Ichiro, Gutierrez, And The Team MVP

(Many apologies for the server trouble this afternoon.)

Towards the end of the season, the Seattle chapter of the BBWAA bestowed upon Ichiro the honor of being voted the team's most valuable player. At the time I disagreed ever so slightly, feeling that Franklin Gutierrez got midly shafted, but my disagreement was more from not really having thought about it in depth than anything else. So now I'd like to take this opportunity to think about it in depth.

Batting

Gutierrez had a big year, make no mistake. Brought in as a glove with offensive upside, Franklin started out slowly but got into a groove come midsummer, finishing with an above-average line that exceeded most anyone's expectations. Unfortunately for him as far as this comparison is concerned, Ichiro had one of the best seasons of his career, finishing second in the batting race, hitting for more power than we've seen in four years, and proving to everyone that, along with everything else he does, Ichiro ages differently, too. Whether he "deserved" a BABIP as high as his .384 doesn't matter; what matters is that he did it, and as such he wound up about two wins better than Gutierrez at the plate.

Baserunning

Over the previous three seasons, Ichiro was a dynamo on the bases, stealing 135 bases in 149 attempts, tripling 23 times, and being worth nearly three wins by BP's baserunning metric. 2009 saw him dip a little bit to +3.9 runs, still good enough for 18th in baseball, but below his recent standard and only a small fraction of a run better than Gutierrez, who came in at +3.7. Guti wasn't blessed with exceptional footspeed, but his baserunning results, as with his defense, flaunt the magnificence of his instincts.

Defense

Defense has always been Franklin's greatest asset, but the performance he turned in this past summer was borderline legendary. Fangraphs has UZR data going back to 2002, a span of eight seasons, and over those eight seasons, only Andruw Jones in 2005 turned in a higher UZR than Franklin's +28.5. People like to assign certain uncertainties to defensive numbers. If a guy shows up as +5, for example, people will say he's probably somewhere between average and good. With Gutierrez, the question is whether he's great or otherworldly. Defense is the reason why Guti earns consideration as team MVP in the first place. And it's a good reason. Ichiro, by the same metric, came out at +10.1. If you use 5-run error bars, then by UZR, Guti was anywhere from 8.4 to 28.4 runs better than Ichiro in the field.

Of course, UZR isn't the only metric. It's the best one, but a lot of people also like the RZR/OOZ information available at The Hardball Times. By that measure, Guti led the league in plays made both in his zone and out of it. Ichiro, though, picks up some ground here, as he comes out effectively tied for the lead in RZR among right fielders and out in front in OOZ. Here, the difference between the two of them comes out looking more like five or ten runs. Gutierrez was clearly a better defender than Ichiro in 2009. Gutierrez had one of the great fielding seasons of all time. We just can't be sure how much better than Ichiro he really was.

Clutch

Some people will argue that clutch shouldn't be a part of value discussions, as it's largely out of a player's control when he's called on to contribute, but if two guys go 1-4 with homers and the second guy's homer wins the game, it's my opinion that he should be rewarded because of it. As such, I present to you the following table (data calculated from Baseball-Reference's player splits):

Ichiro Guti
Leverage wOBA PA wOBA PA
High 0.382 119 0.431 117
Medium 0.396 350 0.360 261
Low 0.358 209 0.276 251

Guti was the worse hitter than Ichiro overall, but he really stepped it up in big situations. While everyone remembers his homer against Texas, that wasn't his only significant hit, and with the game on the line he was able to outproduce Ichiro by a significant margin. Though high leverage situations aren't the only thing the matter and though low leverage situations aren't meaningless, what this table shows is that, while Guti's raw batting line was about 20 runs worse than Ichiro's, leverage drew them closer together in actual value.

We don't have any way right now to tell who was the more clutch defender. We're forced to assume that they were basically equals.

Position

It gets forgotten a lot of the time, but the position a guy plays in the field carries with it a lot of value, and Guti gets credited with about a win here for playing center to Ichiro's right. Ichiro, of course, would likely have played center were it not for Gutierrez, but that's erased away by the extra runs Ichiro gets credited for saving in the field, as he's compared to other RFs instead of CFs.

Other

Not sure what else there is. Durability? Both Ichiro and Gutierrez had their physical issues, with Ichiro developing an ulcer and Guti playing through a bad knee all season(!), and each of them missed a handful of games. You can penalize Ichiro just a little bit for hitting 50 infield singles (to Guti's 15), because infield singles only advance runners by one base instead of allowing for first-to-thirds or second-to-homes. Not much to say about the depth issue, since an injury to Ichiro or Gutierrez would've forced the same backup into the lineup. Don't know of any intangible issues and don't really care.

Conclusion

This isn't an easy question to settle. When you break everything down into individual components, you can see strong arguments for both players. If you take the defensive numbers at their word, Gutierrez looks like the better choice. If you think Ichiro's defensive value was a little better than his UZR, or that Guti's was a little worse, then the gap gets smaller and Ichiro rapidly picks up ground. It's hard to fault the writers for the choice they made. When I say there's no going wrong with Ichiro here, I mean that; this is essentially a coin flip situation, and when you're about 50/50, you can't be critical when one side gets picked over the other. What's really astonishing is that a group of sportswriters gave Gutierrez consideration in the first place. However, ignoring that angle, what we're here for is to try to figure out which Mariner player would've been the most deserving choice for the award. And gun to my head, I'd have to say that, after breaking down all the numbers and putting them back together again, my pick for the 2009 Seattle Mariners' team MVP is Felix Hernandez.

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