Monday, September 19, 2011

All I Wanna Be Is The Goddamn MVP (plus bonus thoughts)

With about a week and a half of regular-season baseball left to play, I think it's safe to start talking about who we, the disenfranchised non-BBWAA members, would vote for in the American League and National League MVP races. I also plan to write an article about the Cy Young awards sometime in the next two weeks. The NL Cy Young race is very close, the AL race not so much in my opinion... anyway, that's another article for another time. This is MVP talk here.

The 2011 MVP race in the American League is particularly interesting, because among the four or five players that stand out, there is a pitcher who has a legitimate claim to the award - not a common thing, as many folks will only vote for an everyday player for MVP. Meanwhile, in the National League, the race is more conventional but no less contentious. There are three players in the NL who should be given serious consideration.

Here's my take on both MVP races, then.


The NL MVP award will be given to one of these three men: Justin Upton, Ryan Braun, or Matt Kemp. Justin Upton is the right fielder for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Ryan Braun is the left fielder for the Milwaukee Brewers, and Matt Kemp is the center fielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers. All three have played extremely well this year, and all three are worthy of recognition and consideration for the award.

At the plate, Matt Kemp and Ryan Braun have virtually identical and absolutely stunning stat lines: .320/.398/.565 for Kemp, and .336/.400/.597 for Braun. It gets even better when you add their baserunning into the mix: Braun has stolen 31 bases in 37 tries, and Kemp has swiped 40 in 50 attempts. When it comes to power, speed, and plate discipline, Matt Kemp and Ryan Braun are the class of the National League. Justin Upton has batted .293/.374/.537, nothing to sneeze at, but not as good as Kemp and Braun. And stealing 21 bases in 30 attempts is costing his D'backs valuable outs.

One last metric: ranked by's Offensive WAR (wins-above-replacement player, a handy stat which calculates how much more a player contributes to his team than an average Triple A minor league replacement would), Kemp is in first place at 8.2, Braun is second at 7.0, and Justin Upton is all the way down at number seven with 5.0 wins, behind Joey Votto, Lance "Lazarus" Berkman, Jose Reyes, and Prince Fielder.

Offensively, it's clear that Braun and Kemp are more valuable to their teams than Justin Upton. Meanwhile, when measuring their defensive contributions on, it seems that Matt Kemp has played well enough in center that his fielding can't be held against him, and that he is better than the average NL center fielder when playing at Dodger Stadium. That's pretty good stuff, what with the importance of center field and all. Ryan Braun has a deserved reputation as a below-average defender, but this year he seems to have figured out his position well enough so that I can't cite his defense as a negative. He catches the balls he gets to, he's been getting to the ball better than years previous, and... well, he plays left field, so let's leave it at that. Last, we have Justin Upton in right field. His defense there is slightly but measurably below average.

At this point, Upton can be removed from the NL MVP discussion. It's a two man race. And it would seem that Matt Kemp, playing center field, should win the award over Ryan Braun, who plays left field, since both are essentially each other's equal at the plate. Matt Kemp has the slight edge in WAR as well. If batting average matters, then Ryan Braun gets the nod there. They are both statistically tied in on-base and slugging percentage. If stolen bases are a factor, Kemp has stolen more but been caught more and at a higher rate than Braun. Hmm. I'd still give the award to Matt Kemp, all else being equal.

But all is not equal. The Milwaukee Brewers are charging towards their first-ever division title, and the Los Angeles Dodgers are trudging towards an idle postseason. Does this mean that Braun's play has been more "valuable" than Kemp's because it has pushed his team over the top and into the playoffs? There are folks who would argue that this is the case, and there are folks who would argue that this at least could be used as a tiebreaker. I am in the latter camp - I would use overall team success as a tiebreaker. However, this is not a tie. Where offensive prowess meets offensive prowess and the result is an immoveable stalemate, center field trumps left field every time.

My choice for National League MVP is Matt Kemp of the LA Dodgers.


The central question facing voters for the AL MVP award is this: can a pitcher win? And following that: how good must a pitcher be in order to win?

The AL MVP for 2011 will be given to Jose Bautista, Adrian Gonzalez, Curtis Granderson, Jacoby Ellsbury, or Justin Verlander. Four position players, and a starting pitcher. Four men who take the field every day they can, rain or shine, and give their all in pursuit of the win. And one man around whom the entire game revolves, one man who has as much to do with his team's performance as all the other eight put together... but who only plays one day out of five.

