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Thursday, December 8, 2011

The 2011 Ryan Howard Awards

So, this may or may not be my last piece on the 2011 Awards season, but it is the last one that requires the BBWAA’s voting results. Ladies and gentleman, I present...

The 2011 Ryan Howard Awards

So, what is it, you ask? Simply put, it is the most inexplicable result of the MVP voting. The name sake is Ryan Howard, for two reason. The first is that he was what inspired the award last winter. Last year, I wrote about Ryan Zimmerman’s MVP-quality year, but noted he was getting no attention for his great play. Sure enough, he finished sixteenth in the voting, in spite of his good year. While I was looking at the player who had finished ahead of him, I noticed that Ryan Howard finished tenth. There were other odd choices ahead of Zimmerman, but Howard was definitely the strangest, as he was barely starter-level in 2010 (bWAR had him at 2.0, while fWAR put him at 1.4).

This led me to look closer at the AL voting; my choice for the 2010 AL Ryan Howard Award was also tenth place in the voting. If you recalled that this was Delmon Young, then congratulations; you must understand the Baseball Writers Association better than I do. Young hit 21 home runs and drove in 112 runs...which was apparently enough for the BBWAA to collectively overlook the fact that .298/.333/.493. And .826 OPS with bad defense in left field just isn’t that valuable, which partly explains his 1.7 bWAR (lowest among all MVP vote-getters in either league).

So, who are the Ryan Howard Award winners for the 2011 season? Well, the award requires a combination of votes and awfulness. So, David Robertson got an MVP vote in the AL, but he won’t win the Ryan Howard Award because he was so unsupported. Voting for a reliever for MVP is a fairly bad choice, but in Robertson’s case, he got one point. These things happen; writers vote for friends or guys they like or so on. The RHA winner has to be both unjustifiable as MVP, but at the same time a popular MVP choice.

The AL winner is somewhat obvious, I guess. There was one candidate that successfully combined a lot of support with a lot criticism: Michael Young. The Rangers’ DH finished eighth on the ballot with 96 points, despite a bWAR low among candidates of 2.4 that was only matched by Mark Teixeira (5 points, nineteenth place). Young had a superficially-good line of .338/.380/.474 while playing at one of baseball’s best hitter parks. Young’s OPS+ was 124, 22nd in baseball, all while serving mostly as a designated hitter. He started 105 games at designated hitter or first base, positions that are almost entirely offense-based (meaning he brought almost no value on defense), and he still wasn’t among the top twenty qualified batters in the AL in OPS+. Put another way, he had a 3.8 fWAR season, eighth on his own team. And yet, the BBWAA as a whole put him eighth in the AL.

The NL Ryan Howard Award winner is actually even more obvious. Ryan Howard wins the award he lends his name to. You may not have noticed, but Howard again finished tenth in MVP voting. He didn’t garner nearly as much support as Young, with only 39 points, but the pick was even more bizarre. At least with Young, there were some excuses; Young’s traditional numbers looked good, he was quite versatile, etc. Howard is pretty easy to evaluate, in theory; he’s a first baseman with power. He doesn’t play in a hitter’s park to make his stats look much better than they are (.253/.346/.488 line, good for a 125 OPS+). He doesn’t have a reputation asa good fielder or runner. There is really nothing confusing about him.

His 125 OPS+ puts him twenty-first in the NL, behind four first basemen (and eight corner outfielders, the next easiest position to field). Yadier Molina finished with an OPS+ of 126 while playing catcher, and he couldn’t get more than two points in the polling. Fangraphs credits him with 1.6 WAR, behind first basemen like James Loney, Jesus Guzman, and Carlos Lee. Yes, Ryan Howard got out-WAR’d by Carlos Lee, and he still finished tenth in MVP voting. What am I missing?

As a sort of coda, all of this thinking led me to Ryan Howard’s Baseball-Reference page, where I realized that I don’t think there is a better namesake for an award for inexplicable MVP support. I don’t know if any player has ever received so much MVP love relative to their on the field performance. Just look at Howard’s career MVP finishes:

2006: 1st, 5.8 bWAR (8th among vote-getters)
2007: 5th, 2.6 bWAR (22nd among vote-getters)
2008: 2nd, 2.8 bWAR (20th among vote-getters)
2009: 3rd, 4.4 bWAR (17th among vote-getters)
2010: 10th, 2.0 bWAR (20th/last among vote-getters)
2011: 10th, 2.7 bWAR (21st among vote-getters)

I don’t really want to go through every MVP vote to find a player with a larger career discrepancy, but there can’t be many.
(As an interesting side note, my labels for the post turned up the Ryan Zimmerman Award. I had totally forgotten about that, but it does serve as a nice counterpoint to the Ryan Howard Award.)

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