The Other NL MVP Candidates

The field for the National League Most Valuable Player Award is wide open, and in a good way. There are a bevy of well qualified candidates, and even if voters may now be uncertain as to what do with Giancarlo Stanton now given his injury, there are still three no-doubt top-of-the-ballot candidates: Andrew McCutchen, Clayton Kershaw and Jonathan Lucroy. These three have been in the spotlight all season, and with Stanton, figure to be the ones who take home the hardware. But that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones for whom there is a case worth making. There as many as six other players who deserve recognition, and with white-hot finishing kicks could put themselves into the mix with the top dogs.

Anthony Rendon
I’ve been getting asked in chat for a few weeks about Rendon, and deservedly so. Rendon pretty much does everything at an average or better level. When I scroll down his player page to try to poke holes in his performance this year, I’m essentially left with the fact that he hasn’t hit cutters well. A right-handed hitter who can’t hit cutters? You don’t say! But given the fact that he sees them just 5.2 percent of the time makes me think that this really isn’t an issue.

Rendon doesn’t chase pitches, doesn’t swing and miss hardly at all — his 5.2% swinging strike percentage ranks 21st in the game — he takes his walks, he doesn’t strike out a lot, he hits plenty of line drives, he’s played scratch/good defense at two infield positions, he’s even cut his infield fly ball percentage. But aside from being the best baserunner on his team, and fourth-best in baseball, there really isn’t anything that you would say Rendon does tremendously well. His season looks a lot like Ian Kinsler’s 2008 season, but with better defense.

All of which is fantastic — he’s clearly been the best player on the Nationals this year — but this sort of all-around game is not generally the kind of game that gets you noticed by MVP voters (for reference Kinsler finished in a tie for 20th and last place in the ’08 AL MVP voting). Especially when you play on a team with more established stars/headliners like Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg.

Buster Posey
While Rendon may be destined to finish down ballot, Posey may have a legit chance at taking the crown. For one thing, the narrative flows pretty easily. Posey caught fire just in time to resurrect the Giants’ season, or so the story will likely go, assuming the Giants make it to October that is.

Whether voters attribute that to him regressing back to form, or want to fit a more hyperbolic explanation to it, one thing is clear — Posey has been the best player in the NL in the second half, and it’s not really that close. His 186 wRC+ is 20 percent better than the next hitter, and his WAR nearly a half-win higher. Furthermore, his WAR doesn’t even take pitch framing into account. As you can see if you click that link to StatCorner, Posey is not the champion of pitch framing that Lucroy is, but being seventh-best in the game overall and 16th-best on a per game basis is pretty strong. This is an important notion, as given Posey’s uptick in first-base games, there is a tendency to think that perhaps he can’t hack it at catcher anymore. Not only can he hack it, but only two other NL catchers — Lucroy and Miguel Montero — have started more games at catcher than has Posey. Posey isn’t playing first base in place of some games caught, he’s playing first base in place of taking days off.

Overall, this season doesn’t really match up with his 2012 MVP season, but it is an improvement on last year. Essentially, Posey has traded a little patience for a bunch of power, and the result has been his second-best offensive season. Still, voters already know and love him — he also has that 2010 Rookie of the Year Award in his trophy case — and given that he has is so hot at the time when voters are considering who to vote for, he may not only creep into the top five, but actually win the hardware outright.

Hunter Pence
If there’s a reason to pause any coronation of Posey, it may be Pence. While Posey was lukewarm in the first half and red hot in the second, Pence has been steadily great in both halves — he posted a 136 wRC+ in the first half and has posted a 137 wRC+ thus far in the second half. That kind of steadiness can play big with voters, as we all like to know what we’re going to get from our star players day in and day out. Pence has done that, and has displayed his customarily good fielding and baserunning throughout as well. His flashy totals — the homers and stolen bases — are down a shade, but he has compensated by posting a career-high in triples (10 — tied for second in the majors, with only Dee Gordon in front of him) and having his grounded into double plays count.

Pence never seems to get the credit he deserves — he’s only been an All-Star three times and has never finished higher than 16th in the MVP voting — so if he doesn’t get any sort of recognition this year, it probably won’t be a big surprise for him. Hopefully that changes this year. Pence is now just one of 228 players since 1901 to amass at least 100 homers and 100 stolen bases, and for his career he’s now up to 30 WAR. Not Hall of Fame numbers, but it’s nice to recognize steady players at their peak. And last year and this year likely represent the bulk of Pence’s peak.

Jason Heyward and Jhonny Peralta
I’m grouping these two together because they wouldn’t place so high on the WAR leaderboards if it weren’t for their defensive numbers. If you visit this site or sites like it with any frequency, you know that defensive metrics have been a hot topic lately. A vote for either player will depend on how much credence you give to said metrics, but as Dave pointed out in July, Peralta serves as a good reminder that we can’t solely rely on the eye test when evaluating defense.

Looking at the two offensively, Peralta gets the nod, as he has not only been the better hitter, but he has been so at a more premium defensive position. Peralta’s power is back this year, as he has to date posted the third-best ISO of his career, and best since 2008. But the added power has not come with more strikeouts. Quite to the contrary, Peralta is striking out less than he did last year, and his 18.1% K rate is better than his 20.2% career K rate as well.

Heyward finds some light here as well. After posting a 23.3% K rate in 2012, he cut that way down last year to 16.6%, and has trimmed some more fat off it this year to 15.5%. That has come with a drop in his ISO and SLG, to the point where you wonder if the Braves are asking him to be a specific type of hitter. Either way, the drop in strikeouts doesn’t look like a fluke — as his swinging strike percentage is also at a career-low/best 7.5% this season. Finally, after forgetting how to/choosing not to steal bases last year, Heyward is on track for a second 20-stolen base campaign, which is great news.

It’s unlikely that either player sneaks into the top five in the voting, unless Stanton really gets downgraded for the time missed thanks to his hit by pitch, but certainly Heyward and Peralta belong in the conversation.

Carlos Gomez
It’s been kind of a good news and bad news season for Gomez. The good news is that last year’s breakthrough was no fluke. Gomez has hit just as well this season overall. The bad news is that there were some missed opportunities. Gomez was on fire in April and May, but after May, his season sort of took a turn south, and he is finally just back to hitting well now. It’s likely that his wrist, neck, hamstring and back injuries have taken a toll — his range numbers are way down, and if they hold, will be a career low. He has also been caught stealing 10 or more times for just the second time in his career. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that he has still managed 30 steals, giving him back-to-back 20-30 seasons. That doesn’t happen every day. In fact, there are only 145 such seasons in baseball history.

Where that leaves Gomez on the ballot is hard to figure. He’s probably the hardest guy to figure for me right now, in fact. I am comfortable saying he should finish better than the ninth place finish he had last season, but beyond that I’m not sure.

The last time that the third-place finisher in the NL MVP race received more than two votes was 2007, when Prince Fielder received five, behind Matt Holliday (11) in second and Jimmy Rollins (16) in first. We may have a similarly split vote this year, and the landscape may look a little different come the start of the postseason — there is some jockeying to be done in the final weeks. Hopefully, voters will keep an open mind until the season wraps up.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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