The BBWAA can’t agree on what makes an MVP, but the votes are now used for salaries

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There are multiple problems with the recent trend of the Baseball Writers Association of America being forced into a role where their award votes now factor into player contracts, but there’s one specific thing I want to focus on right now, given the particular news cycle we’re in. How is it right or fair to, for instance, let MVP voting determine the shape and size of Julio Rodríguez’s extension, when the BBWAA itself can’t agree on what makes a player MVP-worthy?

Rodríguez’s extension, recently signed with the Mariners during his rookie campaign, will pay out somewhere between $210 million and $470 million. And the value after the initial guarantee is entirely up to what happens with Most Valuable Player voting and Rodríguez before the option years kick in. As Ken Rosenthal explained at The Athletic:

Rodríguez’s club option is valued at $200 million over eight years, but that’s only if he does not receive an MVP vote from 2022 to 2028. Two top 10 MVP finishes would increase the value to $240 million over eight years. Four top 10s would make it $260 million. One MVP award and another top five or three top fives would make it $280 million. Two MVP awards or four top fives would make it $350 million over 10, pushing the total value to $469.3 million over 17 years and making it the longest and most lucrative contract in major-league history.

The last escalator probably is unattainable. Trout and Albert Pujols are the only two current players to win two MVPs in their first seven years. Andrew McCutchen is the only other player with four top five finishes in that time frame, according to STATS Perform. Two top 10 MVP finishes, however, should be within Rodríguez’s reach. He might earn his first this season.

Four top 10 finishes might be pushing it — Trout, Pujols, Mookie BettsNolan Arenado, McCutchen and Josh Donaldson are the only current players to attain that many in their first seven full seasons. But two top 10s alone would increase the total value of Rodríguez’s deal to $359.3 million. That’s more than all but three current players (Trout, Betts and Francisco Lindor) are projected to earn in their careers. And if Rodríguez wins an MVP and finishes top five another year — a difficult task, no doubt — he gets to almost $400 million.

Obviously, Rodríguez is going to get paid a lot of money regardless of whether he picks up MVP votes or not, but there’s a significant difference between the top end of this deal and the lower end. Since position player contracts can’t give out bonuses or options for anything besides plate appearances these days, and plate appearances are more a sign of how often someone plays than how good they were in that playing time, it’s understandable that the Mariners wouldn’t want to tie these escalators into those. What is bothersome are two things: that the Mariners are shoving these decisions off to the BBWAA instead of simply paying Rodríguez money they clearly have but aren’t sure he’ll be worth, and, as said, that the BBWAA doesn’t necessarily know what an MVP is.

The BBWAA ballot for MVP even says that they don’t know what an MVP is, and that it’s up to the voter to figure it out:

There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.

The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931:

1.  Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.

2.  Number of games played.

3.  General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.

4.  Former winners are eligible.

5.  Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

You are also urged to give serious consideration to all your selections, from 1 to 10. A 10th-place vote can influence the outcome of an election. You must fill in all 10 places on your ballot. Only regular-season performances are to be taken into consideration.

Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and designated hitters.

Which is to say, there is no mechanism in place to get BBWAA voters in the same mindset where they would actually have some cohesion on the issue of whether Rodríguez deserves MVP votes or not. Now, Rodríguez is having an excellent rookie campaign, but consider a few things here: he’s batting .270/.331/.477, which is pretty great after you consider park effects—according to multiple park factor calculations, T-Mobile Park is the toughest or close to it stadium in the majors for hitters these days — and the Mariners are not obviously great. They’re likely to make the postseason this year, and might get a Manager of the Year award out of that depending on where the Orioles end up, but MVP votes? That’s less clear.

Will Rodríguez get some down ballot support for being on a postseason team, even if it’s “just” a wild card club? That seems likely. Enough to make it into the top 10? We’ll have to see about that. There are a lot of postseason teams now, between the three division winners and three wild cards, and if every one of them gets at least one clear vote leader in addition to the great players on bad teams that still need votes… well, a top 10 finish isn’t a guarantee for Rodríguez, no. Especially when it’s unclear if making the postseason should matter or not, what context most valuable is meant to represent to a given voter, and so on: I want to ignore the arguments about whether Aaron Judge or Shohei Ohtani is more deserving for instance, because “best player on a great team” vs. “best player in general” is the never-ending argument we simply can’t make progress on solving, but now those discussions are going to bleed into future player salaries in more ways than just being able to say you’ve won an MVP while negotiating with a team as a free agent.

That’s all just this year, of course, but it’s not like the future is more guaranteed, either. Rodríguez could be the beating heart and soul of this Mariners club for the next 12 years, and not necessarily be recognized by the voting bloc the way he needs to be in order to pick up all of these MVP finishes his option years require, if they’re to pay out beyond the initial amounts. And I should point out that Rodríguez’s deal is not necessarily wildly restrictive — he’s got a good shot at coming away with one of the larger deals in league history here, even if he doesn’t max out his option. But it’s still not great that we’re seeing this trend of shoving decisions off to the BBWAA rather than be made by a team grow in strength.

It was a problem when it cropped up during collective bargaining and became part of the determinant for draft picks and service time with rookies, and tossing player salary values on top of it doesn’t make it less of one. Time will likely make it more of a problem, with even more responsibility shoved onto the BBWAA and taken out of the hands of teams who don’t want to outright guarantee salaries. Rodríguez is something of a trial balloon, and as with the way these things tend to go, I imagine the stuff that harms the players outside of the elite earning level begins to show itself sometime after these early tests of the new system.

    • For Baseball Prospectus, I wrote about the concerns that a minor-league bargaining unit in the MLBPA would harm the bargaining power of existing MLBPA structures.

    • On Thursday, Rosenthal wrote about how the $50 million pre-arbitration bonus pool is going to be distributed.

    • Two teenaged international prospects are suing the Angels over pulling back on verbal agreements made before they were actually able to be signed, and as Jeff Passan writes, this is something worth watching.

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