Well, it's awards season in baseball, the magical time of year when the Baseball Writers Association of America hands out its prestigious hardware and sports writers everywhere do what they do best: namely, snicker at the perceived short-comings of other sports writers.
Yes, we love watching one of our own make an ass out of him or herself, almost as much as we love bitching about the state of the newspaper business and riding the elevator instead of taking the stairs. It is one of the beneftis of working in an industry in which one's name is publicly displayed on all of the work he produces: Not only does it enable us to see the tangible result of a hard days' work, it allows us to catalog the mistakes of our peers while re-inforcing our own feelings of self-worth. It might sound petty -- heck, it is petty -- but the same thing would happen amongst accountants if their spreadsheets were published daily for half a million readers. Or amongst friends if Jane Seymour confronted one of them in an upstairs bedroom and forced him to evaluate her newest purchase.
Which brings us to the events of Monday, when the BBWAA handed out two of its most significant awards -- the AL MVP (Most Valuable Player), and the AL JOY (Jackass of the Year). The former went to Joe Mauer, a catcher from Minnesota who led the league with a .365 batting average and .444 on base percentage. The latter went to Keizo Konishi, a sports writer from Japan who had the audacity to vote for somebody other than Mauer.
For those of you unfamiliar with the JOY, it is one of the least prestigious awards a sports writer can receive. It originated in colonial America, where each year citizens would select a lucky tax collector, dip him in tar, and throw bags of chicken feathers at him. While the BBWAA uses an organized ballot system to dole out honors to ballplayers, it uses mob rule when awarding the JOY. The other day, Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum had to leave his apartment to get better reception when taking the call that informed him of his NL Cy Young victory. But for a JOY receipient, there is no single phone call: there are thousands of them -- from radio stations, from fellow reporters, even from enraged family members demanding that you be held accountable for voting Braves righthander Javier Vazquez second on your Cy Young ballot instead of Cardinals righthander Chris Carpenter.
The NL JOY
Just four days ago, ESPN baseball expert Keith Law received the NL JOY after exit polling revealed that he had erred on his ballot by including Vazquez and omitting Carpenter. Now, to be clear, I disagree with some of the rationale Law used when explaining his ballot. I'm hardly a dinosaur when it comes to advanced metrics like FIP and WAR, but I believe they are often over-emphasized in certain situations, and awards voting is one of them. I take a pragmatic view when it comes to awards: the Cy Young should honor the player who had the best one-year production out of the pitcher's spot, regardless of the means by which he achieved that production. To me, a stat like FIP -- short for fielding independent pitching, it attempts to quantify a pitcher's performance in the areas that do not rely on his defense -- can be a useful tool for evaluating a pitcher's actual skill, as well as his potential future production. But it is a metric that defines means, and not ends. It is meant to evaluate talent, which is the job of scouts and executives, not production, which -- at least in the case of year-end awards voting -- is the responsibility of the BBWAA (foreshadowing alert). When Royals ace Zack Greinke mentioned the importance he places on FIP in a news conference after he won the AL Cy Young, number-crunchers everywhere read his words as if they were a Harlequin novel. But I find it hard to believe that if Grienke had suffered through a season like that of Cole Hamels -- which, according to the Phillies lefty's FIP, wasn't all that different from the year he enjoyed in 2008 -- he would have been quoted as saying "Hey, my team only won half of the games in which I pitched, I had an ERA of 4.32, I lost the confidence of my manager in the postseason -- but gosh darn it my FIP wasn't so bad." While Hamels' FIP backs up the assertion that he struggled partly due to bad luck and that he has a good chance of rebounding in 2010, the fact of the matter is he struggled.
To me, a player's performance should be judged base on end results. And because a pitcher's ultimate job is to keep runs on the scoreboard, ERA is the ultimate end result. Regardless of the means by which the ERA was achieved, the fact remains that when a pitcher was on the mound, he allowed a certain number of earned runs. And if teams are ultimately judged in retrospect by the scoreboard, then I have no problem judging pitchers thusly. The second biggest "end" statistic to me is innings pitched, because the more innings an individual pitcher throws, the fewer his teammates have to throw. Carpenter led the National League with a 2.24 ERA, while Vazquez finished sixth with a 2.87. Both players averaged 6.9 innings per start. The difference is that Carpenter missed more than a month from mid-April to late May and finished with four fewer starts. After May 20, when Carpenter returned for good, he marginally out-performed Vazquez in ERA (2.36 to 2.60) and innings pitched (182.2 to 166.0) and in opposing OPS (.595 to .599). But the Cy Young is not awarded to the best pitcher after May 20 -- it is awarded to the best pitcher all season. And from that viewpoint I understand Law's argument. Would you rather have had Vazquez for 32 starts this year or Carpenter for 28? I'm not saying I agree with his summation. But I understand the argument.
A large portion of fans and media, however, reacted as if Law had no right to make that argument. The St. Louis Post Dispatch ran a headline that read "Revenge of the Nerds: CYA Voting Ruined." Ruined! As if 200 years from now, anthropologists will wrap up their research of Mayan Civilization and move on to the 2009 National League Cy Young Award.
The AL JOY
But nothing compared to the outrage that followed the AL MVP announcement Monday, when Konishi respectfully disagreed with the 27 of 28 people who voted for Mauer and instead gave his vote to Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera, ruining Mauer's chance of a unanimous win. Given the reaction of his peers, you would have thought that the sky in Cooperstown had gone dark and a curtain hanging inside the Hall of Fame had torn in two. In the hour that followed the announcement, the screen on my Twitter account was flooded with sports writers expressing their moral indignation in 140 characters or less.
