Who is the most valuable player in the National League? If you can answer that definitively, drop me a line, because I can’t make that call right now. The race is a jumbled mess, with few players having dominant seasons on either side of the ball, and the players who are providing the most balanced production having negative markers on their ledger.
Statistically, the best player in the league is…well, even that’s not clear. Here are two top 15s, the first is Value Over Replacement Player, the second Wins Above Replacement Player. The right-most column in the player’s rank on the other list (a “-” indicates he’s outside the top 20).
VORP Other Hanley Ramirez 63.7 14 Miguel Cabrera 60.6 2 Chase Utley 53.7 7 Jake Peavy 51.7 3 Brad Penny 49.3 4 Matt Holliday 48.6 9 Chipper Jones 48.4 - Tim Hudson 48.1 12 Albert Pujols 47.8 1 David Wright 45.2 5 Chris Young (SD) 45.0 - Prince Fielder 44.6 - Edgar Renteria 44.3 13 Jose Reyes 43.8 10 Barry Bonds 42.8 - WARP Other Albert Pujols 8.0 9 Miguel Cabrera 7.4 2 Jake Peavy 7.3 4 Brad Penny 7.2 5 David Wright 7.0 10 Kelly Johnson 6.9 - Chase Utley 6.8 3 Dan Uggla 6.7 - Matt Holliday 6.6 6 Jose Reyes 6.6 14 Jimmy Rollins 6.6 18 Tim Hudson 6.3 8 Edgar Renteria 6.3 13 Hanley Ramirez 6.2 1 Aaron Rowand 6.1 19
See what I mean? Hanley Ramirez leads the circuit in VORP, but his defense rates so badly that he’s just 14th in WARP, which includes glovework. Albert Pujols (!) is the top-rated National Leaguer by WARP, but just ninth in VORP. That degree of disagreement is unusual for these metrics, and complicates the MVP question. As you move down the list you see a bit more consensus-Miguel Cabrera, Jake Peavy, and Brad Penny are consensus top-five guys-but none of the three “system” candidates seem likely to pull a lot of attention. Cabrera plays for a losing team and has gotten more negative attention this year for his weight than positive press for his bat. Starting pitchers are eligible for the MVP, but generally need an overwhelming win-loss record to be considered, and neither Peavy nor Penny is on track for that. Chase Utley would have been a terrific choice before losing August to a broken hand.
In the mainstream, Prince Fielder probably has the edge, as the home-run and RBI leader for a suprising division winner. Fielder, however, is far down the list on both metrics. As an average defensive first baseman, the standards for offense are high, and Fielder doesn’t meet them. He’s ninth in the league in EqA, and fourth in EqR. He’s not the best-hitting first baseman in his own division-that’s Pujols, who has small edges in both those categories and absolutely zero MVP chatter. Fielder is the 2006 version of Justin Morneau, who wasn’t really the best anything in the AL last year, but walked away with BBWAA hardware thanks to simplistic evaluations and two awesome teammates.
Others who fit the best-player-on-a-playoff-team model include David Wright and Jose Reyes. Reyes had some momentum early in the season, but it would be difficult for him to win the award given the presence of comparable and arguably superior players, one 40 feet to his right, and the other at his position a thousand miles to the south. Kelly Johnson and Chipper Jones are each top-ten players in one system, and off the board in another. The Diamondbacks, like the Padres and Dodgers, are led by a starting pitcher. Come to think of it, so are the Cubs.
This could and probably will all change in the next six weeks. If I had to vote now, I would probably go with Cabrera, followed by Peavy, Penny, Ramirez, and Utley. Ramirez’s defense really is that bad, and Pujols will likely pass Utley in the next few weeks. In the mainstream, I suspect that Fielder’s candidacy is tied to the Brewers holding off the Cubs; should that not occur, this could be a year similar to 1995, in which five players picked up first-place votes and Barry Larkin won the award in a highly-fractured ballot.