With the rookies and the pitchers covered, we’ve got one last stop on our prediction tour through the MLB awards circuit. The one award to rule them all: the Most Valuable Player Award. As with the other awards, this year presents some potential decision making dilemmas, especially in one of the leagues, so we’ll get right into it with our annual Mike Trout arguing.
While we actually got a break from Mike Trout-related arguing last year, thanks to the extensive time he spent on the DL, Trout’s been back in top form this year, and his 2018 numbers make this season one of his best to date. He’s tied for 1st by fWAR (9.4) and in 2nd by bWAR (9.9). He leads all qualified AL players in tons of categories, whether it’s power (.320 ISO, .636 SLG), patience (19.6 BB%, .460 OBP) or just all-around hitting value (193 wRC+). Basically, he’s had the best numbers of his career, but he didn’t play quite enough (134 games, 586 PAs) to make this his best season overall. Normally, a 10-ish WAR season is good enough for an easy MVP, but not so in the AL in 2018.
Boston’s Mookie Betts’ season has been amazing all season long and he’s the reason Trout isn’t in his usual spot atop the leaderboards. While they are tied by fWAR, Betts slides out into 1st in bWAR (10.2). His .339 AVG leads both leagues. For as much as we’ve moved past that stat as being all important, it’s not deceptive in this case, as Betts has been an all-around excellent player, with the 2nd best wRC+(182) after Trout, to complement his excellent base running skills and defense.
While Betts missed some time earlier in the season and has had to start at DH for a week (although he returned to the outfield this weekend), he’s still accrued 593 PAs over 131 games this season. The fact that, like Trout, he’s been as valuable as he has despite a slight handicap in the playing time department, speaks to just how great he’s been when he’s been on the field.
The biggest hurdle that Betts had heading into September (non-Trout division) was one of his own teammates. It was looking somewhat feasible that JD Martinez might end up with the Triple Crown award. It wasn’t that long ago, way back in 2012, when Trout lost to the Triple Crown winner, Miguel Cabrera. While the voting electorate has certainly evolved in terms of their embrace of advanced statistics, as has the public in general, there was clearly the potential for Martinez to muddy the waters a bit and potentially siphon off some votes if he did.
The ship seems to have sailed on that possibility in recent weeks, though. Since September rolled around, Martinez has hit .295/.378/.426 (109 wRC+) and dragged down his overall numbers. Over that same time, Trout has been positively Bondsian (.361/.473/.754, 227 wRC+) and Betts has just kept on being excellent as before (.351/.457/.596, 182 wRC+). Much of the argument for giving Martinez the award now seems to rest on his “leadership qualities.” Even if Martinez still stands near the top of the leaderboard in many offensive categories, the fact that he spent so much time at DH certainly has affected his value, as he only ranks 7th by fWAR (5.4) and 8th by bWAR (6.1). Given his recent slowdown in production at the plate that’s removed him from a potential Triple Crown, it seems unlikely that he’ll be challenging Betts or Trout for the award.
So what about the other players up near the top of the WAR leaderboards? The likeliest candidates would be the Indians’ Francisco Lindor and José Ramírez, Oakland’s Matt Chapman and Houston’s Alex Bregman.
Lindor (7.4 fWAR, tied-4th, and 7.7 bWAR, 4th) has hit extremely well .281/.355/.524, 132 wRC+, while playing excellent defense at premium position. He gets a serious bump in value for that, but that doesn’t historically help a player win an MVP. That, along with the fact that he’s benefited from playing in one of the worst divisions ever and some potential competition from a teammate in Ramírez, makes it seem unlikely that he will have enough votes to claim the award. Ramírez has been the third most valuable player by fWAR (8.0) and the 5th by bWAR (7.5). His 150 wRC+ comes in 5th in baseball, but he’s going to suffer from the same issues as Lindor when it comes to ending up with enough votes to win.
