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June 27, 2013

In A Pickle

The Unlikeliest MVP candidates

by Jason Wojciechowski

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A thing I do is steal from my betters. Two of my betters, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, spent some time a few months ago on Effectively Wild discussing the idea of unlikely MVPs. Now that we're halfway through the season, let's pick that up and bring in a quasi-formal definition that will get us a pool of interesting players to look at. What follows are the top five players by WARP in each league who have never received an MVP vote and (here's where some squish comes in) who are not very recently megaprospects. (The latter may be displeasing to some, especially Orioles fans, but if the point is "genuine surprise," then it would be weird to include Manny Machado, who was, after all, a no. 3 overall pick—that's the spot of Paul Molitor and Robin Yount and Matt Williams and Lonnie Smith. There's no pick from which you are "supposed" to get an MVP, but there are picks from which you are less surprised when you wind up with one.)

Alternating by league, then, from "bottom" to top:

NL No. 5: Everth Cabrera, 2.9 WARP (10th in overall NL WARP by position players)

What's the story? Cabrera was a Rule 5 pick by the Padres for the 2009 season, then missed large chunks of 2010 and 2011 with injury. You'd have been forgiven for writing Cabrera off going into his age-25 season in 2012, what with his (admittedly park-suppressed) .236/.318/.328 batting line. Indeed, that's precisely what we did in the 2012 BP Annual, relegating him to Lineout status and comparing him to Mike Caruso. After spending the first month of 2012 in the minors, though, Cabrera returned to relevance with a .250 TAv, plus defense, and a fantastic six runs above average on the bases (44/48 on steals).

This year? He's already equaled 2012's WARP total, buoyed largely by a .306 batting average, though it's not just blunks and doops falling in: four of his nine career homers have come this season, and he's got 19 extra-base hits overall after compiling 24 last year. His walk rate is above average, he's cut down on the whiffs, and he's still running wild and playing defense. He'll probably be underrated by the culture at large because of the lack of power, average-at-best team, and west coast game times, but you, friends, know better.

AL No. 5: Carlos Santana, 2.5 (12th overall AL)

What's the story? The story, frankly, is not so much surprise that Santana is one of the best players in the league but that he hasn't garnered even a single 10th-place hometown vote in the last two years. Santana's got a boss bat and puts in two-thirds of his time behind the plate, but he hasn't managed to show up on as many ballots as Raul Ibanez. This isn't to say that Santana has deserved votes—he finished 43rd in MLB in hitter WARP last year. It is to say that it's not that hard to get named on an MVP ballot—between the two leagues, 43 nonpitchers got MVP votes last year. There is no such thing as coincidence.

NL No. 4: Matt Carpenter, 3.2 (7th overall NL)

What's the story? The friggin' Cardinals, that's what. They just never let up. Carpenter was a ninth-round pick who our prospect mavens never ranked higher than eighth in the St. Louis system, but here he is with a .310 TAv while mostly stationed at second base despite playing 98 percent of his games at third in the minors and splitting his time between first and third in 114 major-league appearances in 2012.

Sure, the BABIP is high, but I'm not going to play those games. Instead, some zone stats, prompted in part by Dave Cameron's examination earlier this month: Carpenter has the 31st-best rate of not swinging at pitches out of the strike zone and the sixth-best contact rate on pitches in the strike zone, right in that Martin Prado/Norichika Aoki range. That's a good combination, especially for someone without natural boom in his stick. Keep doing that.

AL No. 4: Jhonny Peralta, 2.6 (10th overall AL)

What's the story? Peralta is in his 11th season. He's played 1346 games and made one All-Star team. Like Santana, though, I'm surprised Peralta didn't land a vote somewhere along the way, given his 5.2-WARP explosion onto the scene in 2005, his solid 3.3-WARP 2008, when he scored 100 runs and bopped 68 extra-base hits, and his 3.9-WARP 2011 for a Tigers team that won its division.

The thing with Peralta is that I am willing to play BABIP games: he's got a .396 mark this year after a career spent bouncing between .275 and .327, with an outlier season at .346 in 2005. There's a way in which this entire exercise of looking for players who are performing well after not playing noticeably well in the majors in the past is just a search for who's going to regress, but Peralta, 31 and hardly svelte, seems particularly primed.

NL No. 3: Gerardo Parra, 3.3 (6th overall NL)

What's the story? Remember what I said about my betters? Just go read Mr. Lindbergh, who covered Parra in depth very recently on the occasion of him finally getting something approaching a clean shot at the job. I'd wag my finger too if I were him.

