Award Week continues at Prospectus Today, as we take a look at the NL MVP race, while silently cursing the lovely and talented Rob Neyer for getting to it a day sooner.

As in the AL, no clear favorite has emerged in the public eye, as some of the players who began the year as the top candidates, like Chipper Jones and Chase Utley, have fallen victim to injuries or performance issues. Moreover, the best team in the league, the Cubs, has no real MVP candidate, clouding the matter further. When you look at performance though, and not at narrative, teammates, or the other issues that complicate a simple discussion, it becomes pretty clear who the most valuable player in the National League is.

Player           PA   AVG  OBP  SLG  VORP  Rk*  WARP1  Rk*
Lance Berkman   525  .327 .427 .594  66.4   2     8.4   2
Matt Holliday   494  .344 .431 .597  59.9   4     6.5   9
Chipper Jones   425  .365 .464 .578  58.9   5     7.3   6
Albert Pujols   499  .347 .457 .613  69.2   1     8.9   1
Hanley Ramirez  568  .296 .391 .533  63.3   3     7.3   5
Jose Reyes      590  .303 .363 .488  53.3   6     6.1  12
Chase Utley     544  .280 .364 .553  46.7   7     8.3   3
David Wright    572  .291 .383 .511  43.3   8     7.8   4
*among position players

Pitcher                 IP     ERA  VORP  Rk*  WARP1  Rk*
Tim Lincecum          169.2   2.60  53.8   1     7.4   3
*among pitchers

The way in which Albert Pujols is taken for granted has become something of a joke. He is one of the two best players in baseball-it’s him or it’s Alex Rodriguez-and has been basically since he walked into the league, and is well on his way to being one of the 20 best players ever. He does everything: hits for average and power, runs the bases well, plays superior defense at his position, first base. He’s rarely been at the center of any controversies. He is the second-best player in franchise history behind a guy who has a case for being the best player in the history of the National League. He would have at least three MVP awards had Barry Bonds retired after 1999, and he’d have a top-five finish in every one of his seven completed seasons if last year’s vote hadn’t been such a disaster. (Pujols was the best or second-best player in the league, but finished ninth in the voting because the Cardinals‘ pitching wasn’t good. That makes sense.) Pujols should be considered the NL MVP at this point; there is simply no argument against him.

This year, Pujols has once again been the best hitter in the league. The player closest to him, Berkman, is a first baseman as well. While Berkman is having a comparable defensive year in the DT system (6 FRAR, versus 5 for Pujols), he is not generally as good a defender as Pujols is. The next candidate is Hanley Ramirez, which is where the debate gets interesting; Ramirez’s defense at short has clearly improved over last year’s, when he led the NL in VORP but couldn’t build an MVP case because his glovework hurt his value. His sub-replacement defense last year (-2 FRAR) has jumped to slightly below average (14 FRAR, -3 FRAA) this year. That doesn’t make him the MVP, but it gives him a better case than he had a year ago.

As was the case a year ago, Chipper Jones would have a very strong case to be the MVP if he had just stayed on the field all year long. As it stands, Jones’ missed time is going to cost him an award that, were it based solely on rate stats, would be between him and Pujols. Well, and Daniel Murphy.

When I was asked yesterday on St. Louis radio who my pick for MVP was going to be, I dissembled, but that was because I hadn’t worked up this piece yet. I did say that I thought it would be Pujols or one of the two Mets. Upon further review, neither Reyes nor Wright is on Pujols’ level, even with both being above-average defensive players who, like Pujols, have complete games with little in the way of holes. Even while ruling him out in this competition, Reyes’ development from the guy who walked five times in 2004 to the player he is today is just a fantastic story.

The biggest surprise to me is how good Matt Holliday has been. He has, in fact, been better at the plate than he was a year ago, when he was one of two media-anointed MVP candidates in the NL. His defensive spike last season-he posted 29 FRAR, which had a huge impact on his candidacy-was just that, as he’s basically been an average defensive player in 2008. Nevertheless, it should be noted that his season, while occurring in obscurity for a team being smacked down by the Plexiglass Principle, is on par with what he did a year ago.

As with the two awards we discussed previously, the candidates are all closely bunched enough that what happens over the next six weeks will determine the eventual winner. Pujols has an edge on the field, but the two Mets, Ramirez, and even Berkman could catch him from behind. My hope is just that it’s the performance of the players themselves, rather than their teammates’ work or the desire to create a story, that determines the winner.

Thank you for reading

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