Friday, September 20, 2013

By Grant Larsen, Baseball Columnist -

The National League has delivered us many worthy performances for the MVP award this year. Looking through the data has helped me develop more questions than answers due to the extremely high level of play by individuals that are helping push their respective teams toward the playoffs.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have already guaranteed a winning record for the first time in 2 decades, and have been led by Andrew McCutchen.

The St. Louis Cardinals have put themselves on the doorstep of another division title in part because of the emergence of Matt Carpenter and the game management skills and leadership of Yadier Molina.

The Dodgers experienced a huge boost around the All-Star break that assisted them in running away with their division. Some claimed it was the energy of rookie Yasiel Puig. I think he is an advanced player for his MLB experience level but not an MVP, yet. I don’t think he was even the MVP of the Dodgers. That honor would likely go to Kershaw, Haney Ramirez, Greinke, or A-Gone.

The Cincinnati Reds are holding tough for the final Wild Card spot in the NL thanks in large part to the presence of Joey Votto in their lineup.

The Atlanta Braves have long had a stranglehold on the NL East and I truly don’t think they would be there without their first baseman Freddie Freeman.

Two other guys playing for teams that are either out of contention or damn near have put up great years: Paul Goldschmidt and Carlos Gomez.

So whose claim is the greatest?

Andrew McCutchen:
The 5-tool phenom can do everything on the baseball field and has been a valuable piece to making the Pirates relevant again. He owns the top WAR in the NL due to all the contributions he has made this year.

My argument for McCutchen is similar to the argument I made for Trout. He is almost always the most talented player on the field. His batting average is 3rd in the NL, he has 61 hits that have gone for extra bases, and his defense is Gold Glove caliber. He puts pressure on pitchers by exhibiting patience at the plate and then being a terror on the bases.

I know many people are probably thinking why “Cutch” and not Trout. Well for me that has an easy answer. McCutchen is the essential cog in the Pirate machine. If an average player is dropped into center field in Pittsburgh we are talking about a Cincinnati-Washington Wild Card game. I love that he has a desire to stay in Pittsburgh and help them win and I don’t think they would be winning without him.

Clayton Kershaw:
I personally don’t believe that starting pitchers are equals to every day players and I wouldn’t normally include a pitcher into the MVP discussion. The only reason I am including him here is the rare year we are seeing from him and I know that when the discussion starts there will be those baseball people that believe he is deserving of the award.

My argument against Kershaw is he doesn’t even lead all NL pitchers in WAR. To be more precise Matt Harvey AND Adam Wainwright both have higher WARs than Kershaw. I know this is outside the thoughts of many in baseball but I believe there can be an argument made that he isn’t even the Cy Young winner this year. That is for another discussion but I just don’t think he’s the MVP.

Yadier Molina:
Here is where WAR has some weaknesses in my opinion and that is valuing the importance of a catcher like Molina. He has won the last 5 gold gloves at catcher in the NL. He has 3 errors this year. He has had the least amount of stolen base attempts by quite a large margin and has thrown out nearly 50% of those attempts. No other catcher can even attempt to compete with that kind of production.

The part of his defense that I don’t feel can be accurately valued in statistical terms is the effect he has had on a fairly young pitching staff including Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller amongst many other. He is a great game manager and possesses tools and characteristics that make him one of the most valuable players on any field at any time.

Oh by the way he has turned into a pretty good hitter too. He’s batting .317 with 12 HR’s and 66 RBI at only 495 plate appearances. He has 4 fewer XBH than Joey Votto this year with 182 fewer plate appearances. His WAR is affected greatly by his base running ability. Isn’t this kind of expected from a catcher though? I don’t believe that should restrict him from being in the discussion for MVP.

Joey Votto:
I know big time stats guys love Joey Votto because of his approach at the plate and his commitment to being patient and waiting for his pitch. While I may normally agree with this theory (more with 1 or two hole hitters) when it comes to Votto I have gotten impatient. I know what he is capable of and I think at times he misses opportunities and leans on those batting behind him.

His WAR of 6.1, which 4th in the NL, has delivered him into this conversation despite having only 70 RBI. His 17.7% BB rate is more than impressive and pairing that with a .309 batting average puts him on base at a clip approaching half the time. Fortunately he has a 30 HR 100 RBI guy batting right behind him that is helping increase Votto’s value. Look, the bottom line is I think he has left runs on the field by relying more on others to drive in runs rather than doing it himself. I can’t emphasize enough how much I like this player but I like the 37 HR 113 RBI 16 SB MVP Joey Votto from 2010 more than the on-base machine he is now.

Paul Goldschmidt:
Goldschmidt has had the kind of season that could make me eat my words. His team has fallen out of contention despite the enormous numbers that Goldy has contributed. It’s like Trout all over again. I love that he hits for power, runs the bases well, and has a really solid OBP thanks to his 14.5% BB rate. He’s well above average at defending at first base and has come through in some clutch situations for his team throughout the season.

So why would I lean toward some of the other individual performances? Well for one, and I know many of you hate hearing this, his team is not in a position to win the division or a wild card spot. Secondly, I just think the performances of McCutchen and Molina have been superior or equal to him and their teams are competing. I have been supremely impressed with his season, however, I just don’t think this is his season for this award. The silver lining for him is the Silver Slugger is likely to be sitting on his mantle.

Freddie Freeman:
I think Freddie Freeman is underrated and underappreciated. He’s also one of those guys that I feel are undervalued by his WAR. He possesses a high BA and his walk rate is nice too. He shows some pop delivering 21 home runs. The biggest thing with him is his ability to drive in runs. When put in a position where runners are in scoring position he is batting .426 on the season with 75 RBI. I know he is more of a dark horse but I really like what he has done.

Carlos Gomez and Matt Carpenter:
I am going to make the argument for these two guys short and non-existence. Consider this an honorable mention. The only reason they are on this list is because they have high WARs. Gomez is an elite defender and may be the best center fielder in the league and dominates when it comes to stealing bases. However, he has been hurt and plays for a poor team. Carpenter has had a nice season with a nice WAR. However, his defense hasn’t been great and his wOBA and slugging numbers don’t compare to many of the other guys. Again, I like them and they have been nice contributors but not like MVPs.

My Take:
I think it should be obvious that I am leaning towards Molina or McCutchen. In a perfect world I would split the award in half and hand a half to each player. Unfortunately I think that is unlikely to happen. So because I am in a situation where I need to commit to one player I feel it should be McCutchen. I just think he means so much to a team that is sometimes starved for offensive production. He has a great presence on the field and contributes in a way that few others do. I enjoy watching him play and surprisingly I am enjoying watching the Pirates play because of him.
Love to hear what you think!

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