Chase Utley: One of the Best Ever

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Reexamining the 2007 MVP Race

 As a Rockies fan, the 2007 National League MVP race was a highly controversial affair. The Phillies' shortstop, Jimmy Rollins, acquired 16 first place votes, and the Rockies' Matt Holliday raked in 11. Prince Fielder, the powerful first baseman of the Brewers, got 5. As a result, Jimmy Rollins became the 2nd straight Phillies player to win MVP after Ryan Howard won it in 2006 for some reason. Was this the right decision? Should Matt Holliday have taken it home that year, or was Rollins the right pick? Maybe someone else should have won it?

Jimmy Rollins ranked 7th in the National League in fWAR in 2007. Matt Holliday ranked 5th. Prince Fielder ranked 16th. Somehow, that trio of studs made up the top 3 of the MVP race. Of course, the voting took place back in 2007, where fWAR and general sabermetrics were not so mainstream, so the voters should get some slack. Additionally, fWAR (or just WAR in general) is probably not the way to go in regards to MVP voting. This will be the main emphasis of this article. Still, I believe it is prudent to examine a few of the players that were more statistically deserving of the award, at least relative to replacement level.

David Wright ranked first in the NL in fWAR in 2007. He had a 151 wRC+, played 160 games, and was a very good defensive third baseman. He finished 4th in voting behind the aforementioned trio of studs, so the voters kind of knew what was up. The Mets had a major collapse at the end of the 2007 season, which likely cost Wright his crack at the MVP. Is that necessarily fair? No, not necessarily. Quite unfair actually, especially after considering that the Mets collapse was more a result of their terrible pitching in those final games, as opposed to an offensive slump. Narrative-based MVP voting in baseball is a slippery slope, and it might have cost Wright a well-earned MVP. So, did David Wright deserve the MVP? Stay tuned.

Albert Pujols is arguably the greatest first baseman of all time, and while he did have an offensive down year in 2007, he was still quite deserving of the award. One thing to consider was that he had his best defensive season of an already elite defensive career that was littered with deserving gold gloves. He put up 13.1 UZR runs and 23 DRS runs (these are positionally adjusted), which is absolutely exceptional for a first baseman. He ranked 2nd in the NL in fWAR, but the Cardinals went just 78-84 and didn't even sniff the playoffs. Is that his fault? Again, obviously not. However, it can explain why he didn't get the votes, finishing just 9th in total voting.

On a per game basis, Chase Utley was the clear best player in the NL in 2007. Despite playing in just 132 games, he posted 7.7 fWAR, and he would have easily led the NL in that department had he stayed healthy. The Phillies did win their division, so that can't be used against him, but I think his lack of playing time turned away potential MVP voters. Utley finished 8th in MVP voting.

As I said earlier, WAR based on linear outcomes of batted ball results (wOBA) shouldn't necessarily be the determinant of the most valuable player award. It can be a good indicator, as it represents past production very effectively. However, the offensive stats can be improved upon, at least when purely evaluating the merits of past events. Enter Win Probability Added. It is important to note that WPA is not very stable and is not a great indicator of true talent, but it is a very objective measure of how much a specific player added to their team's likelihood of winning a given ballgame. WPA takes the expected winning percentage of the team before and after the player's at bat. It is a pure offensive metric. I think it needs to be heavily considered when voting for MVP.

In 2007, the WPA leader in the national league was Prince Fielder. That might explain the 5 first place votes he got. I do not believe that those 5 voters really dove into the WPA numbers, but they were around the game, and they probably saw what Fielder was doing on a nightly basis. Did Fielder deserve MVP? Well, I don't think so. WPA is a pure hitting stat, and it does not include defense or base running. He was a terrible defensive first baseman and a not good baserunner. When adjusting his WPA for those failures, he falls out of the first place running. Albert Pujols ranks 2nd in WPA, and he was an elite defender. The other usual suspects, Holliday, Wright, Utley, and Rollins rank 5th, 8th, 10th, and 14th respectively. Holliday was a mid defender with unremarkable baserunning, so it's hard to put him over Pujols, at least not yet. David Wright was not as good at defense as Pujols, but he makes up for the differential with their pretty significant baserunning gap (6.4 BsR for Wright, -4.9 for Pujols. Almost a full win difference.) Utley was an elite defender, similar to Pujols, but he wasn't close enough offensively to justify getting the award. It seems like the award should come down to Wright and Pujols, and I think Pujols has the slight edge. Don't leave yet, there is a lot more to come.

