Thursday, September 11, 2008

Dear Dayn Perry of Fox Sports

Every year, as the baseball season winds down and the awards discussions rev up, a cadre of writers and personalities argue that the MVP need not come from a winning team. At best they are resolute; at worst they are condescendingly dismissive. Dayn Perry would fall into the latter category. He says it is "completely nonsensical to limit the MVP candidacy to players on contending teams." Really? Nonsensical?

I think I'm about to make a pretty good case that it is Dayn's argument that makes little sense. But I'm not arrogant or dumb enough to say it's nonsensical. Obviously there is some sense to it since it represents one side of a perennial debate, which wouldn't exist if there wasn't at least some sense to both sides. In this case, there is some sense to both sides but limiting the candidacy to contenders makes much more sense.

The strongest argument is that baseball, and evey sport, is about winning championships - be they wild card "championships," divison titles, league titles, or the World Series. Therefore, a player performing well on a contender has more value than a player performing at the same level or even above that level for a loser. It is simply harder to play for a contender. Ask Alex Rodriguez, or rather look at his stats. Even in Seattle and Texas, he really took off once his team fell from contention and the pressure to perform lessened (or at least abated). And he's not the only player. It simply makes sense that there is more pressure on contenders and that makes performance more difficult for 99.9% of us.

Furthermore, every contribution to a contender is more valuable than that to a club out of contention. If the reason the games are played is to win a championship, then even small contributions move a team in contention towards that goal. Contrarily, if a team has been eliminated (mathematically or otherwise), even large contributions do nothing to move the team towards the goal, which is unattainable.

This does not mean that the player absolutely must come from a contender every year. As I said, I see the other side of the argument - that modern baseball is a business so value is measured in terms of generating fan interest (dollars) and winning is only one factor. There is some truth to this, which is why an exceptional player on a losing team should win if there are no adequate choices from a contender. On this point, I agee with Perry - a stacked contender like the 2008 Cubs has no real MVP candidate because the depth of the team allows it to absorb injuries to any of its key players. No player is really most valuable to the team's winning percentage.

But these situations should be and have been appropriately rare (on this point Perry blatantly distorts the truth; the MVP has pretty consistently come from winning teams). To argue that winning is just one factor is to embrace, condone, and thus perpetuate the modern, me-first attitude developing especially in pro sports. If winning is only one of several equally important factors to a player's value, it makes perfect sense to care little about it because it is the factor least under the individual's control. If I am a supremely talented pro athlete and my value is equal parts individual performance and team results, then I concentrate on the first since the second is beyond my control. The result is a selfish athlete who has been taught not to worry about the team's success; you have a system full of J.D. Drews. And I have never seen a more boring, supremely gifted athlete than the elder Drew.

If you want the text book definition of an MVP, look no further than Barry Lamar Bonds. Hate him or love him, he put up exceptional numbers on a contending team that was utterly dependent on him to stay in contention. Steroids or not (and I only include the 'or not' because I am a loyal Giants fan), all MVP candidates should be measured against that standard as the ideal. Less exceptional numbers hurts, more support on your team is more damaging, and falling from contention is crippling. The scale slides accordingly.

Or listen to Dayn Perry. Make it all about the numbers and dollars. But keep your damn mouth shut about selfish, obnoxious players because you cannot create them and then whine when they arrive.

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