With yet another day to go before actual baseball returns to the field, I thought I would take a quick look at some of the potential MVP candidates in both leagues based on the first half of the season.
Identifying MVP candidates is certainly not a straightforward process, nor is the criteria universally agreed upon. Knowing this I will not begin or end this article with any claim to have identified the “proper” candidates. These are my candidates based on my way of looking at the term “valuable”.
So what is my criteria? Well, I like to think of MVPs as players that provide an exceptional amount of production in both an absolute and relative sense. This means identifying players that lead or are close to leading the league in production, but where there is also a sizable gap between their production and that of the second best player on their own team. This means that I do tend to discount great performances by players that happen to share the same uniform as equally great players. Is it their fault? Absolutely not. In fact, those players could likely be the best all around players in the entire league. But when it comes to value I think there is a relative component that should be considered. This isn’t to necessarily give credit to the player (i.e. they don’t “step it up” to make up for the gap in talent on the team), but rather to the performance itself.
Like I said, this is my criteria and I don’t claim that it should trump all others, nor would I say it is complete on it’s own. Rather, I think it’ a useful starting place.
Okay, enough with the preamble. Let’s get to the data.
I used both WAR and wRC+ to determine those players with the greatest absolute and relative value so far. WAR is a useful heuristic when one is trying to capture overall value (hitting, baserunning, defense) in a single number. However, while all of the components of WAR can vary across sample sizes (including 80+ games), we know that UZR is even more sensitive to small samples. To counter this a bit I also included the absolute and relative values of each player’s weighted runs created (wRC+). This is not to discount defense, simply to acknowledge that an offensive performance (or, at least, the offensive metric I am using) over roughly 80 games is closer to reflecting a player’s actual talent level than their defensive performance.
Here are the National League candidates:
And here are the players in the American League:
In terms of absolute value I decided to include a cut-off of 4 WAR. It’s somewhat arbitrary and crude, based on my conception that a full season MVP will likely end the season with a WAR around +/-8. (Yes, I know that this isn’t always actually the case, but as I said it’s based on my view of MVP.)
What’s interesting is that the National League appears to have more candidates for first half MVP than the American League. This isn’t to say that the National League is therefore better, just that the league happens to have more 4+ WAR players over the course of the first half. Additionally, it illustrates that whether you are looking at WAR or wRC+, rosters in the National League are less balanced than those of the American League.
The player with an absolute value over 4 WAR and the highest difference between their performance and their closest teammate in the National League is David Wright. Wright is having an unreal season so far, and whether you look at WAR or simply his offensive performance (wRC+) he clearly has been the linchpin for a Mets team that currently sits a half game out of the Wild Card. Wright is essentially tied with the Reds’ Joey Votto in terms of WAR, but has accounted for 3.5 wins more than any other player on the Mets. Votto has been the superior offensive player this year, but the gap between both players and their teammates is virtually identical. I should also note that the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen, who has been nothing short of spectacular, has accounted for a greater differential offensively than either Wright or Votto. Now you might say that’s not a hard trick given the offense in Pittsburgh, but McCutchen is sporting the second-highest wRC+ (180) in all of baseball.
In terms of the American League, my criteria yields three candidates. The Yankees’ Robinson Cano has managed to stand out on a roster that does not lack for star power. This year, Cano has accounted for over 2.5 wins more than his closest teammate (Mark Teixeira) and has been 23% better offensively than Curtis Granderson. As good as Cano has been, Angels’ rookie Mike Trout has arguably been more impressive. Trout has amassed almost 5 WAR since he was called up in late April — over half a win better than Cano. Additionally, Trout has been an offensive force, posting aan AL-leading wRC+ of 172.
So who would I actually pick as the first half MVP from each league?
It’s really tough in the National League. My inclination and admitted bias as a fan leads me to say Wright, but given what McCutchen has been doing to keep that Pittsburgh team in contention it is very hard to argue against him. In the American League, it’s much easier for me. Combine Trout’s offensive contribution with his phenomenal defense and all-around stellar game and it’s hard for me to argue against the 20 year old being the first half MVP in the American League.
Bill leads Predictive Modeling and Data Science consulting at Gallup. In his free time, he writes for The Hardball Times, speaks about baseball research and analytics, has consulted for a Major League Baseball team, and has appeared on MLB Network's Clubhouse Confidential as well as several MLB-produced documentaries. He is also the creator of the baseballr package for the R programming language. Along with Jeff Zimmerman, he won the 2013 SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis. Follow him on Twitter @BillPetti.