Most valuable what?

Value is a measure we place on things, in terms of how much they are worth to us. It can be defined as:

-The regard that something is held to deserve; the importance, worth, or usefulness of something.
The material or monetary worth of something.
The worth of something compared to the price paid or asked for it.

When it comes to the idea of a player being most valuable, we often forget this. Sometimes we forget it out of favoritism, believing an extraordinary accomplishment makes a favorite player deserving of the MVP award. But this should be recognized as a trap because declaring one accomplishment an automatic qualifier, prevents one from examining other’s credentials.

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“Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is more valuable than Shohei Ohtani because he plays every day in the field.”

— Pedro Martinez

Playing every day in the field is valuable, but if a person uses it to say those who don’t play every day in the field are not comparable, then that person could never claim a designated hitter, no matter how good, or a pitcher, no matter how outstanding and dominant, could be the most valuable player.

“How many innings did Wladimir Guerrero pitch?”

— Mike Trout

This, too, is a red herring.

It is the flip side of Martinez’s argument, and to be honest, no voter is probably buying either. It’s not that Ohtani pitches and bats but that he is a very effective pitcher and a very effective batter. Doing both doesn’t make him an MVP, doing both at a very high level means he can produce more toward winning games than any other player who is not doing both.

Then there is the “The only value in baseball is wins, so a player on a bad team can’t be most valuable” argument.

This is analogous to the argument that the pitcher is 100 percent responsible for his win-loss record, not his teammates’ offense and defense, not the quality of the relief pitching behind him.

Nobody buys that anymore, but some people who reject the idea that a win-loss record is the true measure of a pitcher, cling to the idea that one player is capable of changing a bad team into a good one.

I suspect that is also related to favoritism: “My team is a good team and this player looks like the best, so we should discount players on bad teams from consideration.”

My podcast partner has a more nuanced version of this, which I call the final-outcome value-added method or the “most valuable in the context of a pennant race.”

I am sure I’m getting it wrong, but he has argued that the value of a player’s production has to be evaluated in terms of how meaningful his individual games are toward a team’s goal of winning the pennant.

This is, as I understand it, a pennant-race version of the value-added method for evaluating production within a game. To apply this rigorously, we need to know how much winning and losing game x would improve or decrease a team’s chances of winning the pennant.

In this model, the value of a player’s performance for a losing team would decline as the season progresses until it is eliminated from contention and becomes zero. Let’s say the difference between winning and losing a specific game in April increases the chance of winning the pennant by .0001, then we could multiply each player on that team’s production in that game by .0001.

I’m not suggesting John E. Gibson multiply anything by anything but it’s sort of an objective way to answer the question “how meaningful were the games this guy played in?”

The potential problem with that was described by Bill James and could be called the “Bucky Dent effect,” after the Yankees shortstop whose three-run homer in the 1978 American League East tie-breaker game was critical to New York’s divisional championship.

When the pennant comes down to one game, the difference between winning and losing is a maximum value of 1, and any big performance in that game will vastly overshadow everything that was required to get the team to the one game that mattered most.

Since it matters to teams whether they reach the playoffs or not, or whether they finish fourth instead of last, there could still be a tiny amount of value assigned to games until there actually is nothing left to play for.

At the end of a winning season, of course, the win in April is JUST as important in retrospect as the win in September.

Anyway, that’s one way to do it or think about it.

On a tangent from that, connected by its focus on wins, is the Bill James way.

The Bill James Win Shares system derives player value from actual wins in a pennant race, although he has rejected the idea it be used to determine who should be the MVP.

The great thing about this is that it depends on actual team wins, so a lucky win counts as much as a blowout because baseball accounting wights them the same. This method has, in my mind, tons of advantages, but also drawbacks — the share of losses is something James has been working on but has not yet published.

The idea is that it identifies contributions to real wins, not to abstract constructs of wins, and sees them as a team result, for which players make varying contributions as pitchers, fielders, and batters.

Successful teams will have more big contributors but will have more credit to go around, and thus makes comparisons of contributions by players on good and bad teams possible. This is the system’s genius.

WAR attempts to do that, but because its wins are estimated rather than actual, some teams have fewer or more wins than WAR assigned to their individual players. But the idea is the same, to put a value on a season’s worth of production.

The downside of choosing the player who’s most valuable only in the context of meaningful pennant race games is that it virtually disqualifies players with bad teams.

Another option is the idea of value, period, and this is my position.

I’m not going to tell you how to calculate value. That’s up to you to do it as you like. You want to bank your money on batting average, RBIs, and pitchers’ wins, be my guest. But I will argue that a free market could tell you almost everything you need to know about who had the best season from the standpoint of people who are invested in knowing the right answer.

Take every scrap of information you can amass about a player, his offense and defense in a given year, his team’s results, his pitching, his arm, his speed, how hard he hits the ball, the quality of his pitches.

Take all that–everything but the player’s name and age and injuries–and create a file for each player and have a draft for the next season, in which owners bid money on the players they want to go to war with.

If you’re making a team to compete, you will be forced to decide how much each individual’s contribution to his team’s wins and losses is worth. If you want to consider only those players on winning teams, because the guys on losing teams can’t be that good, no one is going to tell you how to spend your money.

But if you had enough buyers, with enough interest in having the best collection of players, I guarantee a consensus would emerge about who the market thinks is the most valuable.

It’s not about how much a player is paid in real life, but about each unique season is worth in a free market. If you want to assign vastly more value to the defensive contribution of 150 games at first base than 130 elite innings on the mound, it’s your money, Pedro.

Now to be fair, I don’t cast my MVP vote 100 percent based on my analysis of a player’s production and contribution. Winning is important, and so if two guys are close and one is on a pennant winner and the other on a doormat, I would vote the guy on the winning team ahead of the other one.

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