Ranking the 2010 NL MVP Candidates
[Author's note: Irony can be pretty ironic, I suppose. It's not the first time that an MVP favorite tanked in the post-season, but Joey Votto did just that, going 1-for-10 against the Phillies as his Cincinnati Reds went three and out. It's worthy to mention that the ballots from all participating members of the BBWAA who vote for the league MVP are required to be completed and mailed before the playoffs begin. Please enjoy this piece just the same, as it is still relevant to the announcement of the winner come mid-November. JDC]
Back in 10th grade, Mrs. Orlando, the consummate high school English teacher, was tossing baseball trivia questions out to our class. Why she was doing this and not drilling us on our prepositions and participles, I have no idea. It’s one of those foggy memories. But I do remember one of the questions like it was yesterday: “Who was the losing pitcher when Don Larsen pitched a perfect game in the 1956 World Series?”
I knew the answer before she even finished Larsen’s name. I raised my hand.
“Yes, John,” Mrs. Orlando said, pointing right at me.
“Sal ‘The Barber’ Maglie,” I stated matter-of-factly, in the same tone I would use to state my home address. In baseball geek-ness terms, I was at the top of my game back then, often found behind a five-pound baseball encyclopedia, munching down nuggets of statistics and records like they were Goetze’s Caramel Candies. (Of course, I now realize that answering that question probably pushed my dating years back a bit.)
This high school story popped in my mind when I was doing some research on the MVP award. It’s that time of year when all the ballots have been mailed, and sometime just before Thanksgiving we’ll open up a web page and bam, the winner’s name will be headlined across our screen.
I started off wondering how high Phillies ace Roy Halladay, the likely Cy Young Award winner, would rank, and how often a pitcher has won the award. Since the creation of the Cy Young Award in 1956, only three NL pitchers have put together a season powerful enough to steal the MVP away from their position player counterparts: Don Newcombe in ’56 (27-7, 3.06 ERA), Sandy Koufax in ’63 (25-5, 1.88 ERA), and Bob Gibson in 1968 (22-9, 1.12 ERA). All three took their team to the World Series that same year. Of course, they also won the Cy Young those same seasons.
But I noticed something peculiar about Newcombe’s ’56 season. His teammate, 39-year-old pitcher Sal “The Barber” Maglie, who had a chin-seeking fast ball known to give batters “a close shave,” did more than get victimized by Don Larsen’s perfecto that fall. He did so well that season that he finished second behind Newcombe for the Cy Young. A pair of teammates leading the Cy Young vote has occurred only three other times in history, all in the NL: Mike Marshall (#1) and Andy Messersmith (#2) of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1974, and Randy Johnson (#1) and Curt Schilling (#2) of the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001 and 2002.
But here’s where I got to scratching my head. Maglie also finished second to Newcombe in the MVP vote, and I can’t figure out why he finished so high. Way too high. He put up a decent ERA (2.89) and WHIP (1.092), but he won just 13 games in a season that saw two 20-game winners and three 19-game winners just in the National League. Maglie didn’t exactly blow the ball by hitters, striking out just 110 in 196 innings while allowing 22 homers. If a pitcher is going to make a presence on the MVP list, he’s got to be bringing more to the table. Maglie’s numbers just don’t jump out and grab me as being anywhere near as dominant as what finishing #2 for league MVP should have warranted. It’s doubly strange that this occurred exactly when baseball started awarding pitchers with the Cy Young trophy—yet Maglie ranked higher than 22-year-old batting champion Hank Aaron (. 328 ave, 200 hits, 26 HRs), the amazing rookie campaign of 20-year-old Frank Robinson (38 HRs, 122 runs), Aaron’s teammate Joe Adcock (38 HRs, 103 RBI), 25-year-old superstar Willie Mays (36 HRs, 40 SBs), and Maglie’s teammate Duke Snider (43 HRs, 101 RBI, .292/.399/.598).
