Sports are ultimately a team game, and that is incredibly apparent in baseball. As we’ve seen, no one player can single-handedly lead their team to a championship title; after all, Mike Trout has made the playoff just one time in his career!
For this reason, most of the attention when it comes to predictions and projections surrounds around the teams. Who will win each division? Who will ultimately win the World Series? Nevertheless, there still is a place to celebrate individual accomplishments! The All-Star game assists with this, yet ultimately, end-of-season awards are the what help the story of a season. Whereas the All-Star game is much more random in terms of who is selected – smaller sample size, each team needs a participant – awards are a way to separate elite producers from the rest of the pack. Baseball is such a difficult game, after all, so we should celebrate those who can reach the greatest heights!
Another exciting aspect of the end-of-season awards are the debates that stem for it. Each voter has different criteria for what they’re looking for when voting for an award winner, as well as a different perception of what the awards themselves mean. Having as many different perspectives as possible is incredibly healthy for engaging discussions; if everyone has an independent viewpoint, a consensus will develop, hopefully leading to the most-qualified candidate.
We can all have opinions as to what we believe the criteria should be when voting for an award winner. At the end of the day, though, that criteria is derived subjectively from the voters themselves. This brings me to a new statistic I have developed that I am excited to announce- the Award Index.
What is the Award Index? In simple terms, it is an overall grade for a player’s likelihood at winning a specific award, based on historical voting data. Let me take a step back to clarify.
Creating The Award Index
To create a weighting system for the overall award index grade, we’ll need to see what voters value the most. Thus, we need to analyze historical voter data, starting in 2015.
Most Valuable Player
Since 2015, voters have started to become more statistically-inclined when it comes to their voting, leading to true patterns emerging. Among the most correlated statistics with first-place votes for Most Valuable Player (MVP), Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) and offensive runs above average (Off) rise to the top as the two statistics with a medium correlation (r=.55) with voting share.
Further down, batting average, home runs, runs batted in, and baseball reference WAR (bWAR) have some correlation to votes, yet around three times less than fWAR and Off. While we now have far more nuanced metrics than the traditional statistics, when it comes to measuring a player’s value, there is still a community that leans on box score stats, and, thus, need to also be incorporated into the MVP index.
Also, there was essentially zero correlation between winning percentage of the team and first-place votes. I hopefully speak for all of us when I say this is a very welcome development!
Ironically, when it comes to the Cy Young, the main statistic correlated with Cy Young votes is bWAR. Since it values runs allowed, as opposed to FIP, this intuitively makes sense; voters place a greater importance on the overall output than the runs a pitcher seemingly SHOULD have allowed.
Following bWAR, voters definitely place an emphasis on innings pitched, likely based on the narrative that they sacrificed themselves and were constantly available for their teams. As expected, gaudy strikeout totals are also preferred, while fWAR remains part of the formula.
With that addressed, we can put the statistics relied upon in the voting process into “tiers” to create a weighting system.
Most Valuable Player
- Tier 1: fWAR, Off
- Tier 2: bWAR, AVG, HR, RBI
- Tier 1: bWAR
- Tier 2: IP, SO, fWAR
From there, I calculated a percentile grade for each player’s production in a particular metric, and using the weighting system, the index was officially created! Overall, both of these indexes had a correlation coefficient over 0.7 with first-place votes, indicating a strong positive relationships. This is encouraging! It appears we have created a predictive metric to forecast award voting, which can help us tremendously in accurate projections moving forward.
Looking At Previous Award Winners
How qualified has every MVP candidate been? Let’s turn to the award index!
This checks out tremendously, though it is funny how concentrated the premier seasons were to specific years. Imagine how many MVPs Mike Trout would have if not for elite pop-up seasons from other AL foes. Conversely, is Giancarlo Stanton’s perception the same had he faced more MVP competition in 2017? Overall, based on typical voter criteria, there was a 66.7% hit rate in selecting the optimal candidate, with batting average and RBIs certainly playing a critical role in the outlier award decisions. Notably, regardless of the sign-stealing scandal that took place, Jose Altuve appears to have been an inferior candidate to Aaron Judge in 2017. Furthermore, the other three events involved the winner standing out in terms of home runs and RBIs, which potentially led to voters overemphasizing the offensive value they provided.
As for Cy Young candidates:
I think it is safe to say that the 2018 NL Cy Young race was loaded. Jacob deGrom finished with a 1.70 ERA, yet Aaron Nola actually posted a higher bWAR than him, while Max Scherzer’s 300 strikeouts also stood out; the 2015 NL race is a similar story. It is fun to see how dominant some of the top pitchers have been since 2015, and, as we’ll get to, that has continued into 2021. The overall hit rate (75%) was slightly higher than MVP, but the “misses” consist of: a loaded 2015 NL class, a 2018 AL race without a standout candidate, and 2016- Justin Verlander lost despite having more first-place votes. Thus, perhaps because it is a process with less variables and is more concentrated on picking the “best” pitcher, the voting has been more consistent.
