Tom Boswell is one of my sportswriting heroes. Boz has written eloquently about baseball and sports for some 40 years now. I have also talked with him at various events, and he's an extremely nice man who, it seems to me, usually has an interesting view of the world and of sports. His back-to-back columns on the Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran fights -- the first where Duran mauled Leonard, the second where Leonard mocked Duran into saying "no mas" -- is like a sportswriting clinic. You could teach entire classes on just those two articles.
There, now that I am done telling you how I feel about the man and his work, I must say that I read this from the man and I find myself sitting here in stunned and rather gloomy silence. I have actually read several columns the last couple of days that make what appears to be Boz's main point -- the main point being, I guess, that baseball writers are becoming too geeky and VORPy, and are ignoring what is obvious and right in front of their faces. And this is best proven by the baffling MVP choice of Albert Pujols over Ryan Howard for MVP.
Yes, I've read other columns along these lines, but the other columns I've read were from hometown Phillies writers or people I do not have any particular opinion about. I love the Boz. I respect the Boz. I read columns from the Boz and, even if my starting opinion is precisely the opposite of his, I find myself halfway through thinking, "Well, maybe he's right and I'm wrong."
And yet this column is overwhelmed with such twisted logic that I'm sitting here doing all sorts of Shawn Johnson mental gymnastics in order to come to some sort of peaceful resolution between my love of the Boz and this opinion wreckage.
The key line in Boz's column seems to be this:
When stats WILDLY contradict common sense, always doubt the stats.
That sounds good. It really does. I read that sentence, once, twice, five times, and each time I read it I liked the rhythms of it, I liked the construction, I liked the use of all-capital letters in WILDLY. When stats WILDLY contradict common sense, always doubt the stats. Yes, this seems a solid premise.
Only, you know what? It isn't. It is, when you think about it, a horrifying premise -- I cannot believe that Tom Boswell, my hero, really believes that. Common sense says that the universe revolves around the earth. Common sense says that thunder clapping means God's angry. Common sense says that when your car is sliding you want to turn your wheel away from the skid. Common sense says that a fast guy with no power who might or might not get on base is the perfect guy to put in the leadoff spot. Common sense that the queen of spades is the middle card. Common sense says that if you put Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg together, you will get an entertaining movie. Common sense says that the best way to hit a golf ball far is to swing harder. Common sense says a lot of incredibly stupid things and if you are going to automatically choose common sense over, you know stats and facts and results, well, that's a good way to crash into trees and lose your shirt in a card game and get stuck with Omar Moreno.
But, forget that for a moment. There's a larger point ... so let's remember the line: When stats WILDLY contradict common sense, always doubt the stats. Boz was using this line to point out that the gulf of a difference in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) between Pujols (96.8) and Howard (35.3) is so massive that it simply cannot be right, it bends common sense. I mean, that says Pujols is, what, 61 VORPies better than Howard, that just seems wrong, wrong, wrong. And based on the Rule of Boswell you have to doubt the veracity of VORP.
Now, one thing I should say is that I don't really see how the huge difference in VORP really cuts against common sense. Pujols hit 106 points higher than Howard. His on-base percentage was 123 points higher. His slugging percentage was 110 points better. It doesn't seem too much of a stretch that Pujols had a much, much better season and that this would be dramatically reflected in their VORPs. And VORP does not even consider the massive differences in their defensive ability (Pujols is a better first baseman) or their base-running ability (Pujols is a better baserunner) or their various splits (Howard was more or less helpless against left-handed pitchers). It seems pretty obvious from just about any angle that Albert Pujols is a much better player than Ryan Howard, and that he had a much, much, much, much, much, much, much better season -- I would say at least 61 VORPies better.
But -- I told you there would be some mental gymnastics here -- let's play along. Let's say that the VORP difference does indeed give pause ... hmm, this says that Pujols was almost three-times the player that Ryan Howard was in 2008, and that just doesn't pass the smell test. So where can we turn to offer a little common sense in this sea of numbers confusion?