There’s a story behind the story. Twenty of the 24 first-place votes went to five Brooklyn Dodgers who crowded the MVP top ten: Newcombe, Maglie, Jim Gilliam, Pee Wee Reese, and Snider. The Dodgers did finish first in the NL, which at that time earned you an immediate trip to the World Series. I realize that the MVP is not a “player of the year” award. It’s all about recognizing players behind the success of the most successful teams. For some voters, only those candidates from playoff-contending teams need apply. This explains some of the Brooklyn bias in that ’56 vote. But after a 154-game season, the Dodgers ended up just one game ahead of Aaron, Adcock, and the Milwaukee Braves, and just two games in front of Robinson’s Cincinnati Redlegs.
The opposite case has also been known to occur in the MVP vote. Andre Dawson slammed 49 home runs during that infamous spike season of 1987, a year when it seemed everyone set their career highs in the long-ball department. Even though his Cubbies finished dead last, the Hawk edged Ozzie Smith of the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals by two first place votes, 11 to 9.
I’m not really demanding an investigation over the results of MVP races from decades ago, just demonstrating a never-ending tradition of baseball: the MVP debate.
By releasing the results of the MVP voting each year, major league baseball conveniently establishes a baseline for our arguments, where each season’s outstanding performances are graded by a select group known to have intimate knowledge of the candidates—members of the BBWAA. Two qualified sportswriters from each team’s city are assigned to turn in a ballot.
But there’s one caveat. The voting system is biased and full of unpredictable influences. I don’t mean that in a “this system is corrupt” sort of way. I’m okay with the process. But the voters are human. They have watched and learned the game within the confines of their own environments. Each has his own interpretation of what “most valuable” means and how to determine it. Some might focus on the raw numbers, others might take a sabermetric viewpoint. And then there are those who might base their judgment strictly from their memories of watching the games from the press box.
Complicating this mixture of viewpoints is that each writer is instructed to provide a top ten ranking (first place is 14 points, second through tenth goes from nine points down to one). This can have ripple effects stemming from the bottom of the list that could impact the entire voting process, and ultimately who gets the trophy. This was clearly demonstrated in 1999, the season in which pitcher Pedro Martinez was historically dominant for the Boston Red Sox, going 23-4 with a 2.07 ERA, 0.923 WHIP, and 313 Ks in 213 IP—all during one of the most prolific (albeit juiced) offensive eras in baseball history. Not saying Pedro should have won, but his performance demanded recognition in the MVP race. Most of the voting sportswriters agreed, with 21 ballots placing Pedro in the top five, and eight voters ranking him #1, the most of any player. But two sportswriters left Pedro completely off their ballots—a clear philosophical boycott against the inclusion of pitchers on the MVP ballot. Those two Pedro-less ballots allowed Texas Ranger catcher Ivan Rodriguez to take the award by a mere 13 points, 252 to 239.
The typical argument goes that a pitcher heading out to the mound every fifth day shouldn’t be measured on the same value scale as an everyday ballplayer. For years I agreed, thinking it was really an apples to oranges issue. They’ve got their Cy Young, right? But think about it this way. How many plate appearances might your stud right fielder or brilliant third baseman make in a game? How many plays in the field will they be involved with? Then consider that a pitcher is involved with every pitch every time he goes to the hill. For as long as he’s in the game, he has his fingerprints on every single play for exactly half the game. For dominant performances such as Pedro’s in ‘99—or even Roy Halladay’s in 2010—that’s seven to nine innings of high-impact performance for a team to milk from every fifth day. Even the most productive everyday players go through games at a time without making a meaningful contribution. During offensively-starved seasons—like 2010—ignoring pitchers for MVP is simply ignoring the elephant in the room.
Everybody has an opinion on who the MVP should be. It’s fun. As a baseball fan, you’re entitled to shout out your top choices. It’s a judgment call, so no one can say you’re wrong (they might ask what you’ve been smokin,’ but they can’t say you’re wrong). There’s no statistical algorithm that can possibly spin a top ten listing in an order that even two fans can agree to. Even the sometimes-righteous land of sabermetrics can seem a little like Aunt Millie on a diet in these matters—sometimes the weight is in the wrong place.
