Picking a Most Valuable Player is always frustrating and unstatisfying, but this year’s AL MVP race has everyone grappling especially hard with that timeless question: how do you measure value? With Granderson, Bautista, Verlander, etc., etc., all having incredible, MVP-caliber years, most commentators are either lost in a sea of indecision or tenaciously tethered to some particular baseball-worldview, according to which there is either one particular way to measure the value of a player (like the intimidatingly acronymed stat, WAR) or, at least, one fact that disqualifies certain players (the presence of teammates that make you better or being a pitcher). In other words, it’s given a lot of people the opportunity to hold an opinion at the same time that it’s forced others into the baseball-worldview version of “do I like the sunshine on a nice day more, or is it the breeze I really dig?”
In the end, of course, this debate is merely academic in light of the team goals that that really matter; Justin Verlander’s 98-MPH light breezes and Curtis Granderson’s sunny 135-run season tally are feeling really nice right because their teams are in the postseason, while Jose Bautista’s homerun total and batting average are small consolation in the far-too-blue of an empty Rogers Centre. But the debate itself merits a deeper look, coming down as it does to some fundamental philosophical questions. The MVP is decided by a community of observers who must assign a rank to a particular kind of value that, because it is not codified through any objective parameters, by its very nature resists objective valuation. And this is occurring as intense statistical analysis—or “Money Ball”—tirelessly expands its influence, tempting many observers to blind themselves to anything that might even closely resemble subjectivity when deciding on anything baseball-related, which, in turn, prompts the romantics, spiritualists and lazy among us to cry out to the Dionysian spirits we are sure still circle above us in an orgy of subjective evaluation in the stars to rain down some minor but certain sign that stats cannot possibly describe the totality of the baseball universe.
Surely, slur this latter group, banging their fists harder than they meant to on their second-hand coffee tables, there is no algorithm to measure heart and leadership, no code to unlock the true value of a player’s worth, no decimal point in “greatness.” After all, the stats revolution will never come to define the value a pitcher like Verlander or Sabathia brings to a team. I’m sure there’s some way to measure the positive effect a guy like that has on his bullpen (obviously I’m not a stats guy), but can you measure the positive mental reinforcement resulting from watching JV throw 98 in the seventh inning every five days? Can you measure the residual effect of a momentum shifting dinger? Can you measure that kind of positive psychology?
The stats guy would respond with the same answer as the romantic: no. Only, the ramifications of those negative answers are opposite: to the stat guy, an unquantifiable aspect of the game is a useless aspect; it’s child’s play. There is no such thing as the non-measurable talent of “clutch hitting,” or the wisp-like magic of “momentum.” There’s only probability and the stats that measure it, and so those should be the basis for the evaluation of a MVP candidate. But to the romantic, the uncountable aspects are proof that the game itself, while certainly highly quantifiable, remains in the end a human pursuit, dependent on the limitations of the flesh and the slippery command of the mind. To the romantic, there is a mystery behind things like momentum and clutch hitting, but the inability to prove they exist does not prove that they don’t exist, only that they are mysterious. These intangibles can be intuited, they can be sensed. Some people are just cooler under pressure and play with a grace or determination that are undetectable but by subjective observation.
Neither approach can satisfyingly be used to pick a MVP. The romantic will probably settle on some version of “that’s my favorite player” or “that’s who my gut tells me is most valuable.” The stats guys, meanwhile, will never be able to settle upon what stats, exactly, are most important (there is more than one way that WAR is established, with different results). In short, there is no possible end to this debate, especially after a bunch of writers—users of language, that malleable and arbitrary thing, most untrustworthy, but so indispensable—cast their votes to elect the MVP. There will always be the “should’ve been MVPs.” So really it’s not that interesting who wins, because, unlike a baseball game, it’s all wrapped up in this cloud of subjective evaluation and uncertainty. There is no winner because there is no agreed upon method to select one; there is only one who is selected.
