Ryan Braun, The 2011 MVP, and The Vagaries Of The MVP

On November 22, 2011, Major League Baseball named Ryan Braun the National League’s Most Valuable Player. Braun became the fourth player to win the award in Brewers history and the first since Robin Yount earned it, back in 1989. In 2011, the Brewers’ right fielder finished with 20 of the 32 first-place votes, which accumulated him a total of 388 points. This just edged out fellow contender Matt Kemp who finished with 10 first-place votes and 332 points.

That year, it was just a two-man race between Braun and Kemp. Sure, Fielder got a first place vote, but he probably shouldn’t have and wasn’t seriously in the broader discussion. Both outfielders had amazing seasons. They put up great numbers, were young, and were rising stars. The difference, though, was that one was on a winning team and the other was on a losing team. Braun’s Brewers won the NL Central; it was the first time the Brewers won a division since 1982, when they were back in the American League.

There was a lot of debate as to who should receive the MVP. Matt Kemp statistically had the better numbers. He had a TAv of .357 versus Braun’s .345 TAv, and he played center field, which allowed him to have a higher WARP (9.49 Kemp, 6.82 Braun). Braun that year actually finished seventh in all of baseball in WARP. So what gives? Why did Braun win the MVP over Matt Kemp?

Not all, but a good part of any award argument stems from a self-imposed meaning of MVP — specifically centering on the word valuable. It’s strange, for some reason many writers, announcers, and media members get fixated with the word. It’s due to its apparently complex meaning. The way it is defined is unclear.

When one says “most valuable player,” one is referring to one specific thing: the player and his value (that is, the value attributed to the player). After all, valuable means having considerable monetary worth. If the MVP voting were left to that, then it would be rather simple, at least in terms of its goal and its definition. It would refer strictly to the player of the highest worth. For example, if I asked what is the most valuable dollar, one would quickly answer the 100-dollar bill. Why? Because it has the most value, it’s worth the most. The value of the 100-dollar bill is one hundred dollars. It doesn’t matter whether a poor person or a rich person possesses it, its value would still be 100 dollars. On one hand, it certainly would seem more valuable to a poor individual, as he or she would need it, while a rich individual wouldn’t need it as much. But, then, one is discussing the relative value of the bill pertaining to its owner.

When putting this into baseball terms, the Most Valuable Player represents the value of the player, however one wants to measure it. The main point is that the value of the player should not be dependent on the team. For example, whether Braun was on the Brewers or the Dodgers would be irrelevant, his value would not change. His value would be his production, and it would, therefore, be irrelevant whether he “lead” his team to the playoffs or not.

And now we arrive at the vagaries of the word valuable or value in baseball.

Here is what the BBWAA is told:

“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.”

The main problem here is with the first guideline, and mainly it’s implication of “Actual value of a player to his team.” I think this is where the confusion starts to happen, because this statement is inherently contradictory to words MVP. In this definition, the player must provide value specifically in relationship to his team. With that being said, this does not mean that value is necessarily contextualized. Words, just like so many of them, are dependent on the sentence in which they are used. Value or valuable here is no different.

Vince Gennaro, someone for whom I have great respect, once said, “…the award is called the Most Valuable Player, it’s not the player of the year award, in my book.”

The Most Valuable Player means the best player, since the value being described here is specific to the player. The problem here is not with the word valuable in MVP, but with the word value in the first instruction the BBWAA is given for MVP. Not only are the statements contradictory, but now value is being described in a team context. It is, therefore, no longer the Most Valuable Player award, but rather the Most Value A Player Can Provide To His Team award.

That being said, this doesn’t mean that a player needs to be playing for a contender, as the definition clearly states. What this does mean is that the definition is, therefore, open for interpretation and has a myriad of vague implications, which a writer can justify in different ways. Really what this includes is more subjectivity, in that the voter must define for himself what value to a team means. Maybe that’s what the league wants.

There’s always a ton of debate around the MVP, who should get it and what it means. That debate might be good for the baseball industry. I have no idea whether that is true or not, although I would be surprised if it wasn’t true. If it were simply who is the Most Valuable Player or who is the best player, then Matt Kemp would have won in 2011 without much controversy. (Mike Trout also would have won in 2011 & 2012, but I probably shouldn’t touch that issue.) The order of things would be in place and the award would be fair.

But baseball, on many counts, isn’t fair. If we truly wanted to recognize the best team every year, then we would go back to a time before 1969, when the winner of the National League and the winner of the American League faced each other for the World Series. The playoffs are not fair and they certainly do not represent the best team. They are rather a set of random variation events in small sample sizes that create a lot of excitement. And that’s probably the point. Baseball is, after all, an entertainment product, and the MVP creates a lot of intrigue and entertainment. Whether that entertainment comes from seeing your favorite player recognized or from the on-going debates of who wins the MVP, it’s all part of the product and maybe there’s therefore nothing wrong with the MVP. Maybe it’s just fine as it is. Maybe it’s better that Braun won the MVP over Kemp. Maybe we simply need to stop looking for ways to define it and simply appreciate it for the value of excitement and debate.

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