Arch Ward was the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune from 1930 until his death in 1955, but his main legacy wasn’t anything he wrote or caused to be written. It’s the MLB All-Star Game, which was launched by his hand in 1933. From his desk in Tribune Tower, backed by his paper’s financial and political clout, he also created the boxing Golden Gloves tournament, the College Football All-Star Game and the All-American Football Conference, the last two of which made a splash before going defunct. His life’s work was nicely encapsulated in the title of a biography of him that was written in 1990: “Arch—A Promoter Not A Poet.”
The point of that paragraph is to point out that newspaper guys have had a bigger part in shaping America’s sports structure than many people appreciate. One piece of that edifice are the Most Valuable Player awards that our big leagues hand out annually, and over which we fans can be counted upon to obsess. They (one for the National League, one for the American) were created by the Baseball Writers Association of American in 1931, mostly to give those worthies something to write about during the game’s long off-season. That’s a preoccupation of sportswriters generally and the source of much of what still passes for news when the players aren’t tossing around balls in earnest.
In baseball the MVP idea was so good it spawned a cornucopia of other prizes. The Rookie of the Year awards came along in 1947 and the Cy Youngs, for best pitchers, in 1956, both also conducted under BWAA auspices. More recently have come the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards, the ones for “comeback” players, relief pitchers, designated hitters and managers, and the Hank Aaron Award for best hitter. Not surprisingly, commercial sponsors have jumped on board: Rolaids and the DHL delivery company have put their names on the relief-pitcher trophies, and Viagra backs the comebacker awards (tee-hee).
The MVPs, however, stick out in that crowd, not only for their longevity but also for their ambiguity. The other prizes are pretty straightforward—the Cy’s go to the pitchers that the writers think performed best in the just-concluded season and the rookie one for the first-year man who did the same, even though there could be (and usually are) differences over whom that might be. The MV in the MVP, though, stands for “most valuable,” whatever that means, and instead of providing a clear definition the clever scribes left that to the individual voters. Since sportswriters like nothing better than to quibble, quibble they do, and the rest of us quibble right along.
If the award were simply for the best player in each league, it’ll be fairly easy to decide in many seasons. If I were a playground captain choosing sides for a game in this one, I’d pick Nolan Arenado, the Colorado Rockies’ third baseman, to lead my National League squad, and Mike Trout, the LA Angels’ centerfielder, to head the American League group. Both are power hitters with few peers, hit for average, are excellent fielders and are skilled in their sport’s subtler aspects.
Between the two of them I’d give the edge to Arenado because of his glove (five “gold” ones in his five Major League seasons to date). Oddly, though, he’s never won an MVP and the best he’s done in any election is fourth. Trout, on the other hand, has won two (in 2014 and ’16) in his seven full campaigns.
But we’re not talking “best” player here (or are we?) we’re talkin’ “most valuable.” I guess that means most valuable to his team, but what does THAT mean? The measure seems to favor the best player on a league’s best team, or at least on a strong pennant contender, but it doesn’t always turn out that way; when Trout won the AL award in 2016 his team finished a non-playoff fourth in its division, and in 1987 Andre Dawson won with the Chicago Cubs, who finished in last place in theirs. Sure, Dawson had a monster year (48 HRs, 137 RBIs), but it didn’t do his team much good ‘cause you can’t do worse than last.
Baseball has heeded such questions and has included in its stats of late a newfangled measure called WAR, which stands for wins above replacement. It’s based on how a player compares statistically to the hypothetical bench player or high minor-leaguer who would replace him if he were unavailable. Far and away the leader in the all-majors WAR ratings for the current season is Mookie Betts, the Boston Red Sox’s centerfielder, with a 9.8 on Thursday (Trout’s was at 9.0), and he’s a good bet in the AL MVP race. But how the score is calculated is a mystery to most fans, including me, and thus it isn’t widely cited.
Moreover, WAR is little help in this season’s NL MVP race, with the six leading position-player contenders (Arenado; the Arizona Diamondbacks’ first-baseman Paul Goldschmidt; Chicago Cubs’ infielder Javier Baez; St. Louis Cardinals first-baseman Matt Carpenter; Atlanta Braves’ first baseman Freddie Freedman; and Milwaukee Braves’ outfielder Christian Yellich) all ranking between 5.9 and 5.1. Two NL pitchers, the Washington National’s Max Scherzer and the Philadelphia Phillies’ Aaron Nola, both have WARs of 9 or better, but how can any once-every-five-days starting pitcher be almost twice as valuable to his team as a top everyday player? Huh? Huh?
So the MVP electors (two BWAA members in every league city) have their work cut out for them in the post-season. If it were a best-player election I’d pick Arenado. For “most fun” I’d pick Baez, who at any given moment can hit a home run, score from first base on a single or strike out on a pitch two feet wide. For steadiest I’d take Goldy, once again the anchor in his team’s erratic voyage.
But ambiguity is a good thing, right? Anything that gets people talking is good for the game, as the old-time writers knew.