The Case for Corey Seager for National League MVP

Last week, we ran a series of posts laying out the case for the most compelling candidates for the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award (links to all of which are available here). Today, we continue with the National League MVP Award.

Note that, as with last week’s posts, these are designed to make an affirmative argument for their subject and are not intended to serve as comprehensive looks at every candidate on their own. The authors tasked with writing these posts may not even believe their subject actually deserves to win, but they were brave enough to make the case anyway. The goal of these posts is to lay out the potential reasons for voters to consider a variety of candidates and to allow the readers to decide which argument is most persuasive.

Let’s travel back to spring training, shall we? At that point, we projected the Dodgers to win 93 games and take the NL West crown, but we also thought Clayton Kershaw was going to stay healthy and pitch a full season. We thought the rotation behind him would consist of Alex Wood, Brett Anderson, and Scott Kazmir, with Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu coming back in May or June to provide depth. We thought Andre Ethier and Yasiel Puig would man the corner-outfield spots, with Carl Crawford and Scott Van Slyke serving as the reserves. We thought Chris Hatcher and Yimi Garcia would be effective setup guys to get the ball to Kenley Jansen.

Almost nothing has gone the way the Dodgers expected. Their rotation was decimated by injuries, their outfield by injury and underperformance. The bullpen has been a tilt-o-wheel of guys coming up from the minors to throw some innings before heading back to the PCL. They spent the second half of the year without the best pitcher alive, and set the record for most players placed on the disabled list in a single season. And yet, here they are, two weeks from the end of the season, with a projected final record of 92-70. How on earth did they get here?

Well, it’s easy to credit the team with building admirable depth, since that has been the focus of their roster construction. Guys like Justin Turner and Joc Pederson deserve recognition for holding the offense together. Julio Urias has been terrific as a part-time starter. But, in reality, there’s one big reason the Dodgers are likely to win the NL West despite a historic rash of injuries, and that reason is Corey Seager.

The Dodgers’ rookie shortstop was projected to be a good player this year. We had him down for +3 WAR at the start of the year, helping push the Dodgers shortstops into the top tier at the position. Instead, though, he’s been a great player, and he’s going to end the year around +8 WAR, proving to about 2.5 times as valuable as we expected.

It’s not hard to see why Seager’s been so great. He ranks fifth in the NL in wRC+ at the moment, behind a third baseman, two first baseman, and a second baseman with first-base defense. Seager’s hitting like a corner-infield slugger — only, you know, he plays shortstop.

There’s a 26-point gap between Seager and the next-best-hitting shortstop in the NL this year; there’s no team in the NL getting this kind of production from their shortstops. Kris Bryant is having a great year, but there are other great third baseman. Joey Votto, Freddie Freeman, and Anthony Rizzo have made it so that you can’t even really tell who the best-hitting first baseman in the NL this year has been. Sure, Daniel Murphy is similarly ahead of other second baseman, but then again, Murphy hasn’t really played second base full-time this year; he’s also started 17 games at first base and one game at third base, since the Nationals acknowledge his up-the-middle defense leaves a good bit to be desired.

So Seager’s the only real true player at a premium position in the elite tier of NL hitters this year. And since Seager is giving the Dodgers a huge boost at a position where most teams just look for competency, he’s basically the walking embodiment of value to his team.

The case for Seager having an MVP-caliber season is an easy one to make. But, of course, there can be multiple MVP-caliber players within the same league in the same season, and I’m not going to denigrate the work of Kris Bryant in Chicago. Bryant also has a great case (which will appear here on FanGraphs soon) and has hit better than Seager this year while also providing real value on the bases and in the field. But whenever it’s close, as it is with Bryant and Seager, I think it’s worth looking at minor factors that normally don’t get discussed, to see if we can find some details that help separate the contenders.

