There's no simple formula to determine an MVP
With more than stats in play, viewpoint of the voters results in interesting choices
Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout or Chris Davis? Andrew McCutchen, Yadier Molina or Paul Goldschmidt? Here we go again.
Defining a Most Valuable Player is left to the discretion of the person holding a Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot. Should it be the outstanding individual performer -- regardless of his team's standing -- or a star contributing heavily to a contender? It's a debate that has raged since the award was created more than a century ago.
In 1911, Detroit's Ty Cobb, after batting .420, was the first American League MVP in a runaway. But there was dissent over the National League vote, by which the Cubs' Frank Schulte, a .300 hitter with power, won over 26-game winner Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants and rookie Pete Alexander, Philadelphia's 28-game winner.
All these years later, WAR (Wins Above Replacement) shows that the MVP should have gone to Brooklyn pitcher Nap Rucker, followed closely by Alexander and Mathewson. While Cobb led the Majors in WAR at 10.7, Rucker, who went 22-18, had a 8.9 WAR, eclipsing Schulte's 5.2. The analytics crowd would have been up in arms.
Back in current time, the Angels' Trout led Major League Baseball in WAR for the second straight year. Yet there's a strong likelihood he will finish behind the Tigers' Cabrera again when the AL's MVP is revealed Thursday at 6 p.m. ET on MLB Network and MLB.com.
There were howls of protest from the sabermetrics community last year when the vote went decisively to the Triple Crown-winning Cabrera. The argument then, repeated now, is that Trout's all-around excellence supersedes Cabrera's peerless offensive production.
Baseball-Reference.com's WAR ratings gave Trout a significant advantage, 9.2 to 7.2, over Cabrera for the 2013 season. The margin was even greater last year: 10.9 for Trout, 7.3 for Cabrera.
Cabrera played hurt, with groin and abdominal issues, down the stretch and in the postseason, inspiring teammates in the manner of an MVP.
"When you see the MVP, Triple Crown winner, going out there and busting his tail each and every day and giving it all he has -- you have a tremendous amount of respect for him, and that just motivates you," Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson said.
Once again, the Tigers reached the postseason and the Angels did not. That is clearly a factor in the minds of voters given to assessing bonus points for team performance.
In the NL, the frontrunner appears to be McCutchen, the charismatic star of a Pittsburgh team that captivated the nation with its drive to the postseason. Baseball-Reference.com's version of WAR gives the Bucs center fielder an 8.2-to-7.1 edge over Goldschmidt. Molina's 5.7 serves to underscore WAR's difficulty in assessing statistical merit to the all-encompassing impact of a premier catcher.
Team performance -- the Cardinals won the NL Central, the Pirates claimed a Wild Card and the D-backs finished 11 games out in the NL West -- is no help to an argument in favor of Goldschmidt, whose tremendous season ran parallel to that of the Orioles' Davis.
Molina is expected to have shared MVP support with teammate Matt Carpenter, impacting the catcher's campaign.
History does not favor Molina, arguably the most valuable player of the era in guiding his team to three pennants and two World Series titles since 2006 with a revolving cast of pitchers.
Over the past 50 years, seven MVP Awards have gone to catchers: Elston Howard (1963), Thurman Munson ('76), Johnny Bench ('70 and '72), Ivan Rodriguez ('99), Joe Mauer (2009) and Buster Posey ('12). Each player was lifted by formidable offensive seasons.
During that same time frame, eight pitchers -- five starters and three relievers -- have been an MVP. The Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, the Tigers' Max Scherzer and World Series-champion Koji Uehara of the Red Sox surely drew support, but obviously not enough, since none of them were named among the top three vote-getters in their league.
The MVP balloting traditionally has favored the run producers -- and WAR generally is in agreement. If WAR had its way, Barry Bonds would have been an 11-time MVP in a 15-season span. His godfather, Willie Mays, would have been the MVP 10 times in 13 years. Mays led the Majors in WAR seven times, Bonds on five occasions.
