To MVP or Not to MVP
Ever call someone an “MVP” in a non-sports context?
The expression “Most Valuable Player” or MVP has made its way out of the sports world and into everyday parlance; and hence in almost any context involving a group of people, one individual might be considered most valuable to the team. The ongoing debate, however, with respect to MVPs in sports is whether the MVP is the best player in the league, or the one who’s been most valuable to their team’s success in a given sports season. On the former interpretation, the MVP is the player whose performance is judged to have been the most outstanding in a given season, no matter whether their team had a good season or not, made the playoffs or not, or was even part of the conversation all season — or not.
On the latter interpretation, the MVP is the player whose performance is judged to have had the most impact on their team in a given season, leading that team to success, to a potential playoff berth, or at least to being a contender throughout the season.
In Major League Baseball, until his injury-plagued season this past year, common opinion has had it that Mike Trout’s been the American League’s best player since 2012. And not just common opinion: Trout’s actually won three MVP awards over that span, as well as being MVP runner-up four times during that period. This past year’s AL MVP award winner, however, was Shohei Ohtani. And although Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays gave Ohtani a bit of a run for his money, Ohtani did, ultimately, win the award.
The interesting and obvious fact about both Trout and Ohtani, however, is that they both play for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim — a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2014, in which the team lost the ALDS and didn’t make it past the first postseason round. That remains the only playoff series in which Trout has ever participated; and Ohtani hasn’t played one playoff game in his short MLB career to date. Among MLB MVP voters, then, it’s pretty clear that being impactful to your team’s success is not a primary consideration in who wins the award.
Shohei Ohtani #17 greeted by Mike Trout #27 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim after scoring a run in the second inning of the game against the Texas Rangers at Angel Stadium on June 3, 2018 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
Further evidence of this is the 2021 National League MVP, Bryce Harper of the Phillies. And Harper certainly had impressive numbers:
“Harper’s MVP credentials rested in his leading the National League — and all of Major League Baseball, at that — with a .615 slugging percentage, 1.044 OPS and 170 wRC+. Those numbers topped (Juan) Soto’s by 81, 45 and seven points, respectively. The defense metrics favored Soto — three to negative-six defensive runs saved, for example — but Harper’s bat overruled that difference.
He (Harper) also led the league in doubles, extra-base hits, OPS+, weighted on-base average (both expected and actual) and win probability added. Harper was the only player in the National League to post a .300/.400/.600 slash line this season. Harper (also) blasted 35 home runs on the year” (Nathan Ackerman, Phillies Nation, November 18, 2021).
Neither Bryce Harper’s Phillies nor Juan Soto’s Nationals made the postseason in 2021, though these two players were the respective top MVP vote receivers from the writers — with Harper ultimately edging out Soto. Neither one played for the Atlanta Braves, who won the World Series despite missing their one player, in Ronald Acuña, Jr., who might actually have competed with Harper and Soto for the numbers. And so in the NL as well as in the AL, the Most Valuable Player award went to the player with the overall most impressive numbers (or in Ohtani’s case, unique two-way ability) rather than to any player who contributed most to his team’s ultimate success in the season and/or postseason.
Bryce Harper #34 and Juan Soto #22 of the Washington Nationals celebrate after scoring on a double by Ryan Zimmerman #11 in the sixth inning against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park on August 7, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
In fact, 52 MVPs over the years haven’t come from playoff teams.
There’s a history behind all this, however, as there is behind everything in baseball. One rule of thumb in Major League Baseball, as we all know, is that any phenomenon that’s occurred more than once probably has a healthy tradition either supporting it or at the very least, setting a precedent for it. And in the case of the MVP, because the voting occurs prior to the playoffs, playoff numbers do not count. But it goes further than this. The Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) doesn’t offer a clear-cut definition of what “most valuable” means, instead leaving the judgment to the individual voters. And it seems the writers traditionally haven’t voted for the players who’ve contributed most to taking their teams to the playoffs, but rather for those who’ve been “the best in the league” in a given year. In fact, 52 MVPs over the years haven’t come from playoff teams.
“There have been MVPs in one league or another whose teams did not make the playoffs. The most current example is Mike Trout, who has won three MVP awards, but only has participated in one playoff series, 2014. Barry Bonds won four consecutive MVP awards in 2001–2004, but the Giants made the playoffs only in two of those years. Cal Ripken won in 1991, but the Orioles did not make the playoffs, and Andre Dawson won in 1987 when the Cubs did not make the playoffs. Some other notable examples are Don Mattingly in 1985 and Keith Hernandez in 1979” (Michael Critelli, Quora, May 2021).
Don Mattingly #23 of the New York Yankees does a radio interview while sitting in the dugout after an MLB game circa 1985 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)
And so, at the end of the day, is the MVP award really just a popularity contest? What follows is the best argument I’ve come across for how the voters vote in the ways they do. And it lends some credibility to the MVP not always coming from a winning team:
“Here is the simplest way I’ve found to explain the reasoning behind awarding a player on a losing/non-playoff team an MVP trophy, especially in baseball. Let’s say that there are two wallets sitting on a table. One wallet has $150 worth of $5 bills in it. The other wallet has 10 $1 bills and one crisp Ben Franklin $100 bill. Which wallet is worth more money? Obviously, you’d rather have the wallet with $150 in it than the one with only $110. That $150 wallet is the more valuable TEAM, but what is the most valuable bill? Clearly it’s the $100 bill in the less valuable wallet. Having the most valuable piece, doesn’t automatically make you the best team, in the same way that having the best team doesn’t guarantee that you have the best individual piece. It is no fault of the $100 bill that he’s surrounded by $1s (no disrespect to the Phillies or Angels, who have other good players outside of Harper and Ohtani). The award is for the Most Valuable Player, and the reality is that even the best player in baseball cannot always create success for an organization” (Connor Thomas, The 97.5 Fanatic Philadelphia, November 19, 2021).
There’s no doubt the lack of definition of “most valuable” has added color and dimension to the MVP award and its voting process; but it’s also left many of us wondering why the name of the award isn’t simply changed to something like “Most Outstanding Player” (MOP) award. And if you want to argue that the most outstanding players at the very least were the most valuable members of their teams, well then you could probably have 25-30 viable candidates every season.
Keith Hernandez of the St. Louis Cardinals poses with a framed photo of his at bat when he was named a co-recipient of the National League's Most Valuable Player award, St. Louis, Missouri, November 13, 1979. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)
All of which brings us back to our original question: what does “MVP” mean in baseball? I don’t really think that question’s been answered here. How MVP voters interpret the designation seems to differ; and when the “best player” in the league happens to fortuitously overlap with one of the best teams in the league, the MVP designation hits the jackpot.
It’s those cases in which the best player in the league doesn’t play on one of the best teams in the league that continue to confound us. In my personal discussions, I’ve suggested that perhaps sports leagues ought to begin considering two different awards, with two different designations: an MVP for the most impactful player who’s helped to carry their team to the postseason, and a “best overall player” award that’s awarded independently of whether the player’s team had any real success that year or not. Though most leagues seem to have position by position awards of some sort (gold gloves and silver sluggers and Cy Youngs in MLB), the particular differentiation I’m describing hardly seems to exist. And yet, perhaps its time has finally arrived.