We can thank Albert for leaving some wiggle room this year. Last year, all 32 ballots had Mr. Pujols at #1 (which I find amazing given that the BBWAA didn’t even reach 95% in voting Willie Mays into the Hall of Fame. How could picking Pujols as league MVP over other deserving performances be easier than saying Willie Mays is a Hall of Famer?)
This year, it’s a two-man race for the big prize. Here are my top ten candidates for NL MVP for 2010, starting with a four honorable mentions.
HONORABLE MENTION – DAVID WRIGHT
Wright put up a nice mix of numbers with 29 homers, 103 ribbies, and 19 stolen bases, but there were a few negatives that should keep him from having any impact on this year’s MVP race. His career-high 161 strikeouts kept him from batting .300 for the first time in his six full seasons, and despite two previous Gold Gloves, his UZR (“Ultimate Zone Rating”) rating ranked 10th among qualified NL third basemen. His WAR* has even taken a small beating the past couple of years, ranking 28th in the NL in 2009 and 2010—a far cry from his seasons of excellence in 2007 and 2008 when he ranked 1st and 3rd.
*Wins Above Replacement. A measure of how much more valuable a player’s all-around contributions are compared to a replacement player barely competent enough to play the same position.
HONORABLE MENTION – BRIAN McCANN
McCann, steady as they come, has been an All-Star in each of his first five full seasons. His impressive WAR in 2010 (11th in NL) reflects his solid productivity from the catcher position—there’s always been a buyer’s market for an offensive-minded catcher who isn’t a complete circus behind the dish. But McCann put up enough weak numbers that, coupled with a defense that has never been considered top-shelf, should keep him from appearing on too many MVP lists. His career-high 98 strikeouts helped sink his batting average to a career-low .269. He also batted .221 in September, .218 and 0 HRs against the division-leading Phillies, .194 with 2 outs and runners in scoring position, and .202 late in close games. Maybe the concept of clutch hitting is more random than baseball people would like to think, but we want our MVPs to deliver the goods during crunch time.
Consider how McCann’s value measures against Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz. I’m not touting Carlos as top ten material. He loses some points because he appeared in only 121 games and had only 371 at bats. But he led the team starters in batting average (.302) and OBP (.400), put up clutch numbers (.302 AVE and .513 OBP with 2 outs and runners in scoring position), was very strong defensively and had an excellent rapport with the Phillies pitching staff (yes, I admit I know this from being a home-town fan, but like I said, we all have our biases). So I’m giving Ruiz the nod over McCann even if the sabermetrics might be pointing the other way. A .400 OBP that far down in the order is sure conducive to keeping rallies going.
HONORABLE MENTION – RYAN HOWARD
Ryan Howard’s string of top five MVP finishes in each of his four full seasons will come to an end in 2010. Can’t see him even cracking the top ten, as he didn’t put up his usual stratospheric HR-RBI totals that make his strikeouts a little easier to swallow. Not only did he have a power outage (a .505 slugging percentage just doesn’t wear well on him), his agility seemed to regress from his dancin’ 2009 season when he lost all this weight, stole eight bases (he’s only stolen three others in his career), posted his best UZR at first base, and even registered a +5 on Bill James’ baserunning “Net Gain” factor. In 2010, it was back to slow and clumsy—and his WAR took a beating because of it. Not that WAR is a stat that should be used as the exclamation point to every baseball argument, but it’s a decent thumbnail gauge, and Howard’s 2010 WAR pits him 55th in the NL behind the likes of Adam LaRoche, Cody Ross, and Juan Uribe. Ryan gets double-whammied with WAR mainly because he plays a talent-rich position not all that well—making him theoretically “easier” to replace. All sabermetric hating aside, Howard still put up an impressive batting line of 31-108-.276/.353/.505, and remains a feared piece in the Phillies offense. If you’re looking for positive signs, his K/AB rate has been falling steadily since 2007 (38%, 33%, 30%, 29%) and his average against lefties this season, .264, is a significant rebound from previous seasons of .225, .224, and .207. Speaking of WAR, good thing we didn’t realize how overrated Willie “Pops” Stargell was in 1979 when the “We are Fam-A-Lee” Pirates won it all (tongue firmly in cheek). His WAR score of 2.8 for that season was wa-a-a-a-y behind the 7.4 score of Keith Hernandez, yet they shared the NL MVP!
