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Who Will Win the National League MVP Award and Other Conundrums (Conundri?)

I’ve often talked with my cousin, who’s a huge basketball fan, about the differences between baseball and basketball. One of the most striking differences to me is the way MVP Awards are given out. In the NBA, only one player gets it and all past winners who are eligible are in the Hall of Fame. I can count on two hands the number of Hall of Famers who won an MVP in my lifetime, and at least three of them didn’t deserve their award (I’m looking at you, Andre Dawson, Dennis Eckersley, and Barry Larkin). And baseball has twice as many winners!

Who Will Win the National League MVP Award and Other Conundrums (Conundri?)


Estimated Reading Time: 9 Minutes

Here are the guys who have a chance to win the 2017 National League MVP:

Giancarlo Stanton (Mia): .270/.374/.632, 55 HR, 117 RBI, 115 R, 6.8 WAR

Paul Goldschmidt (Ari): .305/.411/.580, 35 HR, 115 RBI, 109 R, 17 SB, 5.9 WAR

Nolan Arenado (Col): .309/.372/.587, 34 HR, 125 RBI, 93 R, 6.8 WAR, the best defensive third baseman in the NL.

Anthony Rendon (Wsh): .304/.403/.540, 24 HR, 94 RBI, 5.9 WAR, the other best defensive third baseman in the NL.

Joey Votto (Cin): .317/.453/.582, 35 HR, 95 RBI, 99 R, 6.8 WAR

Charlie Blackmon (Col): .332/.397/.608, 35 HR, 93 RBI, 131 R, 5.6 WAR

Seems like an embarrassment of riches, doesn’t it? Hold that thought.

I’ve often talked with my cousin, who’s a huge basketball fan, about the differences between baseball and basketball. One of the most striking differences to me is the way MVP Awards are given out. In the NBA, only one player gets it and all past winners who are eligible are in the Hall of Fame. I can count on two hands the number of Hall of Famers who won an MVP in my lifetime, and at least three of them didn’t deserve their award (I’m looking at you, Andre Dawson, Dennis Eckersley, and Barry Larkin). And baseball has twice as many winners!

To be fair, some of the differences between baseball and basketball have to do with the nature of the two sports: it’s much easier to stick out as a team’s MVP on a team of 14 players than it is on a team of 25. And baseball has gotten better at voting for awards in this decade. Even if the bar for an MVP is a likely future Hall of Famer — a high bar, to be sure — then 12 of the 14 MVPs in this decade were pretty safe bets. (Poor Joshes Hamilton and Donaldson got started too late to pass that bar, though they were deserving winners nonetheless.)

That doesn’t excuse baseball for having past winners like these:

2006: Ryan Howard, Phillies. For a team that didn’t make the playoffs, he won the award mostly on the strength of his 58 home runs and 149 RBIs. He played his usual lousy defense, clogged up the base paths, and had fewer wins above replacement than Bronson freakin’ Arroyo. Albert Pujols should have won.

2006 (again): Justin Morneau, Twins. I’m not really sure why he won. He didn’t lead the league in anything, and in fact he only finished in the Top 5 in one thing (RBI). Yes, the Twins won the division … but Morneau wasn’t even their best player with the initials JM. Joe Mauer hit .347 and became the first catcher since WWII to win a batting title. Somehow he came in sixth. Minnesota’s ace and unanimous Cy Young winner Johan Santana went 19-6 with a 2.77 ERA, 245 strikeouts, and a WHIP under 1.00. He came in seventh. So Morneau was the third most valuable player on his own team. Mauer, Santana, Grady Sizemore, or Derek Jeter would have been much better choices.

1996 & 1998: Juan Gonzalez, Rangers. Oh boy. Even without the steroid allegations, this guy won two of the least deserved MVPs in history. As with Ryan Howard, we know why he won: he was the best hitter on the first Rangers team to go to the playoffs. Timing is everything. In the two years combined, he hit .316, slugged 92 home runs, and drove in 301 runs … yet somehow contributed only 8.7 WAR. Total. Alex Rodriguez’ WAR was higher than that in both of those seasons individually. A-Rod had an argument for both years’ prizes, though Ken Griffey, Jr. had just as good a case in ’96, while Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra had strong cases in ’98.

1987: George Bell (won): .308/.352/.605, 47 HR, shitty left field defense, 5.0 WAR for a Toronto team that didn’t go to the playoffs.

Alan Trammell (didn’t win): .343/.402/.551, 28 HR, 21 SB, great shortstop defense, 8.2 WAR for a Tigers team that did go to the playoffs.

Trammell’s batting average was almost as high as Bell’s OBP. Jesus Christ.

1987 (again): Andre Dawson (won): .287/.328/.568, 49 HR, 4.0 WAR for a last place Cubs team.

Tony Gwynn (didn’t win): .370/.447/.511, 218 H, 56 SB, 8.5 WAR for a Padres team that didn’t suck.

Gwynn’s batting average was HIGHER than Dawson’s OBP … by 42 points. For the love of Shoeless Joe Jackson.

What drugs were baseball writers on in ’87? Happily, they have gotten a lot better at voting for MVPs, but years without one or two obvious choices can produce dubious winners. We shouldn’t have to look back and wonder why Terry Pendleton and Willie Hernandez have the same number of MVP awards as Hank Aaron and Ken Griffey, Jr.

So who should win this year? Let’s not let 2017 be 2006 or 1987.

First off, the American League MVP is either Jose Altuve or Mike Trout. Both answers are right, neither are wrong. Assuming the voters pick one of these two guys, there’s no chance of us looking back and going “what the hell were they thinking?”