Now, I will argue this: we are underappreciating the true genius of Miguel Cabrera. Sure, he went 0-for-4 and stranded six runners in a pivotal 5-1 loss on the final weekend of the season, but that was 12 hours after reportedly blowing a 0.26 on a breathalyzer. The mere fact that he stood on the correct side of the batter's box should have merited a call to the Vatican (Hey, we've all been there. But usually we're wearing last night's clothes and curled up in the fetal position on the couch with five empty Gatorade bottles at our feet and the framed picture of our mother lying face down on the shelf).
Still, if performing while hungover or intoxicated were the basis for awards, David Wells might have five Cy Youngs and I might have five Pulitzers (just kidding, Josh!). So yeah, I kinda sorta think Konishi might have erred a bit on his ballot. In fact, I kinda sorta think voting Miguel Cabrera for MVP is like voting The Love Guru for Best Motion Picture. Mauer out-performed Cabrera in virtually every quantifiable category, and did it while playing a premium position and leading his team to the playoffs.
But that's not the point: The point, unfortunately, is that Konishi's ballot is Konishi's ballot, and when somebody asks him why on God's green Earth Miguel Cabrera should be AL MVP, he need only respond "Because that's who I voted for." A ballot is not a multiple choice test. Just ask everyone who voted for Nader. Baseball is America's past time, and we as Americans like to think of ourselves as the shiny happy people raising their purple thumbs while leaving the voting booth, not the opposition militants mowing them down as they walk outside. But sometimes our ideals bear only a faint resemblance to our reality. In this case, the reality is this: The BBWAA voting system in its current state allows for one individual voter to carry an enormous amount of impact, and every one who participates knows this ahead of time. So when spirited debate about the results crosses the line to moral outrage, it strikes me as a tad disingenous (Not to mention, in the case of a Detroit Free-Press headline that states "Japanese writer gives Miguel Cabrera his MVP vote, appallingly ethno-centric).
Why is so much of the focus on the individual voter, rather than a system that allows such a voter to wield so much power?
Changing the System
Instead of settling for the brief catharsis that comes with calling Konishi an idiot and listening as the rest our peer group shouts, "Yeah!," why not focus on the system that allows such alleged idiocy to impact what has become a high-stakes competition? Full disclosure - I have voted for BBWAA awards in each of the last two seasons. I voted for Freddie Gonzalez for National League Manager of the Year in 2008 and J.A. Happ for NL Rookie of the Year in 2009. But I've always wrestled with the propriety of doing so. Granted, it isn't the biggest existential struggle in my life (that would be this, or this, or this), but it is an issue to which I have devoted a decent amount of thought. And the events of the past week have led me to decide against participating in award voting from this point forward. Cabrera received a $200,000 bonus for his fourth place finish in MVP voting, a finish that would not have been achieved without his one first place vote. As a supposedly impartial journalist, I never want to find myself in a situation where I end up casting a vote that makes or costs somebody money. In ethics class, we are taught to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, and if there ever comes a day when a sports writer like myself who could certainly use an extra $50,000 in his pocket casts an obscure vote for a player who winds up profiting from said vote, there is no doubt that the potential for the perception of impropriety will exist.
My friend John Gonzalez over at the Inquirer might argue that I am taking all of this way too seriously, and that part of the fun of covering sports lies in doing things like voting for awards. The Washington Press Foundation doesn't hand out a Politician of the Year award, he might say, but covering baseball is not the same as covering politics. But the fact remains that these year-end votes now carry significant dollar value, thanks to bonus clauses written into the contracts of players like Cabrera. And any time I play a part in awarding another person hundreds of thousands of dollars, it is no longer fun and games. They say the Devil's greatest trick is convincing the world that he doesn't exist, and, likewise, one of the greatest tricks of the for-profit athletic establishment is convincing the media and general public that their various business ventures are all in good fun. Are we really voting for a National College Football champion, or are we participating in a monopoly that prevents a handful of deserving business enterprises from fairly bidding on multi-million dollar contracts?
But the point of this post is not about my participation, or lack thereof, in the voting process. It is about the voting process itself. Regardless of the potential ethical ramifications, and regardless of how many conscientious objectors choose not to participate, the BBWAA will never decide against awarding the Cy Young. So why not at least re-evaluate the system that is used to pick the winner in order to lessen the impact one individual can have on the voting? For those who are not familiar with the current structure -- and, come to think of it, for those who are still bothering to read along -- it works like this: There is a BBWAA chapter for each media market that has a major league team. Each chapter gets two votes for the awards in their league. Those votes are doled out to individual members. So, essentially, of the 700+ members of the BBWAA, 28 are responsibile for selecting each award.
If that sounds to you like an Oligarchy, well, you aren't the only one. In the current system, the judgments and biases of one individual have the potential to alter the entire outcome. Had Chris Carpenter been included on the only two ballots that omitted him, he likely would have won the Cy Young. Had Miguel Cabrera not received a first place vote, he likely would be $200,000 poorer today. That's an enormous weight to place on the shoulders of one person.
So why not alter the voting process to represent either the Republic that we are or the democracies after which we were modeled? Giving each BBWAA member a vote on each award might be a little far-fetched -- after all, a good handful of members are members in name only, and spend only a fraction of the time following the sport as other members. But would an electoral college process be that far-fetched? Perhaps give one vote to each chapter, then have a popular vote within the members of that chapter to decide how it will vote? Such a system would greatly reduce the impact one individual can have on the process, thereby eliminating both the potential for impropriety (unless one of the Kennedy grandsons is ever up for an award), as well as the need to award an annual JOY.
Granted, it would force sports writers to find something else to snicker at -- but perhaps my picture at the top of this blog can help fill that void.