Yoenis Cespedes and the MVP Award

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.”

Cespedes Google

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.





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Ben
6 years ago

This is just ridiculous. Cespedes nor anyone else is near Harper. Not close at all. Harper is having one of the greatest seasons of all time. Put this to bed.

dte421
6 years ago
Reply to  Ben

Slow down here. Harper’s having a great year, but he’s currently projected to finish with 9.4 WAR… the same as Jacoby Ellsbury in 2011. It doesn’t even crack the top 100 seasons for position players.

free range turducken
6 years ago
Reply to  dte421

So how many votes should 2011 Ellsbury get in THIS year’s NL MVP race?

Pig.Pen
6 years ago
Reply to  dte421

Well I guess if WAR is the end all be all your argument has merit, but it’s not because UZR still sucks, especially over a single season. Harper is having the greatest batting season of any player not named Bonds this century.

Ben
6 years ago
Reply to  Pig.Pen

I did a very quick look and Harper has the 29th best single season wRC+ since 1915. Of the 29 better seasons, 19 are from Bonds, Ruth, and Williams. It is the best non-Bonds wRC+ season since McGwire in 1998. I think it is pretty safe to say that Harper is having an all time great offensive season.

Teddy Ballgame
6 years ago
Reply to  Pig.Pen

Up yours! Babe Ruth also says something to the same effect from beyond the grave.

Teddy Ballgame
6 years ago
Reply to  Pig.Pen

also that he can’t read and mistook “this century” for the past century, or past 100 years. But Teddy isn’t sorry. He never says that.

Cool Lester Smooth
6 years ago
Reply to  Pig.Pen

Yeah, replace UZR with DRS and he’s already at 9.4 WAR

I usually replace the defense portion of FG’s WAR with an average of UZR and DRS, which puts him at ~9 for the season, and I’d expect ~10 wins by that method, and quite possibly more, if he maintains his usual September tOPS+ of 110 and puts up a 211 wRC+ on the month.

L. Ron Hoyabembe
6 years ago
Reply to  Pig.Pen

Honest question, does UZR suck at capturing what actually happened on the field or does it just suck because it takes a long time to stabilize?

Cool Lester Smooth
6 years ago
Reply to  Pig.Pen

Yes, haha. BIS data is the best thing available to the public, but it isn’t very good.

Cool Lester Smooth
6 years ago
Reply to  dte421

He’s having the best non-Bonds offensive season in the past 50 years.

He’s 22 years old.

This is, without a doubt, one of the greatest seasons of all time.

TKDC
6 years ago

Bagwell and Thomas in 94 and McGwire in 98 had higher wRC+

Also, if you had made this statement a couple days ago, there would be a few other guys in there, too (including Dick Allen!).

I think there is enough time left for Harper to either cement this as a historical offensive season (putting aside age, which if considered makes this truly historic even if he tanks the last 25 games) or tail off and merely be the best offensive season this season, or be somewhere in between where you could call it historically great if you wanted to but you wouldn’t have to.

Cool Lester Smooth
6 years ago

94 (unfortunately) wasn’t a full season, so I wasn’t counting it, even though they qualified for the batting title. It just doesn’t seem fair to compare the two, when Bagwell and Thomas didn’t have to battle through the dog days of August and September, especially since Thomas usually faded a bit down the stretch (from a .978 career OPS to a .965. Holy shit was Frank Thomas good at hitting).

Good call on McGwire, though (even if he probably belongs in the post-99 Bonds category, haha).

francis
6 years ago

What does the fact that he is 22 have anything to do with the quality of the season he’s having ?

Matt
6 years ago

Huh? His age has nothing to do with the quality of THIS season, only that there could be more projection in the FUTURE.

This is, without a doubt, a frivolous post.

Cool Lester Smooth
6 years ago

Did you miss the part where only Bonds and McGwire have put up a higher wRC+ over 120+ games in the past 50 years?

I know reading is hard, Matt, but don’t worry. You’ll get there someday!

Leonard
6 years ago

Not so fast, Lester: Matt is pretty clearly replying to and commenting on francis’s post (the system only allows a couple levels of indents). Reading isn’t really that hard.

