Baseball BeatNovember 18, 2008
Pujols Wins Second MVP
By Rich Lederer

Albert Pujols won his second National League Most Valuable Player Award yesterday, capturing 18 of the 32 first-place votes. Ryan Howard was the recipient of 12 first-place votes and finished second. Brad Lidge received the other two first-place votes.

While not surprised by the results, it seems to me that the race between Pujols and Howard was much closer than it should have been. Let's take a look at their rate stats:

            AVG    OBP    SLG
Pujols     .357   .462   .653	
Howard     .251   .339   .543     

As shown, Pujols smoked Howard across the board, beating his fellow first baseman by more than 100 points in AVG, OBP, and SLG. If you want a single stat to compare the two, look no further than Pujols' 233 margin of superiority in OPS.

Given that Pujols is also a much better fielder and baserunner, it is incomprehensible to me how any voter could cast a ballot in favor of Howard over him. I understand that Howard played for a team that won its division whereas Pujols' club failed to make the postseason. The fact that the Phillies went on to win the World Series is irrelevant in that the votes were due before the playoffs began. Not for nothing, I would argue that Pujols did more for his team than Howard as St. Louis arguably overachieved its preseason forecasts to a greater degree than Philadelphia.

Let's face it, the only way a voter could reach the conclusion that Howard was more valuable than Pujols is by overemphasizing the importance of home runs and RBI at the expense of all of the other evidence, including how well they hit with runners in scoring position (h/t to Rob Neyer).

            AVG    OBP    SLG
Pujols     .339   .523   .678	
Howard     .320   .439   .589     

But, goodness gracious, if you're into league rankings, let's at least be fair in considering more than just HR and RBI.

Pujols' rankings:

• 1st in NL in SLG (.653)
• 1st in NL in OPS (1.114)
• 2nd in NL in AVG (.357)
• 2nd in NL in OBP (.462)
• 2nd in NL in BB (104)
• 4th in NL in RBI (116)
• 4th in NL in HR (37)

Howard's rankings:

• 1st in NL in HR (48)
• 1st in NL in RBI (146)
• 6th in NL in SLG (.543)
• 9th in NL in R (105)

Think about it, Howard, who is a net negative when not at the plate, ranked FOURTEENTH in the NL in OPS, yet "earned" nearly 40% of the first-place votes!

Interestingly, the only other time in the division era (1995-on) that a player led his league in HR and RBI *and* his team finished in first place yet failed to win the MVP Award was in 2005 when Pujols picked up his first MVP by edging out Andruw Jones (51 HR, 128 RBI) in a similar vote.

Lastly, I found it hard to believe that Hanley Ramirez (.301/.400/.540) and Chase Utley (.292/.380/.535) wound up outside the top ten in the voting. Did I mention that they played shortstop and second base? And that Utley was not only a Gold Glove-caliber defensive player but ranked first in plus/minus leaders at all positions?

Ramirez, for his part, led the NL in runs scored (125) and placed in the top ten in OBP, SLG, OPS, BB, HR, and SB. If not for Ramirez, where do you suppose the Florida Marlins would have ended up in the NL East? By the same token, Utley had a higher AVG and OBP than Howard and trailed his teammate by a whopping eight points in SLG, yet tied for 14th in the voting (or 12 spots behind Howard).

I'm pleased that the writers got it right with respect to the winner but am disappointed in the overall results.

Player               1st    2nd    3rd    Total
Albert Pujols        18     10      2      369
Ryan Howard          12      8      6      308
Ryan Braun           --      2      3      139

 4. Manny Ramirez, Dodgers, 138
 5. Lance Berkman, Astros, 126
 6. CC Sabathia, Brewers, 121
 7. David Wright, Mets, 115
 8. Brad Lidge, Phillies, 104
 9. Carlos Delgado, Mets, 96
10. Aramis Ramirez, Cubs, 66

Others receiving votes: Hanley Ramirez, Marlins, 55; Chipper Jones, Braves, 44; Geovany Soto, Cubs 41; Johan Santana, Mets, 30; Chase Utley, Phillies, 30; Ryan Ludwick, Cardinals 17; Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks, 14; Adrian Gonzalez, Padres, 13; Matt Holliday, Rockies, 13; Prince Fielder, Brewers, 11; Derrek Lee, Cubs, 10; Carlos Beltran, Mets, 10; Tim Lincecum, Giants, 9; Jose Reyes, Mets, 3; Jose Valverde, Astros, 3; Stephen Drew, Diamondbacks 2; Nate McLouth, Pirates, 1.


Rich, I always appreciate your work, but I feel these kinds of breakdowns are one of the big reasons why some people are still so against statistical breakdowns.

