Baseball announced their MVP Award winners earlier this week, and while the NL results were somewhat predictable, a closer examination of the data reveals that the voters got this one wrong.
Freddie Freeman received 28 of 30 possible first-place votes, and the other two voters who didn’t deem him the actual MVP gave him their second-place votes.
Those two defections from the Freeman camp went to Mookie Betts, who received 21 second-place votes, five third-place votes, as well as a fifth and sixth in addition to those two first-place nods.
Those two voters who granted their first-place votes to Betts might have been in the extreme minority, but they were ultimately correct.
This assessment is not meant to take anything away from Freeman as a player. He had a phenomenal season, and the stats prove that he was the best offensive player in baseball.
The operative word there is “offensive,” though. Baseball is more than about what you do at the plate. It’s also how you impact the other facets of the game in the field or on the base paths.
One of the enjoyable arguments that will inevitably be evoked during MVP debates is the semantics of what the award entails.
Does the phrase “best player ” mean the same as “most valuable player?” How does one define value on a baseball field? And can the player with better stats not necessarily be the more valuable one?
Baseball has long been a game defined by numbers. Generations of fans have poured over the record books and in some cases even memorized the stat lines of their favorite players.
These numbers characterizing baseball greatness have traditionally been offensive stats, though. Rummage through your closet, dust off your old collection of baseball cards, and flip them over to reveal lines of data derived primarily from appearances at the plate.
The significance of defensive and base running metrics is relatively new in the world of mainstream baseball analysis. There just wasn’t always as convincing of a way to gauge the value of a player in the field or running the bases beyond just the eye test.
Batting average and home run totals were a quick way to verify that a player was an offensive force, but there wasn’t any number to illustrate what made a player a better fielder than another peer, or what made someone a savvier threat on the base paths.
These biases have permeated through how we critique baseball greatness, which goes back to the earlier point about why Freeman winning isn’t a shock.
Freeman led the NL in runs and doubles, was second in batting average, runs batted in, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and total bases, and third in hits and walks.
This offensive excellence helped the Atlanta Braves win the NL East and ultimately come a game away from advancing to the World Series. A glance at this stat line provides seemingly instant immunity from any severe second-guessing as to why he deserved to win MVP.
Freeman was ahead of Betts in every significant offensive category besides home runs, and that was likely the endpoint of many voters’ internal debates regarding how to bestow their vote.
This is purely a regular-season award, so we’ll disregard the fact that Betts was the best player on a team that eventually captured a championship.
The Dodgers finished the regular season with the best record in baseball, and Betts played a huge role in that collective supremacy.
This is where the definition of “value” comes into play. Freeman has better traditional stats than Betts, but which one is more “valuable” to their team?
The data shows that Betts added more value to his team than any other player in baseball, and hence deserved to win the Most “Valuable” Player award.
Over time, this award has become shackled with certain prerequisites that may or may not have been intended to help guide the route towards determining the winner.
The widely held belief is that the MVP needs to come from a team that at least made the playoffs because logic states that a player could not possibly have been all that valuable if they weren’t able to help elevate their team to a postseason berth.
There are merits on either side of this argument, but given that Betts won a championship, it’s irrelevant in his case as to whether or not he deserved to win MVP.
The analytics crowd views Wins Above Replacement was the paramount indicator of a player’s value, undoubtedly correctly, all things considered.
The essence of value a player brings to a team can be most easily observed by what would happen if he wasn’t in the lineup, instead replaced by a typical substitute.
Betts led the NL in WAR this season, 0.5 WAR above second-place Freeman. The easy route to take after that realization is to just leave the argument at that. Case close. Betts deserved MVP.
It’s important to take things a step further, though, and investigate what it is about Betts’ performance that led the metrics to conclude he was the most valuable player in the NL.
Freeman had the better offensive season, but when taking into account the value Betts brings to a team through his defense and base running, it’s revealed that he’s the more valuable player of the two.
Betts led all of MLB in Runs from Baserunning, and was second in the NL in Runs from Fielding, illustrating his ability to make a remarkable impact in multiple facets of a game.
This value he brought resulted in team success, as Betts led all of MLB in Wins Above Average, showing that Betts was essentially the player with the most influence on tangible wins and losses for his team.
If there was an NL Offensive Player of the Year Award, Freeman would unequivocally deserve it. He was the most productive hitter in the NL this season.
However, the NL MVP Award needs to take into account more than just offensive production, and factor in the impact a player has on aspects of team success beyond just hitting.
Betts was a fantastic offensive player in 2020, but it is was how he helped his team with his fielding and base running that tipped the scales in his favor in terms of deserving NL MVP.
Interestingly, although WAR is the statistic that best defines player value, it has done a relatively poor job of predicting NL MVP in recent seasons given its statistical importance.
Over the last decade, including the 2020 season, the NL leader in WAR has won NL MVP just six out of the 10 times it has been handed out.
Of those four times the NL WAR leader didn’t win MVP, three of those times involved the player being on a team that didn’t make the playoffs, so the argument evoked earlier regarding the hesitance to name an MVP from a non-playoff team applies.
That leaves Betts as the first in this group to lead the NL in WAR, make the playoffs, but not end up winning the MVP.
Going back a bit further in the history of the NL MVP trophy, the last person besides Betts to both lead the NL in WAR and make the playoffs but not win MVP was Albert Pujols in 2006 when he finished second in the voting to Ryan Howard.
Freeman is a great player, but if the purpose of the NL MVP award is to determine the most “valuable” player in the NL, the voters got this one wrong.
Betts should have been named NL MVP. It is not just an honor meant to acknowledge offensive performance, but the overall value to team success.
When examining the impact Betts had on aspects of the game beyond just his offense, which was already tremendous, it becomes increasingly clear that Betts deserved to win NL MVP this year.