Monday, September 15, 2008

Making the Case for Morneau

Two years ago, I wrote about how the MVP is a joke, because it's come down to nothing but a debate over what the criteria for the award should be. Justin Morneau won the American League MVP that year, and I had no problem with that. But, I just felt that the award should go to the Most Valuable Player, with no disqualification because so-and-so's a pitcher and they have their own award, and no inconsistency where sometimes it simply goes to the player with the best numbers, without any consideration for how truly valuable he was.

That year, I also handed out Charles Simone's first "annual" Babe Ruth Awards to Albert Pujols in the NL and David Ortiz in the AL. Then, of course, I completely forgot about it and failed to honor anyone last year. So, as silly as this seems right now, I'll give Charles Simone's 2007 Babe Ruth Awards to Matt Holliday in the NL and Alex Rodriguez in the AL. I'll try to remember to announce this year's awards in a somewhat more timely fashion.

The title of this post, however, is about Justin Morneau's 2008 MVP candidacy. I've mentioned this a few times already, in this blog as well as a couple of comments I've made on Casey's Clipboard. I'm more convinced now than I've ever been that Morneau is hands-down the leading candidate for the American League's Most Valuable Player award. Let's take a look at my main arguments for this.

First, I'm a major advocate that the MVP should come from a team that was a playoff contender. There are some circumstances where I might consider making an exception, but none of those apply this year. So, I'll start with the fact that Morneau is tied for the AL lead in RBI with 124, and his co-leader, Josh Hamilton, plays for a Texas Rangers team that is 15 1/2 games out in the wild card race, and 19 1/2 games behind the West division leading "Los Angeles" Angels. Hamilton, also, has considerably cooled off since the all-star break, driving in just 29 runs in 51 games, while Morneau has produced 56 RBI in 54 games over the same time frame. Additionally, the next highest total by any player on a team within 10 games of sniffing the playoffs is Kevin Youkilis' 102, 22 fewer than Morneau's total.

Not that I need to, but let's take a closer look at the Morneau-Youkilis comparison. Obviously, having teammates who reach base is a very important factor in a player's RBI total. The Twins, as a team, are 5th in the American League with a .340 OBP, while the Red Sox lead the league in that category at .360. Taking this a step further, the three players who have most commonly batted in the 1-2-3 positions in the Twins order (i.e. in front of Morneau) are Carlos Gomez (.292 OBP), Alexi Casilla (.337) and Joe Mauer (.409). If you simply calculate the average of these three, it's .346, still considerably lower than the Red Sox team average. Not very scientific I realize, but I still think it supports my point that Morneau is producing big-time RBI numbers surrounded by a mediocre supporting cast.

While we're still on the subject of supporting cast, the hitters who have provided protection in the lineup for Morneau are no more impressive. Michael Cuddyer, the most common batter in the 5th spot in the order for Minnesota, has a slugging percentage of .377 and an OPS of .703, significantly below the league averages of .420 and .755, respectively. Jason Kubel, he of the second most at-bats in the spot behind Morneau, has slugged a solid .464 with a .805 OPS. Still, it's safe to say that the hybrid of these two players is an average American League hitter, hardly the type that is needed to ensure that opposing teams need to pitch to an offensive threat such as Morneau. The fact that Morneau is tied for the AL lead in intentional walks, with 15, backs up my point that he's not seeing as many good pitches to hit as other players with stronger lineup protection behind them, particularly those on loaded offensive teams.

But, obviously, I'm not making the case for Morneau based on just one statistical category. He's scored 92 runs, and his simplistic runs produced (HR + R - HR) total of 193 is tops in the league. He's also hitting .312 (7th in AL), with 44 2B (6th), a .386 OBP (6th) and a .526 slugging percentage (9th).

I think I've made a pretty good case that Morneau's RBI total is truly relevant. I've also addressed the opinion that RBI is an over-rated statistic by showing that he's racked up more than impressive numbers while at a slight disadvantage to players on more balanced offensive teams. However, it's when I dig further and look at the true SABRmetric categories, those that don't depend on the performance of teammates, that my case is really reinforced.

