There Is No Obvious NL MVP

Back in August, I wrote about the remarkably crowded NL MVP race. I went through 10 guys with pretty strong cases for the award, and noted there wasn’t much separation between those 10 guys. I ended the piece by noting that “this list will undoubtedly narrow itself”, figuring that down the stretch, a few guys would rise above the rest of the crop and become the clear top candidates.

Well, that didn’t happen. With just a few days left before NL MVP voters are required to turn in their ballots, the reality is that this is the most muddled class of MVP candidates I can ever remember.

Here are the current top senior circuit leaders in WAR.

NL WAR Leaders
Rank Player WAR
1 Kris Bryant 6.7
2 Anthony Rendon 6.7
3 Joey Votto 6.7
4 Charlie Blackmon 6.4
5 Giancarlo Stanton 6.4
6 Max Scherzer 5.9
7 Tommy Pham 5.7
8 Corey Seager 5.6
9 Paul Goldschmidt 5.6
10 Justin Turner 5.4

Not included in that top 10 is Nolan Arenado, who is tied with Turner at +5.4 WAR, even though UZR isn’t rating him as an elite defender; if you swapped in DRS instead of UZR as the fielding metric of choice, Arenado would be right up near the top. Also excluded from that list is Gio Gonzalez and Clayton Kershaw, who have +6.7 and +6.6 WAR if you go by runs allowed; Scherzer also climbs to +6.9 if you just use run totals to evaluate pitcher performance.

In other words, there are thirteen guys who have some kind of case for a spot near the top of the ballot. The cases aren’t all equal, but the differences between them are mostly small enough that you can reasonably defend a ballot with just about any kind of ranking.

Want to just reward the best hitter? Despite Stanton’s 57 home runs, that’s Votto, who has a 165 wRC+ thanks to being third in average, first in on-base percentage, and sixth in slugging. He’s also the only candidate who has played every single game all year long, so Votto has both quantity and quality on his side. Of course, he’s a first baseman on a losing team, so not everyone will put him at the top of their ballot, but he’s got a good case for those who mostly just value offensive performance.

Want the best hitter, but require your MVP to come from a playoff team? That’s actually Turner, who ran a 151 wRC+ and was one of the main reasons the Dodgers posted the best record in baseball this year. But he missed a month of the season, and so if you want the best hitter from a playoff team who didn’t spend time on the DL, you’re looking at Kris Bryant, last year’s winner and maybe the NL’s best all-around player. But Bryant might get ignored by voters who still value RBI totals, since he has driven in just 73 runs this year.

RBI voters will likely go to Arenado (129 RBIs) or Goldschmidt (120 RBIs) if they care about playoff qualifications, or Stanton (123 RBIs) if they don’t. Of course, RBIs aren’t a metric that serious voters should spend much time looking at, but the concept of rewarding hitters who move runners along the bases is a sound one. Bases-empty hits are worth less than hits with men on base, and guys who distribute their hits into more important situations do help their teams win more games.

So any RBI voter who wanted a better metric to measure the same idea could look at RE24, where Votto comes out on top, but an RE24 voter who wants to reward a player on a contender could see Goldschmidt as the league’s next best hitter.

And then there will likely be at least a few voters who play the “where would this team be without this specific player?” game. I personally hate this argument, since it punishes players who happen to also have good teammates, but of the 30 voters, it’s likely at least a few will try to use the argument that some certain player got his team over the top on his own, as specious as it is. And for those voters, Goldschmidt, Blackmon, and Arenado are probably the most appealing options, since they were the key cogs on the two Wild Card teams, and they don’t have as many great teammates to say “well, they still would have had this guy.”

If I had to guess, I think Rendon, Seager, Turner, and Pham will probably the position players who get the least consideration of the guys in our top 10 in WAR. Rendon, Turner, and Seager aren’t in the top 10 in Baseball Reference’s calculation, and Pham doesn’t have the sexy numbers of the other hitters on non-playoff teams. And since there isn’t one pitcher that has clearly separated himself from the other pitchers this year, I think those guys will end up receiving just a few down-ballot votes.

But even if we think those guys will get mostly passed over, that still leaves six other candidates that the voters will likely be picking from for the top spot on their ballot. And there just isn’t an obvious point of separation between most of them.

This year, the NL MVP really will come down to what kind of secondary numbers a voter looks at in order to split hairs. Maybe most will decide that’s playing for a contender, which would hurt Votto and Stanton’s chances. Maybe it will go towards the guys who were seen as the difference between their team winning and not winning, in which case I’d bet on Goldschmidt slightly edging out Arenado.

But while lots of guys can make a case, the reality is that voters can reasonably defend almost any ranking on their 2017 NL MVP ballot. Some guy who is first on one ballot might be sixth on another, and it won’t be worthy of any kind of outrage. This year, there are so many clustered candidates that voters can basically pick anyone they want, and it will probably be a reasonable selection.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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