If you think about it, voting for baseball awards is blood-related with libel law.
I won’t say that deciding the difference in value between baseball pitchers nearly a half century later was a direct point of concern during New York Times Co. v. Sullivan – the true concern was unrestricted reporting of the civil rights campaigns, in case you care about such things – but there are commonalities between the 1964 Supreme Court case and the process that led us to our 2012 Cy Young winners, David Price and R.A. Dickey.
Stick with me for a couple quick, gory details: NYT v. Sullivan established that, in order for a report to be libelous against a public official/figure, “actual malice” must be present. Actual malice is simply defined as knowledge of falsity and/or reckless disregard for the truth (this is more than just negligence).
Back to baseball. As far as I can tell, there are four major sources of bias when voting for baseball awards that could disrupt the results and have us yelling “WAR!” and “strikeout rate!” for hours on end, and the first two should look familiar:
1. Knowledge of falsity – We could also call this “blatant and unrepentant homerism.” In other words, I’m a media member who covers a certain player on a daily basis, and I know in my heart that he was not most qualified for this award, but he’s really, really good, and I really, REALLY would like him to be cooperative with access whenever I need him, and, oh, what the hell, this is just some subjective award, right? And voting for him wouldn’t be SO egregious that MLB would think I actually auctioned off my vote to the highest-bidding agent, right? OK, then I’ll slip the player my vote and make sure he notices.
2. Reckless disregard for the truth – I admit, the language could be a tad strong here. But I suppose it all comes down to whether you believe a gainfully employed person, who has a functioning Wi-Fi connection and enough intellectual capacity to type www.fangraphs.com into his or her browser and simply chooses not to do that even once while filling out the ballot, is acting with “negligence” or “recklessness.” I think a strong case can be made for both, so I’m going to stick with the stronger language here and call it reckless.
3. Different opinions on stats and philosophies – The first two biases are pretty much indefensible, but this one, regardless of your own opinion, is defensible in some ways. This is the voter who is aware of the advanced statistics and array of information available but says, “Son, them ballgames are won by doin’ the little things, the tough things. They’re won with heart and toughness and chemistry … and maybe a couple good arms. But you won’t ever know nothin’ about that if you keep your head buried in the computer. See the game, son, don’t calculate it.” (I’m not sure if those voters talk actually like that, but let’s go with it.) While I would call this an antiquated, and perhaps close-minded, opinion, this voter just believes something else to be true. OK, I can live with that.
4. Personal agenda – This could be any number of things and in some ways is a miscellaneous bin for bias. Sure, in a perfect professional world, how players treat media – i.e. Do you answer my questions with some sort of thought when I ask them? Because you can call me anything in exchange for good quotes. – would have zero impact on award voting. But does it sometimes play a part? Of course it does. Human beings are human beings, and they’re going to do human being things. This kind of bias could fall anywhere on the defensibility scale.
When it was announced Wednesday that Price had beat out Justin Verlander for the A.L. Cy Young and we had a few minutes to dissect the ballots, at least two of these biases bubbled to the surface.
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Tampa Bay’s Price won the award with a total of 153 points (14 first-place votes, 13 second-place, one third-place). Detroit’s Verlander came in at 149 points (13 first-place, 13 second-place, two third-place). And the Angels’ Jered Weaver was a distant third with 70 points (zero first-place, two second-place, 14 third-place, two fifth-place).
When the BBWAA released the ballots of the 28 AL Cy Young voters, people picked up on a little something: The two second-place votes Weaver received came from the two L.A. writers, Michael Martinez of FoxSportsWest.com and Bill Plunkett of the Orange County Register, and both picked Price as their winner. Hmmm.
Given that the gap between Price and Verlander was so small, some people mistakenly thought that Weaver’s second-place votes were the difference between second place and catching Price. “The two L.A. writers had Weaver second??? They cost Verlander the Cy!!” That was the tone in certain corners of Twitter. Problem is, that’s not correct, and it’s pretty simple to explain why.
You just need to understand the system and take a quick look at the ballots. The voting is based on a 7-4-3-2-1 point scale, with a first-place vote worth seven points and continuing on down to the fifth-place one-pointer. Martinez and Plunkett both had Verlander third behind Weaver, and thus the difference in value between those two slots was one point apiece. Simple math: Verlander lost to Price by four points, the L.A. votes “cost” him two points, which means if all was right in the world and Cy Young voting, he still would have been two points shy of Price.
