they have nothing to do with winning ballgames,” Curtis Granderson said. “You could have 200 hits, you could have a .500 on-base, you could slug over 1.000, but if you’re not scoring any runs, it doesn’t mean anything.”

“One thing I would look at is the amount of opportunities a player’s had to contribute for their own team,” Bautista said. “You can’t really control how many runs you score. You can get on base, but your teammates have got to drive you in.”

If you’re a believer that the award should go to the most valuable to their team instead of the best players, I do understand the usage of traditional statistics. If you fall on the other end of the spectrum, it gets more interesting as there are quite a few statistics that can be utilized with WAR probably being the most simplistic/widely accepted. There is validity to then question actual results vs. expected based on the player’s contribution.

The Hardball Times (subset of Fangraphs) has a whole article based on how RE24 should be the deciding factor. (although I disagree on their theory and conclusion)

I’m obviously a huge advocate for the advanced statistics putting more weight on the player’s individual contribution than the end result. (If 2 pitchers throw the exact same pitch in the exact same location but one gets lucky and the RF catches it over the wall and the other gives up the grand slam - it seems unfair to reward one and punish the other despite their actual play being exactly the same).

Lastly, I’ve seen recent articles pushing for DJ LeMahieu of the Yankees as the MVP, with the often cited argument of providing value based on moving around the field. DJ as of this writing ranks 9th with just over half the WAR that Mike Trout has delivered. While I understand the argument given the vague explanation of voting criteria, it gets muddy as you attempt to factor non-measurable components. Given Marwin Gonzalez ended up 18th in voting with only a 1% share of the votes in 2017, I have a tough time buying into DJ’s chances.

As for the Astros specifically, there has been a recent trend discussing Alex Bregman’s chances for this years MVP. This largely stems from a calculation that was posted that if Mike Trout was out for the remainder of the season, Bregman could pass him from a WAR perspective. (Trout’s injury has since been reported as fairly minor and day to day.) I think the odds of Bregman pulling this out are somewhat ASTROnomically low as surpassing Trout seems unlikely with the recent injury news. For believers that you can’t be valuable to your team if they don’t make the playoffs, Bregman should be a leading contender.


I think the first take-away is that the official instructions specifically state that making the play-offs is NOT a requirement. That SHOULD (although I know it won’t) eliminate that argument for people. With that said, I do understand the argument of a player providing value, as a person hitting 100 home runs this season on the Orioles still probably doesn’t change their playoff hopes. Unlike a lot of other sports, no single contributor “carries” the team like a Michael Jordan would in basketball. To me, you’re basically deciding the award based on the teams more than a player if you utilize that methodology.

I think most people either “subscribe” to the advanced metrics or they don’t. Most who don’t, don’t take the time to understand them, but I do think that if you’re taking the perspective of most value delivered to the team that the end result makes sense as the evaluation factor even if it’s not representative of the player’s contribution.

The argument against pitchers lingers and will have an inherent effect on their ability to win the award, but I’m not overly concerned as it’s tough to compare pitchers vs position players (ask Spencer his thoughts on pitching WAR), and pitchers have overcome the odds in tremendous seasons.

Since the rule is basically there is no rules, the issue will rage on, but I would argue that seeing the official direction on voting specifically states that the play-offs are not a qualifying factor may change how people think about the voting.

What are your thoughts on the topic? How should the voting rules read? What criteria do you use?