Some things never change. Another year of awards voting from the Baseball Writers Association of America, another year of giving fans and people inside the game reasons to complain about the process and especially about the voters, perhaps none of those complaints more epic than the one from Kate Upton, Justin Verlander fan-in-chief and spouse to be named later.
While moaning might be half the fun of talking about the awards — who doesn’t like to rail against outcomes? — creating debate isn’t the point of the process. It just winds up being an almost inevitable part of the result.
Take the American League voting. The AL has historically given us some of the strangest results this side of “The Martian” winning a Golden Globe for comedy — Bartolo Colon’s Cy Young in 2005, anyone? — but this year was perhaps particularly special. Verlander led all pitchers on the planet in WAR and the American League in strikeouts and WHIP, finishing second in ERA and innings pitched. But obviously that didn’t capture voters’ attention quite like Rick Porcello’s strong season, made stronger still by his racking up 22 wins thanks to a league-best 6.8 runs scored per nine innings while he was in the game. Verlander received only 3.9 runs per game in support, 43rd out of 63 AL qualifiers, so he wound up with “just” a 16-win season.
No other starter in the league did as much with that little support or less, but without the gaudy win total, Verlander lost despite getting the most first-place votes (14 of 30), in large part because he was left off two ballots entirely — ballots that both had Porcello No. 1. Had they included him, those two voters would still have needed to get Verlander six points (two third-place votes, or a first and a fifth, etc.) to beat Porcello by a point. But you also had two other pitchers — Corey Kluber and Zach Britton — getting substantial support, peeling off eight first-place votes and nine second-place votes between them, points that didn’t go to Verlander or Porcello. Kluber had a better year than Porcello, slightly worse than Verlander, but if voting for a pitcher on a contender was your thing, you can see how he fit the bill for some; he wound up on all 30 ballots. The Britton support reflects the still-extant lunatic fringe hung up on a usage-pattern stat such as saves that remains almost as gaudy as win totals.
Outcomes like that helped set many people’s expectations that Mike Trout wouldn’t take home this year’s MVP trophy, despite a statistically overwhelming case. And sure enough, while all 30 voters for MVP put Mookie Betts in the top three slots on their ballot, Trout needed his clear majority of first-place votes (19) to outpoint Betts 356-311. That was despite falling to fifth on one ballot, and seventh on another. Never mind that we just saw Trout, the best player on the planet, put up one of his best seasons in five amazing years — somebody thought that was less important than what six other players did. (The same voter who gave a first-place vote to Adrian Beltre, as it turns out.)
That said, this year gave us some obvious, uncomplicated “consensus” wins. Corey Seager, National League Rookie of the Year? All 30 first-place votes. Kris Bryant for NL MVP? Easy, 29 out of 30 first-place votes. Max Scherzer, NL Cy Young? Twenty-five of 30. No controversy there, and I suppose that means we can load up on the usual bromides about how National League baseball is smarter from people already ready to believe that.
The thing is, because the ballots get rotated among the writers, there’s no such thing as a monolithic “smart” electorate. (Or a dumb one.) The roster changes up a bit every year, so it isn’t the same people voting on the same awards. The BBWAA comprises several hundred full-time journalists, some more or less stathead-y, across a pretty broad age range, all of whom are in the mix as possible voters but are selected fairly randomly by dozens of different employers, with a few honorary members in the mix.
Whatever criteria you use to select an electorate, you’re going to have some voters who change their views over time, and some who don’t. (And those Britton voters, because you just can’t reason with some people.) Some statheads with the vote might never look at anything outside performance. Some will, and do. Some people think a closer throwing fewer than 70 innings is worthy of Cy Young and/or MVP support. Maybe that’s because they didn’t get the memo that the game has changed since Willie Hernandez (’84) or Dennis Eckersley (’92) won both awards, but those same voters — or the people informed by those results — don’t necessarily vote every year.