Forecasting 2021 Award Decisions
Now, for the fun part! The main purpose of the award index is to project voting decisions for the 2021 AL/NL MVP and Cy Young. With this predictive metric, the hope is that we can find edges to exploit on the betting markets, in addition to simply knowing which players have met the general criteria to win each award.
As a gauge to project each player’s production at the end of the season, we’ll use Steamer’s updated in-season projections. While one could look simply at what a player is currently doing, expecting the rest of the 2021 season to simply be an extrapolation of what has currently happened would be foolish, so using projections will assist in an accurate forecast.
The progression that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has made in his third season has been a joy to watch. He is making good on the extensive amount of hype that he received as the former #1 ranked prospect in baseball, and figures to be at the center of MVP races moving forward. Right now, he’s clearly the runaway favorite to win the award, though the index is likely to be discounting the “narrative” around Shohei Ohtani’s accomplishments as a two-way player. Of course, even when sidelined with an injury, no AL MVP list is complete without Mike Trout appearing in the top five.
Let the kids play! In addition to Guerrero Jr., the game of baseball has benefitted from several other generational young talents. The race in the NL appears to be much closer, with it likely to be a two-player race between Ronald Acuna Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr. I think I speak for everyone when I say an MVP race that comes down to the final moments of the season would be a beauty to watch.
AL Cy Young
The favorites heading into the season remain the top options to win the AL Cy Young win at this point. Even after Tyler Glasnow’s elite performance against the Royals on Wednesday night, the projections indicate this will be a two-player race most likely, which intuitively makes sense; Glasnow likely won’t have the opportunity to post the same cumulative numbers that Gerrit Cole and Shane Bieber will. The consensus opinion appears to be that Cole will run away with this award, but do not count out Bieber. He currently leads the league in strikeouts and batters faced, plays for a team that lets their starters go deep into games, and will continue to benefit from playing in a much less-talented division.
NL Cy Young
Worried about Jacob deGrom missing some time due to injury? Fret not! That’s what happens when you currently have a 0.80 ERA! Outside of him, the general usual suspects appear here, and it’s a much deeper class than the National League. Nevertheless, there is a clear frontrunner here.
Best Value Bets
By comparing the implied odds each player should have versus their current odds, let us analyze the surplus value each player’s award-winning odds provide:
Currently, the favorites are slightly underpriced, though there isn’t much value to be had with heavy favorites. I’m for the most part not intrigued by the American League slate, especially with the value present in the National League. Simply put, there is no way that Max Muncy should be as much of a long shot as he is being priced at. He currently is 2nd in the NL in fWAR, has had success in sustainable fashion, and derives his value on the offensive side of the ball. A narrative around his poor batting average is a concern, though he will have home runs and RBI on his side. Either way, based on his current production, I wouldn’t anticipate that those odds are going to stay where they are; this is an optimal time to buy into his stock.
AL Cy Young
NL Cy Young
Although it is intriguing to invest in Shane Bieber or Gerrit Cole’s odds before they become an even greater favorite, there is very little value in the NL; they’ve separated themselves from the pack and there aren’t any intriguing long shots.
The National League, however, is a different story. Although Jacob deGrom is the clear favorite, you always want to hedge on an alternative candidate in case something unexpected persists. With that in mind, Kevin Gausman, Zack Wheeler, and Joe Musgrove are all very interesting bets. So, which one presents the most value? Wheeler and Gausman each will accumulate more innings than Musgrove, so Gausman, with lower odds, is the optimal bet. The Giants ace currently has a 1.53 ERA with 6.42 innings per start, which will matter for the common voter. Regression will come, but it’s clear that he’s become a significantly better pitcher in San Francisco, where he’ll also benefit from strong defense and a friendly ballpark. Add that altogether, and +4000 odds are an astonishing price for him.
- Bets To Make: Max Muncy To Win NL MVP (+7000) , Kevin Gausman To Win NL Cy Young (+4000)
- Bets To Monitor: Alex Bregman To Win AL MVP (+3000), Zack Wheeler To Win NL Cy Young (+3300), Shane Bieber To Win AL Cy Young (+400)
We can debate what should qualify a player to win a specific award, but, in the end, the voting process is supposed to be democratic- criteria is shaped by the people. By engaging in healthy discussion and taking all viewpoints into account, we can create a consensus standard for the typical MVP/Cy Young winner.
That’s where the award index comes into play. With a predictive metric to our advantage, we can find edges to be had in the futures market for AL/NL MVP and Cy Young, in addition to simply creating more accurate projections. This week, NL West standouts Max Muncy and Kevin Gausman provide exceptional value at their current odds, while Alex Bregman, Zack Wheeler, and Shane Bieber are all also interesting bets at their current prices for their respective award chases.
In the future, the award index will continue to updated to adjust with changes in the betting market. I sense Muncy and Gausman will remain values for some time, though this is the time to invest in them. Furthermore, more updated statistical projections and changes in odds will only open up value for different candidates. You never know when the opportunity to get the best odds is going to open itself up, and by utilizing the award index, we will make sure to capitalize on those chances moving forward.