Why MLB Needs a Position Player Equivalent of the Cy Young Award
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor
Bud Selig has plenty of unfinished business to tackle before he retires after 2014. Some of the more notable things on the MLB commissioner's docket include expanding instant replay and possibly toughening up the league's performance-enhancing drug policies in the wake of the Biogenesis scandal.
I'd hereby like to suggest something else for the commissioner to consider before he goes the way of Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte: a brand-new award.
What baseball needs is an award that would do for position players what the Cy Young Award has done for pitchers ever since 1956. As it honors the best pitcher in the American and National Leagues, the new award would honor the best all-around position player in each league. The key is that would mean honoring offensive and defensive excellence.
I figure it could be called the "Willie Mays Award," after the one player who symbolizes a perfect union between offensive and defensive excellence better than any other (the "Ken Griffey Jr. Award" would also work, but I think The Say Hey Kid deserves the nod).
If you do, great. No need to read any further. Instead, go and tell the people.
If you don't, you might be sitting there wondering why such an award is needed. There's a chance you're also thinking this is just another Mike Trout dillweed writing another Mike Trout dillweed article.
We'll get to that. But first, here's Reason No. 1 a Willie Mays Award is a good idea: Because such an award currently doesn't exist.
The award that comes the closest to doing the job is the Hank Aaron Award. Implemented in 1999, MLB.com calls it a "coveted honor" that is given to the "best overall offensive performer" in the AL and NL. It's basically the king of all Silver Slugger awards.
But that's the thing. The lumber is the only thing the Hank Aaron Award cares about. It cares not for what players do with the leather, thereby ignoring half the equation for position players.
Beyond that, the Hank Aaron Award is hardly the most credible award. Rather than being voted on by the Baseball Writers Association of America—the organization that votes for the MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year and Manager of the Year awards—the Hank Aaron Award is decided by fan voting and a five-man panel that includes Aaron himself, Tony Gwynn, Paul Molitor, Joe Morgan and Robin Yount (h/t CBSSports.com).
That's not a bad panel, mind you, but the fan vote portion is a problem because...well, it's a fan vote. Such things have a tendency to serve as shortcuts to silliness.
So the Hank Aaron Award doesn't do the job that the Willie Mays Award could do, and the MVP award doesn't do the job either. It's perfectly suited to honor the best all-around players, but I think we all know that it doesn't quite do that.
According to the BBWAA's official website, the very first guideline given to MVP voters has been the same since 1931. It says to consider the "Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense."
But right above that, it's stated that there is "no clear-cut definition" of what "Most Valuable" means. The ambiguity of that statement pretty much renders the first guideline moot, and it's what allows the notion that the MVP is reserved for great players from great teams to perpetuate itself.
Point being: It's that ambiguity that's responsible for the fact that the accepted definition of "Most Valuable" leans much more towards the narrative than it does towards the numbers. And that, of course, leaves the door open for excellent all-around players to have excellent all-around seasons that go unrewarded.
And now more than ever before, that's not right.
This is a day and age when the timing is perfect for the Willie Mays Award to become a reality. The here and now is practically demanding such an award.
In the baseball world, "now" is obviously a drastically different time than "then." The statistical revolution is ongoing, and it's impacted both those on the inside (front office execs and the like) and those on the outside (media and the fans) of the game. There are numbers to quantify everything, including the offensive and defensive prowess of position players.
It's those numbers that the first guideline suggests should be put to good use in MVP voting, but they're not. For many voters, the narrative is too important.
That's become clear enough over the years, and it was never more clear than it was in 2012.
This, naturally, would be our cue to finally reference the great Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera conundrum that grabbed hold of the baseball world last year.
Cabrera won the AL MVP because he had a Triple Crown season and led the Detroit Tigers into the postseason, but Trout certainly deserved the award because he was light years better than Cabrera and all other players in baseball while leading the Los Angeles Angels to a superior record in a superior division. Blah, blah, blah. Rabble, rabble, rabble. You know how it goes.
