Sifting Through NL MVP Candidates

In this week’s blog series, I’m running through the MVP and Cy Young debates in each league, and while three of the four awards feel like toss-ups, the NL MVP is the one that makes my head spin the most. The guy with the most fWAR is a pitcher. Two other pitchers are having basically the same season. The hitter with the most fWAR is on a noncontending team. Two other nonpitchers are having basically the same season. The two most-hyped candidates are not from among the eight players I just alluded to.

I feel that WAR is the best starting point for an MVP debate, as it attempts to measure a player’s value. With so many valid candidates bunched up at the top of the WAR list, I’m going to draw a line right below Prince Fielder (the candidate with the lowest fWAR), consider everyone above Prince, and try not to mention WAR in the rest of this piece.

Of the 21 candidates that meet the above criteria, I’m going to start by eliminating 11:
–Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Cole Hamels, Daniel Hudson, Matt Garza (I know, Matt Garza?), and Ian Kennedy have all been less valuable than the three best pitchers in the leauge. They’re out.
–Brandon Phillips hasn’t been the best player on his team. He’s out.
–Cardinals Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday have been almost indistinguishably excellent, but they’re not the best hitting/fielding/overall first baseman and left fielder in the league, respectively, so they’re both out.
–Jose Reyes and Shane Victorino have been among the best in the league when healthy, but each has missed about 30 games this season, making them less valuable than the guys who have been healthy all year. Two more out.

That leaves us with ten candidacies to review. Let’s take them alphabetically:

Ryan Braun, Brewers
Braun is probably the guy most likely to win the award, and his offensive numbers support his case. He’s hitting .329/.396/.581 for a league-leading .427 weighted On Base Average. He’s also stolen 31 bases in 37 attempts, solidifying his case as the best offensive player in the NL. His defense, as always, has been ugly. While Total Zone finds it slightly above average, UZR says he’s been 6.7 runs below average. He’s certainly a top candidate, but a similar hitter who offers decent defense at a more important position could be a better pick.

Prince Fielder, Brewers
The key to Fielder’s case is that, hitting behind Braun, he allows Braun to see a lot more pitches to hit. Indeed, Braun hits a lot of line drives (his .353 BABiP suggests he sees a lot of fastballs and hits them well), while Fielder walks in almost 15% of his plate appearances. While it’s true that there is value in lineup protection, I’d rather measure players by their own individual results, and Fielder’s are good. He’s hit .294/.407/.543 with 32 homers. If that were the best OBP in the league, or if he had any other advantage over Braun, I’d give Fielder a long look, but as it is, he’s been the second-best Brewer, not the best National Leaguer.

Roy Halladay, Phillies
Until his two closest competitors made a late-season push, Halladay had been the clear Cy Young choice and perhaps the most valuable player in the league for most of the season. In run prevention terms, he’s neck and neck with teammate Cliff Lee and LA’s Clayton Kershaw. They’ve all pitched between 210 and 214 innings with ERAs between 2.36 and 2.44. Halladay’s edge over Kershaw is that he’s compiled those innings in one fewer start and that ERA while pitching half his games in a hitters’ park in the NL East. His advantage over Lee is that Doc’s been equally good despite being hit-unlucky. Halladay’s insane 7/1 strikeout/walk ratio gives him a Fielding Independent Pitching of 2.11, half a run better than Lee’s (despite Lee’s own impressive 5K/BB). Until recently, I would have argued that he stood out over the pitching field more than anyone stood out over the hitting field, but I’m not sure I can say that anymore.

Matt Kemp, Dodgers
Much like Curtis Granderson’s candidacy in the AL, Kemp’s candidacy depends largely on whose defensive numbers you trust. Interestingly, while no system rates Granderson as a good defensive center fielder, Total Zone rates Kemp as having saved nine runs above average. If that’s true, add it to his .316/.395/.560 slash line, 33 home runs, and 39 stolen bases and the MVP discussion is over. Kemp’s Ultimate Zone Rating of negative 4.1 keeps several other players in contention. I haven’t seen a Dodgers game all year, so I have no eye test to work from, so I’ll average the two systems and consider Kemp an average defensive center fielder and a prime MVP candidate.

Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
Based on raw stats, Kershaw has been the most successful pitcher in the NL this season. He’s 19-5 with a league-leading 2.30 ERA. He leads the league with 236 strikeouts and 213 2/3 innings pitched. He may fall just short of Halladay when we consider the ballparks in which they pitch. Kershaw’s MVP candidacy won’t get any traction because he’s both a pitcher and a member of a noncontending team, so even if he were the most valuable player in the league, it would be hard to garner a consensus.

Cliff Lee, Phillies
We can’t look at Halladay’s case without looking at Lee’s. Their innings pitched and ERAs are identical, but they’ve been earned in different ways. Halladay has been consistenty dominant all season. Lee, meanwhile, got off to a slow start, was almost untouchable in June (gave up one run in 42 innings), and after a strong July, was lights-out again in August (two runs in 39 2/3 innings). If Lee finishes September as dominantly as he’s pitched since June, he may pass Halladay as the league’s top pitcher. And it’s hard to say any hitter can be more valuable than a pitcher who gives up three runs in 80+ innings over two months.

Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
Realistically, McCutchen had a stronger case in midsummer, when the Pirates were contending for a division title. As the Pirates have faded, McCutchen’s been just as good, hitting eight of his 23 home runs since August 1. McCutchen’s .263/.363/.466 slash line won’t get him any first place votes, but his combination of power, speed (20 stolen bases), and excellent center field defense made him a major factor in the Pirates’ return to respectability.

Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
Speaking of guys who do everything, wouldn’t you think that if the best defensive shortstop in baseball hit .304/.375/.549, he would be near the front of the MVP discussion? Tulowtizki has done just that, and deserves to be in the conversation, but the Rockies’ sad season and the fact that his slash line dips to .293/.364/.523 (which is certainly respectable, but not Ryan Braun-like) away from Coors Field will hurt him.

Justin Upton, Diamondbacks
Upton has everything MVP voters look for: solid offensive numbers (.293/.374/.540) with power (30 homers) and speed (21 steals), and a playoff team’s logo on the front of his jersey. Defensive metrics are split on him, as they are with Kemp, but the opposite way, as his 10.1 UZR is tops among NL right fielders, but his negative .7 Total Zone rating is well below average. If we average the defensive marks, we come up with a player whose slash line is just short of Kemp’s despite a more hitter-friendly atmosphere in the desert. He may actually win the award, but he should probably get more votes in the middle of the ballot than at the top.

Joey Votto, Reds
Joey Votto deserved, and won, the MVP award in 2010. His numbers:

2010: .324/.424/.600, 37 home runs, 1.6 UZR, league-leading 6.85 WPA
2011: .318/.428/.550, 28 home runs, 7.1 UZR, league-leading 6.85 WPA

He’s basically the same player this year as he was last year. The MVP award may have contributed to pitchers pitching around him, as he’s traded a few home runs for a few walks this year. I won’t deny that 5-7 home runs (he’ll hit a few more before the season is over) are meaningful, but keep in mind that offense is down around the league this year, his defense has been better this year, and there were two other players last year (Albert Pujols and Carlos Gonzalez) who competed with Votto for the triple crown. If Votto is the same player this year as he was last year, why isn’t there much buzz about his MVP candidacy? Because Edinson Volquez got hurt and Bronson Arroyo gave up too many home runs.

It’s not fair to Votto that his team’s performance will cost him a shot at another award. It’s no tragedy, since Votto has some hardware for his mantle and he hasn’t necessarily been head-and shoulders above the rest of the field. Sometimes it just takes a certain narrative to build an MVP case out of a season that’s not obviously the league’s most valuable. Last year, Votto led the Reds to their first division title in over a decade. This year, depsite the same performance from Votto, the Reds are fighting to finish above .500. So it goes.

My ballot, as of today:
1. Kemp
2. Votto
3. Braun
4. Halladay
5. Kershaw
6. Upton
7. Lee
8. Tulowitzki
9. McCutchen
10. Victorino

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This entry was posted in Brewers, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Phillies, Pirates, Postseason Awards, Reds, Rockies. Bookmark the permalink.

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