National League MVP Race: Questions and Answers


Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Thanks to the 2012 AL MVP race, things get a little salty when it comes to discussing the award. A number of straw men get destroyed as “old school” people take down “stat guy” and “stat guy” returns the favor by putting down the “old school” guys. With that has come a frustrating notion that you have to pick a side in the debate, not allowing for a grey area where (gasp!) one side of the debate might complement or enhance the other.

There’s also an even crazier idea that “stat guy” doesn’t think Miguel Cabrera had a good year. I literally never once heard anybody say that. It was more like, “Hey, Miguel Cabrera had an incredible year, so what I’m telling you is that Mike Trout was still slightly better and that’s how freaking good he was.” But hey, that is a far too nuanced point to make if you’re just looking for a chance to yell at somebody.

In the spirit of moving away from these faux debates, let’s ask some questions to consider the case for this year’s National League MVP candidates and how the voting might shake out.

1. How will the momentum of the Pittsburgh Pirates bandwagon affect Andrew McCutchen‘s case?

A run like the one the Pirates currently find themselves on can be intoxicating. The Pirates have the right kinds of players and the right manager in Clint Hurdle to gain a lot of fans down the stretch between now and October. Besides his stellar statistics (.320/.401/.513, 19 HR, 76 RBI, and 27 SB), McCutchen is due to have some electrifying moments down the stretch and possibly in the playoffs. That excitement, besides McCutchen’s statistical case, might give him an extra oomph in a year without an overwhelming favorite.

2. Have you seen the Cardinals’ record when Yadier Molina doesn’t play?

Molina’s defensive prowess is well known by now, but it took a ridiculously productive offensive season for him to find his way into the national conversation about the best players in the National League. His .320 batting average, along with his 134 wRC+, have only made him more important to the St. Louis Cardinals. We’ve known for a while that he is the best defensive catcher in baseball; now when he’s out of the lineup, the Cardinals miss his bat too.

Here’s the stat for Molina: the Cardinals are 67-44 with him in the lineup, 13-15 without him. While we shouldn’t overreact to just one stat, and wins and losses in baseball are undoubtedly more complicated than one player, that is still definitely a factor.

3. Would the Dodgers be OK without Clayton Kershaw?

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You have to admire Kershaw. For most of last season and a stretch this season, he was the only starting pitcher who had an impact for the Los Angeles Dodgers and at moments the only player of note on the roster. Then came the big trades, big free agent signings, Puig mania, and the team’s recent ridiculous winning streak. Through it all Kershaw has been really good and his numbers this season are no exception: 14-8, 1.89 ERA, 201 K’s, and 5.9 WAR as a starting pitcher. But with all the changes around, one has to ask: would the Dodgers be OK without Kershaw?

Look, you can almost pencil the Dodgers in for a win every fifth day when he takes the mound. But this team stormed from a .500 record at the All-Star Break to its current 83-58 mark. And while this team’s chance to win the World Series will rely on Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Hyun-Jin Ryu, their regular season success would probably happen with or without him (perhaps to a lesser extent, but still). And that is absolutely no dig at Kershaw, but rather a way to note how ridiculously good the Dodgers have been.

4. Do you know how much Paul Goldschmidt scares me?

As a Rockies fan I am genuinely terrified every time I see him. And that’s not just when he’s up to bat; I figure that any time he plays he’s the field, runs the bases, or really does anything else, he’s the best at it. This season my irrational fears of him from his many days killing the Rockies have translated to success against everybody else in the league: see his .291/.395/.531 line to go with his 31 home runs and 106 RBI. At one point he looked like he might scare a 20/20 season (currently has 13 stolen bases). His overall impact is reflected in his 149 wRC+ and his 5.2 WAR.

If the Diamondbacks were anything more than a fringe playoff team, this conversation might end with Goldschmidt. The fact that they won’t make the playoffs will likely knock him out of this MVP race, but you better believe he will be scaring NL opponents for years to come.

5. Does Joey Votto walk too much?

No, and that is still a seriously stupid question. Look at these numbers: .302/.428/.494, 22 home runs, an astounding 154 wRC+ (same as McCutchen) and a 5.6 WAR. So let’s just put that silly debate to rest, please.

Vott’s season also serves as a great example of the correct argument to make about RBIs and their sometimes diminished importance. Votto only has 66 of them, and so the “stat guy” might point to those other numbers and say that his lack of RBIs doesn’t accurately portray the kind of season he’s having. That point should not be taken as anybody saying that RBIs are stupid and meaningless and never mean anything ever (looking at you, old school straw man).

No…it’s just pointing out that, in certain cases, it can be a misleading stat. As such, it is important to look to some other stats to get a better account of the season that guy is having. That’s the case with Votto, who has been really good no matter how many RBIs he has. To recap: he does not walk too much and everybody should be OK with his low RBI total. But he also probably shouldn’t win MVP.

6. Did you forget about Freddie Freeman?

I did too. Sorry Freddie, I don’t know how I did since you truly abuse the team I cheer for. Please forgive me. I knew there was somebody else, and I just couldn’t think of who it was.

The Atlanta Braves have the best record in the National League (85-55). Freeman is posting the best offensive numbers on that stacked team: .305/.382/.483 with 19 home runs and 94 RBI. Would he have those numbers on another team? To date he has a 3.4 WAR, so you could make the argument that those numbers are inflated by his being on the Braves. But it’s still a darn good season, and maybe it could be enough in a race with so many solid candidates but no heavy favorites.

So where does this series of questions leave us? Well, it leaves us with some points of discussion, but also a lot more questions as these teams play the rest of September. All of this makes for a great NL MVP race in a season that lacks some drama when it comes to playoff races. And maybe, just maybe, it has the makings for another debate between imaginary people from the “old school” and “stat guy” camps.