Still, we like to think progress has been made, and that helps us celebrate seeing Trout win even as many of us thought for sure this year’s semi-randomly selected electorate would tab Betts. But we’ve had “change” elections before. The 2010 awards seemed like a big deal when Felix Hernandez won the AL Cy Young despite his 13-12 record for a 101-loss Mariners team, and Joey Votto won the NL MVP despite not leading in any Triple Crown category. But the next year, Verlander won AL MVP without getting a majority of first-place votes, while the league’s wins leader has won the AL Cy Young every year since. Clayton Kershaw should have won the NL Cy Young in 2012; wins leader R.A. Dickey did instead. And as Sam Miller touched on Thursday, Trout deserved more than just one MVP award in his trophy case before this year’s vote.
So progress, maybe it’s a thing, but it ain’t linear. With apologies to some of my BBWAA compadres who are ossified or older and proud of it, the electorate isn’t a hardened collection of elders. Seniority might help you get an MVP or Cy Young vote in some of the 30 “precincts,” but 30 electors chosen from the 15 beats for each league’s award generally get rotated around a bit. If you’re in a smaller market, you might get multiple votes; in larger ones, you might not vote for anything for a year or two as other colleagues get a shot. So who gets to vote in any given year has an element of randomness. You’ll find more women among the voters for Rookie or Manager of the Year, because that’s the direction the seniority table tilts, with more established writers drawing the assignments for Cy Young or MVP.
This was also the first year that MLB.com writers were eligible to vote for the awards, in the wake of their being brought into the BBWAA fold. That’s a major infusion of new voters, as well as the return of several old ones. Overall, 42 writers from MLB.com contributed to the 240 total ballots, making up a little more than 17 percent of the electorate. (For balance’s sake, let’s also note that there were 14 votes from ESPN folks this year.) Those votes weren’t spread equally around — six of the 30 votes for the AL MVP and seven of the 30 in the NL came from people who weren’t eligible to vote the year before. And you can’t call them smarter or dumber than any of the rest of us — all seven NL votes contributed to the consensus that Bryant deserved to win, while the six AL votes were split evenly between those voting Trout-Betts one-two or Betts-Trout.
One of the other features of integrating MLB.com into the mix? Looking at their rich roster of writers on beats, it immediately added more women to the potential electorate. Fourteen of this year’s votes were cast by women, four of whom came into the mix through MLB.com (plus two from ESPN).
What are the takeaways? Well, even with more potential voters, even with a more diverse mix and with more voters who might vote sabermetrically, I still expect weird things are going to happen. Why was it that both Florida voters left Verlander off their Cy Young ballots? Well, you also might ask why both Kansas City writers gave White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson their third-place Rookie of the Year votes, the only two he got. Nothing against Tim Anderson, who did make a nice first impression (.737 OPS, 10 steals, 8 defensive runs saved in only 99 games), but how he turned two heads in K.C. but didn’t win a vote from either Chicago voter who saw him more often might make you wonder about the benefits of access as a key criterion for voting.
You can embrace these oddities as a feature, or complain that they’re a bug. I’ve said before that expanding the franchise is a good thing, for the BBWAA and for the awards, not simply by virtue of diversity (of perspectives as well as people). We’ve seen an analytical component added to the Gold Glove voting, and it’s easy — now, in retrospect — to think about how something like that might have helped solidify Trout’s win or compensated for Verlander getting left off two ballots entirely, perhaps altering the results. Will we see that sort of thing get added to the awards voting? I wouldn’t expect or ask for it, in the same way that I wouldn’t ask for push-button voters on any award. Keep the process hard, and keep the voters accountable. That is a feature, not a bug.
Because the essential oddity is that it’s individual people making the choices, and the votes reflect the range of disagreements we perhaps inevitably can have among ourselves. I’m not going to say that I welcome the randomness that cost Verlander and that made things close for Trout, but it’s the kind of thing that should encourage us to keep our eyes, ears and minds open, to hear the arguments for how awesome Betts was or why Porcello winning a Cy Young award in 2016 isn’t the same thing as Colon winning one in 2005. As long as we’re debating, we have a shot at learning something.