Many people who define the MVP award as more than just a "best player award" will take offense at your point. You basically claim that you can't see how Pujols didn't win handily, because he was such a superior player. While it is clear that he was a superior player, and nobody is debating that, the MVP award is defined by many as something totally different, so you can't just say "look at the rankings, how can you justify Howard?" If you believe team success plays a large role in candidacy, the question becomes "does Pujols' superior play push him past the greater team success of Howard"? Of course, answering that question requires a balance of many things, all of which are weighed differently by people, so in most cases it's tough to say there is a "right" answer. That's why we have so many voters; let's iron out individual opinions as best as possible by bringing in as many as we can.

I also think it's REALLY insulting to claim you know the mindset of the Howard supporters, and that it must have come down to Home Run and RBI totals. This harkens back to the 2006 MVP race, where many people who believe in statistics basically summarized the vote as "if you voted for Morneau, you're one of those shallow voters who just votes for the top rbi guy". In fact, I was and am still a supporter for Morneau that year (and for far more than his RBIs), and I can make the claim that supporters of other candidates are the "shallow" ones. Most people against Morneau believed Joe Mauer or Derek Jeter should have won, and I can disagree with both. For Jeter, I think he was the worst candidate of all. Like in your analysis of Pujols above, Jeter supporters pointed to the value sabermetric stats assigned to him. However, I can claim that he benefited from massive statistical inflation due to the team around him, inflating his "statistical value", making the use of those statistical alone incredibly shallow. In my opinion, Jeter wasn't even near the MVP of the Yankees, and no one player was valuable enough to the Yankees to make himself a candidate for MVP (based on my definition of the award). I liked Mauer's candidacy a lot more, and my argument for Morneau was more qualitative than quantitative. Basically (and to save space here), I believed that the specific lineup of the Twins had a lot of balance and ability to get on base, but far less ability at driving runners in. Take Morneau away from that, and I think the entire engine would fall apart, making him very important to the team's success.

Now, I don't know if I was right about that or not, but that's the point: who are we to think we KNOW what's best for these awards? Form your own definition for MVP, make an analysis for it, and let everyone else do the same. While I very much am against the definition of MVP as the "best player", I'll acknowledge it as a legitimate definition, but there are other ones too. And beware of the condescension that comes from presuming the mindset of any voter, as it will only create more resentment against your own argument.

Keep up the great work!

Peter: I appreciate your comments but think you have ignored or misinterpreted some of mine.

While I believe the player who had the best season is also the most valuable player and the Most Valuable Player (small and large caps alike), I didn't ignore the impact that Pujols and Howard had on their teams, which those who oppose my definition of MVP generally value highly. To wit, to quote from my article, "I would argue that Pujols did more for his team than Howard as St. Louis arguably overachieved its preseason forecasts to a greater degree than Philadelphia."

Even when I mentioned Ramirez, I asked, "If not for Ramirez, where do you suppose the Florida Marlins would have ended up in the NL East?"

As for knowing the mindset of the voters, I wrote, "the only way a voter could reach the conclusion that Howard was more valuable than Pujols is by overemphasizing the importance of home runs and RBI at the expense of all of the other evidence." The operative words here are "overemphasizing the importance of home runs and RBI at the expense of all the other evidence." Overemphasizing HR and RBI, not saying it came down to HR and RBI only. That's a big difference.

Nonetheless, if not for HR and RBI, what were voters valuing? His defense? His baserunning? His batting average? His strikeouts? Seriously, the only stats that Howard bettered Pujols in were HR and RBI. That's basically it. As such, if not for HR and RBI, then it would have to come down to the fact that Philadelphia won its division and St. Louis finished fourth.

If MVP is the most valuable player on a division champ (MVPDC) or a playoff team (MVPPT) , then I still don't understand how voters could choose Howard over Utley. I mean, was Howard even the most valuable player on the right side of Philadelphia's infield? Utley played a more important defensive position and performed better in the field while also adding more value on the base paths and contributing at least as much at the plate. If not for Utley, I highly doubt that Howard would have led the league in RBI.

Unless a voter is using an entirely different definition of MVP, I just don't see how anyone could reach the conclusion that Howard was either the league's best or most valuable player.

Obviously, this is an age-old debate, one that our grandchildren will still be having in 40 years.

I do want to address Peter's suggestion that it's presumptuous (and in the end, counter-productive) to ascribe motives to voters.

Well, yes . . . but it's clear that voters *collectively* do have their biases (as we all do).

Sabermetricians tend to be biased toward the most productive players; or if you prefer, the most *valuable* where value is measured by doing things that lead to wins.

Non-sabermetricians -- including the great majority of award voters -- tend to be biased toward players who 1) play for playoff teams, and/or 2) drive in a great number of runs.

That doesn't mean there aren't exceptions. This year alone, Pujols and Pedroia both are exceptions to one or both rules. But the biases are there, and any half-baked study of the MVP balloting over the last few decades will show this to be true.

