On Wednesday, David Price was named the winner of the 2012 American League Cy Young Award, to some degree of disagreement. R.A. Dickey was named the winner of the 2012 National League Cy Young Award, to some lesser degree of disagreement. On Thursday, Buster Posey will presumably be named the winner of the 2012 NL Most Valuable Player Award, and Miguel Cabrera will presumably be named the winner of the 2012 AL Most Valuable Player Award. There exist some odds that someone else might win in the NL and/or the AL; those odds are long. Posey’s almost certainly beating his competition, and Cabrera’s almost certainly beating his competition, where by “his competition” I mean “Mike Trout“.
In terms of the attention it’s been given, the AL MVP race has dwarfed the NL MVP race. People more or less just accept that Posey will win, even though we don’t know exactly how valuable he was. The other side is heated, and it’s been heated for, what, months? At least several weeks. I guess “months” and “several weeks” mean the same thing. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of in-between. People tend to be either firmly on Trout’s side, or firmly on Cabrera’s side. Thursday evening, one side is going to celebrate. What’s funny is it’s hardly going to matter.
We always talk a lot about the post-season awards, because there’s no more season or playoffs, and because the active part of the offseason isn’t yet underway. The purpose of the post-season awards is to recognize and honor exceptional performances by players and coaches. There are awards in every field to recognize excellence, and baseball’s no different, and for a player who wins a Cy Young or an MVP or a Rookie of the Year, it’s a great honor. Great players have won those awards, and winning makes you a part of baseball’s rich history. Who doesn’t like to be acknowledged? I know people who have left jobs because they felt un-acknowledged.
So the purpose is valid, and for the players and coaches directly involved, these awards are important. They’re psychologically important, and sometimes they’re financially important. One could see on Wednesday how deeply thankful Price and Dickey were for winning the Cy Youngs. But it’s worth considering also the function of these things for everybody else, which basically means us. The fans, and the writers. Seems to me the awards are less about who wins, and more about the conversation.
To the extent that sports are a healthy distraction from the various challenges of everyday life, so too are the post-season award debates, in the absence of actual played baseball. We would all prefer baseball to post-season award debates, but the baseball has to end sometime, or else what would they be playing for? And when the baseball is over, we argue with one another, we argue with strangers, we argue with people we make up. We argue in favor of one guy, we argue against another guy. We argue to make a point, and we believe that the point is important.
The primary function of the post-season awards, be it by design or accidental, is to keep people interested in baseball, to keep people talking about baseball when the baseball’s just finished. We’re given issues to converse about, and we derive satisfaction from conversing about them. It’s an opportunity for interaction, for critical thinking, for analysis deep and shallow, and the announcements of the actual winners become not irrelevant, but less relevant, only a part of the greater conversation. If Miguel Cabrera does beat out Mike Trout, for example, that will matter to us only insofar as it will steer the talk in a certain direction. Or it will leave the talk mostly the same, with one added variable.
The most compelling argument I’ve heard in support of the “human element” is that umpire subjectivity and inaccuracy makes the game more interesting. When umpires get something wrong, it’s a talking point, it’s something to be emotional and passionate over. Baseball might actually be better off on the whole with Jim Joyce having blown the Armando Galarraga call than if Jim Joyce had gotten it right. I’m not convinced by this argument, but I’m open to it.
I’m not convinced because we watch baseball to see games between teams, and umpires don’t play for teams, and bad calls mistakenly reward one team instead of the other. Bad calls alter win expectancy for no good reason, and ultimately we want to see winning. We’re all in it to see our teams build toward a world championship. Post-season awards, meanwhile, are removed from team competition entirely. We’re not all in it to see players on our teams win post-season awards. This whole experience is about deriving satisfaction from the accomplishments of strangers, but awards mean so, so much less than performance in the season or the playoffs. So the conversation becomes more significant than the result.
This essentially boils down to a “journey, not the destination” platitude. But the fun of all this isn’t about who actually wins, but about trying to figure out who ought to win, or who ought to have won. There’s never an inarguable right answer, because the voting guidelines are vague and because our measurements are imperfect and limited. Because there’s never an inarguable right answer, there’s always room for argument, and arguments always exist. The awards allow us to argue, and then they allow us to argue some more. We get to think critically, we get to express ourselves, and then we get to shake hands and do it all over again. That’s not why these things exist, but that’s why we pay attention to them. God knows those paying attention to the AL MVP race aren’t limited exclusively to fans of the Angels and Tigers.
As for the direction, this section is going to be way shorter. The whole Cabrera-vs.-Trout debate has people talking about the Triple Crown vs. WAR, and about whether the MVP should go to the guy with the biggest number according to one single metric. More generally, it’s pitted traditionalists against more new-agey thinkers — Cabrera has the majority support of the traditional crowd, while Trout has the majority support of the sabermetric crowd. I don’t need to go into detail. You already know all of the details.
If Cabrera wins, it’ll be considered a victory for the traditionalists. If Trout wins, it’ll be considered a victory for the sabermetricians. The result will be taken as a sign of whether or not “progress” is being made by the BBWAA, where progress refers to an openness to more modern, analytical thinking. Progress is being made. Forget about the result. Progress is being made, and this doesn’t follow a step function. Voters are more open to sabermetric thought than ever before, and in 2013, voters will be more open to sabermetric thought than ever before.
We’ve seen how often people have talked about WAR in the MVP debate. We’ve seen signs of progress in the discussions surrounding other awards, present and previous. We’ve seen signs of voters beginning to understand which numbers should matter more, and which numbers should matter less. There’s never going to be a singular breakthrough moment, and all the progress is going to be incredibly gradual, but it’s happening, and a reasonably sabermetric BBWAA is essentially an inevitability. They aren’t there yet, to be sure. They’re closer to being there than they ever have been. The Cabrera-vs.-Trout debate is very different now from how it would’ve been 20 years ago, and it’s very different now from how it would be in another 20 years. Everybody is learning more about baseball all the time. Some people are more stubborn, more resistant, but there are fewer of these people, and some of them might still have their minds changed. Or opened, if you prefer.
The conversations surrounding the post-season awards are basically just interactive entertainment, but those conversations are also gradually becoming more and more informed. That means as much or as little as you personally determine. Of course the BBWAA isn’t going to embrace WAR and discard RBI overnight. No collection of thinkers ever moves that quickly. But they are moving. Understand that they’re moving, if moving slowly, and they aren’t going back.