Jose Bautista is the prodigiously-powered slugging right fielder for the Toronto Blue Jays. Adrian Gonzalez and Jacoby Ellsbury play for the Boston Red Sox, first base and center field respectively, and both have torn the cover off the baseball this year. Curtis Granderson has played quality center field for the New York Yankees while hitting tons of home runs. Justin Verlander has, simply put, been the best pitcher in baseball and the ace of the Detroit Tigers rotation.

Let me begin by saying that I don't believe Adrian Gonzalez should win MVP. As measured by traditional stats (batting average and RBIs) and OPS lines, the award would go to Gonzalez (.333/.402/.537 vs .319/.376/.539), and make no mistake, his on-base percentage is really remarkable. Adrian knows how to handle the bat. But Jacoby Ellsbury makes it all up on the basepaths. He has swiped more bases, that's for sure: 37 against Gonzalez's 1 measly base stolen. Equally important is that Ellsbury leads Gonzalez in total bases: 330 to 325. They are #1 and #2 in the AL in total bases, by the way. However, defense matters. Adrian Gonzalez plays first base. Jacoby Ellsbury plays center field. Thus, offense being roughly equal, defensive prowess gives the nod to Ellsbury over Gonzalez for most valuable member of the Red Sox. One last thing: as the Red Sox have stumbled down the stretch, Jacoby Ellsbury has not been the reason why. His line for September is .361/.413/639. It's as if he's trying to put the entire Red Sox team on his back.

So it's a four man race between Ellsbury, Jose Bautista, Curtis Granderson, and Justin Verlander. Of these players, only Bautista plays for a team not in contention for a playoff berth. But man, does he play. Nobody hits home runs quite like Jose Bautista. Hell, nobody hits like him, period. Oh, sure, there's some guy named Pujols in the National League, but he's having a bit of an off-year, and so I feel confident in saying that Jose Bautista is, today, the elite batsman in all Major League Baseball. He leads the AL in on-base, slugging, OPS, and OPS+ (park-adjusted OPS). His line is .304/.448/.623. Nobody else is close to that. He leads the league in home runs with 42. He leads the league in walks. Of his 123 walks, 23 were intentional. That's insane! And of course, that leads the league. Opposing managers would rather give up the automatic baserunner than face Bautista at an incredible rate. That's a testament to the fear his bat instills in his opponents. On defense, he plays right field and plays it just fine. He's definitely worthy of the award. But should we win it?

Curtis Granderson is hitting very well this season, too. He's got 40 home runs, and has been neck and neck with Bautista for the lead in that category all season. He's also an immeasurable clubhouse presence, and the center fielder for the Yankees. For some faithful pinstripe boosters, this would be enough to put him over the top already, and I'm sure Granderson will win the NYC-area MVP vote. However, his center defense is below league-average, and honestly, there's a center fielder in Boston who is better in just about every category than Curtis. Therefore, I would not vote for Curtis Granderson for American League MVP. The race is down to three men.

And now we come to the most interesting man in the world: Justin Verlander. When I began writing this entry, I honestly had no idea how I should approach his candidacy. Certainly, he's been very valuable indeed to the Tigers, but is he actually as valuable as, say, his teammate Miguel Cabrera, who is one of the top three first basemen in the American League? I needed to think about this. So, I took my roommate's dog (a sweet and energetic pooch named Winnie, a chocolate lab/pit bull mix) for a walk. And in between restraining Winnie from chasing rabbits, and picking up after her, as I thought about Justin's case for MVP, it occurred to me that I could approach the Verlander MVP candidacy as follows: did his presence on the Detroit Tigers allow them to make the playoffs, or would they have made the playoffs with the pitcher that they would have if they didn't have Verlander? (This is different than the "is he playing on a playoff team?" argument that some people would use to give Ryan Braun the MVP award over Matt Kemp in NL, because it would be tough to argue that the leftfielder the Brewers would have if they didn't have Braun would be so awful that they'd have missed the postseason - the Brewers are a well-rounded team, but the Tigers are mediocre except at first base and, of course, for Verlander.)

