In the past, I’ve tended to think that writing on MVP awards has been premature in August, but after Goldy’s incredible performance last night, I just can’t resist. It’s important to clarify, though, what question we’re asking. Is it whether Paul Goldschmidt should win the MVP (“is he the most valuable player”), or whether he will win the MVP (“will the voters consider him the most valuable player”)? The “should” question will always be in the eye of the beholder somewhat, unless you let WAR determine the winner. In this post, I’ll take a look at what’s likely to actually happen with the vote. There’s a lot of season left, as most Diamondbacks fans with an eye on the standings appreciate. With nearly three quarters of the season in the books, however, I think we can start to ask these questions.
While the AL NVP vote will probably come down to Miguel Cabrera, Chris Davis and Mike Trout, the NL race is a more open field. The flavor of the day is probably Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, but let’s look at position players. In that field, Goldschmidt’s competition is likely to come from Andrew McCutchen, Joey Votto, and maybe Carlos Gomez. Injuries have probably limited the MVP chances of Yadier Molina, David Wright and Carlos Gonzalez – although CarGo, in particular, could re-insert himself in the debate with a quick return from the DL and a strong finish to the season.
Here are some relevant numbers through last night’s games (courtesy of FanGraphs), hewing closely to the traditional, as that’s what voters are most likely to use:
Maybe the biggest lesson from seeing these statistics together is that after years of falling short of the early scouting reports, Carlos Gomez has put together an outstanding season. Supposedly he quit swinging like he was told, and starting swinging like he wanted to – kind of a reverse Jose Bautista. McCutchen is clearly the class of this group this season, however, and he will get plenty of MVP votes, even if he fades somewhat down the stretch. In a head to head matchup of top first basemen, I think Goldschmidt gets the edge based on individual performance – Votto’s obscene on base percentage is nothing to shake a stick at, but the large gap in RBI would more than make up the difference for voters if the season ended today. In terms of a hitting profile, Carlos Gonzalez is closest to Goldschmidt on this list; given a similar number of PAs, CarGo might pull ahead. Goldy’s candidacy might rest largely on bulk counting stats that CarGo won’t match, but a strong finish for CarGo might hurt Goldy’s chances more than those of McCutchen or Gomez. And the last three players on the list above I included for other reasons I’ll discuss below, but of the three of them, none of the offensive performances have blown observers away.
Historically, there are other factors that have affected voters’ math in the past: whether a player’s hitting has been particularly “clutch,” whether he’s helped a team contend for the playoffs, and whether he just has that fresh MVP smell.
As to clutch hitting, it seems to me that voters remember stories, rather than using statistics to back up the clutch claims. This factor probably helped no previous MVP winner more than it did Miguel Tejada in his successful 2002 bid in the AL; Tejada’s heroics were frequent first-page news, especially in August and September that year. Certainly Goldschmidt’s performance last night goes a long way to building his legend, but he’d need to make the front page a few more times for this factor to enhance his candidacy. As David Schoenfield wrote early this morning, even if clutch hitting isn’t a skill, it’s still possible to determine and record high-impact performances; and last night was not the first time Goldschmidt put the team on his shoulders. The impact of Goldschmidt’s hitting performances on Arizona’s season is an important consideration, but I’ll leave you to Schoenfield’s piece for more on that and Goldschmidt’s Win Probability Added.
The Importance of Team Record
Whether or not the player’s team has made the playoffs also seems to be a factor for MVP voters. In the last eleven years (2002-2012 seasons), just 18 of 22 MVPs came from teams that did not make the playoffs. This is more significant than it might seem. With the exception of last year, when there were 10 playoff teams, only 8 of 30 teams made the playoffs; so if MVPs were evenly distributed among teams, they would come from playoff teams about 27% of the time (90 of 330). In the last eleven years, the number is actually 82% (18 of 22). Of course, we need to consider that the presence of an MVP does actually make a team better; but while that would push the expected percentage north of 27%, I don’t think that can explain the jump to 82%.