The voters' continuing preference for Justin Morneau over Joe Mauer speaks volumes. In this biased writer's opinion.

I've gotta agree with Rich and Rob. Call me crazy, but I've always felt that the MVP award should go to the most valuable player in the league (and not necessarily the most valuable player from the subset of players who play for playoff teams that win a close race down the stretch).

And I have to say, I find Peter's critique -- that Rich is suffering from a form of hubris -- a bit odd. Rich's point about Howard supporters focusing on HRs and RBIs is not some wild, uneducated guess. There's a ton of evidence, both anecdotal and statistical, to suggest that MVP voters focus disproportionately on HRs and RBIs. Given that those categories were among the few where Howard bested Pujols, it's logical (rather than insulting) to assume, as Rich did, that those categories informed those who preferred Howard for MVP.

As for Peter's final point -- "who are we to think we KNOW what's best for these awards?" -- well, that's what this business is all about, right? Rich stated an opinion and backed it up. To call that a form of presumptuousness seems to stop the debate dead in its tracks. And what fun is that?

The baseball awards frustrate me every year. I feel like there should even be a whole alternate set of awards voted on and awarded by a group of sabermetric-mingded sportswriters.

I think another reason Howard got lots of votes is that he had a huge September. Not that Pujols didn't, but by that time St. Louis had faded, and Howard's surge that month was more sexy and was credited with Philadelphia's drive to the division title.

If it is true that such was the motivation, at least partially, it is the kind of reasoning that irritates me. It seems to me that contributions to victory are significant all year, and there were long stretches when Howard was a negative offensive force on the Phillies. Had he been even average much of the year, the Phillies might have run away with the division, and his September explosion would have meant much less.

Well, I am pretty sure that if Pujols were on the Phillies rather than Howard, then they win more games.

For those who were swayed by Howard's hot September:

Howard - .352/422/852, 11 HR 32 RBI
Pujols - .321/427/702, 8 HR 27 RBI

Howard beats Pujols in September but isn't August a pennant race month too? (Obviously every game counts equally all season but down the stretch is where clutchiness shows through):

Howard - .213/328/463, 7 HR 19 RBI
Pujols - .398/491/745, 8 HR 22 RBI

Now that is a beatdown. Fact is Howard was miserable from April through June and again in August while Pujols was a monster all year. The RBI edge might have something to do with Howard coming to bat with runners in scoring position 175 times while Pujols had 115 chances with RISP.

You omitted Brad Lidge's 2 first place votes.

Thanks, Mitch. I just added that fact to the first paragraph.

I'm a Phillies fan, but I do agree with the Pujols pick. He had a better year. I do think that "intangibles" shouldn't be ignored, but it wasn't a breaker this year. In 2006, Howard's big numbers came in August and Sept, while Pujols was red-hot in April and May.

A factor I haven't seen discussed is Howard's struggles this year were when he came up with nobody on base. The one factor overlooked I overlooked, until my dad brought it up, is the effect of the "shift" they put on for Howard. If you look at the splits with no runners on base vs. runners on base, a couple things jump out:

No Runners - .196/.281/.442 22 HRs, .218 BABiP in 349 PA
Runners On - .309/.396/.648 26 HRs, 126 RBI, .347 BABiP in 351 PA

To me, that says the shift has a great affect on Howards overall BA, and subsequent OBP and OPS. In 2006 he had a .384 BABiP with none on, which was down to .309 in 2007.

As a RHB, Pujols doesn't lose as many hits to a shift, since you obviously have to keep a player near first base. Here are Pujol's splits in 2008:

Nobody On - .359/.429/.665 20 HRs, .347 BABiP in 319 PA
Runners On - .354/.494/.638 17 HRs, 96 RBI, .332 BABiP in 322 PA

According to the scouting pages, Pujols put a lot more of his balls in play into the infield, so it seems to me the presence of a shift does hurt Howard some. That and the strikeouts.

Obviously if Howard were to strikeout less, he'd improve all of his numbers. A 25% reduction in Ks would result in 14-16 extra hits and raise his average to around .275

"Obviously if Howard were to strikeout less, he'd improve all of his numbers. A 25% reduction in Ks would result in 14-16 extra hits and raise his average to around .275"

Not necessarily. If the K's are a by-product of Howard's swing, making better contact might mean he'd lose a few of the XBH he already had. (Not to mention more weak flies and GIDPs.)

Whats more distressing to me is the order after the top two. Hanley, Chipper, and Utley not in the top 10 is outrageuos. To be perfectly honest it makes me kind of sick to see Delgado in the top 10, just because of the perception that he led the mets when they turned it around.

Take a look at WARP1. Howard is not only 83rd in the NL, but he is 8th on the Phillies!