Leonard
6 years ago

Sorry, I’ve read further in the comments below, and I take it back. You got it right Lester. Reading is hard.

george
6 years ago

let’s let the season finish before the whole, “having the best non-Bonds offensive season in the past 50 years stuff.” Cabrera had a 192 wrc+ a couple of years ago. two bad games could drop harper at that level. save the hyperboles once the year’s over…

Redhaven14
6 years ago

Please see the first FULL seasons of Trout, Mike; Pujols, Albert; and Cabrera, Miguel. And even Howard, Ryan.

Cool Lester Smooth
6 years ago

Exactly, Redhaven!

Not a single one of those historic offensive seasons even comes close to Harper’s 2015.

I’m glad you get it!

Dan
6 years ago

he’s not “having the greatest” anything, he’s on pace to have the greatest something. There is a difference. He’s one small slump from falling behind Miggy Cabrera’s 2013 season when he hit .348/.442/.636 for a 192 wRC+ amongst others.

Andy
6 years ago
Reply to  dte421

Don’t forget that much of the significance of Harper’s season is his age. He’s currently 6th and 5th in WAR for a 22 year old player at FG and BBRef, respectively. He’s already topped Trout’s age 22 season last year.

philosofoolmember
6 years ago
Reply to  Andy

No. No. No.

A 200+ wRC+ is completely historic at any age. Granted, he might slide back to a mid 190’s wRC+, but he is basically have a season that only Ruth, Wiliams, Bonds, Mantle, Gehrig, Musial, Hornsby and McGuire ever matched in a full season over a century of baseball.

Bryce Harper is on pace to become just the ninth player in the history of baseball to record a wRC+ of 200 in a season. It’s basically on par with becoming the ninth guy to have a six hundred homer career, which Albert Pujols (who never had a a 200 wRC+ season) is on pace to do in the next year or two.

vince
6 years ago
Reply to  dte421

Easy there, commenter. This space is reserved for hyperbole. Know your place!

Pig.Pen
6 years ago
Reply to  dte421

Also, way to go cherry picking a UZR inflated WAR for comparison’s sake to make it appear Harper’s season isn’t special. If Harper didn’t win the MVP this year it will diminish the award.

Dovif
6 years ago
Reply to  Ben

My question is how valuable has he been? He carried all this aces, werth, Zimmerman, Desmond etc to a .500 record?

Cool Lester Smooth
6 years ago
Reply to  Dovif

Exactly.

He carried a pitching staff with a 97 ERA-, and a lineup whose next 5 best projected producers have combined for 2.5 WAR to an above .500 recorded, nearly singlehandedly keeping them relevant until September.

He’s been, by a fair amount, the most valuable player in baseball.

Dovif
6 years ago

Considering Espinosa, Escobar are both 2.4 war and Desmond is 2.2 I have no idea where you are getting your stats from. The nats are major underachievers.

Can you stop spamming the board with you 1/2 or 1/4 truths

Ryan
6 years ago

Dovif, perhaps you’re forgetting to add the -1.6 WAR from Jason Werth, or the -1.5 WAR from Tyler Moore, or the -0.7 WAR from Dan Uggla.

It’s ok, I’ll give you some time to calibrate your numbers.

Kevin
6 years ago

What matters more: how much the five highest PROJECTED performers performed, or how much the five ACTUAL best performers performed?

I’d say the latter: I don’t care what Jason Werth or Tyler Moore or Dan Uggla have done, but rather want to know how well the supporting cast performed. The underperformance of those three players speaks more to the failure of the projections than it does to Harper’s ‘singlehanded ability to turn this team of scrubs’ into a .500 team, I’d say.

Here’s how the top six look:

Harper 8.6 WAR
Espinosa 2.3
Escobar 2.2
Taylor 1.7
Span 1.4
Desmond 1.3

As a reference point, here is the production other teams with similar winning percentages have received from their 2-6 WAR leaders this year:

Team WPCT WAR (2-6 ranked position players)
Angels .504 8.8
Nationals .511 8.9
Giants .514 18.0
Twins .518 8.5
Rangers .529 8.2

This of course ignores pitchers. But what it does show is that from an offensive standpoint, Harper’s supporting cast has basically been what you should expect (unless you’re the Giants – wow!).

