The Age-Old Question: What is Value?

John Baker, who spent parts of seven seasons in the big leagues with the Florida Marlins, San Diego Padres, and Chicago Cubs, left behind his playing days when the Seattle Mariners released him from Triple-A Tacoma in May. Since then, Baker has spent his time watching, writing about, and talking about baseball, mostly from his Bay Area home in California. He is realistic about his playing career being over, and he is open about his desire to catch on with a team in a front-office position.

Baker is admirable for plenty of reasons, including his desire to learn — he recently attended the Saberseminar in Boston on somewhat of a whim — and his willingness to give open, honest answers to fans who task him questions on Twitter, where he is very active under the handle @manbearwolf.

On Sunday night, while nothing else was going on — seriously, I (a Los Angeles Dodgers fan) checked, and NOTHING else was happening in baseball on Sunday evening — Baker got into a discussion with some fans about “value” as it is defined by the Most Valuable Player Award.

Predictably, as it always does, the discussion came around to the one point that six billion people have thought they were the first to come up with:

This argument is not new. In this case, they were talking about Bryce Harper (originally, anyway — I’m not sure how this tweeter jumped to “last place”), but the argument has been around forever. Just for fun, read this thread in a forum for New York Yankees fans and count how many different Yankee fans made the same “original” argument when the Texas Rangers’ Alex Rodriguez beat out Jorge Posada for the 2003 MVP Award. (Also, don’t bother pointing out that the Toronto Blue Jays’ Carlos Delgado also finished ahead of Posada. Let the narrative happen.)

More than being unoriginal, though, the “would have finished in last place without him” argument of value disregards some pretty basic things, like the actual definitions of words.

There are two possible ways to define value: literal value, and perceived value. Let’s compare baseball teams to individual people, and let’s compare individual baseball players to the actual currency bills in those people’s wallets.

Sticking with the 2003 American League MVP race, let’s say we have two men: one is named “Yankee,” and the other is named “Ranger.” Ranger has an $8.4 bill in his wallet named A-Rod, while Yankee has a $5.9 bill in his wallet named Jorge. The men decide to go to dinner together at McDonald’s. Ranger gets eight hamburgers from the dollar menu and has some money left over. Yankee doesn’t even have quite enough for six hamburgers; you see, his $5.9 bill just isn’t worth as much as Ranger’s $8.4 bill.

So when it comes to literal value, 8.4 (A-Rod’s WAR in 2003 according to Baseball-Reference) is simply — and inarguably — more valuable than Jorge’s 5.9.

What about perceived value? How important is each individual bill to its respective owner?

Let’s say that Ranger and Yankee headed over to Circuit City to pick up the new Limp Bizkit CD. They’ve both really been wanting it, because it’s 2003 and Limp Bizkit rocks. After tax, the CD costs $20. Obviously, neither the A-Rod bill nor the Jorge bill is enough to pay for the CD alone, so Ranger and Yankee have to reach into their wallets and see what other bills they have. We can all relate to this, right?

So Yankee reaches into his wallet and pulls out all his bills. There’s the Derek Jeter bill, worth $3.5. Alfonso Soriano is worth $5.4; Mike Mussina is worth $6.6. Add up all of Yankee’s bills, and they are worth a whopping $57.2. Yankee buys that Limp Bizkit CD and doesn’t even notice that his wallet is slightly slimmer.

Then Ranger pulls all the bills out of his wallet. Guess what? Ranger doesn’t have a Jeter or a Mussina or a Soriano or a Roger Clemens or a Mariano Rivera or an Andy Pettitte. Ranger has John Thomson and Brian Shouse and Kevin Mench. Sure, there are some nice bills, too — Hank Blalock is worth $6.4, and Mark Teixeira, Michael Young, and Rafael Palmeiro are each worth between $2.7 and $3.5. But when you add up all of Ranger’s bills, they are only worth a grand total of $24.6. Ranger buys the Limp Bizkit CD, and he is counting his lucky stars that he has the A-Rod bill, without which he would have been unable to afford anything more than an old Aaron Carter CD from the bargain bin.

So in literal value, A-Rod is worth more because he is worth more. In perceived value, A-Rod is worth even more more because everything else in the wallet kind of sucks.

The unoriginal argument that I am raging against, the “they would have finished last with or without him” argument, assumes the same hypothetical Limp Bizkit scenario, but what the teams are trying to buy costs $40 or $50 instead of $20. (Maybe it’s the AC/DC “Bonfire” box set? I don’t know; 2003 was a long time ago.) In this scenario, only Yankee can afford the prize; Ranger is out of luck with or without A-Rod.

But guess what? If the prize costs $40 or $50, Yankee can afford it with or without Jorge! Only if the prize costs more than $51.8 — the value of all of Yankee’s bills other than Jorge — is Jorge actually a factor the way A-Rod was for the Limp Bizkit CD.

But even then, you are on a fool’s errand if you try to prove that Jorge is the reason Yankee can afford the prize. Maybe Mussina is the deciding factor — after all, he is actually worth a little bit more than Jorge. Or maybe the prize actually costs $57, so even the $0.3 contribution from Alberto Reyes was absolutely necessary to afford the dulcet tones of whoever the heck we’re listening to in this scenario.

What it really boils down to is this: once you take all the bills out of the wallet and start adding their value together, it is impossible to determine which individual bill is the most important — other than looking at actual, literal value.

Similarly, the Most Valuable Player Award is an individual award, given to the individual player who is worth the most. And the way to determine who is worth the most is by how well he played. There is no scenario where a $20 bill is more valuable to a rich man than it is to a poor man. They are either worth the same amount because they can buy the same goods and services — literal value — or the poor man’s is more valuable because it is worth so much more than the other bills he has — perceived value.

Note: I know I used WAR in this example, but I want to make it clear that I am not saying the person with the highest WAR should automatically win the award. I am saying that the player who played the best should win the award, and WAR is an easy shorthand to approximate that, especially when the differences are large. WAR is probably not perfect — heck, Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs don’t even agree on what WAR means, as FanGraphs had A-Rod beating Posada 9.2 to 6.0 in 2003. But whether the gap was 2.5 Wins or 3.2 Wins, there was most certainly a gap between these two players in 2003. I have never seen anyone make an argument that Posada was actually better than Rodriguez in 2003, just that he was more “valuable” because he played for a winning team.

The math is simple. The Most Valuable Player Award is an individual award. The most valuable player is the player who played the best. The Most Valuable Player Award should go to the most valuable player. “Value” has a definition, and capitalizing the word in the name of the award does not change that meaning.

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