Over at The Ringer, Ben Lindbergh has a post up about how, if you look things just right, there is a good argument to give Orioles closer Zach Britton the AL MVP. This follows on his colleague Michael Baumann’s post from last week touting Britton as the leading AL Cy Young candidate.
The idea that a closer could win an MVP or Cy Young Award wasn’t controversial at one point in time. Ask Rollie Fingers (1981) and Guillermo Hernandez (1984) about it. But with the rise of sabermetrics and advanced baseball analytics, such a notion has become pretty controversial. Innings matter, the argument goes, and even the best closer pitches a third or fewer of the innings a good starter does, making him less valuable and, in all but the most extreme cases, a poor choice for the Cy Young. The same goes for any pitchers and the MVP, given how much more value hitters have than even starting pitchers. Every few years there is a weak crop of Cy Young or MVP candidates and closers and pitchers, respectively, are considered, but it requires a whole lot of arguing to get people on that train these days.
Because Lindbergh and Baumann are both from the analytical world of baseball writing, their posts have already started a small but growing discussion online about whether touting Britton for the Cy Young or MVP constitutes sabermetric apostasy of some kind. That in turn has led to some counter arguments and discussion about whether the whole sabermetric movement has itself calcified into the sort of unthinking philosophy which its very existence was intended to counter in the first place. That discussion has been going on for years, actually, and it follows a pretty familiar pattern, tracking the same course that any, for lack of a better term, revolutionary movement follows. At first the movement represents a new vanguard, then it becomes increasingly accepted and then, unwittingly or otherwise, it becomes stale or reactionary and subject to politics and reflexive thinking and begins to resemble something more like an orthodoxy than a true intellectual inquiry.
I agree that, in some ways, sabermetric adherents -- most of whom I consider my closest friends in this business, by the way -- have allowed themselves to become a tad too sure of their righteousness at times and a bit too sure that those which were considered settled subjects in 2002 or whenever Fire Joe Morgan stopped publishing remain settled. At the same time, I think those who argue that sabermetrics has lost its way overstate the case about how lost it truly is. A lot of those 2002/Fire Joe Morgan observations still hold tons of water. There may be some real issues with tone and humility and with the degree to which we are certain about the utility of any given metric, but we still know that on-base percentage is better than batting average, outs are bad, defense is important but hard to measure, health and durability matter, playing more is better than playing less, homers are great, and RBIs and pitcher wins suck eggs when it comes to measuring an individual player’s value. No need to reinvent the wheel here.
Whether or not the rift is as overstated, the very existence of an intra-sabermetric world debate about whether Zach Britton can or should win an MVP award shows that the rift is real. And don’t expect for a moment for that rift to be mended any time soon. Indeed, unless a position player puts on an otherworldly late season performance like Miguel Tejada in 2002 and unless some starting pitcher goes lights out for the next month, expect the Zach Britton arguments, and the larger argument about whether a relief pitcher should win a big award, to rage on. So what do we -- the non-analysts or, at best, members of the liberal arts department of Sabermetric University - do about that?
I say we ignore it.
To be clear, we shouldn’t ignore the excellent and thought-provoking articles that guys like Ben Lindbergh and Michael Baumann write. Nor the excellent articles that someone else may write countering them. And I’d be the biggest hypocrite in the world if I were to say we should ignore the less-enlightened awards columns that always seem to come around this time of year. I mean, say what you will about an intra-sabermetric rift, we can ALL agree that someone arguing that an MVP award be given based on grit, “storyline” or whatever some unnamed “evaluator” the writer happened to be drinking buddies with back in 1989 says isn’t a serious person. I’m gonna mock, like, six of those before October rolls around, that I can guarantee you.
No, I’m saying that we ignore the perceived gravity and importance of such arguments. We ignore the possibility, implicit in many of them, that to vote for Player A over Player B for a postseason award is heresy or apostasy or that it represents some sort of dangerous precedent about which we should be truly concerned. That we don’t allow ourselves to get bound up in the academic debates that, truth be told, only truly and practically affect the academics and quasi-academics who work in that world for a living. Over time, the smart and useful observations are going to trickle down to us as fans and reveal themselves. The anomalous result of an “unworthy” player winning an award in a given year isn’t going to change that. We need not get too hung up on the minute-by-minute battles that eventually form the basis of durable consensus. When it’s all said and done, outs will still be bad, home runs will still be good and Mike Trout, even if he wins a few less MVPs than we think he should, will still be a good player.
More importantly, not getting hung up on these debates allows us to enjoy some things that we’d not get to fully enjoy if we felt obligated to choose sides in some intellectual war. Things like how cool a season Zach Britton is having. Because, man, it’s really, really cool. His ERA is 0.54, hasn’t allowed a run since Bernie Sanders was still a thing and he’s inducing ground balls like a man possessed. I’d worry that I’d find what he’s doing somewhat less enjoyable if I was super invested in making sure no closer ever won an MVP award. People tend to do that when they take a side.
To be sure, I haven’t made up my own mind about whether, if I had an MVP or Cy Young vote, I’d give it to Zach Britton. I’ll figure that out in September sometime. For now, though, I’m not going to get bent out of shape if someone else thinks he does. At least if his or her reasons are based on something logical and relatable and if his or her arguments for it are made in good faith.
All I want to do now is to enjoy watching Zach Britton pitch. And to see if someone else finds another gear to make the argument for Britton less compelling. Or hell, to see if Britton himself finds another gear if that’s possible. To see what happens on the baseball field and think less about what happens in some online argument about baseball philosophy, even if it’s an interesting argument in and of itself.
We have forever to sort that stuff out. We only have about a month and a half of the baseball season to go. Priorities, man.