Every year as the MVP races ramp up, the baseball world engages in the same debate as it has for decades over the middle word that is like a middle finger to reasonable discourse.
Valuable. What is value? Is it gaudy stats? Is it leadership? Does it increase with a spot in the postseason? Does it decrease because of mediocre teammates? Is it some weird amalgamation of all of the above and more? For the 60 baseball writers who vote annually on the MVP award, the definitions vary, and considering the directions emailed out with the ballot – "There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means" – that is perhaps by design.
An exchange on Twitter this week with Chris Long, a quantitative analyst who consults for the San Diego Padres, brought up a fascinating point that I'd never before considered: Since free agency created the salary imbalance that exists in baseball today, have we been missing what should be one of the chief criteria of value?
Mike Trout makes $510,000. Miguel Cabrera makes $21 million. Even if their numbers are frighteningly close, does Trout's salary and the surplus value it creates make him more valuable to his team than Cabrera to his?
"Unless a team has an unlimited payroll," Long later wrote in an email, "success is ultimately determined by having players that produce lots of surplus value. For example, Mike Trout or Evan Longoria. If you're looking to recognize the player that is the most responsible for the success of the team as a whole, you can't avoid taking production vs. cost into account. If you simply want to recognize the best player, the success of the team as a whole isn't relevant (and it should be called the Best Player award)."
The idea is simple: If a team has a cost-controlled player who produces, it allows that team to use its resources elsewhere. There is inherent value in cheap players. It's why prospects are such commodities even though they have proven nothing at the major league level.
By considering a player's marginal value, or how much closer his contributions bring a team to the postseason compared to the cost of his contract, it actually reinforces a long-held idea among MVP voters that the award ought go to players on winning teams.
"I'd say 'most valuable player' in actuality is the one that most improves postseason chances given payroll limitations," Long wrote.
The idea certainly is radical, and that it would commingle the sport's business side with its performance did not sit well with one executive who usually is open to novel ideas. "It is about value to the team on the field," the executive said.
Historically, voters have agreed. On previous ballots, I have voted that way as well. Extraneous factors, however, are not unheard of in determining value for an MVP selection. Plenty of voters assign value to a player with great impact inside a clubhouse, whether it's his helping teammates, acting as a conduit to the manager or other necessities when keeping the peace in rooms of 25 rich young men.
Similarly, then, couldn't a player's salary provide value to a front office? If executives truly do differentiate between teams good and bad – there is a pretty significant consensus in the game that the general manager is more important than the manager – then allowing the most important person in an organization leeway to better perform must carry some value.
The flaw with the argument is that it awards players for what is essentially out of their control. Young players do not get paid millions because rules don't force teams to do so. Established players do get paid millions because free agency – or, for those who sign contract extensions, looming free agency – guarantees them a market where salaries aren't artificially restricted. In some years, the five best players in the league will be veterans, and to overlook them because a 20-something had greater marginal value would seem to go against the intent of the award. If it seems unfair to punish a player's ability to win an award due to past successes … well, it is.
Because of such a strong negative consequence, I'm not quite ready to use performance vs. contract as the prevailing factor in MVP voting. The nebulous definition handed out by the BBWAA makes such a case reasonable, and Long's argument is strong. If any of the spots is too close to call – whether it's the winner or the 10th man down ballot – I certainly will consider it as one of the secondary or tertiary criteria to break ties. Still, I believe the award was created to reward the best player – not necessarily the best cheap player, or even the best player on a good team – and will continue to approach it from that tack.
Last year, I was one of six who cast first-place ballots for Trout. His salary had nothing to do with it. Even if Cabrera won the Triple Crown, Trout was the better player. While it wasn't by as large a margin as advanced metrics may have indicated, it wasn't a particularly arduous choice, either.
So far this season, it's much closer. My instinct leans Cabrera. The metrics, by a slim margin, say Trout. Even if Cabrera is making more than 40 times more than Trout, both are still incredibly valuable and find their place in the forthcoming 10 Degrees that cover the game's most valuable players – money-wise. Atop the list is ...
1. Mike Trout ($510,000), which should be no surprise. Trout is the best player in baseball, and he makes $20,000 over the league minimum. As Alex Rodriguez makes $29 million and Johan Santana $24.6 million and Vernon Wells $21 million and Barry Zito $20 million and countless others stupid amounts of money, Trout is one of the lowest-paid players in the game and continues to set himself up for a historic raise at some point in the near future.
(Thanks to Cot's Baseball Contracts at Baseball Prospectus, the invaluable clearinghouse for all baseball salary information, for the previous and forthcoming dollar values.)
As magnificent as Trout was last year during his age-20 season, he has been even better this season, a staggering achievement seeing as he entered the year peerless already. Batting average? At .330, four points ahead of last year. On-base percentage? A mere .425 after his excellent .399. Slugging percentage? Just .572, up eight points from '12. Trout is walking more, striking out less, still excellent in the field and a terror on the basepaths.
