Debating K-Rod’s MVP Candidacy

Intelligent DogAuthor at I’m Writing Sports and friend of the blog Nick Underhill recently wrote a column supporting L.A. Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez for the AL MVP award. My dog (in the picture to your right) read it and also disagreed with it, and I’d like to explain why.

As usual, Nick makes a strong case, but there were some areas in which I felt he was incorrect.

Nick starts out by mentioning that K-Rod has 45 saves, which is 13 more saves than the Royals’ Joakim Soria in second place, but it’s out of 49 chances for a 92% success rate. Still good, but counting statistics are only meaningful if you know how large is the pie you’re drawing from. He does mention that Soria (94%), Joe Nathan (94%), and Mariano Rivera (100%) have better SV% than Rodriguez, and that’s just in the A.L. Brad Lidge (100%) and Brian Wilson (94%) are also better from the N.L.

His saves are legit, unlike many closers he actually pitches in close games, in large part because the Angels can’t score runs (they currently rank eighth in the AL). Fifteen of his saves have come in one-run games, and only 8 occurred in games the Angels have won by more than two runs. He’s also durable. 17 times he’s saved games on back-to-back days, which is the exact kind of thing that allows a team to go on a run and separate from the pack.

Closers, as a result of the criteria for a save, almost always pitch in close games (within three runs).

16 of Nathan’s 30 saves have come in one-run games, and only 5 of his saves have come in games the Twins have won by more than two runs.

Running those numbers for the other closers…

Soria: 15 of 32 saves in one-run games, 6 saves have come with the Royals winning by more than two runs.

Rivera: 13 of 26 saves in one-run games, 8 saves have come with the Yankees winning by more than two runs.

Lidge: 13 of 28 saves in one-run games, 4 saves have come with the Phillies winning by more than two runs.
Wilson: 16 of 31 saves in one-run games, 9 saves have come with the Giants winning by more than two runs.

A more accurate measure of this, though, is Win Probability Added which can be found at FanGraphs. A look at our group:

Name: Win Probability Added

Lidge: 4.07

Soria: 3.57

Nathan: 3.51

Rodriguez: 3.14

Rivera: 3.04

Wilson: 2.91

There isn’t any importance in pitching on back-to-back days. There are a lot of variables that come into play with that and none of them have to do with the closer. Furthermore, if you need to rely on your closer so often because your games are always close late in the game, then you’re not going to “go on a run and separate from the pack.” Your Expected W-L in those games will put you close to .500 (try it yourself).

Remember, it’s the most valuable player, not the most talented. If that were the case, Josh Hamilton, what with his stats and feel good story, would definitely be the front-runner, but as we all know, if you don’t get into the playoffs, then you don’t win the MVP. It’s that simple.

I’ve never understood this logic. If John Q. Awesomeplayer puts up a .375/.450/.650 slash line with 85 HR and 215 RBI, but his team goes 0-162, he wouldn’t win the MVP? You’d give it to Jason Z. Goodplayer who put up a slash line of .315/.385/.515 with 35 HR and 135 RBI because his team went 162-0? Egregious example, yes, but it shows the fallacy of the “an MVP has to come from a playoff team” claim.

According to VORP, K-Rod isn’t even the best pitcher on his team. Expectedly, he and his 14.8 VORP are behind three starters: Joe Saunders (34.2), Ervin Santana (33.6), and John Lackey (26.6). As the saying goes, “How can someone win the MVP if he’s not even the best player on his own team?”

There is also playing time to account for. K-Rod has pitched 48.7 innings this season and the Angels have had 1,008 total innings, which means K-Rod is only in 4.8% of the Angels’ innings. Meanwhile, you have offensive players who play nearly every inning of every game, like Torii Hunter, who has logged 854 innings (85%) in the field. Starters, too: Ervin Santana has pitched nearly 150 innings (15%). This is why many like to argue that closers shouldn’t win the MVP or Cy Young awards: they are on the field for an extremely small amount of innings compared to the other players.

Nick goes on to point out that K-Rod’s numbers aren’t all that great, and that’s true by his own standards. He has a 176 ERA+ which is great, but doesn’t come close to his 2004 and ’06 seasons where he put up a 247 and 264 ERA+ respectively. His rates are all down as we can see in this screenshot from FanGraphs (click to enlarge):

Table

His strikeout rate is significantly down and his walk rate is up. The two things you should notice are his BABIP, which is .252 (we should expect it to be around .325 with a 20.5% LD) and his FIP which is 3.76 in contrast to his 2.40 ERA. K-Rod has been really lucky on balls in play and his defense has shaved nearly a run and a half off of his ERA. After all, the Angels do have one of the best defenses in the American League (+13).

Look, the truth is, his resume is softer than Snuggles, but look around the American League, who else is there? What one player jumps out at you from Tampa Bay? Chicago? Boston? Minnesota?

Tampa Bay: Evan Longoria (31.5 VORP).

Chicago: Jermaine Dye (35.8), Carlos Quentin (36.8).

Boston: Kevin Youkilis (40.2).

Minnesota: Justin Morneau (41.1).

Also: Grady Sizemore (52.8), Alex Rodriguez (51.7), Ian Kinsler (47.4), Milton Bradley (46.6), Josh Hamilton (45.4), Aubrey Huff (40.6).

Remember: Francisco Rodriguez (14.8).

The only true headliner on a winning team, Manny Ramirez, has departed to the West Coast.

So, by default, it looks like Francisco Rodriguez is going to be your 2008 AL MVP. I don’t think that Rodriguez should win the MVP, but with the way voting is, along with a serious drought in star power among the contending teams, it looks like it’s going to happen.

There isn’t a “serious drought in star power among the contending teams.” We’re all familiar with Dye, Youkilis, Sizemore, A-Rod, Morneau, and Kinsler. The only surprises, really, are Longoria and Quentin. Bradley has always been a great hitter but has been sidelined by injuries and Hamilton showed us what he was capable of last season with the Reds.

Regardless, “star power” isn’t a criteria for the MVP award. If you’re Steve Nobody (where do I come up with these creative names?) and you put up the numbers that A-Rod put up last season, you deserve to win the award just as much.

I say all of this about K-Rod without even getting into the argument (which Nick correctly acknowledged) that the save rule is arbitrary and meaningless. That’s not K-Rod’s fault, of course, but it certainly would deduct even more points from his supposed MVP candidacy.

By the way, the last pitcher to win the NL MVP was Bob Gibson in 1968. The AL MVP award was won by closer Dennis Eckersley in 1992 and his numbers were vastly superior to K-Rod’s.