HONORABLE MENTION – AUBREY HUFF
Going into this season, Aubrey Huff had all the looks of a meandering journeyman on his way to being victimized by his own obsolescence. He signed with San Francisco this past January—his fifth team in five seasons—for a bargain salary of $3M (remember, this is major league baseball—millions grows on trees). While San Fran crossed their fingers, everything came together for the 33-year-old Huff in 2010. His strong offensive presence (100 runs, 35 doubles, 26 HRs, .290/.385/.506) helped complement the Giants’ top-notch pitching staff and lead the team to the playoffs. Huff was bounced all over the field, all the while carrying an able glove. First he made room for rookie/future star Buster Posey at first base by moving to left field, then he moved to right field to allow Pat Burrell to fit in—who would wake from the dead and hit 18 bombs in 289 ABs for the Giants. It’s not like 2010 came completely out of nowhere for Huff. He’s had two brilliant, if not sporadic, seasons in the majors, first in 2003 for Tampa Bay (47 doubles, 34 HRs, 107 RBIs, .311/.367/.555), then five years later in Baltimore (48 doubles, 32 HRs, 108 RBIs, .304/.360/.552). His reward for showing that he’s still got it? Aside from helping his team to the playoffs, he’ll get a few mentions at the bottom of some MVP lists.
#10 – JAYSON WERTH
Jayson Werth’s talent is as enigmatic as it is genius. He’s got some loose ends, but the way his athletic 6’5″ frame delivers the bat head through the hitting zone, that ball has to be screaming in fear before it gets to home plate. Considering where Werth was four years ago (invisible to the baseball world) and what the Phillies have gone through this season, Phillies fans should be thankful because outside of Roy Halladay, there wasn’t anyone more valuable to the team in 2010. He had his ups (league-leading 46 doubles, some very long home runs, 106 runs scored) and downs (.139 batting average with two outs and runners in scoring position, a .181 swoon from May 8th to June 10th that dropped his average 85 points), but for the most part he was there to keep the Phillies train on the tracks. He appeared in 156 games and batted .305, 294, and .300 the final three months. At times he could be a little awkward in the field but he’s fast, has a gun, and is capable enough to fill in at center field, as he did for 21 games while Shane Victorino was injured. He strikes out a ton, but works the count like no other batter in baseball, as he will draw his share of walks. He won’t compete with the big guys for league MVP, but he gets a tip of the cap here for picking up the slack for the Phillies offense in 2010.
#9 – RYAN ZIMMERMAN
If the Washington Nationals ever get out of the basement, that will be the day third baseman Ryan Zimmerman’s name starts getting tossed around in some serious MVP chatter. He just turned 26 but he’s already a team leader and an offensive force at an offensively-weak position. His great fielding skills earned him his first Gold Glove last year; expect another one this year because those Gold Gloves have a way of sticking. His WAR ranks right there at the very top of the NL with Pujols and Votto, but thanks to an offensively-challenged Nationals team, his overall numbers are a tier lower than those guys. With his team finishing last in the division for the third year in a row, expect Zimmerman to continue to get second-division ranking in the MVP vote as well.
#8 – RYAN BRAUN
The Milwaukee Brewers have weapons throughout their lineup. Rickie Weeks finally put in a full season, scoring 112 runs and hitting 29 homers. Another 27-year-old, Casey McGahee, came into his own with 38 doubles, 23 HRs, and 104 RBI. Prince Fielder sold himself short with just 32 HRs, but his presence was still felt as he reached base 40% of the time and scored 94 runs. Corey Hart rebounded from an appendectomy and a sub-par 2009 by hitting a career-high 31 HRs. But the big gun in the Brewer lineup is Ryan Braun, their #5 pick overall in the 2005 draft—selected right after Ryan Zimmerman and two slots before Troy Tulowitzki. Through the first four years of his young career, the 26-year-old Braun has flashed a brilliance with the bat that forecasts greatness for years to come. It didn’t look that way on August 1st though, when Braun had just 16 homers and sat on .273/.327/.460—practically Mendoza line material for him. He was obviously hampered after being hit in the elbow by Atlanta’s Tommy Hanson in May, but he did heat up enough to finish with 25 HRs, 103 RBI, and a .304 batting average. But the roller coaster trip he took to get there—.365 through May 9th, .232 over the next 71 games, then .364 over the last couple of months—got analysts believing that Braun was mucking with his approach either because he was compensating for a lingering injury, trying to make more contact, or a combination. At any rate, Milwaukee’s losing record diminishes Braun’s MVP status down to a little more than a shout-out.