AL No. 3: Josh Donaldson, 2.6 (9th overall AL)

What's the story? Mainly Donaldson is a testament to swingin' real damn hard and playing enough defense to get a second shot at a position the A's tried to cover with Brandon Inge last year. Since Donaldson's callup on August 14, 2012 (that is, excluding his horrendous start to the year that got him demoted in favor of Inge), he's hit .301/.367/.495 in 124 starts.

Assuming Donaldson can do some semblance of this for the next few years: what were the odds he'd wind up with the most career value in the 2008 trade between the A's and the Cubs involving Sean Gallagher, Matt Murton, Eric Patterson, Rich Harden, and Chad Gaudin? Or does that question just make you real sad about Rich Harden like it does to me?

NL No. 2: Paul Goldschmidt, 3.6 (4th overall NL)

What's the story? First baseman are probably getting closer to being properly understood than ever before. Given the low defensive demands of the position, the offensive bar is very high. Goldschmidt, though, has a .332 TAv, so he's clearing that bar by plenty. He's one homer away from matching his 2012 mark, which is mainly great because 2012 was a good year for Goldschmidt—he wound up with 3.3 WARP behind a classic-if-generic .286/.359/.490 batting line and a mountain of doubles. Doubles turning into homers isn't as foreordained as we'd like it to be, but sometimes it happens.

Given that Joey Votto is 29 already while Goldschmidt is still 25, it's not crazy to think that we could see an unexpected baton-passing.

AL No. 2: Kyle Seager, 3.0 (5th overall AL)

What's the story? I have no idea what to tell you about Seager as a player behind making noises like "wat" and "henh" so let me just make a note here of the American League third base situation: Baltimore, Tampa, Detroit, Oakland, Seattle, and Texas all have really good ones right now, or at least ones who are playing really good. That's basically half the teams in the league! American League third base is the Lake Wobegon of baseball, putting to one side Conor Gillaspie. Poor Conor Gillaspie. Sorry, man.

NL No. 1: Jean Segura, 4.3 (1st overall NL)

What's the story? I had qualms about including Segura. He was an easy top-100 prospect prior to 2012, on the one hand, but on the other, Kevin Goldstein ranked him just 67th, in the Dellin Betances, Brad Peacock, Anthony Gose, Matt Adams section of the list. Destroying the league at an eight-WARP pace is not what's expected from the no. 67 prospect.

Now, Segura does have a wild +12 FRAA, but note that even if he's merely average at shortstop, his WARP would still have him in this top five and in the NL top 10 overall. Further, Jason Parks wrote kindly of his defense last August, describing his range as "very good," so this isn't coming from nowhere.

The obvious alarm bell is the .334 average and .367 OBP, but there's something to be said for all that speed: eight triples and 23 steals in 25 attempts jump off the page, and it's not like a .352 BABIP is unseemly—it's just a tad high but not the type of high that makes you think, "Well, there's no way he finishes the year there."

Anyway, this is your current NL MVP. Isn't that neat?

AL No. 1: Chris Davis, 4.4 (1st overall AL)

What's the story? And this is your current AL MVP, which is even neater. Davis has tantalized for ages. Read his BP Annual comments and you find phrases like "game-breaking power" and "off-the-charts raw." You also see phrases like "quad-A" and "flat-out awful [plate discipline]," though, so that's where the fun of seeing a guy put it together comes in.

Davis still whiffs majestically, but he's actually cut his rate a bit this year while also pushing his walks from "bad, given all that power" to "above average, whoa." And note that I'm talking about his unintentional walks here: he's over 10 percent even before you consider the nine intentionals (and five HBP).

Make no mistake: he's still a free swinger, posting the 18th-highest swing rate in baseball and the 25th-highest rate on pitches outside the strike zone, but that's an improvement over 2012 (in which he posted a very solid 2.6 WARP, don't forget), when he was eighth in out-of-zone swinging and fifth in swinging overall. Davis's response to being pitched out of the zone more and more (only Pablo Sandoval and Josh Hamilton have seen fewer strikes this year) has been to take those pitches more and more, which is precisely the type of adjustment you hope to see if you're a fan of players succeeding. It augurs well. (I just like the word "augurs.")


There are all sorts of reasons to think the above 10 players won't continue doing this, chief among them "baseball is actually pretty tough to do well," but for now, I'm rooting hard for the double-"huh?" MVP of Chris Davis and Jean Segura.

Jason Wojciechowski is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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