The Prototype Theory of the Most Valuable Player Award in Baseball

Jacob Eisenberg investigates the original meaning of the word “valuable” when it comes to a baseball player…

Determining which player is deserving of the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award has become an annual controversy in the sport of baseball. Since the award’s conception in 1931, there have been 160 total winners. Of these 160 winners selected by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BWAA) only seventeen of them were selected unanimously. As recently as last season, baseball fans called for reforms to the loose voting criteria as Detroit Tigers’ star pitcher, Justin Verlander, won the award despite playing in only 34 of his team’s 162 games. Critics argued that a player who only played in twenty percent of his team’s games could not possibly be the most valuable player on his own team – let alone the most valuable player in the entire league.  Upon close examination, it is easy to realize why there is so much controversy regarding the award every year: the controversy arises in part from the ambiguity highlighted by the prototype theory’s intentions for the word “valuable.”

The MVP award was created to be purposefully open ended. To this day, the BWAA refuses to offer a rubric to its voters. Scaling the importance of certain statistics is the responsibility of the individual writers. To determine what makes someone more “valuable” than someone else has become a daunting task for voters everywhere. Inconsistencies with the award’s winners have become transparent as the history of the award continues to develop. In several cases, superior players with superior statistics who happened to play for losing teams have won the award. Conversely, other times inferior players with inferior statistics who happened to play for playoff teams winning the award. Starting pitchers who pitch seven innings every fifth day have won the award. Relief pitchers who pitch one inning every second day have also won the award.

The main reason for so many different results in annual voting comes from the ambiguity of the word “valuable. ” The ambiguity of words can be understood in this passage explained by linguist Jean Atchison, “The word old is an old problem… The old woman is aged, but the others may be young. The old friend is still a friend, but the old boyfriend might now be an enemy.”[1]  Like the word “old,” the word “valuable” can be used to mean several different things in baseball. As ESPN writer Anna McDonald stated, “Over the course of the 2011 season “most valuable” has been defined many ways. (Prince Fielder’s) “valuable” at-bat helped put the Brewers in first place in the National League Central, where they have remained… And then there are the ballplayers having the most valuable seasons of their careers. While Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista is enjoying a major league-leading 42 home runs, it is hard to imagine where the Yankees would be without Curtis Granderson, the majors’ top RBI guy. Bautista’s team will be watching the playoffs from home and Granderson is hitting only .270.”[2] By pointing out the differences in these meanings for “valuable” McDonald makes it clear that “a valuable season” could directly translate to a big payday coming in the future.

Baseball’s oldest expression is, “(A) team is only as good as its next day’s starting pitcher.” This idea propels a suggestion that a back-of-the-rotation starting pitcher like Freddy Garcia, (the 35-year-old Yankee earning just over four million dollars this season[3]) is more valuable on the days he pitches than the team’s star player, Alex Rodriguez. (The 36-year-old Yankee earning just over thirty million dollars this season.) After all, Garcia can single handedly lose the game for the Yankees. Meanwhile, it is impossible for any player (even Rodriguez) to singlehandedly win a game. A pitcher’s value in baseball is often defined by the pitcher’s ability to consistently not screw up. Meanwhile, a hitter’s value is often defined by his ability to consistently produce.

The prototype theory, as it is known today, was created in the 1970s by Eleanor Rosch. In its most practical form, professor R.K. Johnson explains, “(the prototype theory) provides a theoretical framework within which it is possible to solve at least some of the problems associated with adding the semantic dimension to the linguistic investigation.”[4] Using this classification, it becomes easier to solve several problems associated with the semantics of the word “valuable” in the MVP award.

When the MVP award was created in 1931, the BWAA simply declared that the award should belong to the most valuable player of the season. With the development of the Cy Young award, which celebrates the league’s best pitcher of the season, twenty years after the MVP award was created, it has become easy for voters of the MVP award to exclude pitchers from consideration. After all, hitters do not have an award to call their own. CBS Sports columnist Dave Wishnowsky noted, “With the absence of a Babe Ruth Award, however, the MVP traditionally seems to default into the MVPP – The Most Valuable Position Player – and that really isn’t fair to pitchers.”[5]

Not surprisingly, the critics who argue Justin Verlander did not deserve the MVP award because he only played in one fifth of his team’s games are the same critics who overlook the fact that the inaugural winner of the award was Lefty Grove – a starting pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics. Because a pitcher won the first award, it is clear that the prototype theory for the MVP award did not exclude pitchers.  2007 MVP award winning shortstop Jimmy Rollins put it best when he said, “It’s an award that says you had the greatest impact on the outcome of your team’s success, and without you for that season, the team would not have had the success that it did.”[6]

Verlander, upon receiving the award admitted to reporters, “I think that a starting pitcher has to do something special to be as valuable or more so than a position player.”[7]  In Verlander’s case, consistently providing his team with assurance that they would win whenever he took the mound was enough to win the award.

As baseball’s scope of statistics grows, saber metric statistics can now actually calculate the number of wins a certain player is responsible for. In examining last year’s statistics, Justin Verlander’s MVP award is validated by the fact that he held the second-highest Wins Above Replacement (WAR[8]) of any player in the league.  With a WAR of over eight, Verlander’s statistics suggest that the Tigers would have lost eight more games had Verlander been swapped in the rotation with a league average starter.

