When Do MVPs Peak?

We are nearing the end of the MLB season, and the discussion frequently turns to who should win the postseason awards. There are many debates about criteria should be taken into account for winning each award, especially the Most Valuable Player trophy. Should pitchers earn votes even though they could win the Cy Young Award? Does the award go to the best player in the league or to the player who is most valuable to his team’s success? Should only players on playoff teams be considered?

Besides these criteria, the voters often voice a preference for players who perform better during the last few months of the season, arguing that those who step up their game down the stretch deserve bonus points.

To see whether voters actually follow through on this stated preference for MVP winners, all the winners since 2002 will be examined to see whether their performance at the end of the season helped them toward winning. To do this study, I compared the players’ final wOBA to each month’s total. Here is the average monthly difference in wOBA for the 16 winners when compared to their season total.

From these numbers, it can be seen that the winners’ best months were at the beginning and end of the season. The MVPs’ best performing month was August and worst was May.

One issue with this approach is that in some seasons the MVP was so much better than the rest of the league that even if his performance slacked at the end of the season, he was still much better than everyone else being considered. This scenario was definitely the case when Barry Bonds was putting up wOBAs of over .500 for multiple seasons.

But if you want to get a feel for this with an easy-to-understand graph, check out the average month-by-month performances of every MVP from 2002 to 2009 based on wOBA. As you can see, there is a tremendous surge in August, and September is the next-best month.

Besides the winners turning it on toward the end of the season to help their cause, did the second-place finishers hurt their cause by not performing better during the same time? Here are the differences in the monthly wOBAs when compared with the yearly final:

The runners-up definitely don’t perform as well as the winners in the last couple of months. Voters may have a couple of candidates in mind, and the one who finishes better could get the voter’s final vote. This happened in 2006, when MVP runner-up Albert Pujols ended the season with a wOBA of .448 and MVP Ryan Howard had a wOBA of .436. Pujols had wOBAs of .394 and .475 in August and September, while Howard put up .481 and .516 numbers to take home the hardware. His team didn’t make the postseason, but Pujols’ did.

So what does that now tell us about this season? Let’s take a look at the month-by-month wOBAs of some of this season’s leading candidates.

Although the MVP award should be judged on an entire season’s worth of work, there is some evidence that players who heat up in August and September may sway a few voters their way compared with players who struggle during that same time period. That could doom Cano, who had by far his best month back in April. Hamilton would seem to be the runaway choice for AL MVP and Pujols the pick in the NL right now. However, the Cardinals’ recent slide could change the narrative and put Votto in great shape to take home the National League hardware. Remember, a lot can change in the season’s final month.

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Jeff writes for RotoGraphs, The Hardball Times, Rotowire, Baseball America, and BaseballHQ. He has been nominated for two SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis and won it in 2013 in tandem with Bill Petti. He has won three FSWA Awards including on for his MASH series. In his first season in Tout Wars, he won the H2H league. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwzimmerman.

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