On Michael Young and MVP Awards

ARLINGTON, TX - JULY 01: Michael Young #10 of the Texas Rangers celebrates a run with Ian Kinsler #5 against the Florida Marlins at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on July 1, 2011 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

One of the amazing things about the internet age is how memes can pop up out of nowhere and instantly spread, like brushfires.  Something no one was even thinking about yesterday can be dominating the conversation today, even when nothing seemingly happened to trigger a change.

Case in point...three days ago, no one was talking about Michael Young, American League MVP candidate.  Well...Tom Grieve had mentioned it once or twice on the telecast, saying that Young should get consideration, but that was about it.

Yesterday morning, baseball writer Sky Kalkman (who is not a Rangers fan and doesn't follow a particularly Ranger-centric group of folks on Twitter) tweeted this comment:

 

Sky Kalkman
There's been way too much Michael Young and Jeff Francoeur in my feed today.

 

So what happened?

Blame Ron Washington.  Everything is always Ron Washington's fault.

On Wednesday (I'm assuming it is Wednesday, anyway, based on the timing of the quotes coming out), Ron Washington spoke out in favor of Michael Young as an A.L. MVP candidate.  

 

"As far as I'm concerned he's the MVP, whether it's this team or the entire league," Washington said. "He's certainly the MVP on this team. I don't get a vote, but if I did, he'd get my vote. If we hold on to this lead, he should be a strong candidate." 

 

I've talked before about my thoughts on who the team MVP has been so far this year, and I still believe that that's Ian Kinsler.  My opinion of that hasn't changed, but this blog post isn't about Kinsler v. Young or the Ranger team MVP race*...it is about the A.L. MVP race and Michael Young's place in that.

*  Well, one note...the thing that I don't get about the Kinsler v. Young debate is how often Young is given extra credit for "consistency," that he's more worthy because he's more consistent.  Kinsler's OPS, by month, in 2011: 813, 751, 803, 772, 782.  He's got a 62 point spread.  Michael Young's worst month in 2011 is worse than Kinsler's worse month, and his best month is better.  Joey Matches has a blog post up that looks at Kinsler's wOBA by month this year, and notes that it is similarly very steady.  So from that standpoint, Kinsler has been consistent...although personally, I don't see why being consistent is better than being streaky, if you end up with the same numbers at the end of the day.  It could also be that "consistent" is a proxy for "doesn't have big home/road splits," but again, I don't see why big home/road splits are all that meaningful when comparing value among players on the same team.

In any case, Ron Washington's comments seem to have triggered a wave of Michael Young, MVP candidate talk.  Jeff Wilson did a piece on it in the S-T.  Evan Grant did one in the DMN.  Anthony Andro did one for Fox Sports.  Peter Gammons said on the Ticket yesterday morning that Young deserves MVP consideration.  At the very least, many people argue, Young should be "in the conversation."*

*  This, incidentally, is a pet peeve of mine, when people say, "Well, so-and-so shouldn't win the award, but they should be in the conversation."  If you don't think that there's a legitimate argument to be made for Player X being the winner, then they shouldn't be in the conversation.  If three guys are clearly better than everyone else in the league, and then there are a half-dozen second-tier level players, those second-tier guys shouldn't be in the conversation.  Either a player has a legit argument to win, or he doesn't.

The problem right off the bat, though, is that no one can agree about what the criteria of the MVP award really are.  There is a school of thought, particularly espoused by the statnerd/internet community, that the award should go to the best player in a given year.  That's what makes the most sense to me, and it seems to be what the award is designed to honor.

There is another school of thought, however, that says, "It is the Most Valuable Player award, so a player has to be valuable, not just the best."  This leads to the occasional suggestion that there should be an MVP Award and an MOP (Most Outstanding Player) Award, which is almost as bad an idea as letting pitchers hit in the All Star Game.

This notion often seems to be seized upon by the writers who vote on the award, who view the award from the standpoint of a journalist, and who seem to weigh the narrative along with the actual performance.

This leads to a much more subjective definition of the word "value," with each individual being able to structure the definition in a way that conforms to their own bias and preference.  A last place team can't be any worse, for example...thus, even if the best player in baseball is playing on a last place team, he can't be that "valuable," because his team would be in last whether he's there or not.  That's sometimes extrapolated towards playoff teams in general...if you have a great player, but his team doesn't make the playoffs, he can't be the most valuable player, because his team misses the playoffs with or without him.

While this definition is often used to punish players because his teammates aren't good enough, it is also sometimes used to punish a player because his teammates are too good.  Any time a Yankee is playing well enough to be in MVP consideration, there are folks who will say, "Yeah, but look how good his teammates are.  He's got plenty of protection in the lineup, and even if he wasn't there, they'd still make the playoffs."

To take this to the logical conclusion, the most valuable player would have to come from a team that barely made the playoffs...every player on a team that wins the division by the game has to be more "valuable" in that sense than any player on a team that runs away with the division.  If you make the playoffs by 15 games, then your team is so good, removing your best player wouldn't make any difference because you'd make the playoffs anyway, and thus, that player couldn't be that "valuable."

