By just about any measure you care to use, Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki has been the best player in the National League this year. Before he dropped off the leaderboards earlier this week, he was leading the league in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. You can say “yeah, but Coors Field …” because those stats are not park-adjusted, but wRC+ is, and his 173 mark was still the best. Add in some very good defense at an important position, and Tulowitzki was worth every bit of the league-leading 5.1 WAR that FanGraphs has him down for.
You’d think that such credentials would make him an easy MVP leader, but it isn’t going to happen. Even if a disappointingly high percentage of voters didn’t still cling to the outdated notion that MVPs can come only from winning teams — the Rockies are, of course, awful again this year — the recent news of Tulowitzki’s season-ending hip surgery essentially ends his candidacy.
Now our attention turns to the other MVP options in the NL, and you realize … wow, what a mess. Five of last year’s top eight NL vote-getters are either on the disabled list right now or have spent considerable time there this year. Between the fact that there are 11 non-Tulo players who already are worth more than 4.0 WAR, and the fact that almost all of them have some sort of perceived issue that can easily be pointed to, the 2014 NL MVP race may end up being the most debated — and fractured — we’ve seen in years, especially when compared to the AL, which has a pretty clear-cut favorite in Mike Trout.
With about six weeks left before votes are due, who will pull away? Can anyone? Let’s have a look:
Great seasons for the ‘wrong’ reasons
It’s important to remember how the award voters tend to lean. As noted, it’s difficult for a candidate from a non-playoff team to win, and that’s a big part of why Miguel Cabrera beat Trout in each of the past two seasons: Cabrera had better teammates. Dating back to 2005, only once has a candidate from a non-playoff team won the MVP, Albert Pujols in 2008.
They also tend to like shiny hitting numbers. Over the same span, every hitter who has won the award in either league has hit .300, with the exception of 2007 with Jimmy Rollins, who (A) missed it by just .004 and (B) hit 30 homers and stole 41 bases. The general baseball world might be accepting that batting average isn’t the most important stat and that this is a team game that requires more than one great player to get to the playoffs, but the voters are generally old-school thinkers.
What this means is that some outstanding candidates are going to have a tough time due to their circumstances or how they generate value. Jason Heyward, for example, is arguably the best defensive outfielder in the NL and is going to be worth more than 5.0 WAR, but he’s also hitting .269 for a spiraling Atlanta club. Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez are both having great seasons for a playoff-contending Milwaukee team, but both derive much of their value from defense as well, which is traditionally not rewarded on these ballots. (Go ahead, find your nearest voter and ask them about Lucroy’s pitch framing.)
When the Washington Nationals make the playoffs, Anthony Rendon is going to be a huge reason, and the value he has added by ably switching between second and third base has been essential. He’s also going to end up hitting something like .275 with 20 homers.
Chase Utley has been a bright spot in the disaster that is the Phillies’ season, but not only is his team in last, this will be something like his sixth-best season, and he didn’t win it in any of the top five. Paul Goldschmidt, like Tulowitzki, was having another fantastic season for a lousy NL West club before suffering a season-ending injury. He won’t win this.
The big four … probably
The players already named will get some support, but it’s difficult to see any of them winning. That leaves the NL with four likely candidates, and like the players above, all of them are imperfect in some way.
Take last season’s winner, Andrew McCutchen. He’s essentially taking last season’s line of .317/.404/.508 and repeating it, just with more power: .311/.411/.536. The Pirates are again in the playoff hunt, holding one of the two wild-card spots. McCutchen was last year’s NL MVP, and he’s having an even better offensive season and for a contending team, so he would seem to be the easy answer … but now he’s out because of a fractured rib. His return date is uncertain, and even when he does come back, he’ll need to play like he had prior to the injury, a potentially tall order considering how painful a rib injury can be. It’s not fair, but it may cost him his shot at repeating as the NL MVP.
Giancarlo Stanton would seem like the next obvious choice, because his 160 wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) is the third best in baseball, his tape-measure home runs are already legendary, and he’s having the best year of what was already an impressive career. However, he plays for the below-.500 Miami Marlins, a team with a lowly 5.1 percent chance of seeing October in the latest playoff odds. At least Pujols’ 2008 Cardinals finished 10 games over .500; you have to go back to Alex Rodriguezin 2003 to find an MVP winner from a losing team. It’s completely unfair to Stanton, but that’s how the voting tends to go: He might not win the MVP because Jose Fernandez got hurt.
The other two, Clayton Kershaw and Yasiel Puig, can both boast of being on the playoff-bound Los Angeles Dodgers, owners of the best record in the NL. Puig is having another outstanding year at the plate, essentially duplicating his 2013 (160 wRC+ last year, 161 this year), which ties him with Stanton for the third best in baseball. He certainly ought to do better than 2013’s mere 2 percent of the vote, though his recent power outage — he has only two homers since May — and the unsettling concern that some voters may continue to wonder if he “plays the game the right way” also could work against him.
All of this uncertainty might actually work in Kershaw’s favor, because while pitchers generally don’t win MVP awards — it’s happened only once in the past 20 years — pitchers generally don’t have the kind of season Kershaw is having, either. You can make a very good case that Kershaw, seemingly a clear choice for the NL Cy Young Award, isn’t just having a great season, he’s having a historically great season. While some voters are reluctant to vote for a pitcher, arguing that someone who appears once every five days can’t impact a season as much as an everyday player, that’s short-sighted; after all, Kershaw faced 908 hitters in 2013, far more than the 600 or so plate appearances a regular player gets throughout the season. Of course, even then it’s not a slam dunk, because Kershaw missed about six weeks with a back injury earlier in the year. Then again, how can we say that McCutchen’s missed time is worse simply because it’s happening now?
No matter how this all sorts out, there isn’t going to be a consensus MVP pick. The record for most players to receive a first-place vote is 11, set in the AL in 1977. For the first time in years, the NL may be ready to threaten that number in 2014.
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