Lately there’s been some talk about Yoenis Cespedes as an MVP candidate. Jon Paul Morosi wrote a piece advocating for Cespedes at Fox yesterday, Richard Justice wrote a similar piece for MLB.com, and those are just the ones I saw in between cleaning up randomly placed pockets of cat vomit and carting my kids around town to their various appointments. So there might be more. Articles, not cat vomit. There is definitely more cat vomit.
To check, I did that thing where you start typing a search into Google then stop and let it suggest what you might want. Here’s what my Google suggested when I typed in “Yoenis Cespedes.”
So this is now a thing, apparently. Yoenis Cespedes: MVP candidate.
Except, it’s not, really, right? Is there an argument for Cespedes as MVP? Yes. There is an argument for Brock Holt as MVP too, if you want to make it. Is there an argument for Cespedes as National League MVP? Not one anyone should take seriously.
The reason there isn’t is pretty simple: Bryce Harper. If you want to get technical about it, also Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto, Andrew McCutchen, Buster Posey, Anthony Rizzo, and on and on. Cespedes has had a fantastic season, but as Morosi noted four paragraphs into his piece, Cespedes played the first 102 games of his season for the Detroit Tigers who play in the American League, which means he’s been a much less valuable National League player this season than any of the players listed above and, in fact, many more than that.
If you go to the leaderboards here at FanGraphs, then set minimum plate appearances to 100 in order to allow Cespedes to qualify for the list, you’ll find Cespedes ranked 33rd, tied with DJ LeMahieu and Chris Coghlan. That’s a monster 36 games Cespedes has put together, but in terms of overall impact, there was just no way he was going to be able to compete with the cream of the NL crop in such a short timespan.
This situation has happened before, and not all that far back in history. In 2008 the Red Sox dumped Manny Ramirez on the Dodgers at the trade deadline. Ramirez played 100 games with Boston before going to Los Angeles, whereupon he hit .396/.489/.743 with 17 homers in 53 games. That was good for +3.0 WAR, though the overall number was dragged down by his lovable but inept Mannyness in the outfield, which voters generally don’t weight that heavily come awards time. Cespedes is hitting .312/.357/.675 with 14 home runs through 36 games, which is great, but quite a bit less impressive than Ramirez. Manny finished fourth in the NL MVP balloting that season. Cespedes is facing a different field of players, but the top rung contained Albert Pujols’ +8.7 WAR season, so the competition is similar. In other words, unless things are substantially different now, either through the electorate or some other soft factor, Cespedes won’t win.
So perhaps the question isn’t, “Could Cespedes win?”, but rather “Should Cespedes win?” The argument for Cespedes as NL MVP boils down to saying 50 games of Cespedes is more valuable than about 150 games of Bryce Harper, or if you have to have your MVPs come from playoff teams, Andrew McCutchen. I know people get caught up in the pennant races and the Mets are exciting and fun and all that right now but that’s frankly a silly argument. Even if you really wanted to give the award to a Mets outfielder, there’s Curtis Granderson, who is hitting .276/.389/.530 since Cespedes arrived, plus was one of the primary reasons the team was in position to make a move for Cespedes to begin with.
Yet it should be pointed out that, league distinction aside, Cespedes is having an MVP-caliber season, or at least the kind of year that puts you in the conversation. On the whole, in 138 games played, he’s put up a 140 wRC and +6.8 WAR, which isn’t quite Bryce Harper’s 2015 performance, but is plenty good on its own. Cespedes is having a great year.
So, ask yourself this: what if Cespedes had played those first 102 games for the Padres? Or the Brewers? Or the Phillies? Would he be a good candidate for the NL MVP then? Of course, assuming his production in those places matched what he did for Detroit. He still might not win — Harper is a very strong candidate — but at least he’d be in the discussion, and no one would be dismissing him as a top-tier alternative. So why is he being penalized for spending part of an excellent season in Detroit? Because Detroit is an American League city! That’s a good point except so what?
There are two MVP awards ostensibly because the leagues are so different. And they used to be very different, but now they really aren’t that different. Before free agency players used to be NL or AL players for all or most of their careers. Thus the leagues really were different in that they had different pools of talent. From that perspective it makes sense to pick two different MVPs. Now the leagues have the same pool of players, they use the same ball, they have the same umpires, and with inter-league play the teams even play each other directly.
The only remaining difference — and it’s a rather large one I acknowledge — is the DH, but that doesn’t stop the leagues from playing inter-league games or the World Series on the same ball fields as one another. The leagues aren’t identical, but they are more similar than they used to be. So why not consider Cespedes’ early season performance, even if it occurred in the other league? Are we really okay with great seasons being ignored by history when a guy is traded between leagues, when we don’t make that same distinction as long as he’s traded within the same league?
If the purpose of the separate awards for each league is to honor the best seasons of players in that league, than maybe we should only treat the team a player is on at the end of the year as a qualification for which MVP Award a player is eligible to win, rather than assuming that only a player’s value while in that league can count towards his candidacy. Cespedes has legitimately been one of the most valuable players in baseball this year; why should we prefer a methodology that is incapable of recognizing that?
Of course, as long as we are limiting ourselves to value created within that specific league, there is simply no way to say he’s been more valuable to the Mets than Harper has been to the Nationals, McCutchen has been to the Pirates, or Rizzo has been to the Cubs. But there is a stronger argument to be made that Cespedes’ overall season has been worthy of MVP consideration independent of the current leagues-centric structure of the MVP award. Cespedes hasn’t been the best, but he’s been really good, and if you get past the hyperbole and the recency bias, maybe there is something there worth recognizing, and perhaps the fault lies not in Cespedes’ record but in how we structure the awards themselves.