What is the Difference between Valuable and Best?


There are two schools of thought on voting for baseball’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. The first, and more traditional, is that it should go to the player perceived to provide the most value to their team. The second school believes that the award should go to the best player. I am firmly in the first school of thought.

Why? Simply because I believe that the name of the MVP award defines what it is.

Before going any further, let me say that the two schools of thought will never merge. My purpose here is to explain why Most Valuable isn’t always “Best”.

What is Valuable?

If you look up the definition in the dictionary (as an adjective which is the proper context, you get the following:

  1. having considerable monetary worth; costing or bringing a high price: a valuable painting; a valuable crop.
  2. having qualities worthy of respect, admiration, or esteem: a valuable friend.
  3. of considerable use, service, or importance: valuable information.

The first one isn’t the correct use. If we were looking for the most expensive ballplayer, we’d have to take age and other non-performance factors into account. As we aren’t trying to determine the cost for a contract, let us rule out definition number one.

The second one is extremely warm and fuzzy. This would have the award go to the best human being more than the best player. The Roberto Clemente Award more than emphasizes that characteristic. To be honest, I’d like to see this award get more publicity.

Finally, we have the third definition, of considerable use, service, or importance. That sounds about right for what we are talking about. When we are looking at a valuable player, we want one that is useful and important.

That begs the question, useful and important to whom? The player’s team would be the logical choice. The only baseball related possibilities would the player’s League or all of Major League Baseball (MLB). The determination of both would likely extend to how they further the image of baseball to the world. So team it is.

A Few Word Problems

Larry Granillo of Baseball Prospectus wrote A Question of Value back in November. In it he posed two scenarios, asking the reader to choose the most valuable item. It was an interesting take.

In the first scenario, he compares two tablets. Actually, he compares the work of two people using their own tablets (Banana Jr, kudos to the Bloom County reference) to accomplish the same task in order to win a contract. One wins, one fails, and both sell their tablet. This analogy doesn’t hold. It is like comparing Mike Trout’s bat with Howie Kendrick’s bat. The bats are the same and used in the same way. The players provided the value. In the scenario, the tablets were used in the same manner, one was just used better.

The second scenario is more interesting. Two people have equivalent cars, but one drives significant distances to work and shop while the other lives in the city where everything is in walking distance. Both are totaled, begging the question of which is more valuable. The answer is obviously the car being used to drive 20 miles to work. While both cars have the same monetary value, the commuter car of considerable use, service, or importance.

Larry framed his scenarios around the first definition of valuable. When you look at the third definition, things become clearer. Let’s take these scenarios:

  • Two players with the exact same performance. Same position, fielding ability, games played, OPS, Runs, and everything else. You name the statistic, it is the same. One played on a team that scored 800 runs, the other on a team that scored 670 runs. Which player is more valuable?
  • Same players, same stats, but now one played Second Base while the other played Center Field. Assuming equivalent defensive performance, who was more valuable? If I told you that the average OPS at each position in the league that year was 0.707 (2B) and 0.731 (CF), does that change your answer?

In these two scenarios, the value is derived by the rarity of the player.

Value REQUIRES Context

The value of a player starts with their performance. It should then be adjusted for the rarity and impact of that performance.

Some of that context is league-based. Any manager would take a catcher with a 0.800 OPS over a first baseman with the same OPS any day. It is simply a matter of scarcity.

The rest of the context is team-based. Let’s try one more scenario.

Take two teams. One is the 2012 Angels and the other team has a batting order consisting of nine 2012 Mike Trouts and the same pitching staff as the 2012 Angels. We’ll call that team “Team Clone”. Which player is more valuable, the Angel’s Mike Trout or Team Clone’s Mike Trout playing center field? On Team Clone, aside from the relative importance of each position, each Mike Trout is equally valuable, about 1/9th (11%) of the lineup’s value. On the Angels, Trout has more value simply by being the best player. He may account for 12% or 17%, but it doesn’t matter as he is more valuable to the Angels than his mirror image on Team Clone.

Context matters. The best player on every team in baseball is more valuable to their team than any player on the Team Clone.

In real life, there are no Team Clones. There are teams with better players than others and their value is determined by their teammates. Value is determined by a large number of factors that have to be weighed against each other and put into context.

Performance determines who is “Best”. Performance in Context determines who is “Valuable”.

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