August 23, 2010
Handicapping the NL MVP
While Friday's review of the American League's leading candidates for the MVP Award was an exercise in elimination to get down to picking from a field best limited to the position-playing possibilities, the Senior Circuit's selections make for a much more difficult proposition. That's because the National League has three to five excellent choices from among its top starting pitchers, all of whom might be seen as outshining the league's best position players. Could the National League see its first pitcher win the MVP Award since Bob Gibson did so in 1968?
To that historic possibility, you have to add in the potential for another ballot that could be fractured across a wide field populated by multiple contending ballclubs, including a couple of major surprises, the Reds and the Padres. Inevitably, there's a segment of the electorate that likes to assign some measure of responsibility for success, which is going to increase the possibility that, whatever the tallies via advanced metrics, it's quite possible that we could wind up with a dark-horse victor because the field is muddied by moundsmen and a broad field.
Here again, let me stress that I'm not one of the voters for the NL MVP (or either league's Cy Young), so I'm not tipping anything off. Setting aside for a moment the debates over whether or not the MVP Award is “supposed” to be a position player's trophy with a logic perhaps only slightly more sensible than that the Cy Young was never awarded to Ozzie Smith, we can politely expand the case to five noteworthy contenders, thereby including the Rockies' Ubaldo Jimenez and the Marlins' Josh Johnson.
Unfortunately for them, however hot Jimenez or Johnson finish, unless Jimenez wins every decision between now and the end of the year and winds up with a Welch-like wins tally, I think we can discount both for the purposes of this conversation. While they're outperforming anybody in the AL, they still rank behind the big three in their own league, so having given them their courtesy mentions in the context of MVP voting and looking forward to their getting their due on the newly expanded five-slot Cy Young ballot, we can move on to the even better performers.
By WARP or VORP or SNLVAR, nominating this year's top pitcher—or player, by WARP or VORP—it's really between the Phillies' Roy Halladay, the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright, and Tim Hudson's superb late-career comeback. Halladay and Wainwright are the workhorses and obvious aces in their teams' respective rotation trios, the platform for each club's bid for October action. The underlying performance metrics don't harbor much in the way of surprises—both guys are dominating, and should continue to. The chance that either pitcher becomes identified as “the” guy who gets them all the way there is quite good. Wainwright comes out ahead because of his hitting and fielding in a total-value metric like WARP, but treat those as luxury options and stick with just the pitching side of the proposition, and the advantages accrue to Doc's benefit.
Against that, there's Hudson's amazing, and to some extent improbable, season, perhaps leached of the drama since the Braves have a modest lead going for them. When some felt he was a mistake to retain over Javier Vazquez when the Braves decided they couldn't afford their off-season set of six starters, he has more than validated Frank Wren's preference to retain the fully recuperated veteran post Tommy John surgery. However, he's been exceptionally hit-lucky on the season—chalk up his .241 BABIP to veteran savvy, great defense, 2.7 ground-ball outs to every caught fly, or magic beans, you're left with a pitcher whose delta between actual hits allowed and expected hits allowed Clay Davenport reports is already the highest figure in the league from the last 20 years, on the order of 30 fewer hits allowed than you'd expect. He'll never have to give up those 30 hits in that already-achieved past, of course, but it's why SIERA's not optimistic about what's going to happen going forward.
Discounting Hudson for the purposes of the MVP conversation, are what Halladay and Wainwright doing enough to put them over the top? Yes and no. Yes, in the simple sense that if they've added the most value, they deserve full consideration. No, in that even if they continue to swamp the position players in total value metrics, it's worth keeping in mind two problems.
First, there's the systemic bias against voting for pitchers in MVP voting, and second, there's the fact that as outstanding as their seasons are, it isn't like either Wainwright or Halladay is doing that well by the standards set by other top-performing pitchers. If Halladay keeps cruising at his current clip, he's not going to reach the heights attained by Doc Gooden in 1985 or Greg Maddux in 1995 in any of these sorts of performance evaluation stats. Instead, he'll get into the low 90s for a season tally in VORP, around where Mike Scott in 1986 or John Tudor in 1985 finished—damn fine seasons, to be sure, but none of these people won an MVP award. Gooden finished fourth in the voting in '85, and Tudor eighth. Scott finished third—among Astros on the ballot, behind both Glenn Davis and Kevin Bass, and 10th overall. Maddux got as high as third place with 249 points for his efforts in '95, behind Barry Larkin and (cringe) Dante Bichette.