While metrics say his fielding and baserunning isn't as dominant as last season, scouts say Trout remains elite in both categories – that his home-to-first speed is still remarkable for a right-handed hitter and that while he hasn't had as many home run-robbing catches, he's among the top defensive center fielders in the game.
On the bang-for-your-buck list, Nos. 1, 2 and 3 are Mike Trout. Next up would be …
2. Matt Harvey ($498,750) and his 2.09 ERA with peripherals to match. Currently, Harvey is averaging 10.03 strikeouts and 1.63 walks per nine innings. Only five times in history has a pitcher struck out so many while walking so few: Pedro Martinez in 1999 and 2000, Curt Schilling in 2001 and 2002, and Randy Johnson in 2004. Pedro and the Big Unit won Cy Young Awards in their seasons. Schilling finished second both years – to his teammate Johnson.
As wonderful as Jose Fernandez ($490,000), Patrick Corbin ($494,000) and Mike Minor ($505,000) have been, Harvey is the clear-cut winner among pre-arbitration pitchers as far as value goes. And perhaps it is best to discuss the four distinct categories of value we'll cover today.
• Pre-arbitration: Players between zero and three years of service time in the major leagues are called pre-arbitration players. Teams set their salaries. Trout's agent, for example, was miffed when the Angels renewed his contract at a particularly depressed salary instead of giving him a couple-hundred-thousand-dollar bump for his historic rookie year. Such is the system. Teams may do what they please to pre-arbs.
• Arbitration: Players with four to six years of service are arbitration-eligible, meaning they get to negotiate their contracts with teams. If they can't settle on a dollar figure, each presents a salary, and an arbitration panel during spring training decides which is fairest by using the player's statistics and, when applicable, comparable players. Arb players generally aren't bargains; those who made this list are in the midst of breakout seasons.
• Extension: Teams often try to sign players to long-term extensions before they hit free agency, offering the security of guaranteed money in exchange for a discount on free-agent pricing. Extensions often give teams good deals. They also can backfire horribly.
• Free agent: If one were to draw a Venn diagram of free agency and value, the point at which they meet would look like side-by-side crescents. Free agency is a radically inefficient market, so finding bargains there is a sign of particularly good management, art as much as science.
Same goes for extracting value from high salaries, something …
3. Miguel Cabrera ($21 million) and Clayton Kershaw ($11.25 million) do particularly well. Even at those high salaries – Cabrera's part of a $152.3 million extension and Kershaw's a deal that bought out his first two years of arbitration – their performance more than makes up for the demand on their owners' bottom lines.
Cabrera's value in particular is stark, considering all of the $20 million-plus busts in the game. While Wins Above Replacement can be a misleading metric, particularly because of its still-iffy defensive component, it gives a reasonable-enough sense of a player's value and has allowed us to place the value of a marginal win around $5 million. Thus, at around 7 WAR this year, Cabrera has been worth about $35 million to the Detroit Tigers. It's not a stretch to think if Cabrera went on the free-agent market this offseason intent on taking a one-year deal a team would give him $35 million, or even more, considering the Yankees paid soon-to-be-45-year-old Roger Clemens a prorated $28 million six years ago.
If they really wanted an old man with a history of PED use, they might as well have given …
4. Bartolo Colon ($3 million) whatever he wanted this offseason. Granted, the Oakland A's snatched him up before he hit free agency and have reaped the dividends. Colon is a complete anomaly – an obese-bordering-on-corpulent athlete who essentially throws one pitch (fastball, 85 percent of the time), doesn't strike anyone out (4.79 per nine) and still has a 2.75 ERA – and perfectly representative of the value found in free agency.
Every player on this list has at least one flaw. With Francisco Liriano ($1 million), it was injury and ineffectiveness. For Nate McLouth ($2 million) and Marlon Byrd ($700,000), it was past failures. Nate Schierholtz ($2.25 million) and Ryan Raburn ($1 million) simply weren't used enough to their platoon strength.
Compared to the $125 million handed to Josh Hamilton or the $75 million given to B.J. Upton, each is a monumental bargain, a testament to prudent risk-taking. None, of course, is quite the deal …
5. Chris Davis ($3.3 million) presents. He and Max Scherzer ($6.73 million) are the arbitration breakouts of the year, and both will head into next season bank-breakingly well – and a lot less likely to be blue-light specials.
In the final year of arbitration, a player can compare his numbers to any player at a similar position and argue for a similar salary. Because his history is not nearly as stellar as his monster 2013, he can't ask, say, for a Prince Fielder salary. Perhaps Justin Morneau – somewhere in the $15 million range – is a better comparable. Either way, Davis' raise could be the largest in arbitration history.
