As I noted on Tuesday night, I was privileged to be selected to vote on two postseason awards this year; the National League’s Manager of the Year and the Most Valuable Player. As was just announced, the MVP award went to Clayton Kershaw, edging out Andrew McCutchen and Giancarlo Stanton for the top spot. You can see the full results of the voting at BBWAA.com. Below, I’ll explain each of my selections, and why I voted as I did.
First, a very quick overview of my philosophy. I generally think the best player and most valuable player are the same thing, and I don’t really care too much about a team’s performance when trying to determine the quality of an individual player. However, I also don’t think it’s entirely correct to focus solely on context-neutral numbers, as we generally do when trying to evaluate a player’s true talent level. Context-specific specific performance absolutely drives some of the variation in team win-loss records, and distributing your performance into the most critical situations can definitely affect your teams record one way or another.
My goal was to identify the players who added the most wins to their team in 2014, and even though “clutch performance” doesn’t really appear to be a thing a player has much control over, it still matters when tallying up wins and losses. The Royals won 89 games instead of 81 games primarily because of the distribution of their performances, and if we focused solely on the context-neutral contributions of their individual players, we’d come up eight wins shy of their actual total.
So, on my MVP ballot, the timing of performances mattered. I leaned more on RE24 rather than wRC+, and attempted to incorporate high leverage performance into the calculations as well. It might not be a repeatable skill, but I don’t think that’s what we’re trying to measure. We’re just trying to look for who added the most value in 2014, and for that question, I thinking including the timing of events is important.
Okay, now to my ballot.
1. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
Yes, he only made 27 starts. Yes, position players have the ability to make a larger impact on their team, since they impact both the offensive and defensive side of the ball every single day. But just because position players have a higher ceiling for their performance does not mean that a position player is always the most valuable player in every season. Value is a combination of quantity and quality of performance; focusing solely on the number of games played simply ignores half of the picture.
No one would reasonably argue that every position player is more valuable than every pitcher, simply due to the difference in games played. There is a line at which the performance of a hitter and a pitcher intersect, erasing the difference in games played. This is why starting pitchers are paid as much or more per year as elite position players. This is why teams trade bats for arms. And in this season, I think Kershaw’s excellence, even in an abbreviated season for a starting pitcher, created more value for his team than any other player in the league.
Jeff noted yesterday the tremendous gap between Kershaw and the rest of the pitchers in the National League, and after all, isn’t a demonstrable sustained advantage over your opponents the exact definition of value? Kershaw gave up runs at half the rate of a league average starter, and his fielding independent numbers don’t give us any reason to think that his defense had much to do with that. Kershaw was on another level from everyone else, and the only reason this is even really a discussion is because he missed the first month of the season.
But even with the reduced quantity of innings pitched, I’m comfortable putting him at the top of my ballot. Others played more often, but no one had anything close to the impact that Kershaw on a rate basis, and I think the gap in quality outweighs his deficiency in quantity. There were some really good seasons from other players, including some who played far more often, but I don’t see any other players who had a larger impact on their team than Clayton Kershaw.
And if you think that he shouldn’t be eligible to win the MVP simply because he has his own award, I leave you with the very last line of the instructions on the ballot:
Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and designated hitters.
To exclude pitchers because “they have their own award” is to expressly ignore what we were told as voters. Pitchers are eligible, and pitchers are valuable, so my vote went to the best pitcher on the planet.
2. Jonathan Lucroy, Milwaukee Brewers
This was actually perhaps my easiest selection on the ballot. Lucroy, in fact, was the only player who mounted a serious challenge for the top spot on my ballot; once I determined that the #1 position was going to Kersahw, Lucroy was an easy call as the runner up.