Yeah, but then he needs only two points to catch Price, and that’s just the difference between second- and fourth-place for one vote. Aren’t there other areas of fat in the ballots that we could find points for Verlander?
Not really, although one vote is worth highlighting: Drew Davison of the Fort Worth Star Telegram gave Tampa Bay closer Fernando Rodney, a curious choice, his first-place vote while ranking Verlander second and Price third. So Davison clearly believed Verlander was the better choice compared to Price, and if he happened to think Verlander was also more qualified than Rodney and flipped the two, that would have given Verlander a net increase of three points, bringing him to within one point of Price. Then the two points he lost in L.A. would carry a little more intrigue. But Davison decided to shoot dem arrows.
Because this A.L. race was so close after the final tally, it seemed like a polarizing vote, while the N.L. vote – Dickey got 27 of 32 first-place votes and beat out the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw by 113 points – was ignored as a foregone conclusion. In actuality, the A.L. vote wasn’t much more interesting.
It would have been much more fun if there was more variance among the votes cast for Price and Verlander. But because the tally of votes for Price was (from first to fifth) 14-13-1-0-0 compared to Verlander’s 13-13-2-0-0, there was very little wiggle room in the 476 possible points. In order to create any scenarios to play with it, it would involve some voters changing their opinion of who should win the award. And if we were going to do that, then we would be totally blowing up the voting. Unfortunately, this means we can’t point to more poor writers in scattered cities around the country and accuse them of premeditated voting.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that there wasn’t Knowledge Of Falsity Bias (tough to prove) or Reckless Disregard Of The Truth Bias (I don’t think there is any good reason to put Weaver ahead of Verlander, so …) involved in those two L.A. votes, but we can’t just assume that there was after looking at the ballots of Martinez and Plunkett.
The one takeaway here: Every year, with every award, we will find something to complain about.
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Want something a little more legitimate to complain about? I introduce to you Felix Hernandez and Chris Sale.
Felix finished fourth, behind Weaver, with 41 total points, and Sale came in sixth, behind Rodney, with 17 total points. Let’s take Rodney out of this discussion and compare some stats for the top five starters on the ballot. They are listed by how they finished among this group of five, and in parentheses is their rank in the American League.
Wins above replacement: Verlander (1), Hernandez (2), Price (3), Sale (5), Weaver (14)
Innings pitched: Verlander (1), Hernandez (2), Price (8), Sale (14), Weaver (20)
Strikeout rate: Verlander (3), Sale (4), Price (5), Hernandez (6), Weaver (16)
Walk rate: Hernandez (10), Weaver (11), Verlander (14), Sale (15), Price (19)
Fielding independent pitching: Hernandez (1), Verlander (2), Price (3), Sale (5), Weaver (11)
Adjusted fielding ind. pitching: Price (1), Hernandez (3), Sale (5), Verlander (7), Weaver (22)
Earned run average: Price (1), Verlander (2), Weaver (3), Sale (4), Hernandez (5)
Pitcher wins: Price (T-1), Weaver (T-1), Verlander (4), Sale (5), Hernandez (13)
Those last two, of course, played a big part in Price winning and Weaver finishing 29 points ahead of Hernandez. I wouldn’t have voted Price first if I had a vote, but I don’t think it’s an insane vote to make. The xFIP metric (which adjusts for ballpark effects) favors him, he trails Verlander in K-rate by only 0.5 percent, he trailed Verlander in BB-rate by only 0.8 percent, he was slightly better in ERA. The biggest difference between the two is Verlander piled up 1.7 more WAR, and part of that is he threw 27.1 more innings – so, basically, the Tigers got three complete games more out of their ace than the Rays got from theirs.
But you like Price, OK, so go with him. A fine pitcher, and I think he is deserving of the Cy Young.
What I’m NOT fine with is taking Weaver over Hernandez.
