Handicapping the Award Races: MVP

Once baseball’s non-waiver trade deadline passes, you start to see the conversations shift from fantasy to terra firma. Almost all the big-name players who are likely to make Chicxulub-sized impacts on team rosters have already been traded. The focus shifts squarely back to the pennant races, and with them, talk of individual player awards.

It will come as no surprise to most readers that I love working on predictive models. It’s not just about trying to predict the future — though that is inevitably a large part of it — it’s also about dissecting things to see how they work. Awards are something I’ve always found fascinating because they not only deal with truths in baseball but also with the psychology and mindset of the people covering the sport. We talk a lot about baseball writers believing more in stats like OBP and SLG, and eventually WAR, but the proof in the pudding is in the eating. If advanced stats don’t budge how writers are judging the best players in the league, are they truly accepted?

We’ll start this trio of pieces with the current MVP races. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past decade modeling MVP votes, and the truth is that things have, in fact, shifted considerably. Slugging percentage and wins above replacement do have more predictive value than they did in the past, as does on-base percentage (albeit to a lesser extent). The defensive players who get a larger share of the vote than one expects tend to be players who do well in the sabermetric defensive measures. Team quality and the Triple Crown stats still play the largest role, however, and even though the MVP award doesn’t specify hitters over pitchers, pitchers still make far less of a dent than one would expect from their impact.

But enough prattling on. Let’s get to the current award projections, starting with the American League.

ZiPS 2018 AL MVP Projections, 8/8/18
Rank Player Win %
1 J.D. Martinez 23.5%
2 Mike Trout 16.9%
3 Jose Ramirez 14.0%
4 Mookie Betts 13.5%
5 Khris Davis 9.6%
6 Francisco Lindor 4.2%
7 Jose Altuve 4.2%
8 Chris Sale 2.8%
9 Giancarlo Stanton 2.8%
10 Alex Bregman 1.2%
NA The Field 7.4%

In stat-friendly circles, the discussion of the AL MVP award tends to revolve around the four players lapping the field in WAR: Mookie Betts, Jose Ramirez, Mike Trout, and to a lesser extent, Francisco Lindor. After Lindor, it’s nearly a two-win drop to the next player, the injured Aaron Judge, so it’s natural for the sabermetrically inclined to see a top tier in the AL that’s clearly ahead of the pack.

The problem is that Triple Crown stats, which remain a large part of how writers determine the award, paint a murkier picture of the race. One can say that the MVP race should be between Betts, Ramirez, and Trout, but with those numbers, other competitors sneak in.

The most notable of these competitors is J.D. Martinez, whom ZiPS thinks is the current AL favorite. The AL East race was essentially settled once the Red Sox swept the Yankees in a four-game series last weekend, with Martinez a member of the team coming out on top. He currently leads the AL in home runs and RBI and is third in batting average. That’s a player with a non-zero shot at winning the Triple Crown, and as terrific as both Betts and Ramirez are, a lot of craziness can happen in a two-month period. ZiPS puts the Triple Crown probability for Martinez at 6%, and as we’ve seen from the Miguel Cabrera/Trout race a few years ago, a Triple Crown winner tends to end a lot of the discussion.

Khris Davis is a stretch from a WAR standpoint, as ZiPS has him finishing only in the 30s in the AL rankings. But he’s also projected to finish just behind Martinez in home runs and RBI, and he’s the most notable player on one of the few AL teams still in an actual playoff race. You can say that Matt Chapman ought to be that player — and I agree with you — but if voters are looking at the Oakland A’s, the player ranked among the league leaders for homers and RBI is going to receive more votes than a third baseman with 20-25 homers and 60 or so RBI, no matter his glove.

Stanton still rates at having a realistic path to the MVP award. Rather than hitting 60 homers, he’s on a path for around 40, hobbling a bit at the moment, and he just got national coverage for striking out to designated hitter Matt Davidson. Stanton’s also a player whocould bust out 25 homers in two months. (He hit 30 last July and August.) And remember, while I said the AL East was essentially a done race, it’s not officially done, and while this is out of ZiPS’s purview, a miracle comeback by the Yankees (which would probably need a terrific run by Stanton to maximize those odds) would be a very effective storyline for Giancarlo.