What if I am still looking at this all wrong? How valuable is a player that is dominating opponents on a nightly basis, but doing so for a team with no shot to win it all? What is he actually contributing? After all, all he is doing is hurting his team's draft position for the next season. That's where cWPA comes in. cWPA, or championship WPA, takes a player's WPA and weights it depending on how much the game will affect his team's chances of taking home the World Championship. It gets a lot more extreme in the playoffs, but examining the metric for the regular season is still an interesting endeavor. When we look at the cWPA leaders in the NL in 2007, a new candidate emerges: Padres first baseman, Adrian Gonzalez. Adrian Gonzalez, while a great player for his career, wasn't that special in 2007. While solid, a 123 wRC+ for a bad defensive first baseman is just not MVP material. However, he singlehandedly improved his team's chances of winning the World Series by 8.8% during the regular season. Why is that the case?

On September 21st of 2007, the San Diego Padres were 85-67, sitting in comfortable position for, at the very least, a wild card appearance. A big series against the Colorado Rockies, who were 81-72 and putting some serious pressure on the Padres, would commence later that night. In the first game of the series, the Rockies took a 1-0 lead into the 9th inning. Leading off the inning, Adrian Gonzalez stepped into the batters box with the Padres having just a 19% chance to win. He delivered. He sent a Manny Corpas fastball into the right field seats, tying the game at 1. Despite going just 1 for 6 on the night, AGon had a 0.44% cWPA, or he increased the Padres' World Series probability by 0.44%. The home run itself must have been significantly higher, but I am unable to access the play by play cWPA. Unfortunately for AGon, but fortunately for the Rockies, the Padres didn't even win this game. They failed to score the rest of the way and Brad Hawpe hit an incredibly long opposite field home run to give the Rockies the win.

Despise the poor aggregate performance, going 1-6, that game was his 7th best of the regular season in regards to cWPA. As the race got tighter, he would put up a few more absurdly valuable games. As the days wore on, the Rockies continued to look scarier and scarier in the Padres' rearview mirror. Just 2 games ahead of the Rockies with 3 to play, AGon went 2-4 with a double and 2 walks in a 6-3 Padres win over Milwaukee. He improved the Padres chances of winning it all by 0.76% that day. He followed that up with yet another excellent performance the following day in a game in which the Padres could have clinched a playoff birth. Despite his performance, the Padres lost 4-3. The Padres lost the next day as well, so they would be forced to take on the Rockies in a tiebreaker for the National League Wild Card. This is where the cWPA numbers got a little crazy.

Trailing 3-0 early in the tiebreaker at Coors Field, the Padres needed some offense. They got that by loading the bases for Gonzalez. He smacked a grand slam and the Padres took a 4-3 lead in the 3rd inning. Despite the grand slam, AGon didn't even rank first in cWPA among hitters for the game. 

The Padres and Rockies continued to battle until extra innings. In the top of the 13th, Padres' Scott Hairston hit a 2 run bomb off of Jorge Julio, giving the Padres an 8-6 lead. Scott Hairston, who had a 95 wRC+ in the regular season as a whole, ranked (t)4th in the entire MLB in cWPA in the regular season. He posted 4.1 cWPA in that single game, which would have ranked 10th in the MLB for the year. Of course, this game wasn't close to over. The fat lady was suspiciously silent. The Rockies rallied in the bottom half of the inning against one of the greatest closers in MLB history, Trevor Hoffman. After Troy Tulowitzki doubled to score Kaz Matsui, making it an 8-7 game, Matt Holliday came to the plate. At that point, the Rockies had a 54% chance to win. Holliday hammered a flyball deep to right field, and it careened off the wall, allowing Holliday to slide in safely at third base with a triple. As a result, the Rockies had a 94% chance to win. A 40% increase on one swing of the bat in the biggest possible regular season game is quite the momentum shifter. Jamie Carroll drove him in on a completely uncontroversial sacrifice fly, and the Rockies punched their ticket to the NLDS. Holliday finished the game with a 5.05% cWPA, which would have ranked 7th in the MLB (just behind Scott Hairston's season total). Additionally, Holliday finished the season with 8.7% cWPA, just a tick behind Adrian Gonzalez' first place total.

What are we to make of this? Who deserved MVP, Adrian Gonzalez or Matt Holliday? Well, just going by cWPA, AGon was a tick better, but when adjusting for defense and baserunning, Holliday is the clear winner. Win probability metrics are not properly adjust for park, so Holliday is a little overrated by such a stat, but not by as much as normal production metrics. This is because, as a result of playing in such a crazy offensive environment, extreme outlier performances will have little impact on the WPA.

