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Who's NL's real MVP? Let's look at numbers

By Kenneth Broder
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
October 23, 1988

All season, the one thing you could count on from the Dodgers was their uncanny defiance of the odds and conventional baseball wisdom.

They were weak up the middle, had just one legitimate hitter, put the worst batter in baseball leadoff and scored far more runs than the normally accurate Runs Created formula projected.

And, as the Oakland A's will attest, the club was an enigma on the road. They not only had the best away record in baseball, they were the only team to win more on the road than at home. But when they traveled to the Bay Area, they bucked much tougher odds than even they were used to.

Throughout the '80s, the home team has won, on the average, 54 percent of the time during the regular season. That means the average team wins 8 percent more games at home than on the road. However, when it comes to the World Series, that home field advantage, wherever it comes from, becomes wildly exaggerated.

From 1980 through '87, the home team won 66 percent of the time for an incredible 32 percent advantage. Couple that with Oakland's outstanding 54-27 home record and you have the ingredients for a classic matchup. The Road Warriors vs. the Homeboys.

But, hey, these are the Dodgers and nothing goes as expected. The best-hitting team in baseball doesn't hit at all; slick-fielding shortstops for each team drop line drives right at them; the best reliever in baseball gives up the game-winning home run in the ninth; and the two most valuable players in the respective leagues aren't a factor after the first two games.

Mind you, I'm not complaining. I wouldn't trade Mickey Hatcher's Series-winning homer in Game 5 for any number of the gritty, non-game-winning heroics by Kirk Gibson, but it might have been instructive for sportswriters like Gib Twyman of the Kansas City Star and Times to see Gibson perform at his best.

Last week Twyman wrote: "While we're here for the enshrinement of Kirk Gibson in the Old Blood and Guts Hall of Fame and handing him the National League's Most Valuable Player award by acclamation, two words. Let's don't.

"Gibson isn't the National League's MVP. Darryl Strawberry is. ... When you just put their statistics side-by-side, well Gibson, MVP? Please."

He then rattles off a dozen numbers, comparing homers, batting average, even game-winning RBIs. "Strawberry just slaughtered Gibson, up and down the line, statistically," Twyman concludes.

Strawberry did have some pretty impressive stats. His Isolated Power (Slugging Percentage minus Batting Average) was an awesome .276, 14 points higher than Jose Canseco and 50 points better than NL runner-up Will Clark; Gibson checked in with a respectable .194. And Strawberry's .368 OnBase Average would put him in the leagues's Top 10.

But in Twyman's extensive survey of baseball stats he left out two factors: outs and value to one's team. Strawberry made 12 more outs than Gibson with the bat (he hit 21 points lower) and added another 10 outs trying to steal bases. That's a lot of rally killers. Strawberry would have to go 8-for-8 to turn those 21 outs into a decent average.

Outs are one of those stealth stats we spend a lot of time around, but never get too intimate with. We care only about Strawberry's 29 stolen bases, not that they were statistically negated by the 14 times he was caught stealing.

Mr. Twyman's analysis would have been a bit more to the point, though perhaps a little less colorful, if he had heeded some basic rules for judging offense:

1. Runs are everything. Thirty homers a year may have kept Dave Kingman employed, but his puny On-Base Average destroyed his value. Translate individual offensive stats into a single figure representing a player's contribution to the scoring of runs.

2. Offense must be put into a context of outs. For instance, Strawberry's offense was worth about 108 runs to the Mets, according to the Runs Created formula. Taking into account all aspects of his offense, including outs, a lineup of nine Strawberrys would theoretically score 6.82 runs per game. Although Gibson's RC is only 103, his RC Per Game of 6.85 edges out Strawberry.

The ratio between offensive production and outs can also be expressed as a ratio of Wins and Losses and here Strawberry fares a little better. His record would be 12-4 compared to Gibson's 11-4. But ...

3. You have to adjust these numbers for the player's home ballpark. There are as many ways to do this as there are to measure offense. But one method used in the "historical Abstract" utilizes ballpark context in a way particularly suited to selecting a league Most Valuable Player. It compares a hitter's offense to the number of runs scored by his team and the opposition.

True, this formula hurts a hitter who has other great hitters on the team but I'm not touting it as a way to measure pure offensive output: it's for establishing value to a team.

And this is where Gibson slides past Strawberry with a ballpark-adjusted WINS total of 8.54 compared to Darryl's 8.30. That means both ballplayers probably were worth over eight more wins to their respective teams than losses.

Of course, as the Most Productive Hitters chart shows, both of them finished behind Will Clark. But he plays in Candlestick Park where the foul wind from a gang of underachievers blew an MVP season out to sea.

After taking into account Strawberry's suspect fielding, crummy attitude and second-half swoon one can reasonably conclude that there is more than one serious candidate for MVP. The question is: Should we include Strawberry?

American LeagueNational League

CansecoOak9.049.18Clark W.SF8.608.59
BrettKC7.788.44Van SlykePit7.417.71

McGriffTor7.317.26Davis E.Cin6.426.84

The Bottom Ten

Ripken B.Bal-9.75-9.08DunstonChi-3.21-3.94
White F.KC-6.36-5.60James C.Phi-1.35-1.80

JacobyCle-4.29-3.85Young G.Hou-1.35-0.68

* Wins is the number of victories a player's hitting theoretically contributed to his team after subtracting the theoretical losses his outs contributes. Wins is derived from a series of formulas, the base of which is Runs Created, a formula that surveys AtBats, Hits, Extra-base Hits, Walks, SB and Outs.
* Adj is Wins adjusted for ballpark influence and team context.