Because of the rigors of the position and the skills needed to excel at it, catchers generally aren’t great hitters, and the regular wear-and-tear means that they play less often than players at other positions, so they face the same quantity problem — albeit to a lesser degree — as pitchers do. Only in Lucroy’s case, neither of those generalities held, as his 133 wRC+ ranked 12th best in the National League, and he did it while playing in 153 games, 136 of them behind the plate. He caught nearly 1,200 innings, and then played another 19 games at first base on top of that. He came to the plate 655 times. This is quality and quantity.
And given what I said in the intro, perhaps you shouldn’t be too surprised that Lucroy’s Clutch rating of 1.46 ranks 4th highest among National League hitters. In low-leverage situations, Lucroy was a league average hitter (99 wRC+), but he elevated his game in normal leverage (181 wRC+) and was nearly as good in high leverage situations (152 wRC+). So not only was Lucroy an excellent hitter who played basically every day, he distributed his hits into the most important situations.
And that’s just the offensive side of things. You probably don’t need me to tell you about Lucroy’s abilities behind the plate, since he’s become something of a poster child for the pitch framing movement. Lucroy gets umpires to give his pitchers a larger zone than almost any other regular catcher in baseball, with StatCorner suggesting that the expanded zone he provided was worth 22 runs to his team’s pitching staff. I’m not entirely sold on the idea that a catcher should get the full credit for the entirety of the framing run calculations — the pitchers know that Lucroy is good at this, so they throw out-of-zone pitches to him on purpose, and their ability to hit those spots is a factor in getting those calls — but it’s clear he should get some credit for this skill.
How much credit was the issue I struggled with, as I wrote about in August. If I bought into the framing calculations completely, and assigned full credit for those additional runs saved to Lucroy, he probably passes Kershaw and sits atop my ballot. But I’m not there yet. I’m not comfortable enough with the calculations to give Lucroy credit for the full range of values being presented by the numbers. Maybe someday, the research will prove definitively that pitch receiving was a market inefficiency, and we spent years misidentifying the true MVPs. It’s possible.
But I think it’s more likely that more research on the topic suggests that we’re overestimating the range of runs saved through this aspect of catching, and we end up giving the catchers a smaller amount of credit for these skills than the publicly published numbers currently show. So, while Lucroy’s receiving skills helped elevate him solidly above the other position players in the NL, I just couldn’t quite give them enough clout to put Lucroy ahead of Kershaw.
3. Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins
This is where things started getting a little sticky, and the next four spots on the ballot changed places a number of times. In the end, though, situational hitting again proved to be the separation point for me.
By context-neutral batting runs, Stanton was 42 runs better than a league average hitter this year, second in the National League. By RE24, he ranked 50 runs better than a league average hitter, #1 in the NL. Stanton was a beast no matter how you measure it, but if you look at his men on base splits, he was even better than his context-neutral numbers suggest: a 158 wRC+ with no one, a 162 wRC+ with runners on base, and a 168 wRC+ with runners in scoring position. These aren’t huge gaps, but they do add up over a full season.
And despite his size, Stanton is not a one trick pony. By both UZR and DRS, he was rated as an above average defender in right field, and he stole 13 bases on 14 attempts to boot. So often, the best hitters get overrated in MVP tallies because voters don’t account for their significance flaws on defense and baserunning, but that doesn’t apply to Stanton; he really is as good as his offense makes him look. The only real knock against him is that he missed the last few weeks of the season, but as I talked about with Kershaw, I’m not looking for the player with the highest quantity of performance, and Stanton’s quality when he played was high enough for me to put him third on my ballot.
4. Anthony Rendon, Washington Nationals
For a long while, I had Rendon third and Stanton fourth. He finished half a win ahead by WAR, and the gap between his RE24 and Batting runs was basically identical. Rendon was by far the most underrated part of the Nationals success this year, and his ability to play both second and third base at an above average level gave the team needed flexibility when Ryan Zimmerman got injured and Danny Espinosa turned back into a pumpkin.
