MVP Award Balloting: Is It Fair?
The MVP and Cy Young Awards are closely upon us, and soon we'll know this year's choices. As you know, the balloting for these awards is done by two baseball writers from each city. I'll spare the indignation about why award choices are limited to just two BBWAA members when there are a host of other highly qualified people who could be consulted on the awards, and concentrate on the balloting process.
For the MVP award, voters rank their top 10 choices for the award. Each 1st place vote receives 14 points, each 2nd place vote receives 9 points, each third place vote receives 8 points, etc, down to where each 10th place vote receives 1 point. The candidate with the most total points is the MVP. This weighting system seems fair enough. But is it? Why shouldn't a first place vote be worth 10 points? Or 20 points?
What's more, the Cy Young does things differently. There, the writers only select their top three players for the award. A first place vote gets 5 points, a second place vote gets 3 points, while a third place vote gets 1 point. This strikes me as odd, since it would seem that a system good enough for the MVP would be good enough for the Cy Young, and vice-versa.
Ballot Weighting Based on Empirical Win Values
An alternate, perhaps more accurate, method of balloting would be to have each voter assess the value of each player (perhaps measured in wins). Each voter would give a value score and the player with the highest average value among the writers would be the MVP. While in theory this would work, in practice this would probably be a mess. Writers would be working off of different internal scales and the votes would be all over the map. One guy might think that his first place choice is 10 times as valuable as his 10th place choice, while another guy might think that his first place choice is only twice as valuable. While this could represent real differences between the two writers' valuation of these players, more likely it would be a function of different perceptions of value, and the different scales each writer is using in their heads.
Because of these issues, the 1 through 10 balloting that currently takes place is probably the way to go. This essentially forces everyone to be on the same valuation scale. The #1 choice gets 14 times the weight as a #10 choice regardless of the individual writer's evaluation of their relative worth. But is the scale 14-9-8 scale that is used a good one?
Going with the theory that the weighting system should correspond proportionately to the value of the player, let's look at the Wins Above Replacement (WAR) values for the top players over the past 25 years. The following list shows the average WAR value for players ranked 1 through 10. The #1 player averaged 9.4 WAR, while the #2 player averaged 8.3 WAR. Meanwhile the #10 player averaged 5.9 WAR.
Needless, to say if we used these weights for the MVP balloting, the results would be vastly different. However, this wouldn't be right either, because it assumes that anybody left off of a ballot altogether has a value of 0. Of course, any writer would consider a serious MVP candidate to have a value far greater than zero, even if he did leave that player off his ballot. So, how to evaluate those unranked players? Since the writer didn't rank that player, we don't know how he values him. Assuming an 11th place vote for players left off the ballot seems a bit too optimistic, but a serious MVP candidate couldn't be too far behind. Subjectively, it seems reasonable to me to assume a 13th place ranking for unballoted MVP candidates - giving them an estimated WAR of 5.5.
Using this WAR scale (9.4 points for a 1st place finish, 8.3 points for 2nd place...5.9 points for 10th place, and 5.5 points for unranked players) would probably be the most fair ballot weighting system. How does this compare with the system MLB actually uses? While the weights seem to be very different, this is mostly because the systems are on two different scales. To make them comparable, we can convert the WAR system to a scale where 0 points are given to a player left off the ballot and there are 59 total points doled out altogether. When we do this, we see that in fact the two balloting systems are extremely similar.
Overall, the WAR system advocates giving slightly more weight to players who finish 1st and 2nd in the balloting, while giving slightly less weight to those thereafter, with the exception of the 10th place vote. In particular, second place votes are undervalued (they are worth 9 points, whereas they should be worth 10.3 points). In all however, there is very little to quibble with. If I were starting from scratch I would choose a 15-10-8-7-etc system instead, however this is a very small difference. Kudos to Major League Baseball, which has used the same ballot weights since 1938. It really got it right with its MVP ballot system.
How about the Cy Young? As I mentioned previously, the current system gives 5 points for first place, 3 points for second, and 1 point for third. Going through this same process above for pitchers only, the WAR scale recommends 4.9 points for first place, 2.6 points for second and 1.4 points for third. Again, the this scale is fairly similar to the one used by MLB, though MLB slightly overvalues second place votes and undervalues third place votes. Though it might be better to go with a 14-9-8-etc system (or a 15-10-8-etc system) just so writers have a chance to rank more players, the current system works pretty well too.
Overall, the method which MLB chooses its MVP and Cy Young Awards isn't the most important thing on Earth. However, it's nice to know that MLB is doing something right. It would have been fairly easy to screw these up. For instance, a 10-9-8-etc MVP ballot system would be off from reality by quite a bit. However, the systems currently in place do a good job of reflecting the actual differences in value of players as ranked by the sportswriters. Whoever was initially responsible for this system did his job well. For once, it's nice that the traditional way of doing things is also the right one.