All the interest, then, lies in the debate itself, which comes down to an argument you’ll come upon in many nooks and crannies of our civilization, one that may even be at the heart of it all: quality vs. quantity. Simply put, quantity, as I am using it, is that which can be measured, which can be assigned a definite and certain value, which can be justified or unjustified based on hard data. Quality, meanwhile, refers not to what is done, but to how it’s done; quality accounts for the manner with which an action is carried out, the care taken or not taken, not just the end result. The quantifier is interested in eliminating human error and bias to get at a more accurate observation while the qualifier would like to account for the subtleties of human nature and existence that cannot be accounted for in definite terms.
That said, very rarely are these two extremes not intermixed in some complicated way. The statistician will see beauty in a proper analysis and the shrewd student of human bias will develop some formula that stands apart from naked observation as an objective set of parameters to be followed. But there are numerous examples in which the two camps stand in stark contrast.
Take financial theory, which has discarded more methods of evaluation and analysis than most fields ever even dream up. You would think this a field made for quantifying, and quantify its theorists have, but hardly ever with much agreement. In recent decades this field has created a creature called the “quant,” which is something like the stock market equivalent of a moneyballer. These thinkers, often physicists (Benoit Mendelbrot, the genius who thought up fractals, is one of these), have created models and theories so intense as to be unusable, which may just be the proof that stock markets are so complex that that they cannot ultimately be quantified, that they contain too many variables to be predictable. That does not mean statistics are not useful in finance, of course they are, but it does mean that in evaluating markets, you may need to temper stats with some good old-fashioned gut instinct. Still, market prices are used to determine the price a good, commodity or service hold in a society, and this has proven to be a very useful tool of valuation.
On the flip side, the tendency to seek value in the quality of life will never go away. We may admit that a greater understanding of quantity—of statistics and other objective means of measurement—are crucial to improving society and establishing the conditions in which quality of life can be appreciated, but it’s the quality we’ll revel in, not the means to it. If my peaceful and stable environment turned into a dystopic hell, it would not be the healthy GDP numbers I would wistfully remember, but the fine, cold beer I enjoyed while watching a baseball game. There would be no way to measure that memory, there are just too many variables to be accounted for, not the least of which is the inherently flawed and joy-inducing faculties of perception and judgment with which I now enjoy my relative peace and prosperity. Likewise, I would remember the smell of freshly-ground coffee, not the caffeine it injected me with.
So it is that no matter the sophistication achieved by baseball statisticians, stats alone are incapable of assigning value to players with any kind of final authority. But let’s say you tried. You’ll find that in a year when great individual stats abound, you cannot base your pick on stats; all you can do is pick a way to frame the stats at hand in a way that you believe offers the most accurate depiction of the facts on the field. The debate over whether a pitcher can be made MVP is a prime example of this. Some argue that playing in only some 30-odd games a year should disqualify a pitcher, but at the same time, a starting pitcher is way more intensely involved in the games he is in than any position player ever can be. The question then becomes: does the density of a starting pitcher’s involvement make up for the games he’s not involved in at all? Can that question ever be answered beyond the shadow of a doubt? In considering that question, are you really still a stats guy? Aren’t you assigning a quality to your selected frame, and thus being subjective, just like the guy who has just watched a whole bunch of games and will base his selection on his own observation, which is trained by experience and instinct?
In the end, a wise observer will not dismiss the value of quantified measurement, but will also know the limitations of such measurement. And so, us romantics embrace our imperfect faculties—with all the bias, loyalty, personal aesthetic taste and assumed meaning that compose them—to judge the quality of a player’s play and to feel around in the subjective dark to decide upon or personal pick for MVP. We will consider the stats, but select with wonton subjectivity. Granted, this does not solve the AL MVP debate, because that cannot be solved. But it reminds us that value can be an incredibly hard thing to measure.
It also gives us a chance to reflect on our culture’s obsession with the quantifiable, which pursuits like fantasy sports highlight. They say that fantasy leagues have injected needed interest into baseball, but I’m not convinced by that interest. Do we say a thing has value only if it has the stats to prove it? Likewise, do we say a pursuit or commodity is valuable to society only if the market has assigned it a high price? Or is there a value that cannot be measured, like veteran leadership in trying times, grace under pressure or the artistry with which certain ball players play the game, the way they make the ball curve, the way they reach out and impossibly knock it to the opposite field? Beyond the MVP race, the question is: what’s the point of baseball?