The NL MVP subtext
Watch where Braun lands in voting with an eye toward future
Ryan Braun isn't getting much love in the National League MVP race, which says a lot about MVP voters -- what kind of players they like, and what they're doing, and failing to do, about allegations of steroid use.
Braun led the NL in home runs (41), runs scored (108), total bases (356) and OPS (.987), and was only the 11th player in MLB history to smack 40 homers and swipe 30 bases in a season. Buster Posey won the batting title (.336) while backstopping the Giants to a world championship. Seems as though their contrasts in excellence ought to make for a contest that's too close to call. (Andrew McCutchen, Chase Headley and Yadier Molina, the other three contenders for the award, also had terrific seasons, but not at the level of Braun or Posey.) But Posey recently won the Hank Aaron Award as the "most outstanding offensive performer" in the NL, and if talking heads, blog posts and sports columns outside Milwaukee are any indication, he's about to take home the MVP trophy, too.
This vote should be a two-man race, but it has turned into a one-man show.
There's an obvious explanation: Voters (and many fans) are shunning Braun because they believe he flunked a test for performance-enhancing drugs, then escaped a suspension through the technical stipulations of collectively bargained due process. But things aren't that simple.
First, on the merits, Braun's season wasn't quite as good as Posey's. Indeed, while the statistical battle between Posey and Braun might seem like a dead heat, it's actually more like the 2012 presidential election, where Barack Obama had a small but clear advantage over Mitt Romney thanks to his ability to knit together various disparate constituencies. If you're old-school, Posey's your man: He had an excellent batting average, and he led his team to a title. If you have absorbed sabermetric basics, Posey still looks great: He posted outstanding numbers despite playing the most difficult defensive position, and in a very tough ballpark for hitters. (If you adjust his stats for his stadium, Posey's on base-plus-slugging was 72 percent better than league average, the best in baseball.) And if you're a full-bore stathead, Posey is still on top: According to Fangraphs, he led the NL with 8.0 Wins Above Replacement, an uber-metric that takes into account everything players do at bat, in the field and on the bases to help their teams win. However MVP voters are looking at the numbers, Braun trails, though narrowly.
Further, while Braun won the MVP award last year, Posey is a type of player voters like even better. In 2001, Jonathan Bernstein developed an accurate and absurdly simple method for predicting National League MVPs, taking into account batting average, home runs, RBIs, playing for a division- or league-winning team, and playing an up-the-middle position for a division or league winner. That's all he needed. And despite the statistical revolution of recent years, those factors are still really all you need to project MVP awards. When voters for either league have the chance to reward a player who hits well and plays a critical defensive position for a winner, they tend to do so, as with Joe Mauer in 2009, Dustin Pedroia in 2008 and Jimmy Rollins in 2007. Posey fits that bill perfectly.
Braun, on the other hand, had the kind of year that sometimes wins an MVP trophy when nobody else overwhelms the voters -- which is just what happened in 2011 -- but more frequently results in a near-miss. Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus has put together a list (subscription required) of recent seasons that were most similar to Braun's 2012, such as Matt Kemp and Joey Votto in 2011, Jose Bautista and Miguel Cabrera in 2010, David Wright in 2008 and Chipper Jones in 2007. These players usually ended up in the top five in MVP voting, ranging from second place to seventh, but never won.
Now, the voters still might surprise everyone and hand Braun the MVP anyway. But the numbers show he probably isn't going to win, and wouldn't even if his alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs had never become a public issue.
Braun will, however, almost certainly lose some MVP votes over PEDs and his suspension-busting appeal. And if only a few writers downgrade him on their ballots or leave him off entirely, Braun will not only fall behind the winner, but plunge below other contestants whom he clearly outplayed this season. The most likely outcome is the least satisfying: partial, ill-defined punishment for Braun's mistrial.
Writers who oppose doping may feel some satisfaction in voting for Posey -- whose Giants overcame the loss of suspended Melky Cabrera -- over Braun. But Braun's case shows just how poorly the community responsible for evaluating great players has come to grips with drug use. You can imagine a world where Braun's season was redemptive or even heroic: Presumably shorn of illegal help, he posted amazing numbers anyway, and even carried the Brewers to the fringes of the pennant race, showing that he either didn't need or could compensate for whatever he might have been taking. But that's not a narrative baseball's judges are ready to accept yet. The men and women who vote for MVPs and Hall of Famers still feel betrayed -- embarrassed that they were duped by, or played along with, steroid users for so long, and angered by so many superstars' lack of repentance. And while those writers can't change the numbers players have put into the record books, they can still affect how history interprets them. Ryan Braun will pay for his sins, and by God, he'll pay for Barry Bonds' sins too, even though nobody who's voting knows exactly what either man did.
But here's something else nobody knows: what the proper scale of reaction ought to be. It has been nearly 15 years since the summer of McGwire and Sosa, and almost a decade since the BALCO story broke, and we still don't understand how performance-enhancing drugs change performance. There's a gazillion unfounded claims about various steroids, and some research into the effects of anabolics on body mass, endurance and healing time. But in all this time, there has been precisely one scientific study (subscription required) examining the relationship between PEDs and MLB stats: a 2010 paper by two professors at Macalester College, who looked at all pitchers suspended for a positive drug test since 2005 or named in the Mitchell Report. They found that using steroids -- but not HGH -- increased a pitcher's average fastball velocity by 1.07 miles per hour -- an interesting result, but one that just begins to scratch the surface of what we need to know to properly adjust players' stats for doping.
Braun and today's MVP voters are the latest participants in the death spiral of statistical ignorance that takes hold whenever a star player is accused of doping. You know the pattern: DIY researchers come up with new ways to enhance athletes' performance. Authorities see what's happening, and try to crack down. Some but only some users get busted. Commissioners and sportswriters stir up storms of outrage. Other users go unpunished, and the most clever among them go back to the researchers to start the cycle again. So it went with early steroids, then the designer compounds of the BALCO era, and now with fast-acting testosterone. But the process never pauses to analyze just how, or whether, various new drugs work. If it turns out a power-hitting outfielder was regularly injecting himself with 100 milligrams of testosterone during the 2011 season, how should we look at his numbers in retrospect? We have no idea, so we're left to make hazy, queasy judgments.
Whether you mistrust or admire Braun's performance, the fact that he followed a failed (albeit overturned) drug test with an MVP-level campaign should inspire everyone who cares about baseball to want more knowledge about what drugs actually do for players. So here's a proposal: MLB and its congressional allies should offer immunity from suspension and prosecution for any player who is willing to offer complete disclosure about what he has taken and when. Only by putting together a giant database of real-life use and results will researchers ever eventually compile enough information for us to really understand what we're looking at when we try to interpret the game's statistics. Maybe then we could root our judgments of players in facts, rather than hysteria, vengeance or guesswork. And maybe, just maybe, leagues and lawmakers could break the cat-and-mouse cycle of performance enhancement if they understood more fully what athletes do.
It won't be a gross injustice, or a break with voting traditions, if Ryan Braun doesn't win the MVP. But where he lands in the balloting should alert us to much tougher decisions, especially for the Hall of Fame, that are coming soon.