The phrase "Most Valuable Player" is up to some subjective interpretation. If it just means the best player in regards to scoring as many more runs than the replacement player as possible, then WAR should really be the only metric you're looking at, with an eye towards potential issues with defensive metrics. It could mean something a little different; not the most runs produced on a wins scale, but the most actual wins produced, which is measured effectively with WPA and adjusting for defense/baserunning. Or, the MVP could be the player who gives his team the best chance at winning a championship. In this case, cWPA (with appropriate baserunning and defense adjustments) is the way to go.

I do not think cWPA should be the sole determinant for the offensive side of MVP. It is just way too noisy. As I demonstrated with the Rockies/Padres game, just a handful of plays in such a high leverage situation can completely alter an entire season's of work. On one hand, the measure is pretty objective and accurately paints a picture of a player's contributions. On the other, it's really difficult for a player to control their circumstances, and in extreme cases, it just wouldn't be fair to determine MVP based solely off of cWPA. It is important to remain biased towards greatness when looking at such an award. Barry Bonds in 2004, no matter his cWPA(he ranked first by a wide margin, but just pretend that he didn't), deserved MVP. Mookie Betts ranked behind Alex Bregman in cWPA in 2018, but should Bregman really have won MVP over a player with Mookie's production, just because he played on a 108 win team and rarely played in high leverage? cWPA should be a key factor, but general performance should also be considered. 

After all of this, who really deserved the 2007 MVP? I think it comes down to five players: Adrian Gonzalez, Matt Holliday, Albert Pujols, David Wright, and Jimmy Rollins. If championship leverage wasn't a factor,  or if the 2007 Cardinals were even moderately competent, I would easily give it to Pujols as a result of his exceptional WPA and defense. I don't think it would be close. However, Pujols' season, while quite passable, just wasn't dominant enough to justify giving it to him over a guy who actually played in important games. He is out. Adrian Gonzalez, while quite clutch, was simply not that impressive in the season as a whole, so he is out as well. Only Holliday, Rollins, and Wright remain. The next step of this process will be to compare Wright and Rollins, who are in a much similar boat. Wright had a cWPA of 4.1%, and Rollins had a cWPA of 4.3%. Rollins and Wright were both very similar on defense. It's important to note that Wright was obviously a better hitter, as Wright's 151 wRC+ dwarfs Rollins' 119. Heading forward, without the benefit of hindsight, I would take David Wright 10/10 times purely based on his 2007 season. However, as I have stated many times, I don't think that's what the MVP award should be about. It should be about the player's aggregate contributions to his team's chances of winning it all, with a bias towards legitimate greatness. David Wright was very good in 2007. He was not historically good. Wright's 2007 at the plate was definitely greater than Rollins', but as we can see with the cWPA,  Rollins was technically more valuable at the plate. Combine that with similar defense and Rollins' incredible (and efficient) base stealing ability, and it is easy to see Rollins as the superior MVP candidate. 

After all of this noise, we are down to two players: Matt Holliday, and Jimmy Rollins. I swear this was not intentional. The two players who finished 1 and 2 in the actual MVP voting are my top 2 candidates, despite what I said at the beginning of this article. With the information and understanding that I have in 2021, I got the same results as the people in 2007. On one hand, it makes sense. I'm looking at metrics that will be very closely related to narratives that emerge late in the season. An MVP voter who is closely paying attention to the game but doesn't have much of an analytical understanding can see stuff that statistic-minded baseball fans might miss. Looking at things from different perspectives can result in new and better opinions.

So, I ask one more time, who deserved the 2007 MVP? Jimmy Rollins, or Matt Holliday? Holliday has the clear cWPA advantage, but that is purely the result of one singular game. Remove that game 163 and Rollins would be the easy choice. After all, that's basically what I did with Adrian Gonzalez. However, Adrian Gonzalez just wasn't that good. A 2.6 fWAR just does not cut it for MVP no matter how you look at it. Holliday, on the other hand, had a 151 wRC+ and a 6.9 fWAR. Defensive metrics aren't too kind to Rockies players, and Holliday still managed to have a decent UZR, which is something to consider. Rollins, on the other hand, had just a 6.5 fWAR, which is worse than Holliday. Hardcore analysis here. 

My final verdict is that Matt Holliday did deserve the MVP, although it was a very tough decision. He was basically just as good as Rollins through the first 162 games, and then he had the single clutchest hit of the entire MLB season in the 163rd battle. I don't think it is a huge deal either way, but game 163 should definitely lean the award in Holliday's favor. I am a Rockies fan, so you might think I'm biased, but if you know me then you'll know I am actually as unbiased as a biased fan can get. My biggest surprise of this article was that the MVP voters generally knew what they were doing, so kudos to MLB MVP voters for having good judgement.

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