Chapman has been instrumental in Oakland’s surprisingly successful season that currently finds them one win away from clinching a Wild Card spot. Chapman suffers from the same defensive bump as Lindor, only moreso. He’s been the best third baseman in all of baseball by UZR (12.1) and the best player in all of MLB by DRS (+28). His emergence as a defensive bulwark at the hot corner is one of the big reasons Oakland has been seemingly unstoppable in the second half, and he’ll certainly get some deserved votes. He might have even been a dark horse candidate to take home the award on a narrative level, had Trout not been so good over the last few weeks and Martinez regress a bit.
Alex Bregman has been the Astros’ best player this year, and has remained steady while they dealt with slumps and injuries from so many position players. His 158 wRC+ puts him in 4th place, where he also is tied with Lindor with 7.4 fWAR (although he slips down to 6th by bWAR, with 6.8). Again, as with Chapman, he seemed like a potential candidate before Martinez’s relative late-season slump, especially in the event that Oakland faded a bit and didn’t make the postseason.
At the end of the day, I’m pretty sure that we’re still looking at a two-way race between Betts and Trout, despite the fact that both missed a small chunk of time this season. Betts’ edge over Trout comes down to his having a better defensive season. Normally, that would probably be enough to give the nod to Trout. However, as seems to always be the case, the Angels won’t be playing baseball this October.
Betts, on the other hand, was the best player on a team that’s already won 105 games and clinched their division. The availability of a deserving recipient on a contending team provides voters with an option that both meets all definitions of “value,” with his team actually earning a postseason berth. As a result, I’m fairly confident that the MVP Award will be going to Betts this year, and that’s not a problem this time around.
Prediction: Mookie Betts
If I can express a reasonable degree of certainly in regard to the AL, the same can’t be said of the NL. The situation here is still extremely difficult to call, even with just a week’s worth of games left.
Your NL WAR leaders, by both of the most popular flavors, are pitchers who we already discussed last week. By fWAR we’ve got Jacob deGrom (8.3) in 1st and Max Scherzer (6.8) in 2nd, although the first position player to make an appearance, Christian Yelich (6.6), basically just a rounding error behind in 3rd. The situation is even more dire when we use bWAR, with Aaron Nola (9.8), deGrom (9.2), Scherzer (8.3) and Kyle Freeland (8.1) all making appearances before we get to Lorenzo Cain (6.8) in 5th place. But before we get into the likelihood of a pitcher taking home the award, we’ll work our way through the likely position player candidates.
The player who has been getting the most hype as of late is Yelich. After his trade to Milwaukee this past offseason, the previously perennially underrated Yelich has made the most of the hitter-friendly confines of his new home, delivering career-highs across all elements of his slashline and notching 32 home runs (with a previous season best of 21). He currently leads the NL in a whole host of categories: AVG (.322), SLG (.577), wOBA (.410) and wRC+ (158).
He’s also been incredible in the second half (.362/.427/.736, 207 wRC+) and last week became the third player since 1900 to hit for the cycle twice in a single season. While neither of those facts should move the needle much, the former is important because it’s coincided with the Brewers’ increased likelihood of a postseason berth, and the latter has earned him some more media attention late in the season, something that certainly doesn’t hurt when you play in a smaller market.
While Yelich comfortably leads all NL position players by WAR (with a one-digit lead over the Nationals’ Anthony Rendon’s 5.6 in 2nd place), bWAR tells a different story. Yelich’s fellow Brewer outfielder, Cain, is leading the pack with 6.8. He’s not that far ahead of Yelich (6.4) though, and a large portion of that can be attributed to Cain’s superior defense. The only notable offensive category in which Cain has a lead over Yelich is in OBP, with .397 for the former and .391 for the latter. Cain has the power advantage, though, with over three times as many home runs and a league-leading .968 OPS, despite Cain’s advantage in the OBP portion of the equation.
After Yelich and Cain, we’ve quite the clusterfolk (def: a cluster of folks). Javier Baez (5.4 fWAR, 6.1 bWAR) for one, as well as Freddie Freeman (5.0 fWAR, 6.0 bWAR), Paul Goldschmidt (5.0 fWAR 5.6 bWAR) and Nolan Arenado (4.9 fWAR, 5.1 bWAR). However, I feel fairly comfortable knocking Goldschmidt and Arenado off the list right off the bat.
