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risky business

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guayzimi asked in a diary yesterday whether albert pujols might sneak in there and win the mvp award. he notes, accurately, that there is no obvious front-runner for the award --- nobody having a superlative year numerically, no "best player on the best team" candidate. SB Nation's sabr site, Beyond the Boxscore, endorsed pujols for the award last week (citing his incredible defense as a primary reason). could he really win the thing? at about this time last year i broke down the 2006 nl mvp race; thought i'd apply similar methods to assess el albert's standing in 2007. i realize, by the way, that no actual mvp voter is going to break down the numbers in this fashion; i'm not trying to predict the winner of the award. it's just an academic exercise to pass time on a slow friday.

here's where albert ranks on the nl leaderboards in some standard stat categories, the ones most of the voters tend to rely on:

stat value rank
avg .318 11th
obp .419 5th
slg .568 7th
ops .986 6th
hr 24 6th
rbi 72 7th
runs 68 11th

he ranks in the top 10 (ok, top 11 --- sue me) in everything, which is outstanding but still a step down for albert from years past, when he has generally ranked in the top 5 across the board and the top 2 or 3 in the majority of categories. pujols doesn't lead the league in anything this year and isn't close to doing so; there are still two months to go, plenty of time to move up, but as it currently stands he's not well positioned to win a 2d mvp --- not, at least, by the traditional criteria. he's in better shape if we look at some leading sabermetric categories:

vorp 46.6 5th
win sh 21 2d
wpa 3.46 2d
eqa .330 4th
rc 80 7th

that's more like it --- top 5 across the board (nearly), and top 2 in a couple of instances. win shares, though, is losing its relevance among sabermetricians --- the national league leader in win shares is the dbacks' eric byrnes, which helps explain why people don't take the stat all that seriously. wpa, by contrast, has a growing constituency --- and i was surprised nay shocked to find albert in 2d place on that leaderboard; doesn't seem as if he's had a particularly good clutch year. (his batting average with runners in scoring position is a pedestrian .291, 50 points below his career average and 106 points below his avg w RISP last year.) the man ahead of him in wpa is prince fielder, who a month ago looked like the leading mvp contender; since the all-star break, though, he's only hit 2 hr with 9 rbi. albert, by comparison, has 8 hr / 20 bi since the break; he's traditionally a 2d-half hitter, and it wouldn't be shocking at all to see him post monster numbers from here on out and end up with the trophy.

* * * * * * *

at Baseball Prospectus the other day, joe sheehan nicely summed up the inactivity at the trade deadline:
The trade deadline exposed the current crop of GMs as, by and large, unwilling to assume any risk. Like field managers, who have reduced the running of baseball games to a set of stringent rules that don't really optimize the chance of success, GMs have become so fearful of making a bad deal that they won't give themselves a chance to make a good one. There are individual exceptions, but for the most part, what you saw at the trade deadline was the industry at work: no one wants to roll the dice.
that resonated with me in part because of an exchange about risk in the discussion thread yesterday. it also struck me as an unintended consequence of sabermetrics' ascendance --- a sign that the balance may have tipped too far toward science and away from art. front offices don't seem to play hunches anymore. they seem to analyze data, assign values, and calculate percentages, much as actuaries and fund managers and professional card players do; they devise systems that over time will yield (theoretically, anyway) some incremental advantage. such an approach requires unwavering discipline --- you can't apply the system selectively or your percentages get all messed up and the whole thing breaks down.

before Moneyball, that was an original approach which gave certain clubs an edge over the competition; he who held superior command of the numbers held the advantage. but now they all command the numbers --- and the advantage may lie in the opposite direction, with the teams that have a superior grasp of qualitative (rather than quantitative) values. i'm not knocking the stathead approach here; it's a required part of the baseball executive's toolkit in this day and age. but it no longer confers the same advantage it used to. the secret is out, the patent has expired, and the formula is in the public domain. accordingly, the margin has dropped through the floor; stattiness is still profitable, but the return on investment is not what it used to be. so where's the next windfall? perhaps it will go to the team that can move sabermetrics beyond its current systems-analysis footing and toward something more akin to paint by numbers --- something more Pixar than Price Waterhouse. i'm groping to express myself, because i don't really know what i mean; maybe y'all can help me crystallize the idea.

whatever it is, under my imagined new paradigm rolling the dice will be not only permissible but desirable. i never thought Moneyball would turn every gm into a hypercautious steward of institutional assets; i never thought it would become a new form of dogma. i thought it would liberate gms from dogma and enable them to take informed risks. maybe the guy who learns to master that art and step outside the current conventions will be the next billy beane-ish cult hero, the guy with the secret formula.