The Most Blunderful Time of the Year

It’s getting to be my favorite time of year again. That’s right–it’s end-of-the-year awards debate time!

Now, while this post isn’t really about who deserves to win this year’s AL MVP (whatever it means to deserve an MVP Award), lemme quickly say that the answer is Joe Mauer, not Mark Teixiera. Readers interested in the case for Mauer are welcome to read the 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 8th above links, but lemme try to quickly sum up the arguments as I understand them:

Pro-Teixiera: He is a high-profile player on a high-profile team.

Teixiera is, indeed, having a fine season, putting up his customarily impressive numbers for the best team in baseball. Anecdotally, he fields first base well, though more advanced statistic suggest that this may not be entirely true and anyway first base is pretty much the least valuable defensive position. Plus, his season isn’t that impressive. Look at these lines from five other first basemen in the AL and guess which one is Teixiera, the “presumptive” award-winner:

Player A: 20 HR, 66 RBI, .311/.424/.564, 149 OPS+

Player B: 30 HR, 86 RBI, .288/.385/.562, 145 OPS+

Player C: 28 HR, 94 RBI, .301/.388/.562, 154 OPS+

Player D: 25 HR, 76 RBI, .302/.349./.576 135 OPS+

Player E: 24 HR, 70 RBI, .329/.397/.552 144 OPS+

Hint: Teixiera is Player B. The others are, in order, A) Kevin Youkilis, C) Justin Morneau, D) Kendry Morales, and E) Miguel Cabrera. Not a lot of separation there–I’d be hard pressed to say one is clearly having a vastly better season than the others.

Still, a stud player on a dominant team, yeah sure, that adds up to an MVP in most years. But this isn’t most years.

Pro-Mauer: This isn’t most years because Joe Mauer is having the best offensive season by a catcher–while ably fielding what is widely considered the most difficult defensive position–ever. As in the entire history of the game. Honest. Better than Piazza, or Berra, or Bench. Better than Cochrane, or Pudge, or the other Pudge. Better than Dickey, or Posada, or Campanella. If that isn’t MVP-worthy, then what exactly is?

***

OK, so maybe not all that quickly. But as I said, this post isn’t really about who should win this year, and for a couple of different reasons. First, it doesn’t matter. I mean, undoubtedly it matters to Teixiera and Mauer and anyone else who has a contract kicker that pays them for winning the MVP. But look–there have been voting controversies before, and perceived miscarriages of justice in the past. Just consider these thrilling match-ups from baseballing seasons of yore:

Gordon vs. Williams!

Pudge vs. Martinez!

Vaughn vs. Belle!

Marion vs. Musial!

Yeah, sure, it seems pretty obvious now that the wrong guy took home the hardware, but that doesn’t diminish the performance of the rightfully deserving (there’s that word again) players. If anything, the apparent injustice only shines a more righteous light on the losers, transforming them into mythic folk heroes who are remembered all the more wistfully for the wrong done against them. Kinda like the A-Team.

So while Kepner’s argument may appear to have some merit, I feel pretty certain that a day will come, in the not-so-distant future, when he and those who agree with him will look back on the 2009 season and sheepishly admit that they voted for one of any number of fine first basemen instead of the catcher who had the greatest offensive performance of all-time. The historical perspective seems inescapably vindicating–they’d be aligning themselves with those who voted for Joe Gordon over Ted Williams in ’42, or gave Barry Zito the 2002 AL Cy Young over Pedro Martinez. Sure, Gordon and Zito got the trophies, but those who voted for them have to live with the private chagrin of failing to recognize greatness when it was right there in front of them.

***

I say “sheepishly” and “chagrin,” but maybe that won’t be the case. Maybe the voters who choose Teixiera over Mauer will never admit their error. Heck, maybe they’ll never even realize they made an error. And that’s what makes the awards debate my favorite time of the year.

What has me so excited is the carnival of mental contortionism that rolls into town right about now as sportswriters and fans begin to speculate about end-of-the-year awards. See, I believe that most folks decide who their personal MVP is, and then construct an argument to justify to themselves the rightness of this “choice.” Actually, I happen to believe that this is the case for many of the so-called defining “truths” of our personal identities–Republican or Democrat, devout or atheist, winged or wingless Balrog. One or the other feels right to us, and it is only after this that we then formulate a reason explaining why it is right. In that way, our effort to convince others of our rightness is really only ever an unending attempt to convince ourselves.

This process of after-the-fact rationalization commits us to positions that, once they are examined, become pretty untenable pretty quickly. To defend our decisions, we have to employ a whole Philosophy 101 syllabus of logical fallacies. Recency Bias? Teixiera just hit a game-winning home run! Availability Bias? Remember that one time Teixiera won a game with a hook-slide at home? Invincible Ignorance? Teixiera’s a great defender, I don’t care what the stats say!

One of the most consterning arguments used by Teixiera supporters is a sort of perverted Appeal to Tradition. They sidestep the question of whether they are right or wrong by citing previous years when the “wrong” player won, believing this frees them to vote for whomever they please. Hey, we got it wrong in the past, why shouldn’t we get it wrong this time?

Of course–and this is where the pro-Mauer, predominantly statnerd crowd (to which, admittedly, I belong) starts getting a bit fallacious itself–of course, they are free to vote for whomever they please. That’s why it’s a vote. It’s the prerogative of each voter to employ whatever criteria*, and to be as flagrantly, gloriously wrong, as they like. There is no “right,” there is no “wrong.” For many voters, there isn’t really so much as an opinion, not really–it’s more like a feeling, or a hunch, or an inkling. A stirring of the soul or a gurgling in the gut. And this is what the statnerd crowd–and, if I’m allowed to stretch a bit here, their like-minded brothers and sisters currently in the White House–have a tough time grokking: logic can change an opinion, but it can’t change a feeling, no matter how lucid or unassailable or inarguable it (the logic) is.

***

In the end, Kepner might be right, but (from my perspective) for the wrong reasons. Teixiera certainly resembles past winners, and there seems to be growing momentum behind his candidacy, much like there was for Kobe Bryant two seasons ago even though he was not, by the numbers, the best player in the NBA. And while I’ve said that it doesn’t really matter, that’s not the same as saying I don’t care. To misquote Bill James, baseball–and sports in general–is all about joy , and there are endless ways to experience joy. For me–and I’d wager for many of our fellow Enthusiasts, too–one of the singular joys of sports is that it gives us the opportunity to think about what we are thinking about. Being a fan means taking part in an unending dispute about what is true, but it also means implicitly agreeing that there is a knowable if elusive Truth. It’s acknowledging the basic pointlessness of sports, but celebrating it all the same, because it is in celebrating something that we give it–and ourselves–meaning. Awards-debate season, to me, is just the ongoing, muddled, communal groping** towards what exactly that meaning is.

Can I get an amen?

*OK, so yeah, sure, there is an official set of criteria for MVP voting…

1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.
2. Number of games played.
3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.
4. Former winners are eligible.
5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

…but they don’t seem all that illuminating to me. How many games? Loyalty to what? Effort?!?

**Communal groping: Oh yeah!

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