The Most Valuable Player Award is one of the most confusing awards in baseball. The Cy Young Award is easy: Who was the best pitcher in the league? But the MVP is difficult because nobody can agree on who should be considered. The problem comes from the word, "Valuable," stuck in the middle of the award's name. Value based on what? Based on WAR? Based on runs batted in or homers? Does the value have to be to a contending team for it to count? After all, to paraphrase an old general manager, a team finished in last place with a valuable player, it can finish in last place without him. If the award was called the Player of the Year, it would be easier. But it isn't. 2012 gives us a crowded field of MVP contenders, so these questions all come into play.
So who are the contenders? Well, there is Buster Posey, David Wright, Yadier Molina, Ryan Braun, Andrew McCutchen, Chase Headley, Michael Bourn and perhaps Jason Heyward. That is a lot of contenders for the award. And on both stats sites, Fangraphs.com and Baseball-reference.com, several of them are bunched up in those site's WAR valuations. Last year was a little easier as the two contenders were Braun and Matt Kemp. McCutchen was in the conversation too.
How did that race break down since the play of the two players were similar. One led one site in WAR and the other led the competing stat site in WAR. It appears that Braun won because his team was a contender and the Dodgers were not. And personally, that seems fair. The Dodgers were never a factor in any race, whether it be the wild card or the division race. That would have been the case with or without Kemp.
The one problem with this way of thinking is putting so much value upon a player for a team's contending success. A contending team needs so many things to happen in order to contend. It sounds simple to simply say they have to score more runs than they allow on a regular basis. But so much is involved in that equation. The schedule, injuries, the pitching, the defense, "clutch" hitting and to a small degree, the manager and coaching. Even if a player has a monster year, giving him too much credit for that contending team is questionable. If a great player cannot elevate a terrible team, how much does a great player then elevate a good team? Do you see how that is not a correlation and there is a logic conundrum there?
In the course of writing these thoughts out, the feeling that the award has to go to a contending team's player is not in personal jeopardy. The award is not called, the "Most Valuable Player to his Contending Team" Award. In fact, the thinking is now almost reversed itself. Should the award go to a player that brings the most value to his team? That would simply bring the award to the guy with the highest WAR. The trouble with doing that is that the two sites listed rarely agree. Verlander was much more highly rated last year on one site over the other. Gosh this is confusing, especially in light of so many contenders for the award. Fortunately, there are no pitchers close in the NL to the position player's WAR totals, so we can save the debate on whether pitchers should win for another day.
There is another problem to which player is the most valuable to his team concept. When great players dominate bad teams, those bad teams are not going to have much for total team WAR. For example, Mets' batters have accounted for the grand total of 11.5 rWAR. With David Wright's total of 6.4 rWAR, he accounts for 57.1% of his team's WAR. A couple of years ago, the Pirates finished with a negative WAR for the team and McCutchen was at like six by himself. The math on that boggles the mind. This season, the Pirates are a contending team and McCutchen accounts for 46.8% of his team's total batting WAR.
Oh man, we are not getting anywhere are we? This much can be said, rightly or no, public opinion believes that Ryan Braun got away with a technicality on this PED thing. In other words, most people think he was guilty but got off on a forensic snafu. No matter how he fares this season and how much he elevates the Brewers in their last ditch effort to sneak into the wild card mix, he will probably not get the vote this season after winning it last year under what many feel was false pretenses. That is not the personal opinion here. It just states the obvious.
With all the messiness already involved here, the only thing left to do is to assign the award to the player of the year. Who was the best player? One equation this writer would take out would be the part that fielding plays in current WAR evaluations. Fielding metrics are not universally loved and trusted. At least they are not yet. And again, the way the fielding metrics are measured varies from stat site to stat site. So that has to be factored in to some of the valuation methods.
For example, a lot of Michael Bourn's worth is tied up in his fielding. Of his 6.1 fWAR, perhaps as high as two of those wins come as a result of his fielding metrics. Until we can pin this fielding thing more closely to where most people agree they are the bomb, they should not be included in the MVP discussion.
After boiling all this down, the top contenders for this observer are Andrew McCutchen, Ryan Braun and Buster Posey. Not only are all three at the top of the WAR leaderboards, but all three are the only NL players above .400 in wOBA and above 160 in wRC+. If the season ended today, the pick would be Ryan Braun.