The "Wright" Choice for 2007 NL MVP

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As the 2007 baseball season rolled into September, the National League became a stage for some of the most memorable races in baseball history.  The Colorado Rockies beats the odds by winning 13 of the last 14 regular-season games as well as a one-game playoff against San Diego to surge into the playoffs, while the Mets lost 12 of their last 17 to give the red-hot Phillies a ticket to the postseason.  At the same time, Jimmy Rollins and Matt Holliday were involved in a race of their own – for the honors of NL MVP.  In the end, Rollins took the award by a mere 17 points in one of the closest finishes since Keith Hernandez and Willie Stargell finished in deadlock in 1979.  Not only did Rollins put up excellent offensive and defense numbers, but his leadership in the clubhouse helped to establish himself from the rest of the field.  But was he really the most valuable player in the National League?  I will make the case that there is a more deserving candidate than both Rollins and Holliday; a player who, to my amazement, did not receive a single first place vote – a New York Met by the name of David Wright.

The first step in determining an MVP candidate is to define exactly what “valuable” really means.  Value can be determined in various ways, and there is certainly room for subjectivity when it comes to analyzing players.  While certain statistics speak for themselves, other intangibles may be impossible to quantify.  Furthermore, even experts are bound to disagree on the relative importance of each statistic.  How much is Jimmy Rollins’ leadership in the clubhouse worth?  Which provided the most value to the team, his 41 stolen bases or his 49 walks?  Questions such as these create a divergence among analysts, and may lead to a biased result.  In my opinion, the most valuable thing a player can do is contribute to team wins.  For the purpose of this analysis, statistics that have been proven to express this contribution (such as OBP, SLG and runs created) will carry the most weight, while subjective figures and intangibles such as personality will be of secondary importance.

In my opinion, there were four legitimate contenders for the NL MVP: Jimmy Rollins, Matt Holliday, Prince Fielder, and David Wright.  The first three were the only ones to appear on every ballot, and I will proceed to argue why Wright certainly deserved to be there as well.  In order to narrow down the field, I will begin by analyzing offensive and defensive statistics, with a strong emphasis on the former.  In addition to the traditional box-score numbers, I will consider park-adjusted statistics such as equivalent average (EqA), equivalent runs (EqR), batting runs above average/replacement (BRAA/BRAR), fielding runs above average/replacement (FRAA/FRAR), and wins above replacement player (WARP).  Considering the relative difficulty of Shea Stadium compared to Miller Park, Citizens Bank Park and Coors Field, Wright’s numbers must necessarily be adjusted in order to even the playing field.  As shown in the following table, of the four parks Shea Stadium is the most difficult hitter’s park in terms of runs, homeruns, hits, and doubles (where any value >1 favors the hitter and <1 favors the pitcher): 

 

 

Runs

HR

H

2B

3B

BB

Coors Field

1.160

1.218

1.120

1.256

1.513

.943

Citizens Bank Park

1.034

1.418

.988

.912

.861

.918

Miller Park

1.011

1.119

.944

1.049

.500

1.104

Shea Stadium

.916

.900

.923

.909

1.069

.960

The first and foremost statistic to consider is on-base percentage, which has become arguably the best metric to use for evaluating hitters.  Of the four contenders, Wright topped them all at .416 (unadjusted), featuring the 4th best OBP in the league.  Next is Holliday at .405, Fielder at .395, and “MVP” Rollins at .344 (just above the league average of .334).  Rollins also came up last in terms of slugging percentage (.531), with the man-beast Fielder and his 50 homeruns leading the league at a .618 clip, followed closely by Holliday at .607.  Meanwhile Wright comes in at .546, a respectable total especially when considering the power-friendly home turf of his counterparts.  Plate discipline, which can be quantified using the strikeout-walk ratio, is also important to consider when evaluating value.  Unlike situation-specific stats like RBI, SO/BB ratio is (almost) independent of external factors and can provide a good measure of natural ability and discipline.  Once again, David Wright leads the group with a ratio of 1.22 (thanks largely due to his 94 BB, good for 6th in the league).  Fielder, Rollins, and Holliday trailed at 1.34, 1.73, and 2, respectively.  It should already be clear that Wright is an extremely valuable player, and a glance at the park-adjusted numbers will only help to further his cause.

The first adjusted statistic to consider is equivalent average (EqA), which is intended to measure total offensive value per out, while correcting for league offensive level, home park, and team pitching.  EqA, which also accounts for base-running, approximates the batting average scale and features a mean of .260.  Equivalent Runs (EqR) is simply the number of runs that you get from a given EqA and plate appearances.  Although Holliday led the league in BA at .340, his EqA is depressed to .318 due to the favorable hitting conditions at Coors Field.  Rollins and Fielder hit for an EqA of .290 and .321, respectively, while David Wright topped all three at .329.  Similarly, Wright produced the most equivalent runs with 131.  Other metrics to consider include BRAR and BRAA, which describe how many runs a hitter produced above a replacement player (.230 EqA) or above an average player (.260 EqA).  Once again Wright came out on top in both categories, with a BRAR of 78 and a BRAA of 58.  The closest competitors were Holliday and Fielder at 68 BRAR and 49 BRAA, with Rollins trailing at 52 BRAR and 28 BRAA.  Using similar metrics to account for fielding ability, we will consider FRAR and FRAA to show how many runs the player saved on the field, where the difference between an average player and a replacement player is determined by the number of plays that position is called on to make.  Rollins led the foursome in FRAR at 31, followed by Wright and Holliday at 20 and Fielder at a *robust* -6.  In terms of FRAA Holliday led at 10, followed by Rollins (8), Wright (5), and Fielder (-15).  It is clear that Holliday and Rollins are comparable in defensive value, with Wright trailing not far behind and Fielder but a mere speck in the rearview mirror.  However, since fielding plays a far less important role than hitting in terms of team wins, I believe that Wright still maintains an edge in overall value.  The final and arguably most significant statistic to analyze is WARP, which quantifies the number of wins a player contributed above what a replacement level hitter would have done in the same circumstances.  I believe that the ability to contribute to team wins defines the true “value” of a player, and therefore WARP (which accounts for both offensive and defensive capabilities) should play a central role in the analysis.  Not surprisingly, Wright comes out on top with a contribution of 10.6 wins above a replacement player, followed by Holliday (9.7), Rollins (9.2) and Fielder (6.8).

It is not hard to realize why a player like Rollins would win the MVP award while Wright would be overlooked.  First of all, it is simply tough to nominate a player on a team that just completed one of the most epic collapses in baseball history, especially when the other two top candidates are leaders on red-hot late-season teams.  Second, the award is determined by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA), which may be more likely to focus on traditional baseball statistics that fail to paint an accurate picture of true value; such as BA, SB, and RBI.  Therefore, it is expected for them to favor Rollins in light of his league-leading triple and runs scored totals, speed on the base-paths, and unmatched durability.  In my opinion, however, it is more important to focus on real, proven individual contributions and disregard team performances that threaten to bias our decision.  The MVP award should go to the player who a manager would most like to have in their lineup, and who has been proven to generate wins for the team.  The fact that the Mets collapsed at the end of the 2007 season doesn’t make David Wright any less valuable.  It is the bias created by an exceptionally poor or impressive team performance that leads to subjective and (in my opinion) incorrect player valuations.  Had the Mets made the postseason, I believe that Wright would have been valued much more favorably.  Overall, I argue in favor of a more objective system that emphasizes individual performance more than team success or intangible qualities.  Under such a system, David Wright would have been the hands-down choice for NL MVP.
 

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