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What Baseball Needs is More Awards

... For Individual Achievement.


by James Leroy Wilson
September 1, 2003

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What Baseball Needs is More Awards_James Leroy Wilson-... For Individual Achievement I'm really not much of a baseball fan, as far as actually watching the game is concerned. But because the game can, more than any other, be explained by statistics (although, of course, it can't be reduced to statistics), it holds a certain fascination for me. Maybe one day, if I have more time on my hands, I'll take the time to really watch it and become a true fan. Nevertheless, as a truly partial observer of America's Game, I will follow the spirit on which this magazine was founded and offer my own opinions and recommendations for the sport.

The achievements of Barry Bonds over the last three seasons are simply amazing. The San Fransisco Giants outfielder has become a home run threat unlike anything we've seen since Babe Ruth. In 2001, he set the single-season home run record at 73. Can you believe it was only six years ago that we wondered when and if anyone would hit even 62 home runs, and that feat has now been achieved six times - by Sammy Sosa (three times), Mark McGwire (twice) and Bonds? In 2002, Bonds' home run total fell to 46 - and many thought that was an even better year for him. He hit .370 and his team almost won the World Series.

This year, Bonds is maintaining that dominance. Missing several games because of his father's illness and death, he still leads the majors with 39 home runs though August 25.

But that's not really the story of Bonds. He's not even in the top seven in runs batted in, even though he's first in home runs and third in batting (.338 average).

Why is this so? He's not given the opportunity to drive other runners in. Actually, he doesn't allow himself the opportunity. If the ball is not in the strike zone, he simply won't swing at it. When it is over the strike zone, he crushes it. Of course, even a ball hit as hard as Bonds hits it doesn't always go over the fence, and often there are people around to catch those that don't. There are very few gaps in the ballpark for major-leaguers to get a hit. That's why batting averages are always so low.

But with Bonds, the more times the pitch goes over the plate, the more you will see it go out of the park. Especially if there is a runner on base when Bonds comes up to bat, the wiser it is to just not give Bonds anything he can hit. So he walks and gets on base. Even if and when the opposing pitcher isn't intimidated by Bonds, that pitcher's manager is.

It is Bond's special gift. He has the vision and experience to know what to swing at and what not to. Hall-of-Fame great Joe Morgan said recently that when he had enough knowledge to become a really great hitter, his physical skills had diminished. Bonds, at 39, is still going strong. His special gifts set him apart from the Sammy Sosas who strike out often. Without any great batters in front of him or behind him (as Babe Ruth had the great Lou Gehrig, and as they both enhanced each other's statistics), Bonds has become the most feared baseball player in major league history. When in doubt, walk him.

And with opposing teams adopting that strategy, Bonds's Giants are in first place in their division by eleven games, even with his absences. Bonds is the most valuable player in the National League, and perhaps in all of team sports (not to take anything away from Tim Duncan.)

That said, I think there should be at least one other trophy in baseball, if not two or three. The National Hockey League provides a model, in which trophies are given out for individual excellence not just for Most Valuable Player (Hart) but also scoring (Ross), Best Defenseman (Norris) and Best Goaltending (Vezina). In contrast, Major League Baseball provides a Cy Young award for outstanding pitcher in each league, a generically-named Most Valuable Player Award, and a Gold Glove for outstanding defensive play at each position.

Nevertheless, I think that three more awards should be added, awards that make these ridiculous arguments disappear:
-"pitchers shouldn't be MVP because they have their own award" - even though they are, proportionally, at least as involved in as many plays and outs as other players during the season, regardless of whether they play every day);
-"he shouldn't be faulted just because his team didn't win enough;"
- "he benefited from great talent around him" - i.e., he's good, but giving him the MVP would make him over-rated.

I say, keep the MVP award as is, although give it a name. In the National League, it should be called the Barry Bonds Trophy (after the man whose already won it the most times). In the American, it should be the Ty Cobb Trophy (who would have won it many times had the award existed before 1922). The same criteria, "value to his team" should remain as subjective as it suggests.

But added to that, however, should be an "Offensive Player of the Year." Still subjective, but perhaps less so. In the American League, I'd call it the "Ted Williams Trophy" and in the National, the "Stan Musial Trophy" because of their high rankings in hitting for average and for power, and for producing runs. This would still be subjective; would Albert Pujols defeat Bonds in this award, since Pujols is at or near the lead for the Triple Crown categories (average, runs batted in, home runs)? Maybe, but I'd suggest instead that Bonds would still get the nod this year, because he is obviously the more feared hitter.