Here's what Boz says: "Sometimes you have to underline the obvious; for example a first baseman with 146 RBIs is 'more valuable,'* especially when he plays on a first-place team, than a first baseman (Pujols) with 116 RBIs on a fourth-place team."
*I'm not entirely certain why Boz put "more valuable" in quotes. I have this friend who does that, who puts those little air-quotation marks around the strangest words. He will say things like, "I have 'to' go to the bathroom," or "This chicken salad is very delicious 'but a' little bit dry."
OK. So here's where we are now. Tom Boswell, who just crushed VORP for the way it crosses logic (and, later in the article, he does the same for runs created, OPS and Total Average, which he invented), now explains that the only way to judge these two men, the only logical and common-sense way to measure the 2008 baseball achievements of Ryan Howard and Albert Pujols, is to look at:
1. The number of runs they drove in.2. The finish of their teams.
That's it. Don't analyze beyond that. In fact, to quote Boswell's next sentence, "Don't analyze beyond that." See? The man who is basing his entire argument on that Boz Premise (to remind you: When stats WILDLY contradict common sense, always doubt the stats) is now choosing RBIs -- freaking RBIs -- over common sense. I mean RBIs. Do we need to really go over this RBI thing again?
And I know that Boz understands that Pujols is a much better player, because he spends the next paragraph pointing out that, yes, Howard can't field, and yes, Pujols outhit him, and yes, Howard strikes out a lot while Pujols walks a lot. He knows this to be true. But you know the Seinfeld line about how impressed he is that the Chinese are sticking with chopsticks. Well, Boz is sticking with those RBIs.
And he follows with these gems:
"But none of it outweighs Howard's RBI total, built on his .320 average with runners in scoring position." Pujols hit .339 with runners in scoring position and reached base more than half the time.
"For what it's worth, Howard wasn't even in the top half dozen in baseball in runners on base when he came to the plate." This is true; Howard was eighth with 483 runners on base. But you know what? That's a lot of runners. A lot of runners. That's 47 more runners than Pujols. And Pujols was also intentionally walked 34 times (to Howard's 17).
"[Howard] is Mr. Multi-Run Homer." Howard hit 26 of his 48 homers with men on base, that's 54%, which is pretty good. League average is closer to 44%. Pujols was at 46%. However it should be noted that Howard also came up with men on base a touch more than half the time. And while Pujols hit six homers with multiple men on base (including a slam), Howard hit five. I'm not reserving "www.MisterMulti-RunHomer.com" for him just yet.
King Kaufman over at Salon.com wrote something the other day that I really liked. He wrote that the methodology for some voters seems to be: "Figure out who you like as MVP, then fashion the current year's definition of 'valuable' to fit."
I think that's about right. I understand why people would want to vote for Ryan Howard as MVP. It fits a neat story line. We don't want our MVPs to just be the boring ol' best player -- we want them to be superheroes, we want to ascribe to them some sort of mystical talents that lift teams above their modest means and carry them to unforeseen heights. We want to believe that the MVP -- and the MVP alone -- lifted them higher than they've ever been lifted before.
Sure, the Phillies were defending division champs. Sure they have better players than Ryan Howard, including the guy who plays right next to him. Sure they had a couple of very good left-handed starters and a closer who did not blow a save. Sure Ryan Howard coming into September had been absolutely terrible (.234/.324/.490 -- but lots of 'dem RBIs!). Sure the Phillies pitchers gave up three runs or less in 12 of the last 16 games as the Phils overcame a sinking Mets team.
Sure, we all know that baseball is a team sport, and that one player can only do so much, and that if Albert Pujols would have been in Philadelphia instead of Ryan Howard his numbers might have forced a Florida recount. Sure. But it's so much more poetic to give the credit to Ryan Howard, who had an excellent September and banged some big home runs down the stretch. It's so much more fun to believe that the most valuable player always plays on the best team, and that he wills his team to victory with his great strength and heroism and timely home runs. The trouble is that this doesn't really resemble life. And it means sometimes ignoring everything you know to be true and, instead, spreading the gospel of RBIs.
Boz, in the column, proceeds to explain why K-Rod should have won the American League MVP, but I'm too tired to go into that.