Goldschmidt is an easy call because Arizona won’t be playing baseball after next week. While the Rockies still have a chance at a Wild Card spot and even the division (although the recent sweep by the Dodgers certainly made that a longshot), Arenado has gone from one of the league’s best hitters in the first half (.312/.395/.586, 145 wRC+) to league average (.262/.337/.481, 99 wRC+) in the second. While his defense still makes him an very valuable player, the mid-season decline isn’t going to help his chances.
In a less crowded race, these wouldn’t be necessarily be knocks against him or Goldschmidt, but that’s the reality this year. The same goes for the aforementioned Rendon who, despite coming in second by fWAR, comes in all the way down at 3.6 in a three-way tie for 25th place by bWAR).
That leaves us with Baez and Freeman, both of whom have some extremely old school stats working in their favor, even if Yelich is possession of most of the leaderboard. Freeman is leading the league with 186 hits. He’s been the most valuable player on a young team that has seemingly come out of nowhere to clinch their division. But,as good as he’s been, his failure to lead the pack anywhere except for hits makes him a bit of a longshot.
Baez’s “stat from the past” claim to fame this season is that he tops all NL players with 110 RBIs. While the voting populace seem to have gotten wise to the relative unimportance of ribeyes in this day and age, it’s not as if Baez hasn’t been extremely valuable. He’s hit .293/.328/.568 for a 134 wRC+. That in and of itself doesn’t really compare to the other hitters we’ve been discussing, but Baez has hit that well while moving around between second, third and shortstop, and grading out above average in aggregate. That’s truly impressive and provides extra versatility to his team. The Cubs will be going to Baez’s versatility well again, as Addison Russell was placed on leave this week because of domestic abuse allegations.
Returning to the subject of the actual WAR leaders in the NL (aka the pitchers), they just don’t win MVP Awards very often. Since 1992, only two pitchers, Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander, have won both the Cy Young and the MVP. When Verlander won it in 2011, he had a couple of position players who were right behind him on WAR, but both played for non-contenders (Jacoby Ellsbury on the Red Sox and José Bautista on the Blue Jays). When Kershaw did it in 2014, he was the clear NL WAR leader on a division-winning team.
While I picked deGrom to win the Cy Young, you can make a reasonable case for him, Nola or Scherzer. One thing that all of those players have in common, though, is that they play for non-contenders. But they’re also way out ahead of the pack in terms of the actual value they provided their teams, when compared to the position players.
It’s not just WAR that lends credence to certain pitcher’s cases, either. Take deGrom, who doesn’t just lead the NL in WAR, but in most win probability stats, including WPA (6.08, with Yelich in 1st among position players at 4.40), and RE24 (57.08, with Yelich in 1st again at 46.61). While it’s difficult to compare the values that pitchers and position players provide their teams, one things is abundantly clear: deGrom has been remarkably good and remarkably valuable for his team, even if his team still couldn’t find a way to win games.
All that being said, I don’t think he’s going to sweep both categories, even if he deserves to. I’m of the opinion that he’s been the most valuable player in the NL, but I don’t think he’s going to take home the award for doing so, given both his win count and his team’s (the Mets won’t reach .500 even if they win all of the rest of their games).
But who really knows? The overall best players are pitchers on teams that aren’t contending, and you can make a reasonable argument about who’s actually been the best pitcher. All the position players are bunched up, with some potential for vote-splitting and the possibility of players in larger media markets getting a disproportionate chunk of the votes relative to their performance. Do not wager your house on any candidate for NL MVP is what I’m getting at, as it’s a total crapshoot.
I think Yelich has been the MVPP (Most Valuable Position Player) this year, but I think that the fact that his team hasn’t been quite as successful and plays in smaller market with less attention and has a teammate to siphon some votes away is going to hurt him. Javier Baez might be the safest pick for the award, even if I don’t think he’s actually been the MVPP, much less the MVP. So I might regret this move, but I think that the Brewers are going to make the postseason and Yelich is going to pull this one out, thanks to his leading in so many categories. Please wait until November when Baez wins the award to @ me though.
Prediction: Christian Yelich