The National League MVP discussion surrounds just four players this season at the moment, with Los Angeles Dodgers teammates Clayton Kershaw and Yasiel Puig standing on one end of the coast, Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins standing on the other side, and Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates somewhere in the middle. All four players are worthy candidates, but only because this year has been a difficult one for star players in the National League. Numerous injuries to equally good players have left the field depleted, and the remaining players are not traditionally strong MVP candidates. As Mike Petriello of ESPN Insider went over late last week, each player has his own traditional MVP flaws.
The one that stands in the way of Stanton is perhaps one of the most difficult to overcome: the need for his team to be a playoff team. Stanton has all the amazing offensive accomplishments of a traditional MVP slugger, but since he is having "just" an excellent season and not something transcendent, it will be difficult for Stanton to win the award over equally talented players who are on a playoff team. Stanton's year, like the other players in contention for the award, is projected to end the season with between six and seven Wins Above Replacement (WAR). That leaves him on par with Miguel Cabrera's best seasons as a Marlin, when he finished as high as fifth on the MVP ballot in the mid-2000's, but shy of Hanley Ramirez's two best years, when he finished as high as second in 2009.
So Stanton's season is at the level of great, but not at a level that makes it easy for him to overcome that bias. And the bias of being on a playoff team stems from a larger problem with the MVP award: no one can truly define the word "valuable" in the award. To each voter, it means something different. To each fan now arguing about which player is more deserving, "valuable" means different things.
The Multiple Meanings of Value
So how can we define value? Let's first get an idea of how the voters define it. Look back at the winners over the last 20 years and you will see trends.
- Almost all players came from playoff teams (85 percent of them), meaning that the BBWAA defined "value" as contributing wins to a club whose wins "mattered." The idea here is that non-playoff teams would miss the playoffs regardless of the presence or absence of their star MVP candidate.
- Offense trumps all. Looking over the list, the vast majority of the players got there on the merits of spectacular offense, particularly in the power department. There was only one pitcher listed in the last 20 years. There were only seven players who failed to clear the 30-homer mark of the 39 non-pitchers. It helps to be a slugger even more so than an offensive force because that type of production is extremely visible.
- No pitchers allowed, as mentioned above. Pitchers, the argument goes, only pitch once every five days and thus cannot contribute value like position players, who play every day.
Playoffs > No Playoffs?
Let's tackle some of these thought constructs regarding the MVP. The first is the one most relevant to Stanton. The Marlins are a .500 team and are on the fringes of the playoff race, but they are considered long shots at the moment despite being just 3.5 games back of the second Wild Card spot. The thought is that Stanton's wins are less valuable because, if Miami falls just shy of the playoffs, the ultimate result without him would have been essentially the same.
But a player's production and wins should not be tied to his teammates. Baseball is mostly an individual sport, and production can be very individualized with stats such as wOBA and estimates like WAR metrics. How can one player's wins be less valuable just because his teammates played worse? If you stuck 2003 Barry Bonds on the 2003 Detroit Tigers, chances are the Tigers win closer to 55 win than 43, but does that make Bonds's season less spectacular and "valuable?"
Clearly not, because the BBWAA has made exceptions. Bonds won the MVP four times, but in two of those seasons, his Giants missed the playoffs. That means that this is not a hard rule and that there is a certain level of performance (wins produced, so to speak) that can get you the award even if your team does not play well with you. And as Alex Rodriguez showed in 2003, it does not have to be a team that just missed the playoffs, because his fantastic season was on the 71-91 Texas Rangers in last place.
So that implies that non-playoff wins are less important than the average playoff win, but if you gather enough of them up, you can overcome the bias. But that still does not make sense, as it credits or debits players based on their teammates and not their own performance.
The other biases make sense in the traditional way voters evaluated players. The value of an offensive player in terms of performance was more clear, especially if that player racked up a lot of home runs and RBIs. That aspect actually would help Stanton and Marlins fans, as Stanton leads the National League in both of those categories by a fair amount.
The value of a hitter who is not a pure slugger like Stanton. Yasiel Puig has similar hitting numbers, but is not considered nearly as good a hitter as Stanton because he is not racking up homers or driving in as many runs. Ditto for McCutchen, who probably took it ahead of Paul Goldschmidt and his superior home run and RBI numbers mostly because his team was in the playoffs and Goldschmidt's was not.
Defensive prowess is even harder to recognize. Only eight MVP winners of the last 40 have also won the Gold Glove in the same season, showing you that rarely is the performance of a great defender recognized as often as offense. Only three times has any player won the award from a "defense-first" position in the last 20 years, and two of those came away with Gold Gloves.
Finally, the recognition of pitchers has been extremely difficult. Only Justin Verlander has won in the last 20 years, and in 20 years before that, only four more players have won, making up a total of just over six percent of the last 81 winners. The traditional view is that a pitcher only throws every five games (or in reliever cases, one inning at a time) and thus cannot help their team enough to warrant the award. But pitchers actually face similar numbers of batters as position players get plate appearances. Last year, McCutchen got 674 plate appearances, but Kershaw notched 934 batters faced. Position players make up that difference with more chances to affect the game on defense, but in the aggregate, they get similar amount of playing time to gather wins for their team.
As for Stanton, he faces the uphill climb of the playoffs, but he has the edge elsewhere. He plays a primarily offensive position in the corner outfield, and his offense is exactly the sort of thing that voters recognize with ease. But the playoffs remain a primary hurdle. While it makes absolutely no sense to dock a player for an individual award based on his team's performance, voters continue to see wins produced by non-playoff teams as less valuable. For me, a win is a win is a win, but the voters see things differently. That is the lone bias that stands against Stanton, but it is the largest one as well.