With the NL races pretty much wrapped up, I’d like to take a look at the MVP race. This also provides an opportunity for me to discuss the way I approach the MVP award. Much of the disagreement about which players are the most deserving of the award stems from the fact that the Baseball Writer’s Association of America, which presents the award each year, doesn’t provide any specific guidelines for what “most valuable” actually means.
Many voters simply see the award as being for the player who added the most value to his team. Regardless of what any other player on his team accomplished, if that player is the best in the league, he should be the MVP. For the NL, you’d have a hard time arguing that that isn’t the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp. 2011 has been something of a lost year for Los Angeles, as ownership and attendance problems have crippled the team for essentially the entire season. However, Kemp has shrugged off the numerous distractions and acted as the offensive engine of the club, while Clayton Kershaw (who after Ian Kennedy’s win last night needs a win to match Kennedy and lock up the NL Triple Crown) has anchored the rotation. Kemp’s 8.3 WAR leads all NL hitters, and he currently leads the league in both home runs and RBIs as well, sitting only .006 points of batting average short of Ryan Braun and the first offensive NL Triple Crown since Ducky Medwick in 1937. While it looks like he’ll fall short, he’s still been the best player in the NL by the numbers.
However, the way I see it, that doesn’t necessarily make him the MVP. All wins aren’t made alike, and some are much more valuable than others. The Win Curve describes the marginal value of each win to a baseball team, and it shows fairly clearly that a team’s 85th win is far more valuable than either win 65 or win 105. If a player adds value to a team that doesn’t have much of a playoff shot, the extra wins that player might provide really don’t make much of a difference; functionally, there’s no major difference for a team that finishes with 64 or 65 wins. Similarly, for a player on one of the best teams in the league, winning 100 or 105 games likely isn’t going to be the difference between October baseball and October tee times. However, for a team in a tight race, every win is much more likely to decide the fate of that team’s season. The value a player adds to his team needs to be considered in the context of what that value means to that team, and whether the resulting wins are icing on the cake or that team’s ticket to the postseason.
With this in mind, two other NL outfielders on contending teams stick out to me as MVP contenders. Both will probably end up being the difference between their teams making and missing the playoffs, as they’ll lead their respective clubs into October after winning their divisions by reasonably tight margins. At 7.2 WAR, Ryan Braun trails only Kemp among NL position players. Both players provide all of their value on offense, allowing their skill at the plate to make up for a complete lack of defensive tools. Braun has averaged a UZR of –10.2 in left field over the past three seasons, while Kemp has put up –8.9 in center. Braun’s 177 wRC+ makes him the best hitter in the NL, and both add value on the basepaths. While their raw numbers suggest their seasons have been nearly equally impressive, the wins Braun created for the Brewers will give them a shot at a title. While it may seem unfair to penalize Kemp, as he has very little ability to turn the Dodgers into a contender singlehandedly, his play simply wasn’t in the same context as Braun’s, and therefore doesn’t have the same value.
There’s only one other batter who I believe has a compelling argument that his play was more valuable to his team. That batter is Justin Upton. Like Braun and Kemp, Upton has been a consistent contributor to the Diamondbacks’ lineup. Though he provides a similar speed/power threat to Kemp and Braun, Upton’s 141 wRC+ is a notch down from his competitors’ league-leading marks. However, Upton is less than half a win short of Braun according to WAR, largely because he also adds significant value on defense. Although single-year UZR values are the most commonly disputed component value of WAR, Upton has demonstrated through his three-year average of 7.9 UZR that his 10.1 mark this year isn’t just a statistical blip. For me, he’s Braun’s strongest contender, but Braun has been the most valuable player on the senior circuit.
Though the voting for these awards is often a bit of a head-scratcher, I’m convinced that Braun is the deserving recipient of the NL MVP, at least based on the way I define value. Voters may eventually decide Kemp’s raw numbers are too strong to ignore, or a pitcher like Kershaw or Roy Halladay deserves the award. However, when you consider the context of the value these players have provided, Braun played the best for his team when it mattered the most. As I define the award, that makes him the NL’s Most Valuable Player.