The Common Man is very amused by the controversy generated by Keith Law’s 2nd-place vote for Javier Vazquez on his Cy Young Award ballot. Law, as most of the Interwebz has learned since yesterday, crunched some numbers and came up with a very convincing argument that Vazquez provided the second most value in the National League, and that the innings Chris Carpenter did not throw while on the disabled list dropped him below Adam Wainwright in terms of overall value. Law has been accused of bias and incompetence (which, really, is a normal day for him, given how pig-headed and traditional analysis-minded many ESPN.com readers and baseball fans in general are) because of his vote. It’s a shame, because unlike some other voters, the diminutive and cherubic KLaw lays out a thoughtful and transparent reasoning for his vote on his ESPN blog, and has clearly done his due diligence in preparing his ballot.
For the better part of two days, on Shyster’s Hardball Times site, there has been a proxy battle raging between Law’s champions and detractors (okay, mostly one or two detractors) that seem to be raising the same concerns that writers and pundits are raising nationally. When he was on the mound, these detractors argue (often without this amount of coherency), he was at least one of the three best pitchers in the league, if not the best (AND LOOK AT HIS W-L RECORD AND ERA !!!!11!!!!11), and that the award is meant to honor the best pitcher in each league, which is not necessarily always the most valuable. Quantity, they seem to argue, is trumped by quality.
While the argument is relatively (ahem) by numbers, some interesting points were brought up over the course of the discussion. One commenter in the Shyster thread, a “civilwarmike,” wonders, “To dock Carpenter because of innings pitched? Does that mean Joe Mauer will should not[sic] be the MVP because he missed the first month of the season? Just wondering. “ It’s an interesting idea, Carpenter and Mauer both missed roughly a month of the season, and were huge question marks as they came back from their shoulder and kidney problems, respectively. Both ended up being big time performers for their clubs, who both (largely on the strength of their stars’ performances) won their respective divisions. And if we are going to count the time and innings Carpenter missed against him, don’t we also have to do the same to Mauer.
The answer, obviously, is that of course we have to count Mauer’s time and plate appearances missed against him. In 226 plate appearances, Minnesota’s non-Mauer catchers hit .277/.335/.335 with no homers. In April, Jose Morales and Mike Redmond combined to hit .297/.358/.351. It’s almost assured that Mauer would have outperformed that duo. So his absence not only hurt Mauer’s individual stats, but it undoubtedly hurt his club. In April, the Twins scuffled out of the gate to an 11-11 mark, and finished the month in fourth place, a game back of (chortle) the Kansas City Royals.
But Mauer’s absence does not tell the whole story. On the first pitch of the season, Mauer lined a bullet into the leftfield bleachers in the Metrodome and didn’t stop hitting from then on. Mauer finished with an ungodly .365/.444/.587 line, with 191 hits, 28 HR, 96 RBI, and 94 runs scored. It was one of the two or three best seasons ever by a catcher. His OPS+ was 170 (Mark Teixeira was second at 149). Despite missing a full month, Mauer led the American League in Runs Created, and contributed more than a win more to his team than any other American League hitter according to Adjusted Batting Wins. According to Baseball Prospectus, Mauer contributed almost 18 more runs versus replacement level to his team’s offense than Derek Jeter (89 to 71) and 1.4 wins more than Ben Zobrist in WARP, the second leading hitter (9.0 to 7.6, though Zack Greinke actually led the American League with 9.5). Fangraphs lists Zobrist as the Major League leader in WAR, with 8.6 wins, but a) Mauer finished just behind with 8.2 wins and b) as Jeremy Greenhouse pointed out for Baseball Prospectus last Tuesday, catcher defense and catcher replacement levels are not properly valued yet by WAR. No matter what stat you use, it’s pretty clear that Joe Mauer has lifted and separated himself from the rest of the field of AL MVP candidates simply because the value he added during the time he was on the field was so far, even quantitatively, beyond what other hitters contributed over the full season.
Carpenter, on the other hand, suffers in this analysis because of the quality of his competition. While Carpenter was terrific while he was on the field, the other competitors for the NL Cy Young were almost as good if not a little better. Carpenter finished sixth in the National League in WAR behind Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, Vazquez, Dan Haren, Wainwright, and Ubaldo Jimenez. He finishes 6th in WARP behind those same five minus Wainwright, but plus Jair Juerrens. He finishes second to Lincicum in VORP for pitchers, and third behind Lincecum and Vazquez in FIP. With fewer K/9 and K/BB and fewer IP, it is impossible to construct an argument for Carpenter beyond looking at his W-L record and ERA. And in a packed bunch of starters, it is entirely reasonable that the value lost by the month he missed knocks Carpenter out of the race.
It’s really that simple. On the one hand, the players’ individual seasons are very similar in terms of the paths they took. However, the contexts in which they are competing for their respective post-season awards are completely different. There is far more evidence than Joe Mauer belongs in the top spot of every single AL MVP ballot than evidence that Carpenter even belongs in the top three of the NL. Sorry Cardinals fans.