#7 – MATT HOLLIDAY
Although it’s impossible to tell just how much Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday benefit each other batting third and fourth in the St. Louis Cardinal lineup, one thing is clear: Holliday is a stud with the bat who comes to play every day. A lifetime .317 hitter, his OBP has hovered around .400 for each of the past five seasons. He is a true doubles machine—the hallmark of a pure batsman—racking up another 45 this season. It’s a challenge to figure out how valuable someone like Holliday is in your lineup when you’ve got an Albert Pujols constantly saving the day. But then consider that Jeff Kent did okay in 2000 batting fourth behind an already-transformed Barry Bonds and winning the MVP. Holliday is very valuable. It’s just hard to put a finger on how much.
#6 – ROY HALLADAY
Roy Halladay, the favorite to win the NL Cy Young, should make a strong showing on the MVP ballot. Not just because of his NL-leading 21 wins, skinny 1.041 WHIP, and perfect game(!), but his freakish (or should we say “throwback”?) ability to constantly give the bullpen the night off. He had nine complete games, a category he’s led his league in six times in his career. His 53 complete games since 2003 are 25 ahead of the next highest total of 28 by C.C. Sabathia. He might not have been Gibson-dominant, but considering how sickly the Phillies were at times in health and at the plate, Halladay has been their savior, the primary reason they are now a favorite to play in the World Series for the third consecutive season.
#5 – TROY TULOWITZKI
Alex Rodriguez, Cal Ripken, and Ernie Banks might have showed more offensive growth potential at the shortstop position early in their careers, but the margin over what Troy Tulowitzki has demonstrated isn’t much. Tulo smacked us awake on two fronts in 2010. First, he continued to prove that his uninspiring 2008 was just a hiccup on his road to greatness. With his sure hands and great arm, he’s the complete package at the “6” position, certainly on a very short list of players any G.M. would take as their #1 choice to start a new team. He went absolutely mad from September 2nd through the 18th with his team in the shakes of a pennant race, banging 14 HRs and putting up lusty averages of .394/.444/1.121. The “Ruthian” streak, as many called it, shoved Tulowitzki immediately onto everybody’s MVP list. There may very well be an MVP trophy in Tulowitzki’s future, but not this year. Sure, he had enough PAs to be eligible for a batting title, but he’s going to need to get into more than 122 games to take home the hardware (unless you’re a certain sweet-swinging third baseman who flirted with .400 and led your team to the World Series…).
#4 – CARLOS GONZALEZ
At first glance, the first full season in Carlos Gonzalez’ career was super spectacular, one of the best rounded seasons in recent memory. He won the NL batting title with a .336 average, scored 111 runs, accumulated 197 hits, 34 home runs, 117 RBIs, and 26 stolen bases, and put up a juicy slugging average of .598. But then you look at his splits and shake your head in amazement to see that like so many Rockies before him, Gonzalez was ridiculous at Coors (26 HR, 76 RBI, .380/.425/.737), but a mere mortal on the road (8 HR, 41 RBI, .289/.322/.453).
Should his home-road splits be held against Carlos Gonzalez—or any other candidate—in the MVP selection? The general thinking is that a home ballpark like Coors tends to exaggerate how good a player really is. The 1997 NL vote is still scorned by many to this day, with the MVP going to Larry Walker, a corner outfielder playing in the most offensively generous facility in baseball history, over Mike Piazza, who played the difficult position of catcher (okay, he didn’t play like Johnny Bench, but he played the position) at a pitcher’s park. There’s no doubt that the mile-up city of Denver played a role in bloating Walker’s home numbers throughout the 1990s. But out of the 49 home runs he hit during that ’97 season, he did hit 29 of those on the road to go along with a .346 batting average and a .443 OBP. Walker rounded his mega-season off nicely with 33 stolen bases and a Gold Glove. Meanwhile, Piazza 16 errors and 28% success rate of nabbing base stealers didn’t exactly enhance the measured value of his defensive contributions. Larry Walker was epic that season, Coors or not.
