I was recently scouring the Internet to satiate my appetite for Cubs-related content and was pleasantly surprised by this. For those not wanting to click through, the link is an ESPN video of the Baseball Tonight crew discussing whether Anthony Rizzo can win the MVP award. Though the analysis was severely lacking, the premise caught my attention. Is there a metric that suggests Rizzo is the league’s most valuable player?
A Word Regarding the Process of MVP Voting
According to the Baseball Writer’s Association of America (BBWAA), the voters of the National League MVP award constitute two writers from each NL city who are recommended by the local chapter chairmen of BBWAA. The resulting thirty voters submit their ballots prior to the start of the postseason.
Of most importance to us is the following quote: "The BBWAA does not offer a clear-cut definition of what "most valuable" means, instead leaving the judgment to the individual voters."
How Rizzo Stacks Up
By our current understanding of advanced metrics and their effectiveness in evaluating players, Anthony Rizzo has not been the best player in the National League.
Clearly, if the MVP award were solely determined on Wins Above Replacement, Bryce Harper would have it all but locked up. But this is not the case. Players on teams that don’t make the playoffs have an extremely difficult time securing the award, evidenced by the following chart:
Notice that in the past five years, all 10 award winners were members of playoff teams. And here’s the critical takeaway: players leading the league in WAR who were not members of playoff teams have not once won the MVP award in the past five years.
Why restrict our sample to the last five years? Well, because this is the period of time in which sabermetrics have taken a commanding role in all things baseball. If we look further back, we creep into the era of traditional metrics telling the story.
A Sabermetric Justification of the MVP/Playoff Restriction
"In baseball, a win is a win… except when it’s more than a win." – Jonah Keri
If we expand our understanding, of a win to the value it provides an organization, we begin to realize that not all wins are equal. A one-win increase to the Cubs' 2014 record at an arbitrary point during last season would have done little to push the playoff probability needle and increase team revenues. However, a one-win increase to the Cubs' record this season could have a large impact on playoff probability (or at least, odds of getting to the NLDS via increased divisional odds) and team revenues. Thus, you have the concept of a marginal win curve, which provides you the dollar value of each additional win.
As an aside, a team’s position on the marginal wins curve dictates its offers to free agents. This is the fundamental logic that pushes a fringe contender to spend big and prevents an awful team from doing the same. Without further ado, here is what the curve looks like:
Mentioned earlier, the BBWAA does not offer a specific explanation of what "most-valuable" entails. So perhaps one way to define "most valuable" is the player whose performance is of the highest dollar value to his team.
If these numbers look very low to you, it’s because the marginal wins curve above is from 2005, when the market price for a win in free agency was roughly $2 million. Regarding the relevance of these numbers, the only issue that arises is that the addition of the second wild card certainly has shifted the marginal wins curve. Unfortunately, I was not able to find a newer curve, so this will have to suffice. The data in graph form:
This is consistent with theory; considering that the Diamondbacks and Reds have little chance at making the playoffs, that effectively narrows down the MVP candidates to Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw and Anthony Rizzo. According to FanGraphs’ playoff probabilities, the Nationals have a 20.1 percent chance of making the playoffs, so it is likely to be a contest between Kershaw and Rizzo.
Despite the Dodgers clinging to a 2½ game lead, FanGraphs pegs them to have the highest rest of the season winning percentage, giving them an 87.4 percent chance at the playoffs – slightly below the Cubs' 97.7 percent chance. Even if both teams were to get in, Rizzo still might win the MVP for the following reasons:
- Position players are thought to be more valuable than pitchers when WAR differentials are trivial.
- Kershaw won the award last year, and it's better for the sport to celebrate different award winners.
- Rizzo is undoubtedly the team leader, and he would be leading the Cubs, projected to be the fourth-best team in baseball, back to the playoffs for the first time in seven years.
- Rizzo's story of overcoming cancer to becoming MVP would be great for baseball.