Giancarlo Stanton is your 2017 NL MVP. Barely.
The Marlins outfielder edged out Cincinnati’s Joey Votto by two points (two!), for a final total of 302 to 300. Votto and Stanton each received 10 first-place votes. The latter, however, received 10 second-place votes; the former, just nine. The individual ballots are here.
According to the BBWAA, there have been only two closer NL MVP races than the 2017 edition: in 1979, when Keith Hernandez and Willie Stargell tied and, in 1944, when Cardinals shortstop Marty Marion topped Cubs outfielder Bill Nicholson by a single point.
You could pick either Votto and Stanton and not err egregiously. Paul Goldschmidt was the third NL MVP finalist. Despite producing an excellent season in his own right, he was a cut below by most measures.
The voters selected Stanton. They recognized a fine player, the preeminent home-run artist in the year of the home run. If I had a vote (I did not), I would have placed Votto on the No. 1 line.
Stanton led the majors in home runs (59). If RBIs are your thing, he led the majors there, too (132). He closed off his stance and made real gains in contact and zone discipline. He was more than just a slugger.
Also in Stanton’s favor is the level of his opponents. He faced a slightly higher quality of competition according to Baseball Prospectus’ Quality of Pitchers Faced metric, holding a 107 to 103 edge.
The runner-up, Votto, led baseball with an absurd .454 on-base percentage, leading 22nd-ranked Stanton (.376) by a significant margin. He led the NL in wRC+ (165), while Stanton finished second (156). Votto led the NL in wOBA (.428), too. Votto was the most efficient hitter in the NL.
As you might expect, Stanton held an edge in baserunning, though neither were standouts. Votto made remarkable strides defensively this year. After posting a -14 DRS mark last year, the first baseman improved to +11 this season. Stanton posted a +10 DRS mark in right field.
Wins Above Replacement is a good place to start in examining any MVP race. The metric suggested a very close overall value. Stanton stayed healthy in 2017 and posted a career-best 6.9 WAR, tying him for the NL lead with Anthony Rendon, who was absent from the finalist list, perhaps giving him grounds for a grievance with voters. Votto ranked just behind, fourth in the NL, with 6.6 WAR. According to Baseball Reference, Stanton held just a 0.1 WAR lead over Votto.
These were competitive resumes.
WAR doesn’t capture everything. It doesn’t capture all value. In a runaway race, in a year when Mike Trout is healthy, WAR is a useful measure. But in this race, it marked just a starting point.
If we drill down, what do we find?
First, it appears as though there’s really no “clutch” argument to be made. The pair ranked closely in Win Probability Added, with Votto (4.96) ranking second in the game behind only Mike Trout (5.58) and Stanton ranking third (4.84). Goldschmidt was 18th (2.48). An examination of the Clutch metric reveals Votto ranked 114th (-0.78) while Stanton ranked 141st (-2.30). Goldschmidt had a -1.84 mark.
But Votto did separate himself in a couple hidden of areas.
Traditionally, Votto has made pitchers work a little more. He produces more stress on opposing arms, which has a positive effect not only for himself but for his teammates in the lineup. That doesn’t show up in WAR. And there is some evidence that he holds an edge there.
In total pitches seen, they ranked beside each other in 2017. Stanton placed 11th in the sport with 2,736 pitches seen; Votto, 12th (2,733).
Votto separated himself by some other measures of patience, however. By pitches seen when ahead in the count, Votto (981) ranked second only to Aaron Judge (1,000), while Stanton ranked in the top 10 (930). In two-strike performance, Votto held an overwhelming advantage. Here Votto led the sport with a .359 wOBA with two strikes while Stanton ranked 240th (.236). The league average was .241.
Even with his contact and zone-discipline improvements, you can get Stanton out. You can get him to chase out of the zone. He recorded a 27.4%. swing rate on pitches out of the zone, for example, and 12.5% swinging-strike rate. The latter mark, in particular, is indicate of a player conceding contact for power.
Votto, though? You have to come in the zone against Votto, and you have to beat him there or he’ll take his walk. While Stanton is still susceptible to sliders out of the zone, Votto produced positive performances against every pitch type according to linear weights. This year, he recorded a career-low 5.7% swinging-strike rate and chased just 19.2% of pitches out of the zone, the second-best mark of his career. Votto is always evolving. He seemingly choked up six inches on the bat in certain situations in 2017 to make contact at all costs. And he began to try and elevate the ball and hit over shifts.
If you’re a believer in process over outcome, Votto was better, as well. He ranked second to Judge (.446) among qualified hitters in expected wOBA (.424) and 26 points above the 10th-ranked Stanton (.398).
Stanton and Votto are great — so are Goldschmidt and Rendon — but this award is not shared.
It was tough to make a poor choice at the top of the ballot. But ultimately Votto was the tougher out; he’s the toughest out in the NL and perhaps the game. He did the best job of avoiding outs, hitting with two strikes, generally making pitchers miserable. WAR doesn’t capture all this. By DRS, he made dramatic defensive improvements. It was the closest of races, but if I were drafting a team based off of 2017 players, Votto would be my first choice.