And, in this case, I think we need to acknowledge that Bryant has benefited from his context more than Seager has. In Chicago, Bryant has hit second or third in the Cubs lineup in almost every game, and because of that, he’s come up to the plate in offensive-friendly situations with some frequency. The Cubs’ leadoff hitters have a .379 OBP, tops in the major leagues, so Bryant has regularly come up to the plate with men on base; 47% of his at-bats have come with a man on, in fact.

Corey Seager has also hit second most of the time, but Dodgers leadoff hitters haven’t been as effective, putting up a .331 OBP this year. Thus, Seager has come to the plate with a man on base just 41% of the time. While the protection theory gets batted around a lot, the reality is that the most obvious way teammates can influence each other’s performance is to get on base in front of the guy coming up; almost everyone hits better with men on than with the bases empty.

For one, pitchers have to throw from the stretch. Fielders also can’t shift with men on base as easily, so the defensive alignment is less optimal. The difference isn’t enormous — we’re talking a league-wide gap of a 101 wRC+ with men on base versus a 99 wRC+ with the bases empty — but it’s a small factor that can add up over a full season. A six-percentage-point difference in distribution of PAs means that Bryant will have gotten about 40 extra at-bats with men on relative to Seager this year, and that’s 40 extra chances to hit with a higher likelihood of success, since Bryant has hit behind teammates better suited to getting on base in front of him.

That’s also the reason you shouldn’t care about RBI totals, of course, but since you’re reading FanGraphs, we’ll assume you already that Bryant’s 25 extra RBIs didn’t tell us anything of value. Seager has actually hit much better in his opportunities to drive in runners than Bryant has, so there’s no real “run producing” argument to be made here.

When you make the slight adjustment for teammate quality, Seager has produced an offensive season very similar to that of Bryant’s while playing a more demanding position. Bryant has been terrific, and he’s certainly a worthy candidate as well, but he didn’t have to produce in a weakened batting order while the Cubs’ entire pitching staff went to go see the trainer. Both players have been excellent, but Seager has had the more difficult job, and he’s risen to the occasion.

The Dodgers would be sunk if they didn’t have Corey Seager. They’d be in trouble even if they had the Corey Seager we thought they’d have back in March. But instead, they’ve gotten Corey Seager, Most Valuable Player in the National League. And while’s a mortal lock to win Rookie of the Year, he should get strong consideration for the big trophy as well.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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6 years ago

Do you know of a stat that tracks playoff probability added? As in applying WPA over the season to its impact on a team’s playoff odds? It would just be another imperfect dimension to the equation, since timing of these things has nothing to do with the player’s skill, but I think it would be interesting.

Ryan Pollackmember
6 years ago
Reply to  jmaicardi

I’m not aware of a site that does this as part of its stats offerings, but it could be done.

Here is a good article that talks about it; more specifically it talks about (World Series) WPA:

You could apply similar math during the regular season. Here is an article that does that for 2009:

6 years ago
Reply to  jmaicardi

The Trout article linked to something called “Championship Win Probability Added”

“Fortunately, Dan Hirsch’s Baseball Gauge calculates Championship Win Probabiltiy Added (cWPA). Using this method, Altuve, Betts, and Donaldson are better than Trout — but also Zach Britton leads the AL and is one of five relievers among the top-nine players. This metric favors players who deliver at big moments in individual games (Trout does!) and whose team is on the playoff bubble for most of the year (not Trout at all!).”

6 years ago
Reply to  MuadDib

This stat (as was discussed in the Ben Lindbergh piece on The Ringer regarding Britton) tends to favor teams who have been on the postseason bubble all year, hence Bryant showing up so low.

6 years ago
Reply to  MuadDib

For the NL, Seager is 14th. Bryant is 81st. Murphy is 1st, followed by Cespedes, Yelich, and Kershaw.

6 years ago
Reply to  MuadDib

Has your prescience shown you the ultimate winner of the series, Emperor?

6 years ago
Reply to  Bip

Any road followed precisely to its end leads precisely nowhere.