It’s not just that Hernandez beat Weaver in the WAR metric – he beat him by 3.1 wins. It’s not just that Hernandez threw more innings than Weaver – he threw 42.3(!) more innings. It’s not just that Hernandez lead Weaver in FIP – Felix lead him by 0.91 runs. We could go on, but I’ll just stop here and say that I think Hernandez should have been absolutely no worse than third in the AL Cy Young voting, and you could make an argument that he was Price’s equal, too. (And don’t go blaming this on Martinez and Plunkett, too: Weaver had nine more third-place votes than Hernandez. It wasn’t just hometown writers going to bat for their guy).
What’s Sale’s case? While he had a fantastic year, I think there’s a gap between him and the top three that is difficult to overcome, mostly because of innings. Sale trails Price by 19 innings, Hernandez by 40, Verlander by 46.1. But can we make a case for Sale over Weaver? Yes, yes we can!
The innings issue doesn’t exist here — Sale threw 3.2 more, so that’s essentially equal. Where Weaver is better than Sale is in walk rate (by 0.5 percent), pitcher wins (20 to 17) and ERA (by 0.24 runs). But then this thing quickly starts pecking at Weaver like a jackhammer. Sale beat him by 1.9 WAR. He has a 0.48 advantage in FIP and that turns into a 0.94 advantage when park effects are accounted for. Sale struck batters out at a 5.7 percent better rate.
And yet, Sale received only one third place vote (13 fewer than Weaver) and four fourth-place votes (five fewer than Weaver). Only three writes had Sale ahead of Weaver: Dennis Manoloff of the of the Cleveland Plain Dealer (Sale third, Weaver fourth), Ben Goessling of the St. Paul Pioneer Press (Sale fourth, Weaver not on the ballot) and Dave Van Dyck of the Chicago Tribune (Sale fourth, Weaver fifth).
Even with all of that, you can justify voting Weaver ahead of Sale, I suppose. You can’t justify Weaver or Sale over Hernandez, I don’t think.
But look, this gets at all of the silliness surrounding voting for baseball awards and screaming that writers from a certain city “cost” another player a subjective honor. I’m sitting here arguing about third and fourth place in an award that is based entirely on one’s opinion and is fraught with bias.
So, really, after the winner is decided, who cares?
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That’s the question that I think throws wrinkles into a lot of ballots, and it’s not because the voter was being vicious about it. I don’t have any opinion at all about Martinez or Plunkett, so let’s just use them as an example since they were the ones tossed into the spotlight.
They both decided that Price was their winner. Here’s how their thinking probably went after that, ending with Weaver in second place.
So I think David Price is the best pitcher in the American League, and I’m going to vote him first. After that, there are a few good choices. Verlander is right there – he had a spectacular season and would be deserving. Felix is right there – he was great, too. But I think Weaver should be in the discussion, because I watched him every single time out, I was around the team most days, and I know the effect he had on this pitching staff and this club. I admired how he went about his business when the team couldn’t hit anything until Mike Trout came up. And look, Felix won the award a couple years ago. Verlander won it AND the MVP last year. I have already said that I think Price is the best choice here, so I’m going to give Weaver the second place vote because I think he deserves it. He had good basic numbers, and I respect what he does on a daily basis.
OK, I’m not saying that I agree with that, or that Martinez and Plunkett even thought like that. But I can see how beat writers would come to a similar conclusion.
Oddly enough, this is a little like college football coaches voting in the polls when they don’t watch film on any team but their own and their next opponent. Baseball writers with a national vote SHOULD pay attention to players across the country – and, let’s be clear, with the resources available, there are no excuses for you not to at least be informed – but I can understand how they fall behind. They arrive at the ballpark around 3 p.m. They don’t leave until midnight or sometimes later. They go home and try to have some sort of personal/family life. And they do that almost every day for 6-8 months. You can see how there’s a fine line between “being a homer” and being swayed simply out of familiarity.
These same questions will be raised today when the AL MVP award is announced, and Miguel Cabrera likely beats out Mike Trout. We’ll scream about regional conspiracies and biases of all kinds.
We’ll say that we have all these numbers to support the contrary – and we’ll be right about that. But biases exist everywhere, in all things. That’s just part of silly baseball awards.
The good thing about Cabrera v. Trout is that I think it’s impossible to prove actual malice here. There are plenty of reasons to vote for Trout, and those who don’t will likely be guilty of Different Philosophy Bias rather than recklessness.
I will disagree with that outcome but, hey, I can live with that.