The NL MVP race has a lot of good candidates. Clayton Kershaw is having an amazing year for the Dodgers. Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter have been fantastic for the Cardinals. Joey Votto is his usual excellent self. Paul Goldschmidt is the run production candidate, and has had a great season on his own merits. This feels like the kind of year where a lot of different guys are going to get votes, and the winner probably won’t be unanimous.
But let’s not let the reality of a solid field of candidates obscure the fact that Andrew McCutchen is pulling away from the field. He might not look like a traditional MVP, but McCutchen is having a remarkable season.
McCutchen is going to be seen as the “WAR Candidate”, because he isn’t leading the league in any of the traditional metrics that MVP voters have used to pick their winner. He has just 19 home runs, putting him in a tie for 15th with non-MVP candidates like Adam LaRoche. He’s tied with Marlon Byrd for 10th in RBIs. He has a shot at leading the league in batting average, but he has to pass three guys to do it, and leading the league in BA isn’t as prestigious as it once was.
But once you put the triple crown numbers away, McCutchen’s greatness shines through. He’s 4th in the league in doubles, 10th in triples, 7th in walks, and 5th in stolen bases. Oh, and he plays a pretty mean center field, ranking 4th among NL CFs in UZR this year.
Need more? McCutchen is also #5 in the NL in baserunning value from things other than stolen bases. Baseball Reference tracks a stat called “bases taken”, which measures how often a baserunner goes more than one base on a single or more than two bases on a double when possible; McCutchen has done this 65% of the time, against a league average of 40%. No NL regular has been as good at this as McCutchen.
How about durability? He’s played in 141 games, and of the NL MVP candidates, only Joey Votto (147) and Paul Goldschmidt (143) have played more often, and with all due respect to first baseman, they don’t play positions that require as much physical exertion.
McCutchen is basically a player with no flaws. There are no holes to poke in his resume. If you really like players on winning teams, well, the Pirates are headed to the postseason for the first time in 20 years. If you put a lot of emphasis on late season performance under the theory that those games somehow mean more, well, McCutchen is hitting .371/.457/.608 since the All-Star Break. No matter what narrative you think an MVP somehow needs to live up to, McCutchen fits the bill. You cannot construct a reasonable test for MVP that Andrew McCutchen does not pass. I’m not even sure you could make an unreasonable one.
I love Yadier Molina, and there’s little question he’s underrated by current metrics that don’t quantify his value to the Cardinals pitching staff. Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball, and is having his best season yet. Joey Votto remains consistently under appreciated. Matt Carpenter has been one of the primary reasons the Cardinals are an elite team yet again. But Andrew McCutchen has been better than all of them.
Among NL hitters with 500+ plate appearances (sorry, Jayson Werth), McCutchen leads the league in wRC+. Even if you think everything about WAR is absolute bupkis, McCutchen has earned the top spot simply through his hitting. Votto and Goldschmidt have been terrific, but neither one has been as good at the plate as the Pirates center fielder. And then there’s everything else that he does besides hit, which no other candidate (perhaps besides Molina, depending on how much value you want to give him for the parts of catcher defense we aren’t capturing) can really keep up with.
This is all just the long hand way of spelling out why McCutchen has racked up +7.5 WAR this year, and has a pretty good shot at finishing north of +8.0 on the season. Carpenter and Votto are tied at +6.0, while Molina’s at +4.9 plus whatever bonus you want to give him for being an elite defensive catcher. The truth of the matter is that, right now, McCutchen is kind of blowing away the field, at least on the hitter side of things.
If you think that pitchers should be evaluated solely by the runs they allow, with no attempt to extract defensive performance from run prevention, then you could still make a strong case for Clayton Kershaw. But even then, using RA9-WAR puts Kershaw marginally ahead, making it a virtual tie.
I know that it’s somehow considered less valuable to be good at everything rather than great at one thing and lousy at a few others, but let’s not let our national bias towards specialization cause us to overlook the sensational season Andrew McCutchen is having for the Pirates. He isn’t the only NL player having a great year, but his great year is a bit better than the others.
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