It’s not just an award based on stats, it’s about the value the player has to his club. Were it strictly about the numbers it would be a very easy thing to predict. Don’t get me wrong, obviously superior numbers is the main way to assess a given player’s contributions but it’s not the only criteria. Further, which stats do you use to determine who is worthy: RBI, home runs, runs scored, BRAA, RCAA, VORP, WAB, OPS+?
A lot of other things go into it, defense, playing time, leading by example etc. Awhile back on THT, I used the following comparison (slightly edited):
Let’s take two players on a division champion—one was an average fielding first baseman who posted an OPS+ of 139, the other, a Gold Glove cannon armed corner outfielder that posted an OPS+ of 141 who, by the way, won the MVP the previous season. Of note, the right fielder was an All Star in this particular season while the first baseman was not.
Who is the better MVP candidate?
Well, in 1979 Willie “Pops” Stargell was named co-MVP (Keith Hernandez) while Dave Parker finished 10th. Why the discrepancy? What happened that made the voters feel that despite being an inferior on-field performer he received 150 more MVP points than the superior player?
If you were around in 1979 you remember the “We are family” Pirates and Stargell was the unquestioned team leader (hence the nickname “Pops”). If you look at game photos from that season, you’ll notice differing numbers of stars sown on various players’ caps. Stargell bestowed them on players who made an outstanding contribution in a given game. Each and every player considered getting a star from Stargell an honour—that’s how well regarded Stargell was. That respect, coupled with a .281/.352/.552 batting line, 32 home run, 82 RBI was enough in the voters’ minds to give the award to he, rather than the All Star who hit .310/.380/.526 with 25 HR and 94 RBI backed with Gold Glove defense.
Certain players are known for accumulating stats but aren’t considered ‘winning ballplayers.’ We remember manager Alvin Dark’s famous (though dubious) rip on Orlando Cepeda: “Among other things, I'm getting sick and tired of people leading the league in home runs and runs batted in and not helping us any!” Regardless of the validity (or lack thereof) of that assessment it does serve as a reminder that baseball remains a team game. A valuable player is one who subordinates personal goals for the good of the team. A grand slam is always nice, however in a tie game with one out in the bottom of the ninth a hitter will be looking to make firm contact rather than swinging from his glutes since only one run is needed. If a player is looking for a grand salami rather than plating the winning run (to help with his next contract) and whiffs; well, that’s not very valuable to a team--especially if it is done on a regular basis in such situations.
I have devoted a lot of words lately blasting Scott Boras for marketing Alex Rodriguez as a guy who will accumulate incredible personal number rather than a key cog for a championship roster.
Another factor is playing time; a first baseman with an OPS+ of 180 but plays in just 100 games due to injury isn’t as valuable as a Gold Glove shortstop with an OPS+ of 130 who rarely misses a game. The team has to find someone to man first base who will be a poorer offensive player to the regular. Meanwhile, the shortstop position gets a high quality bat for 160 games and the lineup never has to deal with a decline in the batting order’s potency that not playing will create.
There are other things that contribute to a player’s value that won’t show up in the numbers (depending on position): good base running (above and beyond stolen base proficiency), throwing to the correct base, hitting the cut off man, being aware when the other team has a play on, disrupting the opposing team’s defense/pitcher (not a reference to A-Rod’s MINE! stunt) a la Rickey Henderson, staying out/breaking up double plays, converting double play opportunities when they arise, preventing passed balls/wild pitches etc.
Getting back to Rollins, I think where most of the angst will be directed is at his slightly lower than league average OBP (.344). A couple of things have to be borne in mind, one it’s one blemish among a ton of positives:
The other thing is Rollins OBP was largely due to a crummy May when it was an abysmal .279. The other five months Rollins OBP was .359 and he posted a .353 OBP from June 1 through the end of the season. Also, it represented Rollins best year in that category since 2004 and second-best of his career.
- He led the NL in runs (139) and triples (20).
- Had a rare season with 20 or more doubles (39), triples (20), home runs (30) and stolen bases (41).
- Enjoyed a 30-30 season.
- Was only caught stealing six times for an 87% success rate.
- Tied for 2nd in the NL with 212 hits and total bases (380).
- Set a NL record for total bases by a shortstop; in MLB only Alex Rodriguez had more total bases as a shortstop (1998, 2001 and 2002).
- Played in every game.
- Although it was awarded after votes were submitted, Rollins won the NL Gold Glove.
- Despite batting leadoff in the NL, 80 of his 93 RBI were garnered hitting atop the lineup.
Folks will ask ‘How can he be MVP when he’s only the third or fourth best player on his own team?’
Again, it is not an award for a team’s best player, it’s for the club’s most valuable player. Earlier we discussed the 1979 Pirates and Stargell’s value over Dave Parker. Yes, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell and Aaron Rowand all had higher adjusted OPS+. Rollins manned a key defensive position while Burrell and Howard were lower on the defensive spectrum and performed without positive distinction with the leather. Utley, a superior defender, missed 30 games obligating the Phillies to play an inferior talent both offensively and defensively for almost 20% of the schedule. Philadelphia had Rollins’ talents for every game. Rowand had Rollins durability (161 games) and played a key defensive position yet was possibly not as good a defender relative to the league and lacked Rollins’ threat on the base paths.
Again, it’s a question of total value and not simply a player’s adjusted offensive contributions.
Finally, Rollins made a bold prediction at the beginning of the season and never backed down from it. He talked the talk and walked the walk. It’s easy to surmise his attitude was a positive in the clubhouse as was Stargell in 1979.
He may ultimately not be the NL most valuable player in 2007 but his selection will be far from a travesty and shouldn‘t be viewed as such. A player who sets a league record is a major statistical category (total bases by a shortstop) and got it done offensively and defensively at a key position is a fine choice as a league's Most Valuable Player.