Which gets us to Michael Young as an MVP candidate.  There's definitely a compelling narrative at work here with Young.  He's having a terrific season.  He lost his job (for the second time in three offseasons) to a newcomer who is considered a much better defender, but he accepted a DH role, but has also filled in at first base, second base, and third base.  And he's doing all of that after the Rangers tried to trade him this offseason, and after Young, feeling betrayed by the organization, demanded that he be dealt, and at a time when most folks assumed Young's best days were behind him.

Here's the other thing, though...Young is a remarkably polarizing player.  The stathead/internet nerd types criticize him, seeing him as being overrated by the mainstream media and the common fans.  They see a guy who doesn't walk a lot, doesn't have much power, doesn't play good defense, who has developed a reputation for being an upper-echelon player based on batting average and hit totals while playing in a very hitter-friendly park.  They see a guy who has value, but who gets an outsized amount of attention because of good surface numbers, a reputation for clutch hitting, and intangibles like leadership and character.

In fact, as I'm sitting here writing this, it sounds like I've described half the players who have played for the Anaheim Angels in the 21st century.  How is it that Michael Young didn't end up in Anaheim?

On the other hand, the mainstream media, the beat writers, see a guy who takes an inordinate amount of heat from the statnerd crowd because he isn't Moneyball-friendly, he doesn't draw walks or hit a bunch of homers, because we don't see and can't appreciate what he does and what he means behind the scenes, and because we don't appreciate how he plays through injuries and shows up every day and provides an example for his teammates.

Each side ends up reacting to the other, backlash begets backlash, and Michael Young goes from being a very good player and the symbol of the Rangers to, in another context, a symbol of an ongoing battle between what matters and what has...well, value, when evaluating a player and a team.

From a strictly statistical standpoint, even Young's supporters have a hard time arguing he's the best player in the A.L.  He's 30th (prior to Thursday's games) in the A.L. in fWAR, 24th in VORP (which doesn't take into account defensive contributions, just defensive position), and 27th in WARP.  Even just using a basic stat, like OPS, he's 10th in the American League...and that's before we take into account he's a DH with very little defensive value, or that he plays half his game in one of the best hitter's parks in baseball.  

So stats don't get him there, with the MVP argument.  Which is why, with the Young as MVP candidate argument, the focus is on narrative.  How he's been the most consistent player, how he's played multiple positions, how he's provided leadership and all those intangibles, which, the argument goes, puts him on a level with the likes of Jose Bautista and Dustin Pedroia and Curtis Granderson and Jacoby Ellsbury and others who are having, empirically, must better seasons.

It seems impossible to me, though, to believe that those intangibles can provide enough value to make up for that difference.  To use a very easy comparison, look at Young versus Jose Bautista.  Bautista, like Young, can play the corner positions, but is basically a hitter (although Bautista spends more time in the outfield than as a DH).  Let's look at their numbers this year:


G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB K SB CS AVG OBP SLG
2011 - Michael Young 122 491 62 168 36 6 10 85 30 63 4 2 .342 .378 .501


G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB K SB CS AVG OBP SLG
2011 - Jose Bautista 111 388 89 122 19 1 35 79 98 78 5 3 .314 .453 .639

 

Compare those two lines, and then tell me...if the Rangers had Jose Bautista instead of Michael Young on their team this season, DHing and filling in at 1B and 3B, would their record be worse?  

Of course not.  Most likely, the Rangers lead on the Angels in the West would be in double figures.

But if that's the case, if you could replace Young with Bautista and the team would be better, how could you justify putting Young ahead of Bautista on the MVP ballot?

I think the voters lobbying for Young know that.  Honestly, I think Ron Washington knows that...I think if you shot Wash up full of sodium pentathol, he'd tell you he'd take Bautista over Young in a heartbeat.

Does that mean Young is a bad player?  Of course not.  Bautista is probably the best player in the A.L. this year, and no worse than the second or third best player in the A.L.  Young has been, according to the measures above (and in my opinion), one of the top 25-30 players in the league this year.  He's performed at a very high level, and has been an integral part of the Rangers being in a position to return to the playoffs.

He's just not in the same category, right now, as the best 5-6 players in the league.  He doesn't deserve to be "in the conversation" of who the best player in the league has been in 2011.  That's not a criticism, that's not "hating" Michael Young...that's just reality.

And I think those lobbying for him know that.  But I also think they view the MVP Award differently than I do, and see talking about Young as a candidate as a way of honoring Young for everything he's gone through, for what he brings to the franchise from a leadership standpoint, and for his going out there every day and doing Michael Youngings.

That's fine.  But it means that they are thinking about the MVP in a way that is different than the way I -- and many folks here, I suspect -- think about it.  

Which ultimately makes arguing about it pointless.  Because if you can't define the terms and parameters that you are discussing, you aren't going to be able to meaningfully make much headway in the discussion.

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