Okay, the National League. Objectively, Joey Votto has had the best season of the group. His OBP of .453 is thirty-two points higher than the guy in second (Bryce Harper, .419), and somehow he is going to reach 100 runs and 100 RBI for a last place Reds team that’s been outscored by 100 runs. The best player in the league has deserved and won the award from a last place team before — A-Rod of the 2003 Rangers, Cal Ripken of the 1991 Orioles — but in a year with so many deserving candidates, I don’t see it happening this time.

It is worth noting that Votto may be putting together the quietest campaign for Hall of Fame induction that we’ve ever seen.

With his pursuit of 60 home runs, Giancarlo Stanton has easily had the most headlines in what has been a record-setting year for home runs. Exciting storylines and historic power displays have resulted in undeserved MVP awards before (see: Howard, Ryan). Stanton does lead the league with 6.8 WAR (tied with Votto and Arenado), so he’s a slightly more deserving candidate than Howard was. Unfortunately for Stanton, there’s that pesky word ‘valuable’ and its murky definition, which tends to make voters want their MVP to come from a playoff team, or at least a contender. If you’re going to win an MVP based on how many home runs you hit, you have to make the playoffs. Preferably as a wild card, like Sammy Sosa and the 1998 Cubs. The Marlins are 20 games out of the division and 11 back of the Wild Card. I don’t see Stanton winning either.

Anthony Rendon is an interesting option. He has helped keep the Nationals in first place in the absence of Bryce Harper, he’s set career highs in home runs, RBI, and walks, and he is a perennially underrated player. But then there’s that pesky word ‘valuable’ again. If you are on a team with six other players who are likely to get at least a few MVP votes, can you be the most valuable player in the league? Washington’s three-headed monster of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Gio Gonzalez reminds me an awful lot of the Athletics’ old trio of Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito. In 2002, that team won 103 games, including 20 in a row, and Miguel Tejada rode the season’s “Moneyball” narrative all the way to an MVP award. We can debate whether or not Tejada really deserved that award — I would say no — but without his 5.6 WAR, the A’s wouldn’t have won their division. Without Rendon’s 5.9 WAR, where would the Nationals be? Still in first place.

Charlie Blackmon is another interesting option. He has largely gone under the radar for a long time, known more for his beard than his playing ability. With the Rockies in the playoff hunt for the first time in eight years, he’s finally getting the attention he deserves. There was even an ESPN article earlier this season titled “With Mike Trout out, Charlie Blackmon is baseball’s best center fielder” (http://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/19491901/with-mike-trout-rockies-charlie-blackmon-baseball-best-center-fielder). At age 30, Blackmon is having by far the best year of his career, setting career highs in every category except stolen bases and leading the league in batting average, runs, hits, triples, and total bases (as of September 20). He’s doing all this while leading off for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in a long time. Sound familiar?

In 2007, Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins had the best year of his career. He hit .294/.344/.531 — the lowest OBP for an MVP since the infamous Andre Dawson — led the league in runs and triples and was Top 5 in hits, stolen bases, and total bases. He led off for a team that went to the playoffs for the first time in fourteen years and was awarded the MVP. Yet with 6.1 WAR, he wasn’t even the best player on his own team: Chase Utley amassed 7.8 WAR by hitting .332/.410/.566, both scoring and driving in more than 100 runs, and playing his trademark spectacular defense. David Wright and Albert Pujols also had stronger cases than Rollins, with 8.3 WAR and 8.7 WAR, respectively. Any of those three would have been a deserving winner.

I’ll give Blackmon more credit than Rollins: he’s got a shot at the batting title and doesn’t have a paltry OBP. But he also isn’t even the best player on his own team. Nolan Arenado, a longtime favorite of mine, is having the best year of his career at age 26 and, incredibly, seems to be getting better still. His rate stats (BA/OBP/SLG) continue to rise, as they have every single year of his career. He’s going to lead the league in RBI for the third year in a row and he’s been so clutch it feels like my MLB Network is constantly just on a repeat of his game-winning or game-tying homers. (Remember his walk-off three-run homer against the Giants that also completed a personal cycle?) Oh, and then there’s his defense: he’s about to win his fifth gold glove in his fifth season. Do you know how many players have won a gold glove in each of their first five full seasons? Two: Johnny Bench and Ivan Rodriguez. So he’ll be the first non-catcher to win a gold glove in each of his first five seasons.

Arenado would be a good choice for MVP. He’s the best player on a team that nobody thought would be going to the playoffs and he passes the “is he a future Hall of Famer?” litmus test we got from basketball way back at the beginning of this piece. You know who else passes that test? Paul Goldschmidt, this generation’s Jeff Bagwell. In his sixth full year in the big leagues, the 29-year-old continues to do everything well: he’s a great fielder, a great baserunner, and he’s got 35 homers, 115 RBI, 109 runs, 33 doubles, and 17 SB for a team that most assuredly would not be going to the playoffs without him.

By the way, since the start of the 2015 season, only seven players have stolen more bases than Goldschmidt, and Jose Altuve is the only one of them who can hit.

If he doesn’t win this year, Goldie may end up being one in a long line of great players who are consistently great every season but never get recognized for that one transcendent season that gets them their MVP award, like Derek Jeter (who should have won in 1999 or 2006), Roberto Alomar (1992 or ’99), and Craig Biggio (1995 or ’97). Goldschmidt has twice come in second in the voting, losing to Andrew McCutchen and Bryce Harper. Let’s not let Goldie follow the same path as Eddie Murray and Mike Piazza, two Hall of Famers who had two second-place finishes apiece but never won. Let’s give Goldie his Gold before we miss our chance.

The envelopes, please: Paul Goldschmidt, your 2017 National League MVP.

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