Here's what I mean by this: Justin Verlander is the AL Ace of Aces. He will win the Cy Young award this year. He's won 24 games, may win 25 (which nobody does anymore), and his Tigers team isn't the Yankees - those aren't CC Sabathia-style wins with guaranteed run support. Strikeouts, innings pitched, baserunners allowed, he is the king of all those things, and moreover, he is the absolute anchor of that team, the rock around which Jim Leyland can manage differently, giving his bullpen rest, not worrying about the days when Verlander takes the ball.

So who is the pitcher the Tigers would have if they didn't have Verlander? This isn't a WAR thing; the Tigers have enough money and savvy that they would definitely have an ace at the top of their rotation if they didn't have Verlander. So, arbitrarily, I have decided that if Detroit didn't have Justin Verlander, they would have the 10th-best starting pitcher in the American League. And arbitrarily, using a gut-check mix of ERA, WHIP, K:BB and K:9, I have decided that the 10th-best pitcher in the American League is James Shields of the Tampa Bay Rays, "Big Game James" as he is known these days. Please don't argue with me on this - if you wanted to substitute Brandon McCarthy or C.J. Wilson or Ricky Romero or someone else, I'd be fine with it in a different article, but for this one it's going to be James Shields.

Well, how good would the Tigers be with James Shields instead of Justin Verlander? James Shields has allowed 10 more earned runs than Justin Verlander. He's allowed 17 more hits, four more walks, and hit 5 batters versus Verlander's 3. He's given up two more home runs than Justin has, 24 to 22. All this translates into an oppnent on-base percentage of .240 for Verlander, and .273 for Shields. Batters slug .308 against Verlander, and .350 against Shields. Defense-independent pitching (DIPS) would have Verlander's ERA at .307 and Shields at .349, but if Shields was pitching with Detroit's defense then... Ok, ok, you say. Enough with the numbers. Translation, please!

It is my belief that if James Shields was the ace of the Tigers rotation, they would have won two or three fewer games than they have or will have by the end of the season. Let's use the high-end estimate, because Verlander is the best pitcher in baseball, and that's got to be worth a mythic "intangible", right? Three games worse, the Tigers would still win the AL Central. They might not be as fearsome going into the playoffs, but they'd be IN the playoffs. This wasn't always a given, by the way - the AL Central was a tight race all the way into August, before Cleveland gave way to troublesome reality and sank back in the standings.

And so we come down to it: Justin Verlander, Ace of Aces, did not singlehandedly pitch the Tigers into the playoffs. He gave them supreme confidence every fifth day that they would win if they even plated a mere two or three runs, he gave Jim Leyland the certainty that his bullpen would get much-needed rest at least once a week, but he is not singlehandedly responsible for their playoff berth and division title. So how did they make the playoffs? Sure, Miguel Cabrera hit like a monster, but the sub-par AL Central opposition gets the gold star. Now here's a thought: If the Tigers were in the AL West or East, and the season ended right now, three wins would be the difference between a playoff berth and an idle October.

Therefore, Justin Verlander makes the Tigers an elite team at least capable of competing in the tougher East and West divisions, and currently the playoff team most others would least want to face in a short series. Hmm.

So, who would I pick for my American League MVP?

After careful consideration of the top three choices - the best hitter in baseball, the best all-around player in the league, and the best pitcher in baseball who also may have single-handedly won his team a division title - I have come to the conclusion that the hypotheticals involved in Verlander's case loom too large for my vote to go his way. And after a lot of thought, I have weighed Jose Bautista's batting against Jacoby Ellsbury's all-around play, and since no one number is persuasive enough to give the outright win to Bautista, and conversely the numbers, defensive metrics included, do not give Ellsbury a runaway decision once his position at center field is factored in, I am forced to with the dreaded all-around Wins Above Replacement stat to make my decision. Bautista has the lead here. Joey and Jacoby go down to the wire...

And my choice for AL MVP is Jose Bautista. Barely.

And as I finish this entry, the Red Sox have slipped to a half game ahead of the Rays for the wild card playoff spot. If WAR can be trusted, then Bautista's presence on the Red Sox would be worth some insurance against this terrible Boston losing skid, and when all is said and done, perhaps Joey Bautista would have made the difference between making the playoffs and sitting at home watching them, were he on the Red Sox.

*title of this post taken from a song by my friend Jub, who plays in a couple great local bands here in Minneapolis such as Sundowners/Little Hazy (there's a name change pending), and Apocalypse Meow (no need for a name change on that one!)