Ben
6 years ago

Wasn’t there a post here on Fangraphs within the last couple of weeks that discussed the percentage of WAR taken up by just top performing guy on each team? And in the post, if I remember correctly, it was the Nationals with the highest percentage of total WAR contributed by a single player.

The way I would interpret that would be to say that removing Harper from the Nationals does more harm to them than removing any player from any other team and that the Nationals have had a weak supporting cast this year.

Does anyone remember that post? I can’t find it.

Mike
6 years ago

Harper actually ranks 3rd in WPA in the NL – so while WAR has him far and away as the best player, is he actually helping his team WIN the most? I get that its nice to rack up stats and have a great WAR, but the timing of some of the impactful plays guys make matters too. Harper has been a regular good player against the Mets for the most part (3 HR/6 RBIs in 70 PAs, .250/.357/.450), and has crushed the other garbage teams in the NL East (16 HR/36 RBI in 161 PAs, roughly .354/.488/.811).

If you look at his late/close game stats, and his high leverage situation stats, and his inning 7-9 stats, there’s a significant drop that takes him from otherworldly to just good. Is that enough to take the MVP away from him? Does every other player have similar stats? Right now it looks like Rizzo and Votto both make the right plays at the right time to help their team win. But that’s just one stat (WPA) and Harper wins most others.

Cool Lester Smooth
6 years ago

WPA doesn’t show who helps their team win the most. RE24 does.

It scales exactly to wRAA, and it measures how much a player has increased their team’s chances of scoring runs in each PA.

Unsurprisingly, Harper leads baseball in RE24. By a lot. He’s got an 8.6 run lead on Votto.

Mike
6 years ago

I think you’re incorrectly defining RE24 as a stat that helps show who helps their team WIN the most. RE24 is RUN expectancy, which is independent of the current game score. It doesn’t distinguish between whether you’re making it more likely to score a run in a 10-0 game or a 1-1 game, so it isn’t as relevant to what I’m talking about.

WPA takes the game situation into account, and I was trying to express that it seems like Harper hasn’t cashed in on those opportunities like Rizzo and Votto have. And I do understand that different situations are weighted in RE24, but the score of the game and the inning aren’t.

Cool Lester Smooth
6 years ago

Yeah…and that’s why RE24 is a much better stat to measure individual performance.

A hitter player can’t do anything but help his team score runs. He can’t make his pitchers pitch better. He can’t make the guys behind him drive him in.

RE24 basically came from Tango saying “Hmmm, WPA’s cool. I want to create something similar, except that it actually measures performance.

Mike
6 years ago

But it doesn’t consider, at all, the score of the game. I’m basically trying to see if Harper has been padding his stats with hits/homers in meaningless parts of the game. Anytime you’re in the range that he’s in (and Rizzo, and Votto, and Bryant, etc) that’s not really the case, but getting the big hit at the right time could help determine whether a guy is valuable to his team winning or just a stat accumulator.

James
6 years ago
Reply to  Ben

I think Ben you are stuck in early August, Harper in early August was having one of the greatest seasons of all time, he has fallen back to earth in the 6 weeks since then so now he is having a very good year, but nothing remotely close to “the greatest seasons of all time”

Still, he should be MVP if your criteria is not meeting pre-season expectations and/or Playoff Position.

To me the Cespedes debate is not really him winning the MVP, unless he hits 15 home runs in the last 23 games that isn’t going to happen, but he is making a bid to be a top 5 candidate and probably has already made himself a top 10 candidate.

Cool Lester Smooth
6 years ago
Reply to  James

He’s a 22 year old with a 201 wRC+. If you use DRS rather than UZR with fWAR, he’s sitting on 9.4 WAR on September 10th.

This absolutely has a shot at being one of the greatest seasons of all time.

Mike
6 years ago

Stop saying he’s 22 years old. It doesn’t matter when you’re talking about this season or this season’s stats or this season’s MVP award.

