By Jason Wojciechowski
A few days ago, I wrote a piece at my original home pointing out a bunch of silly things Bill Simmons said in his article about the MVP at Grantland. One portion of his argument that I left alone had to do with whether pitchers should be eligible for the MVP. Can the best pitcher in the league, who starts just 32 games, really be better than the center-fielder who starts 160? Surprisingly (this is Bill Simmons we’re talking about), he comes out with the right answer: starting pitchers absolutely can be MVPs. Unsurprisingly (see last parenthetical), there’s no actual argument to back this up beyond “Lefty Grove won the first AL MVP and Pedro shoulda won in 1999,” but whatever: by any means necessary, right?
Here’s the problem, though: once we’ve come to accept that a pitcher can be the Most Valuable Player in baseball, baseball’s award system starts to look really unfair. Why does the Cy Young Award exist? We could declare, even if just de facto, that the MVP is for position players and the Cy Young is for
hitters pitchers, but all that does is reinforce the idea that pitchers and hitters aren’t comparable. Wouldn’t it be more just, not to mention more fun, if there were a hitter equivalent of the Cy Young, and then the winners of the Cy Young and the hitter award did battle for the ultimate MVP award?
The Hank Aaron Award almost covers this gap, but the main stumbling block is that defense apparently does not matter for that prize. This page at MLB.com describes the award as being for “the best overall offensive performer.” That doesn’t help explain why Derek Jeter has won the trophy twice, but I want my Cy Young equivalent to be a Best Position Player award, not a Best Hitter award, to ensure that defense and position are officially considered relevant by whoever we decide to have vote for the trophy. They matter in real life, after all, so they should definitely matter in award-voting.
Since the Hank Aaron Award isn’t going to work for our purposes, we need a new award, and thus a new top performer, an all-time great, to lend his name to the honor. The obvious choice is Babe Ruth, but the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America inexplicably stole that already. According to Wikipedia, “The Babe Ruth Award is an annual award given to the Major League Baseball player with the best performance in the World Series, similar to the World Series MVP Award.” (That’s awfully generous of whoever wrote that copy, by the way — how is this award “similar to,” as opposed to “exactly the same as,” the World Series MVP?)
With the possibility of a Babe Ruth Award rudely taken from us, I see only three other reasonable choices: Barry Bonds, Ty Cobb, and Willie Mays. (These are the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th best position players of all time by Fangraphs WAR, and the gap from Mays down to Honus Wagner (skipping over Hank Aaron) is substantial.)
If we’re just going to keep this among us on the internet, then I think we should call it the Barry Bonds Award, mainly because it’s hilarious and destined to piss people off. It’s award-trolling. Still, even keeping it on the internet, I think we’d all get sick of the jokes about only voting for players who have used PEDs or the 8 3/4 hat-size requirement or how the trophy should be a gold Barcalounger. So let’s toss Bonds.
Ty Cobb Award? Let’s just pick one factoid from his Wikipedia page (a factoid that actually has a citation!): “… Cobb subsequently traveled to the Princeton campus and beat his son with a whip to ensure against future academic failure.” I don’t know about you, but I’m ok passing on that guy.
Having to move on from Bonds and Cobb doesn’t exactly leave us with the dregs, though, since Willie Mays, a sterling center fielder with 638 homers and 315 steals, pretty well embodies what we’re trying to do with this award. Plus, everyone loves the guy. Nobody’s going to push back on a movement to create a Willie Mays Award. So that’s that: the best position player in each league takes home the Willie Mays Award.
With the Willie Mays piece settled, I have two notes about the MVP.
First, under my new award system, I propose that there be one MVP that covers both leagues. This is in part because it seems silly to have just a league’s best pitcher and best player battle it out for an award — it’s much more fun to enlarge the pool, to pit the top four against each other. The other reason is that I would even further enlarge the pool every once in a while: when a top performer changes leagues mid-season. C.C. Sabathia in 2008, for instance, racked up 3.2 WARP with Cleveland and 3.4 with Milwaukee. (Please hold off on the issue of whether you like WARP in particular or WAR for pitchers in general — the point is that Sabathia was excellent over the course of 2008 and, while likely not as good as Albert Pujols (or a handful of others) overall, earned a place in the discussion.) Having a solitary MVP removes the possibility of the best player in baseball not taking home a single award simply because he was traded from a bad team to a good one mid-year.
Second, an award that expressly states that it’s for the best pitcher or hitter in the league is the one that should really be named for Babe Ruth, considering his stellar record of pitching alongside his 714 homers. Without Ruth, we’re down to who in terms of two-way players? Smoky Joe Wood? He was a pretty good pitcher, and a great hitter for a moundsman, but he never amounted to all that much in the outfield. After Wood, we’re left with a “good-hitting pitcher” like Don Newcombe or doing something completely farcical and naming the award after Brooks Kieschnick. No, I think until the NY BBWAA relinquishes their hold on the Babe Ruth Award, our MVP will have to stay unnamed.
Stay tuned for my Cy Young and Willie Mays votes when the end of the season arrives. (Spoiler alert: Jose Bautista will probably be involved.)