What Does “MVP” Mean in Sports?

by Deb Seymour

In the product development/investment world, “MVP” has a specific connotation — it’s minimum viable product. Essentially, in new product development and investment, investors will often want a product to have been consumer tested as being at least minimally viable for use before they invest in the product or its developers. Somewhat ironically, then, in sports the expression “MVP” refers to the most valuable player — or, the diametric opposite of one who is just minimally viable as a player.

The ongoing debate, however, with respect to MVPs in sports is whether the MVP is the best player in the league, or the one who’s been most valuable to their team’s success in a given sports season. On the former interpretation, the MVP is the player whose performance is judged to have been the most outstanding in a given season, no matter whether their team had a good season or not, made the playoffs or not, or was even part of the conversation all season — or not. On the latter interpretation, the MVP is the player whose performance is judged to have had most impact on their team in a given season, leading that team to success, a potential playoff berth, or at least to having been a contender throughout the season.

In some sports leagues, such as the National Hockey League, there are named trophies and/or awards for the different types of “MVP” who play the different positions in the game. In the NHL, most of the trophies are awarded by position; but there are leadership awards and sportmanship awards, as well. The Hart Memorial Trophy, however, is the trophy awarded to the overall MVP in the league — and it was awarded to Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers in 2021. You’d be hard pressed to find a North American hockey fan who doesn’t believe that Connor McDavid is the best player in the league. And, as it so happens, the Oilers were a playoff team in 2021. They were swept in the first round by the Winnipeg Jets; but you can’t honestly say they weren’t a good team and moreover, that they weren’t made much better by the presence of Connor McDavid in their lineup. Has it been the case, though, that every year’s Hart Trophy winner has played for a playoff team?

In most recent NHL history, there is the one, significant, classic case of Mario Lemieux, who, in the 1987-1988 season for the Pittsburgh Penguins, scored 168 points in 77 games played. These are undisputed Hart Trophy numbers. And yet the Penguins failed to make the playoffs by one point that year. The discomfort surrounding awarding the Hart Trophy to a player from a non-playoff team has made itself known for the 33 years since Lemieux’s trophy, however, in that no Hart Trophy winner since has come from a non-playoff team. Mario Lemieux was such an outstanding player, I can’t see anyone contesting his Hart from 1988. But this does force the question of whether McDavid would have won the Hart in 2021 had the Oilers not made the playoffs.

In Major League Baseball, until his injury-plagued season this year, common opinion has mostly had it that Mike Trout’s been the American League’s best player since 2012. And not just common opinion: Trout has actually won three MVP awards over that span, as well as being MVP runner-up four times during that period. This year’s leading contender for the AL MVP award is Shohei Ohtani, as discussed in all baseball circles and in my previous blog post “Which AL Players Will Win Some Awards This Year?” (See https://wordpress.com/post/bigapplebitesports.com/197). And although Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays is giving Ohtani a run for his money, it’s still more than likely that Ohtani will win the MVP and Guerrero will be the runner-up. The interesting and obvious fact about both Trout and Ohtani, however, is that they both play for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim — a team that has not made the playoffs since 2014, in which the team lost the ALDS and didn’t make it past the first postseason round. That remains the only playoff series in which Trout has ever participated; and Ohtani hasn’t played one playoff game in his short MLB career to date — and will not do so this year, either. Among MLB MVP voters, then, unlike in the NHL, it’s pretty clear that being impactful to your team’s success is not a primary consideration in who wins the award.

One final example comes from the National Basketball Association, in which Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets won the MVP this past year. The Nuggets did make the playoffs in 2021, although they only won their first round. If you look at the recent history of MVPs in the NBA, however, they’re just about all from playoff teams. That they’re also household names among NBA fans (notably Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Derrick Rose) makes a case for these players being the best of the best in the league over the past 12 years; but their teams’ final standings at the end of the regular season were amongst the best in the league, as well.

And thus we come back to our original question: what does “MVP” mean in sports? I don’t think that question’s been answered here. How MVP voters for the different sports leagues interpret the designation seems to differ; and when fortuitously the “best player” in the league happens to overlap with one of the best teams in the league, the MVP designation hits the jackpot. It’s those cases in which the best player in the league doesn’t play on one of the best teams in the league that continue to confound us. In my personal discussions, I’ve suggested that perhaps leagues ought to begin considering two different awards, with two different designations: an MVP for the most impactful player who’s helped to carry their team to the postseason, and a “best overall player” award that’s awarded independently of whether the player’s team had any real success that year or not. Though most leagues seem to have position by position awards of some sort (gold gloves and silver sluggers and Cy Youngs in MLB; multiple trophies and awards in the NHL), the particular differentiation I’m describing hardly seems to exist. And yet, perhaps its time has finally arrived.

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