Being 22 does not make the stats any different. A 201 wRC+ isn’t any different whether you’re 17 or 55. If you’re mashing the ball, you’re mashing the ball. Don’t use his age as extra justification for why his season is so great – it doesn’t matter.

Matt
6 years ago

This. Thank you. So much focus on a completely irrelevant fact like his age makes it too easy to dismiss the rest of your words. Which we have.

GoOppo
6 years ago

CLS hates the redsox and is a nars fan? maybe rays?

Cool Lester Smooth
6 years ago

Of course a player being extremely young or old matters when placing a season in its historical context. It’s why we all talk about Trout’s 2012 more than his 2013, even though he put up 15 fewer offensive runs, and 0.2 fewer WAR.

Also…shut up, Matt. We may not need to remember his age to be impressed by the 15th best offensive season in the Integration Era, but the fact that he hadn’t faced a pitcher than him until June is a huge part of why this season has been so cool.

No one who has had to face non-white pitchers has ever put up a wRC+ over 180.

Paul G.
6 years ago

Age is not relevant to MVP voting. It is relevant to estimating future value which is important in itself, but the MVP is very much a here and now award. The only award that considers future value is the Rookie of the Year, sometimes.

Do remember that young players putting up huge seasons have not lived up to those seasons. Cesar Cedeno put up 7.8 and 7.1 fWAR in his age 21 and 22 seasons and then was not remotely as good as those two seasons would project. Al Kaline is another player: fantastic at age 20 and an obvious Hall of Famer, but that season proved to be a ceiling, not a floor. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.

Cool Lester Smooth
6 years ago

…I never said it was relevant in MVP voting?

I’m saying it’s relevant in placing a season in the proper historical context, i.e. whether it should be considered among “the greatest seasons of all time.”

AF
6 years ago

Age is also not relevant to whether Harper’s season should be considered one of the greatest seasons of all time.

Age is relevant to two things: (1) projecting future value (though as others have pointed out, it is hardly a guarantee), and (2) identifying the greatest season for players of particular ages. Once you expand the question to the greatest overall seasons, or the MVP, or any other unqualified measure of greatness, age does not matter.

Mike
6 years ago

I guess if Harper being 22 makes his season more meaningful then the AL MVP should go to Trout over Donaldson since their statistically close and Trout is several years younger. Or maybe even Correa or Lindor, who are so young that their WAR around 3 should actually count for what, like triple in 2015?

Cool Lester Smooth
6 years ago

…I never said it was relevant in MVP voting?

I’m saying it’s relevant in placing a season in the proper historical context, i.e. whether it should be considered among “the greatest seasons of all time.”

It’s okay, Mike. Reading is hard.

That Guy
6 years ago
Reply to  James

Yes Harper really fell back to Earth in the past six weeks, I mean he’s only been hitting .331/.473/.581 for a 1.054 OPS and 185 wRC+ since the All-Star break, numbers which would still be better than every other player’s entire season if it ended today and itself would rank among the best offensive seasons of the past three decades even including Barry Bonds.

Oh wait I apologize, I misread your post, you were actually saying Harper’s season as a whole is now only very good because of his last six weeks. The season where he has a 201 wRC+ as a 22-year old. Surely that information can only help further your argument.

Ben
6 years ago
Reply to  James

I’m just looking at wRC+. I’m not adding extra analysis. A wRC+ of 201, which Harper is at right now, is the 29th best since 1915. Excluding Ruth, Williams, and Bonds it is the 10th best. Ruth, Williams, and Bonds are objectively the best hitters of all time and Harper this year is kind of, sort of in their class. That’s something.

Ben
6 years ago
Reply to  Ben

I just realized their are two Bens. There is the first Ben with the original comment and then a new Ben (me) in the replies to his comment. But I agree with the first Ben and just a cursory look at the numbers lends some merit to a “one of the greatest seasons” claim.

Graver
6 years ago
Reply to  Ben

if and when the Nats miss the Postseason then Harper will have played in exactly 0 “meaningful games”. I don’t agree with this thinking but voters have been using this logic for years so why stop now?