That’s the American League in brief. Now here’s the National League:

ZiPS 2018 NL MVP Projections, 8/8/18
Rank Player Win %
1 Nolan Arenado 30.2%
2 Matt Carpenter 12.3%
3 Eugenio Suarez 8.4%
4 Freddie Freeman 8.4%
5 Javier Baez 8.3%
6 Christian Yelich 8.1%
7 Nick Markakis 4.2%
8 Bryce Harper 3.4%
9 Max Scherzer 3.3%
10 Aaron Nola 2.4%
NA The Field 11.2%

While the WAR figures might lead one to the conclusion that the NL has no obvious frontrunner, ZiPS strenuously disagrees with that analysis. Nolan Arenado is second in the NL in round-trippers, third in RBI, and seventh in batting average, but still close enough in all the categories that the projections feel he could unleash a sneak-attack on a Triple Crown race. The computer projects Arenado to finish fifth in BA, but with upside, and lead in the other jewels in the Triple Crown while also leading the National League in WAR. There’s also not a lot of evidence voters really give a big Coors hit to Rockies in seasonal awards.

It’s not often that a player en route to an MVP-level campaign is also the sort who has, earlier in the season, prompted readers to ask in one of my chats if that same player’s career is perhaps over. Still below the Mendoza Line on May 23rd, Matt Carpenter has hit an absolutely ludicrous .331/.436/.726 since, with 26 home runs in 66 games. If he continues to mash like this, it’ll be almost impossible for him not to win the MVP award, though maintaining an 1.150 OPS is easier said than done. Carpenter’s probably not helped by the perception that St. Louis is a non-contender, but the probability of them snagging a Wild Card spot is still firmly in plausible territory.

I’m not as convinced as ZiPS that Suarez will grab that many MVP votes, but Joey Votto finished second in voting last year on an even worse Reds team, so who knows in a non-obvious race? I enjoy seeing Harper in the top 10, because even in what is indisputably a down year for him, he remains a dangerous player, and like Stanton in the AL, a low-probability comeback by the Nats will more often than not require Harper to have fully entered Beast Mode.

Scherzer is the most valuable player in the National League in 2018 so far, and I’d happily vote for him if the season ended today. Just on merit, he ought to be a near slam dunk, but again, many writers simply don’t consider pitchers, and even the ballots that do include pitchers tend to admit hurlers into the MVP fraternity on a rather limited and somewhat arbitrary fashion. If the season ended today — I do not know which, if any, award I’m voting for in the NL this year — I’d probably vote for five pitchers on my MVP ballot, and that would likely be the most (or near) for pitcher inclusions among the voters.

If the Brewers do win the NL Central, you’d expect one of their hitters to have a strong award case, but which one? ZiPS projects Lorenzo Cain to be the team’s WAR leader and to finish fifth in the NL in WAR, but without one offensive stat that really sticks out — one of Cain’s virtues is his well-rounded game — it’s a hard sell for him to get it done just with defense. Jesus Aguilar is having a terrific year, nearly out of the blue, but he is projected to finish in fifth in homers/RBI. ZiPS goes with Yelich, projecting him to finish sixth in WAR with a batting average title at which to point. When in doubt, go with the player with the bullet-point offensive highlight.

I must admit, I’m a bit biased (though ZIPS doesn’t know it), as I’ve been on the Yelich-breakout train for some time. Here’s what I wrote over the winter about Yelich, leading off my yearly breakouts piece.

Yelich is already one of the most valuable commodities in baseball, a star center fielder with a team-friendly contract, and if the Marlins choose to trade him, they may get more for him than they did for Marcell Ozuna and Giancarlo Stanton combined.

So, what’s an established star doing here? The one thing Yelich hasn’t had is that crazy MVP-type season where everything goes right. He’s one of the few players in baseball who can legitimately be called a .340-.350 BABIP hitter, and while he doesn’t have the raw power of Aaron Judge, his average exit velocity was in the top 30 in baseball, just behind Jose Abreu and Bryce Harper. Yelich is also a solid contact hitter, and with his plate discipline and above-average contact rate, I think there’s the potential to improve that strikeout rate. I think that magical year in which he has a peak Will Clark/Joey Votto season while being a center fielder is in there somewhere.

Key breakout stat: 14 percent chance of an OPS+ over 140

I think I got more right there than I got wrong (Yelich hasn’t played any center field), and like most people, I like looking like I’m smart!

Next up: the Cy Youngs. Or, is it Cys Young?

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Eugenio Suarez will win MVP, just as Nostradamus foretold in 1555.

(eventually, if you make a joke enough, it becomes true?)