Of the 18 playoff seasons that produced an MVP in the last eleven years, 15 had their ticket to the dance punched by winning a division, rather than by winning a wild card. Since just over one fourth of playoff teams have been wild cards in that period, this 15 number is significant; one would expect a number in the range of 14, suggesting that it’s much more significant for a player to have been a playoff team than to have been a great playoff team. The significance of being at least “in the race” seems even more important when one notes that of the four MVP teams that have not been playoff teams, three have had records of at least 85 wins (2008 Cardinals, 86; 2006 Phillies, 85; 2004 Giants, 91).
The case of the 22nd MVP is instructive, because the AL MVP debate in 2003 was all about the team performance factor we’re looking at now. Alex Rodriguez’s 2003 (124 R, 47 HR, 118 RBI, 17 SB, .298 AVG) was actually a step below his previous season (125 R, 57 HR, 142 RBI, 9 SB, .300 AVG), but he was still clearly the best player in the American League. Nonetheless, A-Rod only eked out Carlos Delgado by 242 votes to 210. Delgado topped A-Rod’s RBI total by 27 and was only 5 HR short of A-Rod and the lead league. A-Rod had the superior offensive production overall, however, and while Delgado played only a mediocre first base, A-Rod contributed superior defense at the mother of all skill positions, winning Gold Gloves at short in 2003 and 2002. Based on the sample of the last eleven years, it seems that you must be much better than the field in order to win an MVP from a non-contender.
That MVP Aura
I’d just add one other quick point from that sample of the last eleven seasons: of the 4 non-playoff team players, all 4 seem to have benefited from a significant carry-over effect. As we just saw, A-Rod had a monster 2002 before winning the award for the first time in 2003. When Albert Pujols won for the 86-win Cardinals in 2008, he had already won an MVP three years earlier; so too for Bonds when he won his fourth in a row (and seventh overall) for the 91-win 2004 Giants. Only Ryan Howard sticks out as an aberration here; after pushing Jim Thome out of Philadelphia with a great half-season in 2005, Howard won the 2006 award despite playing as many as 89 games for the first time. 58 bombs and 149 RBI will tend to set one apart, of course.
How MVP-ish must a candidate feel? Players do seem to get bumps by having been in serious consideration in previous seasons, like A-Rod in 2003, Pujols in 2005, or Votto in 2010. Paul Goldschmidt doesn’t have that going for him, with only a single full season to his name before this year, one in which he was above-average but not a star. His candidacy might be more bright with less playing time to date, had he put up superior numbers in a half-season in 2012 like Howard did in 2005.
Goldschmidt v. The Field
Now that we’ve got more information on how some factors beyond hitting statistics can affect the MVP race, let’s turn back to the other position player contenders.
Goldschmidt leads the NL in the Wins Probability Added metric, with 5.39 WPA after last night. McCutchen comes in fifth in the league at 3.33, which is certainly enough to say that he hasn’t been non-clutch enough to hurt his chances in the eyes of voters. We can’t say the same for Gomez, who checks in 24th overall with 1.14 WPA. Joey Votto does well here, sixth overall with 3.29, but CarGo is nowhere to be found, 29th with 0.77. Posey’s 2.19 WPA doesn’t do much for his candidacy either way. And, of course, this is part of where Adrian Gonzalez (4.16) and Freddie Freeman (4.00) partisans will get their grist for the mill.
How Well Has the Team Done?
Team performance is where the rest of the grist for Adrian Gonzalez and Freeman comes from. As of this morning, Freeman’s Braves have ridden recent success to the best record in the NL, at 73-47; and as every reporter and every reporter’s grandmother has noted, the Dodgers have ridden an incredible 38-8 run to rise from the NL West’s deepest valley to its peak, with a 69-50 record that puts them 7.5 games ahead of the Diamondbacks. If not for the records of the Braves and Dodgers, I don’t think we’d hear the names of Adrian Gonzalez or Freddie Freeman in the MVP discussion – and they may each need a big push in personal performance to get serious consideration. After all, we saw that the greatness of a team may not matter so much for MVP consideration as whether or not the player’s team was in the race at all.
If a player’s team needs to be in the race for the player to warrant MVP consideration, then we can cross out a couple of names on our list. Carlos Gomez might need to be A-Rod to get first place votes, as the Brewers’ 2013 batch of games looks destined to fall short of the 71 win mark of the 2003 Rangers. And CarGo’s 56-65 Rockies are still in the race in name only.