Initially, the prototype theory was explained with the premise of colors. As the theory’s founder Rosch said in 1975, “Close your eyes and imagine a true red. Now imagine an orangish red… imagine a purple red. Although you might still name the orange red or the purple red with the term red, they are not as good examples of red… as the clear “true” red.[9]

Using a similar test, it is easy to see why star hitters from successful teams have become the prototypical MVP candidates. After all, over the past ten years, nineteen of the twenty MVP winners have been star hitters from playoff teams. Furthermore, only one of the twenty MVP winners was a pitcher.

As Victoria Mears discusses in her academic journal Prototype Theory and Prototype Semantics, “As an example one may take the concept GIRL: X is human, female, and young. All these criteria are necessary, and if one is missing, then X is not a girl. Remove, e.g., young and X is a woman. This phenomenon, in turn, means that these attributes are jointly sufficient for the definition of GIRL.” [10]

Using this same logic, it is clear to see what is required for an MVP candidate. MVP: X is the star of his team, the team is in the playoff race, and the star has no liabilities on his season’s resume.  With these criteria in mind, it is easy to eliminate candidates who appear worthy of the award from the outset but lack one of the three necessary attributes upon closer investigation. In last year’s MVP race, for example, Jose Bautista carried the league’s best statistics, which immediately made him a front-runner for the race. However, as the season closed and his Toronto Blue Jays were eliminated from the playoff race, Bautista lost support from the voters.

Elsewhere around the league, Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson looked to be a worthy candidate as he starred for the best team in the league. However, with a subpar batting average and uninspiring defensive statistics, voters decided to remove Granderson’s name from contention.

While Jacoby Ellsbury of the Boston Red Sox appeared to possess all three criteria of a modern-day MVP candidate, he was actually afflicted by having a teammate enjoy similar success. With Red Sox first baseman Adrien Gonzalez producing statistics similar to Ellsbury, it became hard for writers to vote for Ellsbury.

In 2002, former ESPN columnist Dave Campbell made an interesting observation. “Every year at this time, we engage in the MVP debate – not just who should win the award, but what (exactly) the award is for. Is the MVP the player who helps his team win? Is he the best overall player? Is he the player who puts up unbelievable numbers that you just can’t ignore?… Can a player on a last-place team (A-Rod on the Rangers) be the MVP? True, he’s had a brilliant season, but Texas could have finished last without him.”[11] In a season without a truly worthy MVP candidate, Rodriguez caused voters to ignore his team’s poor record by leading the league in homeruns while playing top-tier defense at the talent-depleted position of shortstop.

Interestingly, analysts in the National Football League, are calling for a complete reform of what it takes to be an MVP. Inspired by the Indianapolis Colts’ infamous demise with their star quarterback Peyton Manning sidelined with a neck injury, fans started proclaiming Manning the 2011-2012 season’s real MVP. After all, Manning had consistently positioned his team for playoff contention for over a decade. In just one season on the bench, Manning witnessed his Colts go from playoff contenders in 2010-2011 to the league’s worst team 2011-2012. While Manning did not play an entire game all season, fans believed his absence validated the claim that he was the league’s most valuable player.

The lack of certainty regarding Most Valuable Player awards creates controversy for fans and makes the selection process exciting and unpredictable.


[1] Atchison, Jean. “Bad Birds and Better Birds: Prototype Theories.” Language: Introductory Readings. By Virginia P. Clark, Paul A. Eschholz, and Alfred F. Rosa. New York: St. Martin’s, 1977. 263. Print.

[2] McDonald, Anna. “MVP Debate: What Does ‘MVP’ Mean?” ESPN.com. 23 Sept. 2011. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. <http://espn.go.com/blog/sweetspot/post/_/id/16536/mvp-debate-what-does-mvp-mean&gt;.

[3] “Freddy Garcia | Starting Pitcher.” Freddy Garcia. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. <http://www.rotoworld.com/player/mlb/2739/freddy-garcia&gt;.

[4] Johnson, R.K. “Prototype Theory, Cognitive Linguistics And Pedagogical Grammar.” Working Papers in Linguistics and Language Training 8.3 (1985): 12-24. Print.

[5] Wischnowsky, Dave. “Wisch: MLB Needs A ‘Babe Ruth Award’ For Best Hitter « CBS Chicago.” Wisch: MLB Needs A ‘Babe Ruth Award’ For Best Hitter « CBS Chicago. 25 Nov. 2011. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. <http://chicago.cbslocal.com/2011/11/25/wisch-mlb-needs-a-babe-ruth-award-for-best-hitter/&gt;.

[6] McDonald, Anna. “MVP debate: What does ‘MVP’ mean?

[7] Moore, Terrence. “Verlander as MVP as Special Case, Not Precedent.” Major League Baseball. 23 Nov. 2011. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. <http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20111123&gt;.

[8] WAR (Wins Above Replacement) combines hitting, fielding, and pitching into one statistic to determine how many wins a player is accountable for over a league-average replacement at the same position. An MVP’s WAR is usually hovers around seven.

[9] Atchison, Jean. “Bad Birds and Better Birds: Prototype Theories.” Language: Introductory Readings. By Virginia P. Clark, Paul A. Eschholz, and Alfred F. Rosa. New York: St. Martin’s, 1977. 254. Print.

[10] Mears, Victoria. “Prototype Theory and Prototype Semantics.” Phillips University Marburg (2011): 1-12. Print.

[11] Campbell, Dave. “Baseball Writers Could Make MVP Debate Easier.” ESPN.com. 13 Sept. 2002. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. <http://a.espncdn.com/mlb/columns/campbell_dave/1430878.html&gt;.

Originally written in April of 2012


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