But unlike Walker in ’97, Carlos Gonzalez didn’t carry his Superman cape on the road, which accounts for 50% of a team’s season. So to me this knocks him down from consideration as a front-runner for the 2010 NL MVP.
#3 – ADRIAN GONZALEZ
The San Diego Padres missed making the playoffs—or at least the opportunity to participate in a three-way, two-day, tie-breaking tournament with the Giants and Braves—by one game. And on this semi-successful team is a star player that stands out easily as its most valuable and irreplaceable: slick-fielding and sweet-swinging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Gonzalez led the team in practically every important offensive category. Somehow his numbers—31 HRs, 101 RBI, averages of .298/.393/.511—were competitive with other strong MVP candidates, despite the 400-foot gaps at his home field, Petco Park. But Adrian is going to fall short, just like the Padres. One reason is that it’s hard to visualize numbers that aren’t there. I admit, that’s a lazy approach to evaluating a player. But it’s hard to take the liberty to adjust a player’s numbers on the assumptions that he would have hit a certain way if he wasn’t so penalized by having the Grand Canyon as his home ballpark. The test case of Adrian Beltre going from Safeco Field to Fenway Park and putting up those amped-up numbers in 2010 makes one think that Adrian Gonzalez could turn into a left-handed Albert Pujols if he ever made such a move. Sadly, the MVP will never be awarded to a player just on imagination. Adrian Gonzalez is going to have to put up the numbers regardless in order to win it one of these years.
#2 – ALBERT PUJOLS
He has won the MVP award three times, finished second three times, third once and fourth once. Albert Pujols has been carrying the torch as the best player in the game for the past few years, as nagging injuries continue to take chunks out of A-Rod’s time in the lineup. Not that Albert hasn’t been getting dinged. The Machine feels it’s his duty to play every single day despite the hurts, as he has stubbornly appeared in 319 of a possible 324 games over the past two seasons (for some reason I have this image of the Terminator stitching up his wounds and performing self-surgery). As great as Pujols was in 2010, his numbers are down across the board just a bit. Oh, they’re still HOF-worthy—teammates continue to savor playing with “possibly the greatest player ever” for fear that the Cardinals won’t be interested in financing Albert’s next contract. But the crack in the door is open just wide enough to keep Albert from bringing home MVP number four.
#1 – JOEY VOTTO
The Cincinnati Reds won the central division handily, and they did it by marching out an offense that led the NL in batting average, HRs, and RBI—a team “triple crown” season. The main cog behind their young little red machine was first baseman Joey Votto, a triple crown candidate himself for most of the year. Votto led the league in OBP (.424) and slugging (.600) while finishing second in average (.324), third in HRs (37) and third in RBI (113). For anyone who might gripe that, like Carlos Gonzalez, Votto plays in a bandbox at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark and should be voted on accordingly, well, take a gander at the scoreboard. On the road, Votto hit .349 with 19 HRs and had an OPS of 1.093, even better than his home numbers (.297, 18, .951). He never went more than three games without a hit. Clutch? In 2010, Votto was all about clutch, hitting .370/.453/.685 with 8 HRs late in close games. He takes care of business with the glove (his UZR ranked 4th among NL first basemen), and even went 16 for 21 in stolen base attempts. Votto’s WAR ranked #1 in the NL, according to fangraphs.com. There’s just no strong argument against Joey Votto winning league MVP. With Albert just casually awesome instead of his usual exquisitely awesome self, it’s Votto’s time in 2010.
– John Cappello
with assistance from:
In general, WAR and UZR numbers came from fangraphs, baserunning scores from billjamesonline, and all other statistical research from baseball-reference.