The only candidates we discussed above who were serious contenders without getting dinged by poor or borderline team performance are McCutchen and Votto. Pittsburgh is a great story this year, angling toward its first playoff berth in a very long time. And Cincinnati is only 3.5 games back of Pittsburg, holding a 5.5 game lead over Arizona for the second NL wild card. Actually, the play of the Reds for the rest of the season will help solve the debate-within-a-debate of Goldy v. Votto; if the Reds put more distance between themselves and the D’backs, then Goldy gets a non-contender penalty. If Arizona overtakes Cincinnati, then the bonus switches sides.
How MVP-ish Have They Looked?
We took a look at Goldschmidt’s MVP aura above (if he has one, it’s only from this year). But this “aura” thing might really factor into the chances of our other candidates. Joey Votto is a previous MVP, and Posey’s 2012 win is the main reason I included him at all. CarGo came in third in the voting in 2010, but that may not be a recent enough memory to matter (unlike Votto’s actual 2010 win, which is less easily forgotten). Adrian Gonzalez came in fourth that same year and has received MVP votes in five separate seasons, but because he split the year between leagues in 2012, he may not be on the map at all. Neither Freeman nor Gomez have ever received votes.
McCutchen’s 3rd place finish last year could be the biggest “aura” factor in this year’s voting. If there was support for McCutchen last year when Pittsburgh completely collapsed, you’d have to think he could ride that wave to an MVP this year.
NL MVP: Officially Up For Grabs
At this point, everyone in this year’s MVP race has strengths and weaknesses, and everyone is on a shifting continuum. Of the top batting performers, there’s no defensive standout; everyone’s an outfielder or first baseman except for longshot Posey, and I’m not sure that McCutchen’s defense in center will do much to differentiate him from Goldy, who has contributed strong defensive play at first. McCutchen is your across-the-board leader, meaning a decline in performance may be required for Goldschmidt to have a chance. CarGo would need the Rockies to make a run for .500, and to come back quickly from injury. Adrian Gonzalez, Freeman, and Posey would need to raise their individual game to be serious contenders, and as an unconventional candidate on a terrible team, I’d say Gomez has no chance at all. It’s hard to imagine Votto getting the award, either, unless he hits quite a few more bombs and makes up some serious distance in RBI.
So I think we can safely conclude that in order for Goldschmidt to win the MVP over other position players, a whole bunch of things would need to happen. Goldy would need to maintain his level of individual production, or increase it; he’d need to get onto the front page of more web sites with a few more clutch hits; and Arizona would need to make a serious run at the wild card, even if they don’t actually win it. In addition, Goldy probably needs McCutchen to cool off in a noticeable way, and for the other candidates to do nothing to really distinguish themselves from here on out. Basically, Goldy is looking for a situation like that of Dustin Pedroia in 2008: a relatively weak field, with no one else putting up gaudy HR or RBI totals. As with Pedroia in 2008, if Goldy ends up MVP this year, it’ll be largely because he’s been above-average or better in every facet of the game.
If you were laying odds for the NL MVP, you’ve got your work cut out for you; really, there are probably 10 or 15 players who could sneak in for victory based on what happens during the rest of the season. That’s not really a sexy storyline, either for Goldy’s chances or for the NL MVP race in general. There are a lot of moving parts. There’s no new school/old school debate as with last year’s Trout/Cabrera AL race; there’s no stark contender versus non-contender debate, as with A-Rod’s 2003 bid; and there’s no clutch vs. not-clutch debate like the one that carried Tejada to the 2002 crown.
It’s no surprise, then, that the NL MVP debate is shaping up to be one of pitcher vs. hitter, with Clayton Kershaw gaining some momentum. Unless McCutchen truly distinguishes himself in the next seven weeks, that’s probably what we’re looking at. In handicapping Goldschmidt’s MVP chances, I’d be remiss not to address the Kershaw possibility. Because pitcher vs. hitter requires a different type of inquiry, however…we’ll save that for next time.
Update: click here for that “next time.”
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