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The Case for Matt Kemp

The awards season will wrap up when the National League Most Valuable Player is announced a little later this afternoon, and I think this race is a little more open than its AL counterpart. The Brewers have a pair of candidates, the Phillies have a pair of candidates, and the Dodgers have a pair of candidates as well. Clayton Kershaw already took home the Cy Young Award and doesn’t have the same kind of MVP buzz that Justin Verlander did, but he’s not even the best MVP candidate on his own club. That’s the new $160 million man, Matt Kemp.

In terms of our version of WAR, the trademark stat here at FanGraphs, Kemp was the most valuable player in the National League this season and by a not small margin either. His performance was worth 8.7 wins, a half-win ahead of Roy Halladay (8.2) and nearly a full win ahead of Ryan Braun (7.8). No other players in the Senior Circuit eclipsed the seven-win plateau. WAR is far from perfect and it’s not designed to end arguments; in fact it’s much more effective at starting them. So even though Kemp was pretty well separated from the pack in terms of wins over replacement, let’s further reinforce his candidacy for the MVP Award.

There’s no better place to start than with Kemp’s offense, which was downright remarkable. He led the NL in homers (39), total bases (353), runs scored (116), runs driven in (125), and OPS+ (171) while placing third in average (.324), fourth in OBP (.399), second in extra-base hits (76), second in SLG (.586), fourth in ISO (.262), second in wOBA (.419), second in wRC+ (171), second in batting runs (+58.6), and second in stolen bases (40). He was one measly homer short of becoming the fifth 40-40 player in baseball history, and you just know one of those big NL West parks cost him one or two longballs over the course of the season. Name the offensive metric, and Kemp was in the top four. Relative to league average, he just had a typical Albert Pujols year with the bat while stealing 40 bags and playing an up-the-middle position.

Kemp may have enjoyed some good luck in 2011, finishing with a .380 BABIP that led all qualified hitters, not just NLers. A high BABIP doesn’t automatically mean luck and regression to the mean though, many players see a lot of balls drop in for hits because they’re exceptionally good hitters. Kemp’s 23.2% line drive rate was the 14th highest in baseball, and his infield fly rate of 2.2% (of fly balls, not of all balls in play) was the fifth lowest in the game. No type of batted ball turns into a hit more often than a line drive, and no type of batted ball turns into an out more often than a infield fly ball. The high BABIP isn’t necessarily a fluke, though I’m sure he had a little luck going for him. I don’t think anyone can have this kind of offensive season without a little extra help.

Defense is the one area where Kemp did not excel in 2011, at least depending on who you ask. UZR rated his defense at 4.6 runs below-average, the third time he’s been below the rest of the pack in the last four seasons. DRS is a little more forgiving, saying he saved one run this season, the fourth time in five years he’s been on the positive side of the ledger. Total Zone has him saving five runs after four straight years of being within one run of average. UZR is what is input into WAR, but substituting DRS raises Kemp’s WAR to 9.3 while substituting TZ makes making him a 9.7 win player. That’s pretty special.

The idea that Kemp shouldn’t garner serious MVP consideration because his team wasn’t all that close to a postseason berth — the Dodgers finished 11.5 back in the NL West and 7.5 back of the wildcard — doesn’t even register on my radar. It’s an individual award, not a team award, and I can’t fault Kemp for other 24+ guys he played with this season. His MVP candidacy shouldn’t be downplayed because GM Ned Colletti thought it was a good idea to trade Carlos Santana for Casey Blake or James McDonald for Octavio Dotel.

As far as his competition goes, the closest by WAR is Halladay, who didn’t beat out Kershaw for the Cy. I have a hard time thinking he’s finish higher that the Dodgers’ lefty in the MVP voting than he did in the Cy voting, but the BBWAA has surprised me before.┬áBraun (.433 wOBA) and Prince Fielder (.408 wOBA) both had monster seasons but also hit fewer homers (and stole fewer bases) than Kemp despite playing in much more hitter friendly park. Neither player is anything special with the glove either, and they both man corner spots. Joey Votto and Lance Berkman also deserve consideration, but again, they were just a notch below Kemp offensively and play in the corners somewhere.

Kemp’s MVP case can be built on both old school stats (runs, RBI) and new school stats (WAR, wRC+), but he won’t get any help from playing for a contending team. His 40-40 bid also didn’t get a boost from playing in a cozy home ballpark. The offensive performance was dominant enough that Kemp’s name will be forced into the MVP conversation among even the most ham-fisted of voters.