Scherzer, too, is primed to jump somewhere into the teens. Arbitration hearings place a great amount of emphasis on win-loss record, and Scherzer's 17-1 record and 2.84 ERA, plus the potential of a Cy Young Award that would fall under arbitration's special-achievement provision, make a $10 million-plus raise a distinct likelihood. If Scherzer can stay healthy next season, he's looking at Zack Greinke money. It's what gives …
6. Chris Sale ($850,000) and all of the other pitchers who have taken the Jon Lester Extension pause before inking their contracts. Almost five years ago, Lester signed the largest pre-arbitration contract ever for a pitcher: five years, $30 million plus a team option. It became the most copied deal in baseball.
About a year later, Yovani Gallardo signed almost the exact same deal with Milwaukee. A few months later, it was Ricky Romero's turn. And then Trevor Cahill and Derek Holland and Madison Bumgarner and, finally, Sale, who the White Sox locked in this March to a five-year, $32.5 million deal with two club options.
If Sale doesn't get hurt, this immediately becomes one of the five best contracts in baseball, alongside Salvador Perez's (three years, $5.25 million, with three club options for $14.75 million total), Matt Moore's (three years, $9 million, with three club options for $26 million total) and the mirror deals that …
7. Paul Goldschmidt ($500,000) and Allen Craig ($1.75 million) signed this season. Goldschmidt's, which doesn't kick in until next season, is for five years and $32 million with a club option. Craig's started this year and covers five years for $31 million with the same option. It is like the Lester contract migrated to first base.
Were the Diamondbacks not faltering, Goldschmidt would be a legitimate MVP candidate. And Craig is in the midst of a remarkably clutch season. With runners in scoring position, he's hitting .459/.492/.631. Granted, he's not Miguel Cabrera – he's at .440/.559/.888 with RISP, which sounds made-up – but then again, when it comes to the bat, nobody is.
Both are proof: If you are a good, young player and produce for even one full season, a team will do everything it can to make you a millionaire many times over. In other words, everybody from …
8. Jean Segura ($492,000) to Josh Donaldson ($492,500) to Manny Machado ($495,000) to Matt Carpenter ($504,000) to Jason Kipnis ($509,000) to Kyle Seager ($510,400) can put down a deposit on a Phantom should they so desire.
The brigade of young, pre-arb, long-term-deal-worthy middle infielders is long and strong, though the length and strength are not necessarily equal. Segura already has been offered a deal and could be a good bet to take it. Because Donaldson is in the midst of his first good season at 27, the A's could wait for one more season before locking him up. Machado would take a precedent-setting deal, something the Orioles aren't likely to offer at this point. Carpenter is like Donaldson at second base and with a more financially flush team. Kipnis and Seager both will command $50 million-plus for any extension – and both deserve it.
Giving such assurances to position players is considered among the least-risky move a team can make, whereas signing someone like …
9. Craig Kimbrel ($655,000) – or, hell, any closer, and go ahead and include peers-in-excellence Greg Holland ($539,500) and Kenley Jansen ($512,000) – is simply not good business.
Now, there is a chance Kimbrel becomes the heir to Mariano Rivera, the right-handed Billy Wagner, an all-time-great closer whose impossible strikeout numbers signify a level of ninth-inning dominance neither of the aforementioned nor anyone before achieved. There is a possibility that Kimbrel follows up last season's 1.01 ERA with an even lower mark this season, that someday he wins a Cy Young if it's a down starting pitching year.
All of that presupposes that he is immune to the historic volatility that pollutes damn near every relief career. This is the truth: Being a closer might be the hardest thing in baseball, not just because the ninth inning has been larded with pressure but because of the massive turnover. Injuries, ineffectiveness, quick hooks – nobody in baseball has as much job insecurity as a closer. Moreover, it doesn't behoove him or Holland or Jansen to bother going long term when arbitration rewards closers to handsomely. If Jim Johnson got $6.5 million last year as a first-time arb, Kimbrel should get, what, $8 million? More?
Granted, he still won't come close to …
10. Mike Trout in value. Even if the Angels do sign him to a mega-contract this offseason – three agents queried about his value believed he shouldn't sign anything for a penny less than $150 million – next year will still come on the relative cheap.
This is a historically great player. Yes, something like a catastrophic injury could happen. Short of that, we are witnessing a kid do things the likes of which never have been seen. Ted Williams wasn't this good in his age-20 and -21 seasons. Neither was Joe DiMaggio. Nobody – nobody – has had a first two full seasons like Mike Trout. If Cabrera wins back-to-back MVPs, as he's primed to do, it puts in perspective just how otherworldly he was.
As for Trout, it's best to do what the basketball world does with LeBron James and the football world with Robert Griffin III. Just sit back and enjoy. This is someone unique, someone totally different. You can't put a value on that.
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