Bill James' 2002 "Win Shares" points to a number of occasions when an all-around standout was outpolled by a slugger. This leads one to ponder if the MVP balloting impacted the Hall of Fame candidacies of the likes of Ron Santo, Tim Raines and Alan Trammell, among others.
Raines, the NL's version of Rickey Henderson, might be enshrined in Cooperstown if he had won the 1986 and '87 NL MVPs that James' win shares say he merited. The awards went to Mike Schmidt and Andre Dawson, respectively.
Raines also tied Willie McGee, the 1985 NL MVP, with 36 win shares. Henderson had 38 win shares that season, six more than AL MVP and Yankees teammate Don Mattingly.
In 1987, the Tigers' Trammell earned nine more win shares (35-26) than MVP George Bell of the Blue Jays. Raines' margin for the Expos (34-20) was even greater over the Cubs' Dawson that year.
The Blue Jays' Roberto Alomar almost doubled the win shares (34-18) of AL MVP Dennis Eckersley of the A's in 1992. Eleven years earlier, Henderson had a similar margin (27-17) over AL MVP Rollie Fingers of Milwaukee.
When Henderson finally won an AL MVP in 1990, in his second tour with Oakland, he was the first leadoff man to land an MVP since the Yankees' Phil Rizzuto in 1950.
Santo was a Hall of Fame inductee in 2012, two years after his death, elected by a Veterans Committee. If he had won the 1967 NL MVP Award, which went to the Cardinals' Orlando Cepeda, it would have enhanced his resume. Santo, according to James, led the NL that season with 38 win shares, four more than Cepeda. As so often has happened in the MVP balloting, defense was not a significant factor.
Jackie Robinson, a man who changed America, was the NL MVP in 1949, his third season with Brooklyn. WAR also had him as the top NL player in '51 and '52.
Fellow pioneer Larry Doby of the Indians was WAR's top AL player in 1952, but he finished 12th in the MVP balloting, won by 24-game winner Bobby Shantz of the A's. Two years later, Doby, with a higher WAR, ran second to Yogi Berra in the AL MVP vote. Minnie Minoso of the White Sox was the league leader in WAR.
Statistical evaluations of defense have made strides, but hardened pros in the dugout rely on their eyes and instincts. There are simply too many variables involved for defense to be broken down with numbers as accurately as offense and pitching.
"WAR?" Dodgers coach Davey Lopes said. "I don't even know what it is. What does it mean? I go by what I see, not with what a computer says."
Lopes has been involved in the Major Leagues since 1972 as a player, coach and manager. His view is shared by many of his peers.
"Stats give you information," Lopes said. "But there's a lot more to the game than numbers -- leadership, intangibles, who you trust in certain situations. Anyone who played the game will tell you that."
There was a time, in the first half of the 1950s, when catchers were prized by voters as much as by teammates. Brooklyn's Roy Campanella and the Yankees' Berra were three-time MVPs: Campy in '51, '53 and '55; Yogi in '51, '54 and '55.
The Cards, to a man, will tell you nobody in the game matches the total value of Molina. Rated behind the Cubs' Welington Castillo and the Pirates' Russell Martin this year in defensive WAR, Molina won his sixth consecutive Gold Glove while batting a career-high .319.
"He knows every pitcher better than anyone," young Cards starter Joe Kelly said. "He studies us, the other team. You go into a game knowing you have a good plan. He knows hitters' strengths and weaknesses. Not only is he a good defender, he blocks everything in the dirt. That's really underrated, knowing he'll block anything you throw."
McCutchen had another brilliant season and is a worthy MVP candidate. But there has to be strong sentiment for Molina, the workhorse and complete package.
Molina's strongest MVP finish was fourth, last year. Previously, his best showing had been 21st -- in the 2011 World Series-championship season.
Tony La Russa managed that team and has watched the Cards, under successor Mike Matheny, come within one win of a World Series appearance in 2012 and two wins of a championship this season. The one constant over a decade of success: Yadier Molina.
"Yadi is amazing in his total command of the game," La Russa said with firm conviction. "He's the best I've seen in my 50 years in the game."
Has his MVP time finally come?
Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.