If I'm going to use SABRmetric statistics, they need to have park and league adjustments built in, and the two best categories that fit the bill are Adjusted OPS+ (On-Base Percentage plus Slugging Percentage, adjusted to account for park and league factors) and Adjusted Batting Runs (the number of runs the player's production contributed to above that of a league average player, also adjusted for park factor). Morneau is 5th in the league in Adjusted OPS+, with only players from non-contenders (Milton Bradley, Alex Rodriguez, Aubrey Huff) and Carlos Quentin of the White Sox ahead of him. I'll address the Morneau vs. Quentin comparison later.

Morneau looks even better when Adjusted Batting Runs is used. He trails only Milton Bradley and Alex Rodriguez there. Bradley, despite ranking first in both of these categories, not only plays for a sub-.500 Texas Rangers team, but just hasn't produced enough actual runs to warrant consideration (74 runs, 74 RBI). Rodriguez has had a good year, although he's been booed almost incessantly in New York based on the perception that he hasn't come through in the clutch this year. Regardless of whether or not that's fair, he just hasn't done enough for an underachieving Yankees team to be a candidate for MVP.

Check out's 2008 American League Expanded Leaderboards to take a look at the statistics I've referred to here. For a better explanation of what these statistics mean, see their Batting Stats Glossary.

Since I previously referred to my personal preference of giving the award only to players on teams that at least were in contention for the playoffs, I should take a look at the other leading candidates from each of those teams. I'm really only considering five teams here: the Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Angels. The Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees are the only other teams above .500, and while both teams were considered playoff contenders at times this season, the Blue Jays, given their late push for the postseason that appears to be coming up short, would be the only of those two for whom I'd consider a candidate. However, that candidate would have to be pretty exceptional, and while Roy Halladay has had an excellent year, I don't think it's been good enough to warrant serious consideration. The Yankees were major underachievers, so I would find it hard to justify any player on that team being considered most valuable.

So, that leaves the five contenders, one of which, the Twins or White Sox, will be left out of postseason action. But, that doesn't matter, as a team remaining in the race until the last half of September is a championship contender. During the stretch run, they're simply playing for the right to advance to the next round. Let's look at the candidates from each of these teams.

Tampa Bay is one of those teams from which it would be difficult to choose who has been their most valuable player, let alone the league's. Many have suggested that it's Evan Longoria, but he's just returned from missing an entire month, doesn't have enough at-bats to qualify for the lead in any of the average categories, and doesn't lead the team in any significant cumulative categories. James Shields is their most valuable pitcher, but he's hardly an MVP candidate.

For Chicago, Carlos Quentin was once considered the league's leading MVP candidate, but he's out for the final month of the season, and that's reason enough to eliminate him from consideration, especially for a team that is still fighting for a playoff spot. Jermaine Dye has had a very good season as well, but he's still overshadowed by Quentin on his own team. The pitching staff has been solid, but there are no exceptional performers there.

The Los Angeles Angels have the best record in the American League, and have had the easiest road to the playoffs, clinching the division title earlier than any AL West team in history. Their most valuable player would have to be Francisco Rodriguez, but, despite breaking the all-time single season saves record, his season is statistically inferior to several other AL closers, including Joe Nathan, Mariano Rivera, Joakim Soria and Jonathan Papelbon.

Among Morneau's own teammates, Joe Mauer has had a very good year (.322, 8 HR, 73 RBI), but his season pales in comparison to Morneau's. Joe Nathan has also been impressive, but a closer would have to be truly exceptional to earn my MVP vote, and Nathan comes up short of that distinction.

That leaves the Red Sox, and I saved them for last for a reason. They have who I consider to be the two most compelling candidates other than Morneau. The Boston media and fans have been trumpeting the candidacy of Dustin Pedroia of late, but it was just a few weeks ago that their man was Kevin Youkilis. Personally, I still think Youkilis is a stronger candidate, although it's hard to ignore the post-all star break numbers of Pedroia. I've already made the case for Morneau over Youkilis, though, and Morneau's second-half production compares favorably to Pedroia's. But, most importantly, the fact that the Red Sox have two strong candidates further supports my point that Morneau is easily more valuable to his team than either of those players, especially considering J.D. Drew was their first-half MVP.

With that, I rest my case, and welcome anyone to share their opinion with me on this subject, even if you which case you'd be wrong.

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