But there’s also this: in 70 high leverage plate appearances, Rendon hit .180/.271/.295, good for a 58 wRC+, which drove his Clutch score down to -1.59, the fourth worst mark in the National League. I put more weight on the base/out performances than the score/inning ones, since there are more obvious adjustments to be made based on the former situation than the latter, but Rendon’s lousy performance in the most important situations he faced dropped him behind Stanton.
There’s no question this is nitpicking; Rendon had an excellent year overall. But with the middle of the ballot all having very similar excellent seasons, nitpicking was required, and this particular nit pushed Rendon to the fourth spot on my ballot.
5. Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants
Almost everything I wrote about Lucroy applies here as well. Excellent offensive season, great clutch performance, batted over 600 times, and was an asset behind the plate for his pitching staff. But while Posey is a catcher first and foremost, he’s not a full-time catcher in the same way that Lucroy is; he spent 929 innings behind the plate, ranking 7th among NL catchers this season. He started 30 games at first base, nearly 20% of the season, and while he has value there as well, it’s not quite the same as a guy who is behind the plate almost every day.
This isn’t a knock against him, of course. Almost no one caught as frequently as Lucroy, and Posey’s workload was entirely normal for an NL backstop. When discussing my calculations with some friends in the game, one mentioned to me that Posey rated first in in their internal calculations, and that calculation included pitch framing data. But, as mentioned above, I wasn’t quite comfortable including the full weight of the framing data in my decision, and so Posey slid in just barely behind Rendon. Really, though, you could look at this as a tie for fourth place. There was basically no difference between these two spots for me.
6. Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates
This is the pick I expect to get hammered for. So, Pirates fans, all I ask is that you hear me out, and remember that I voted for Clint Hurdle for Manager of the Year; I don’t hate your team, I promise. I did not list McCutchen sixth easily, as he had yet another excellent season, and is one of the players I enjoy watching the most.
But as I’ve noted through this list so far, I took context-specific performance into account, and when you do that, McCutchen’s season looks a little less amazing. By batting runs, he was 50 runs better than an average hitter, but only 41 runs better by RE24; a result of his best performances coming with the bases empty. His 173 wRC+ in those situations certainly helped start a lot of rallies for the Pirates, and there’s absolutely value in hitting with no one on base, but getting so many no-one-on hits means that he didn’t quite produce as many runs for his team as a guy like Stanton, who hit better when given a chance to drive runners in.
Yes, he plays center field, and yes, he’s also a good baserunner. He’s probably the best all-around player in the National League, providing value in essentially every way you can provide value. But despite his athleticism, none of the defensive metrics have ever been a huge fan of his performances in center field, so the positional gap is probably a little less than it seems on the surface. And despite being an excellent baserunner historically, he was rated as something closer to an average baserunner in 2014, which is the performance we’re supposed to be evaluating.
I don’t like focusing on the weaknesses of McCutchen’s resume, because there are so many strengths. He’s one of the very best players in the game, and he had another excellent season. The gap between the 3rd and 6th spots on my ballot was very slight, and I won’t argue too strenuously if you think McCutchen deserves to be ahead of Stanton, Rendon, or Posey. For me, though, each of those three just did something slightly better this year. If we were asked to vote in tiers instead of ranking them numerically, McCutchen would have been solidly in the third tier with the three guys ahead of him, but the ballot makes us split hairs, and they just fell against the Pirates center fielder this year.
7. Russell Martin, Pittsburgh Pirates
I know we’re starting to get into broken-record territory, and I’m sorry, but we have yet another terrific defensive catcher who was surprisingly great with the bat, especially when you look at RE24, which rated him as the 13th best hitter in the NL. Martin’s 172 wRC+ with runners in scoring position was 4th best in the NL this year, and on a rate basis, he’s right there with all of the guys ahead of him.
But the quantity argument starts to hold some weight here. He played in 111 games, and only hit 460 times. He did spend more innings behind the plate than Posey did, but he didn’t play when he wasn’t catching, so he added no value in roughly 1/3 of the Pirates contests this year. For a position player, that’s a tough bar to overcome.