Things haven't gotten any better for pitchers on the MVP ballot in the 15 years since. Since Maddux's balloting feat, the highest tally achieved by any NL pitcher since was Eric Gagne's sixth-place, 149-point finish in 2003, while CC Sabathia got a sixth-place ranking for his partial-season contributions to the Brewers in 2008 (with 121 points). That they deserve it on the basis of what they've done so far is straightforward enough, but it's going to require a remarkable volte-face from the voters to elevate either Wainwright or Halladay to serious consideration.
The other danger worth noting is that we might wind up with a particularly unusual outcome: What if different starting pitchers win the MVP and Cy Young awards? With the Cy Young Award ballot expanding from three slots to five, and with two different electorates making the selections, we could wind up with more challengers, especially since it isn't like we have anything like 1968, when Bob Gibson was the obvious Cy Young winner and handily beat Pete Rose for the MVP as well. Because we have Halladay and Wainwright, and Hudson and Jimenez and even Johnson, things could end up being very interesting indeed.
Which brings us to the other side of the proposition, the hitters, where we're really stuck with a gaggle of first basemen having big seasons, but not incredible ones, which might open up an avenue for a dark-horse entry by Braves backstop Brian McCann:
I'm a bit dubious on how seriously we should take Aubrey Huff, but totals are totals, so give the man his due as something like the hitting profession's answer to Tim Hudson. It's a lovely bounce-back season, but he's not the only Giant hitter having a good year, just the one having the best full season, and his shedding 70 points of slugging since the All-Star break suggests he's not going to be in such fine company for long.
Which leaves us with a trio of interesting first basemen. Pujols being Pujols, he's having another great season, but not that great a season by his own monumental standards, and not that much better at the plate than his direct division rival, Joey Votto. Indeed, Votto is not far off from claiming the triple-slash stats triple crown. By reputation, Pujols is a significantly more valuable defender than Votto, but assorted defensive metrics suggest the gap's not quite so wide this season. Can Pujols beat out Votto in the voting if he's not statistically preponderant? And if he's looking up at the Canadian Red in the standings at the end, does that merit a fourth MVP award in the last six seasons? I'm doubtful that's going to go over that well with the voters, and the numbers don't really support a clear-cut case in Albert's favor.
Suppose the two NL Central rivals negate one another. A victory by Gonzalez could be the product of any one of a number of contributing factors. Optimistically, it could be a matter of recognizing the impact of Petco's rendering most bats into rawhide. Gonzalez's road rates of .314/.388/.576 aren't too far behind the full-season lines of Votto and Pujols, and he also brings quality glove work to the table. A victory by Gonzalez could also be seen as a case of rewarding the single most plausible suspect for the Padres' success this season, and journalists, like the police, like their most easily identified suspects when it comes to associating team performance with a particular player.
While A-Gonz's lack of a clear-cut advantage over either Pujols or Votto might be a handicap in a shorter field, the fact that none of them are outperforming the pitchers and that all of them are on contending teams figures to keep all of them in the mix. In part, this is why I bring McCann into the conversation—if picking between this small thicket of first basemen becomes a bit messy, reaching for an up-the-middle player who has been relatively healthy all season while producing top-notch offense on a likely playoff team might make him a lighter or darker pony (whichever tint is supposed to be more beneficial) to pick from among a wider world of dark horses. Add in that he's going to get the same sort of credit with the Braves that Gonzalez will get as a Padre, and that he was already the recipient of the All-Star Game's MVP award this year, I expect that McCann is going to finish ahead of at least one of the non-Huffs, perhaps two.
Taking all of this together, I'd like to see Wainwright and Halladay finish in the top five at the very least, because a field populated by first basemen doing roughly similar good things while having less impact doesn't really make for a really good definition of "most valuable," not when there's a lot of roughly equi-valuable great players. On a practical level, I could see either Halladay or Wainwright sneaking to the top of a severely fractured ballot where only 300 total points do the trick, but that would depend on one of them getting the lion's share of a segment of the electorate bolting towards doing something historical. Failing that long shot, I like Adrian Gonzalez's odds for carrying home the trophy. It might be a matter of belatedly giving the man his due and making him a proxy for Padres success (beyond Bud Black's fate on a different ballot), but it wouldn't be that outlandish a success story.