But, like the Gold Glove, I'd award a Golden Bat to each position player. For each defensive position, which player at that position was the best offensively? That could be according to batting average, on-base percentage, RBI's, or any other such statistic a voter feels is important under the circumstances. The voters for Offensive Player of the Year must be the same as the voters for Golden Bats, and the voting rules would insist that one's choice for the supreme award must also be one's first choice for a golden bat. That is, if the two best hitters in the league are both right fielders, you can't award the Golden Bat to the one and Offensive Player of the Year to the other. Your subjective judgment must create the same result for both awards. You can award the MVP to the other player, but you can't be the best offensive player in baseball, yet not be the best offensive player at your own position. That makes no sense.

Finally, I'd have one award that leaves no room for doubt or subjectivity, an award based on raw data. In the National League, I'd call it the Hank Aaron Award. In the American, the Babe Ruth Trophy. To win it, all you'd have to do is score the most runs. You have to win the "Scoring Title."

But how do you "score" the most runs? Do as they did: swing your bat to cause others to touch home plate, and touch home plate yourself. Aaron and Ruth rank 1-2 all-time in RBI's, and are tied for third (Behind Rickey Henderson and Cobb) for runs. They are the all-time leaders in directly putting runs on the board. And the only direct ways to do that are to score the runs yourself thanks to your own or another person's bat, or to use your bat, not to score a run yourself, but to let teammates already on base get to home plate.

The simplest way to compute this formula is: runs batted in plus runs scored, minus home runs. That sounds unfair, in a way, making it appear that home runs punish the batter. Not at all. The more home runs a batter hits, the more he's helped. It's just that he's not double-counted for producing a home run. A home run counts as both a "run" and as a "run batted in." To deduct the number of home runs reflects that home runs count for both a run scored and a run batted in. The home run would count, but wouldn't count twice.

This year, in the National League, I would give Bonds the, well, Bonds (MVP) Trophy and also the Musial (Offensive) Trophy. But the numbers for the Aaron (Scoring) Trophy favor Pujols at this point. This in no way denigrates Bonds. For if Bonds walked every time he went up to bat, he'd lose all the RBI's he could have earned. That's what the MVP and Offensive Awards are for. Nevertheless, the guy who actually did score the most runs should get special recognition. Because it is the team with the most runs that wins the ball game.

It's be like, in football, acknowledging the quarterback with the most yards passing, or running back with the most yards rushing. But in baseball, generating runs is all the more difficult. I think a "scoring title" in baseball should be even more prestigious than the same award given in hockey, the NBA, or the NFL (where it often goes to kickers).

And it would just be one award, not the most important. Lead-off hitters like Henderson, who was the best ever at that, obviously enjoy fewer opportunities to rake in the RBI's and would never win his league's Scoring Title. But lead-off hitters can still win offensive player of the year and MVP.

And it is to make better sense of the MVP vote - removing bias against pitchers, or sympathy for great players on bad teams for instance, that I propose these other awards. If Alex Rodriquez, playing on a bad team, is constantly overlooked for MVP, he perhaps should at least get an "Offensive Player of the Year" from time to time. And if a pitcher leads his league in wins, Earned Run Average, and complete games (thus giving the entire bullpen those days off), he may strengthen his team just by strengthening the rest of the pitching staff. Even on days when he's not pitching, then, he may be contributing to wins.

These judgments are subjective. But if Major League Baseball, or its promoters in the press, honored greatness beyond just the Cy Young, Gold Glove, and MVP and added other prestigious trophies, then I think the MVP award would be more honestly voted on, without prejudice against pitchers or anybody else.

And in any case, these awards might create even greater interest, and more interesting races (such as for the scoring title). The person who bats .400 for a last-place team might still get Offensive Player of the Year. Better data might be available for Hall of Fame voters, now looking at how they finished each year not just in MVP voting, but in Offensive Player of the Year, Golden Bats, and perhaps Scoring Title.

With the ups and downs of pitching quality and other changes in the game, these awards would give a better portrait of how great a player was in his own era, which should be more important than achieving, say, the 500 home run milestone, or 3000 hits. Even if a player never won an award, but was highly ranked in all of these categories over, say, a thirteen-year career, he's more worthy of the Hall of Fame than one who spent 20 years as a good but not great player to achieve Hall of Fame "milestone" numbers.

In order to assess the best players in a particular era, we have to give out more awards, not just rely on numbers. Good players on bad teams might try harder late in the season, in the hopes of winning a prestigious award. Anything in professional sports that encourages highly-paid athletes to try harder, is good for the game.

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