Martin almost did it, with truly elite performance when he was in the line-up and a significant impact on the Pirates defense as their catcher, but he just didn’t quite play enough to place higher than this on my ballot. The quality was certainly there, but he just falls a little shy in the quantity department.
8. Devin Mesoraco, Cincinnati Reds.
Hey, look, another catcher. I put a lot of value on catchers who can hit, obviously, and Mesoraco had a breakthrough season at the plate. By wRC+ (147) and RE24 (+42 runs), he was actually the best hitting catcher in the National League this year, ahead of all three of the backstops who rate ahead of him on this ballot. His RE24 is actually third best in the NL, in fact, as he was an absolute monster with men in scoring position, posting a 196 wRC+ in 126 chances to drive runners in. So, again, Mesoraco’s context-neutral numbers don’t capture the entirety of his offensive value to the Reds.
But as good as he was at distributing his hits into the situations where he could drive runners in, he gave back a good chunk of that additional value in the timing of when he got his hits. He was amazing in low leverage (153 wRC+) and medium leverage (150 wRC+) situations, but posted just a 112 wRC+ in high leverage situations. So, while I gave him extra credit for his base/out performances, I docked him a bit for his score/inning performances, and that was enough to push him behind Martin, as he also played in just 114 games and hit 460 times. And of the four catchers on my ballot, Mesoraco is the only one who rated below average in framing numbers.
But there’s no shame in finishing behind any of these guys, and Mesoraco certainly had an excellent season for the Reds. This was a great year for NL catchers, and he was one of the main reasons why.
9. Jayson Werth, Washington Nationals
Trivia fact you could win some money with if you had anyone to play RE24 trivia with: Jayson Werth was the second best hitter in the NL this year, according to that metric. With the bases empty, Werth was good (119 wRC+), but put men on base (166 wRC+) or runners in scoring position (182 wRC+), and he was basically the best hitter in the league. His leverage splits tell the same story, as he performed worst in low leverage situations, and did much better with the game on the line.
So, yes, his +4.8 WAR might have tied him for 20th best in the NL, but almost no one in the league produced more value through situational and clutch hitting than Werth did. And as you’ve clearly ascertained by now, that mattered to me, so Werth passed a number of players who had better seasons when context is ignored, and are very likely better players overall. He can’t be expected to hit that well with men on base again, but for 2014, his performance was extremely valuable.
10. Hunter Pence, San Francisco Giants
I telegraphed these two votes a bit in September, writing about Pence as a “stealth MVP candidate”. Werth’s RE24 was 18 runs better than his context neutral Batting Runs, but Pence wasn’t far behind, adding 15 additional runs with his own fantastic situational hitting. And then Pence added the 5th best Clutch rating in the NL on top of that.
Pence had an excellent season from a context neutral standpoint, but factoring the timing of his hits into the equation pushed him onto the final spot on my ballot. Certainly, there were plenty of other highly deserving candidates, and I was surprised I couldn’t find room for either Johnny Cueto or Adam Wainwright on my ballot. Carlos Gomez was a big piece for the Brewers. Jhonny Peralta helped propel the Cardinals to the NL Central. Troy Tulowitzki created a full season’s worth of value, even without playing a full season. Certainly, there are cases to be made for far more than just the 10 names I settled on.
But I had to pick 10, and I spent as much time as I could trying to come up with the best possible way to pick the 10 final names who made my ballot. I’m sure others had their own process for determining very different lists, and that’s okay; reasonable people can disagree, especially with so many candidates bunched tightly together this year. The only real strong convictions I have about my ballot are in the top two spots. I feel fairly comfortable with Kershaw at #1 and Lucroy at #2.
After that, man, this was really hard. Congratulations to each of the 10 players I voted for on their incredible seasons, and to all those who I couldn’t find space for but were similarly excellent.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.