No Wrong Answers for NL MVP

Joey Votto won a well-earned National League MVP Award today, which came as no surprise to me or to anyone who was paying attention. Once we dismiss Carlos Gonzalez and his jarring home/road splits, the only other contender was Albert Pujols. Votto batted .324, to Pujols’s .312. Votto’s OBP was .424, to Pujols’s .414. Votto slugged .600, to Pujols’s .596. If the two best hitters in the league both play a hitter’s position, and one leads the other in the three major hitting stats, that guy has to win the MVP, right?

Not so fast. Votto put up his numbers primarily in Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark, which is known as a hitters’ park, but which played fairly neutral this season, increasing scoring by .7%. Pujols played half his games in St. Louis’s Busch Stadium, which suppressed runs by 6.3%, 24th among 30 major league parks.

There’s more. According to Baseball Prospectus’s Equivalent Base Running Runs, Pujols was 9th in the NL with 4.7 runs above average, while Votto was 24th on the Reds with -.6 runs. Their defense was almost precisely the same, just a hair above replacement level. Throw it all together and you’ve got two almost identical players. Votto led in fangraphs’ WAR, 7.4 to 7.3, while Pujols led in baseball reference’s WAR, 7.2 to 6.2.

Why, then, did all but one voter put Votto on the top of his ballot? Most likely because the Reds won the NL Central. While I believe we should reward players for their contributions to their teams’ success, rather than for their teams’ contributions to their success, there is one argument for picking the winner here. Votto led the NL in the imperfect but fascinating Win Probability Added, two full wins higher than Pujols. While it’s been proven (or at least borne out convincingly in studies) that clutch hitting is not a repeatable skill, in 2010, Joey Votto came through when his team needed him most, and his team made the playoffs as a result.

One more reason Votto won may be the fact that his trophy case is not as full as Pujols’s. Pujols has won three MVPs, including two in a row, and Votto’s never been a legitimate candidate. I have no problem picking the guy without a trophy if the results are this close, although one could argue that Pujols should probably have five or six trophies. Someday, when we’re looking back on Pujols’s career, trying to determine whether he was the best first baseman ever to play the game (if not the game’s best player), we might count those MVPs and wonder if he was so rarely the best player in the league. Should that count be affected by voters’ distaste for rewarding the same guy every year?

If it’s this close, why not? Congratulations to Joey Votto for two enormous accomplishments: winning the NL MVP award and playing as well as Albert Pujols for an entire season.

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