A Willie Mays Award would have come in handy last year. Cabrera presumably still would have walked away with the MVP, but Trout likely would have been a landslide winner in the race for the AL Willie Mays Award. There still would have been moaning that Trout deserved the MVP, but hey, at least he would have gotten an award befitting of the kind of season he had.
But this isn't just a Trout vs. Cabrera thing brought on by lingering bitterness (mine is almost gone, for the record). I look back and I see a number of players who could have ended up with a well-deserved Willie Mays Award while the MVP went to someone else.
How about Jacoby Ellsbury in 2011? Justin Verlander won the AL MVP, but Ellsbury's lead over his peers in FanGraphs WAR that year reflected just how excellent he was at the plate and in the field. He was the best all-around player in the American League that year, no question about it.
Had there been a Willie Mays Award in place these years, the above players might have gone home with some hardware. That sounds preferable to allowing these great seasons to go unrecognized—swept under the rug to be more easily forgotten by baseball history.
You know, sort of like what used to happen with great pitching seasons before the Cy Young Award was implemented.
And if you're at all freaked out about whether the implementation of the Willie Mays Award would cheapen the MVP, there's a lesson to be learned from the history of the Cy Young.
As Arthur Daley of the New York Times told the story, the media wasn't too crazy about the notion of a special award for pitchers when commissioner Ford C. Frick proposed it in the 1950s:
The press box tenants did not leap enthusiastically at the suggestion and it took an eloquent plea by Frick to budge them. They were afraid that a new plaque might take away from the importance of their two M.V.P. trophies and prevent a pitcher from ever winning one of the major prizes.
Many years later, we know A) that the Cy Young Award hasn't taken away from the importance of the MVP and B) that the Cy Young Award hasn't prevented a pitcher from winning the MVP. On the contrary, the Cy Young Award has done no harm whatsoever.
Neither would the Willie Mays Award if it were ever to come into being. Because, once again, the whole idea would be to reward the best position player just as the Cy Young rewards the best pitcher. And with a separate award designed to solve the "best position player" argument, the MVP arguments would be more free to be about...well, what they already are all about: the narrative.
Any voters with different opinions about which player is the "best" and which player is the "most valuable" would be able to prioritize one player for the Willie Mays and the other player for the MVP. Or a voter could favor one player for both awards, like what happened when Verlander won the Cy Young and MVP in 2011.
This is not, however, to suggest that implementing the Willie Mays Award would make things easier for the voters or make it harder for fans to get riled up on the eve of awards season. It's not like it would be a simple matter of giving the Willie Mays Award to the top WAR hero in each league, as WAR doesn't always signal offensive and defensive excellence.
For example, consider 2008. Per FanGraphs, Albert Pujols had the highest WAR in the National League that year, but he couldn't match the defensive prowess of fellow star hitter Chase Utley.
Other such examples include:
In these years, simply going to the top of the WAR charts wouldn't have been the best way to choose a winner for the Willie Mays Award. Indeed, doing so wouldn't be helpful this year.
Do you think MLB needs a separate award for the best all-around position players?
Andrew McCutchen has the top fWAR in the National League, but his defensive excellence pales in comparison to the defensive excellence of Carlos Gomez. Since he's also been terrific offensively, maybe he would be the right choice for the Willie Mays Award rather than McCutchen. That's where the rabbling could begin.
There's even a debate to be had in the American League. Trout has been amazing, but his balance of offensive and defensive excellence isn't quite as even as that of Josh Donaldson. But since Trout's the one who plays the premium defensive position...well, that's where the rabbling could begin.
So no, implementing a Willie Mays Award wouldn't suck the fun out of awards season. Factor in how such an award is the right fit for a statistically obsessed league and fanbase. Now factor in how it would reward precisely the kinds of players who have gone unrewarded all too often in the past. And now how it likely wouldn't negatively impact the MVP award.
How about it, Mr. Selig?
If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.
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