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September 20, 2012
Braun, Cabrera, and Sluggers' MVP Chances
Ryan Braun is not going to win the MVP award this year. Even with the Brewers surging into the playoffs thanks to an unprecedented triple swoon by the other National League Wild Card contenders, there are, ahem, reasons that Braun won't walk away with the trophy. One of those reasons plays catcher for the San Francisco Giants.
Statistically, there is no doubt that Braun has a case for the award. He leads the National League (through Tuesday) with 40 home runs, 104 RBIs, 326 total bases, a .601 slugging and a .990 OPS. His .315 batting average is fifth in the league and his 96 runs scored are second. He also has 27 stolen bases already on the year and may very well finish with a 40/30 season. In most any year in history, that case would be enough to win the award, personal issues not-withstanding.
Buster Posey is having a pretty good year himself. In 50 fewer plate appearances, Posey has only eight fewer hits than Braun. That's enough to help put Posey's .333 batting average at third in the league. He also has six more doubles than Braun despite the fewer at-bats and a respectable-unto-itself 22 home runs. Posey's .409 on-base percentage is also 20 points higher than Braun's .389, while his 73 runs scored and 93 RBIs complete the all-around great season Posey has put together.
Braun's numbers seem to be the easy winner at first-glance. However, the run-scoring environments between the two players' home parks are very different, making a straight comparison a bit more complicated. Looking at True Average, which takes these factors into account, the picture changes. Posey's .348 TAv is a clear leader over the .334 from Braun. Both are excellent, but Posey's numbers playing for the Giants are the superior set. (Other whole-value batting metrics you may see around the web have similar findings.) When you couple this with the fact that Posey plays the large majority of his games as a catcher—a position still starved for offensive talent—while Braun plays the offense-heavy left field, it makes perfect sense that Braun won't be repeating as the league's Most Valuable Player.
In fact, something very similar nearly happened last year, when Braun did take home the award. Statistically, Braun's 33 home runs and .332/.397/.597 slash line was very, very close to Kemp's 39 home runs and .324/.399/.586 line. Kemp played all of his home games at the spacious Dodger Stadium, however, while Braun had Miller Park to call home. Kemp's True Average ended at .350; Braun's ended at .341. Again, both excellent seasons, but a lower scoring environment and a more premium defensive position (center field vs. left field) might have been enough to give Kemp the award had there not been other factors at play. From what voters said after the fact, Braun ended up taking the honor thanks to his Brewers' division championship, while the Dodgers finished third in their division.
The debate was more of the same back in 2007, when a young Braun won the Rookie of the Year award over Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. There was no doubt then that Braun had a phenomenal freshman year at the plate, hitting 34 home runs and slugging .634 (along with a .370 on-base percentage). However, he did this while playing a dreadful third base. Traditional fielding statistics are hardly scientific, I know, but Braun still managed to be credited with 26 errors in only 248 chances that year. Meanwhile, Tulowtizki had a nice offensive season himself, batting .291/.359/479 as a 22-year-old. That's not quite 2012 Posey to 2012 Braun, obviously, but it's still very respectable. The defense is where the real comparison comes in. Using WARP, which accounts for defensive quality and positional difficulty, Tulo's 6.7 WARP made him better than twice the player Braun was (3.1). In the end, Braun won the vote, but only just barely. Tulowitzki lost by two measly points, 128 to 126.
All of this leads me to wonder, is it getting harder for players from offense-heavy positions to win the coveted postseason awards? Braun may seem like the wrong guy to use as an example, seeing as how he already has two shiny pieces of hardware on his shelf back home, but the end results belie the difficulty he had in achieving them. In 2011, Braun only won the award because of voters' obsession with the semantics of the word "valuable". In 2007—an age so long ago Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were still in (major league) uniforms—he won by the slimmest of margins despite a massive defensive difference that voters often overlook. And now, in 2012, he isn't likely to win it at all, no matter how many times his name appears on the leaderboard. Will the new awareness for a player's overall worth—getting on-base, hitting for power, playing defense, running well—mean fewer honors for players who, in the past, might have waltzed away with the awards?
We have an interesting chance to see this debate in action this winter. The American League has two very strong MVP candidates in third baseman Miguel Cabrera, the quintessential big-power guy at a big-power position, and the 20-year-old center field phenom Mike Trout, who is having one of the most complete seasons baseball has seen in 20+ years. Cabrera needs only two home runs to catch Josh Hamilton for the league lead in home runs; if he achieves that, Cabrera will lead the league in all three Triple Crown categories with only two weeks left in the season. Would voters give Cabrera their vote if he made a serious run at the Crown, or would they go with the player who can't quite compete with Cabrera in power numbers but still leads him .355 to .334 in True Average and who both runs and plays defense at an elite level? Could voters really ignore the first Triple Crown winner in 45 years in favor of someone with only 27 home runs? Fanbases in both cities already know their answer to who deserves the award (and, boy, are they passionate!). It'll be interesting to know who the voters ultimately side with.