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August 29, 2015 / Nat Anacostia

Don’t write off Bryce as an MVP candidate

In the Washington Post’s “Fancy Stats” column, Neil Greenberg wrote, “the Nats find themselves 6 1/2 games behind the Mets… taking [Bryce] Harper out of the MVP conversation.” He then analyzed several other candidates (basing his analysis on FanGraphs’ wins above replacement) and concluded that Clayton Kershaw, last year’s NL MVP, was the most viable candidate.

Now, ordinarily I try to avoid paying attention to the MVP and other awards until the last couple of weeks of the season. With 20% of the season remaining, it’s likely that some of the candidates will go into a slump or that other players will experience hot streaks and emerge as viable candidates. But in this case, Greenberg’s analysis was just so faulty that I’m going to break my own rule and write about the MVP race, based on the current statistics.

Greenberg’s biggest mistake was to place too much emphasis on the tendency of voters to avoid voting for players on non-playoff teams while ignoring their tendency to avoid voting for pitchers. While Greenberg noted that only 6 of 41 MVPs since 1994 have come from non-playoff teams,* he failed to mention that only 2 have been pitchers (Kershaw and Verlander).

*(Note: he should have said 6 of 40 MVPs since 1995, since no playoffs were held in 1994. The 6 from non-playoff teams were Walker 1997, Bonds 2001 and 2004, ARod 2003, Howard 2006, and Pujols 2008.)

He also used the version of fWAR that is based on fielding independent pitching (FIP), whereas actual voters tend to pay more attention to ERA. If he’d used the version of WAR based on runs allowed, Zack Greinke would be well ahead of Kershaw.

Here’s a link to the FanGraphs chart showing the leaders based on a 50/50 weighting of FIP and runs allowed. Right now (August 29), the leaders are:

  1. Bryce Harper 7.5
  2. Zack Greinke 6.6
  3. Paul Goldschmidt 6.2
  4. Clayton Kershaw 6.2
  5. Joey Votto 5.9
  6. A.J. Pollock 5.5
  7. Andrew McCutchen 5.3
  8. Jake Arrieta 5.3
  9. Anthony Rizzo 4.8
  10. Buster Posey 4.8

In a recent article, Joe Posnanski made an interesting observation about WAR statistics and the MVP contest. He noted that since WAR statistics have been widely available (roughly the last 7 years), the leaders in WAR haven’t been any more likely to win the MVP than they were in the past. They’ve always won about half the MVP awards. What’s changed, according Posnanski, is that the availability of WAR has driven out the quirky winners, who somehow built an MVP argument despite not playing that well overall. He notes that “Since 2008, which is just about when WAR and similar complex statistics started to become mainstream, every single MVP has finished Top 5 in WAR.”

In other words, before WAR became available someone like Kendrys Morales might have made his way into the MVP discussion because of his RBIs (89, currently 3rd in the AL) while playing for a division-leading team, even though his WAR (1.6) and other statistics (.287/.355/.464) are not MVP quality. Posnanski observes that the availability of WAR has driven those types of candidates out of the discussion. Consequently, I’m going to limit my discussion of the NL race to the 10 players listed above.

Based on their current statistics, several players can easily be excluded. Goldschmidt and Votto don’t play for playoff-bound teams and their batting statistics are clearly comparable—and inferior—to Harper’s. It would be really hard to vote for either of them ahead of Bryce. Similarly, Pollock also plays for a non-playoff team and his case is too closely tied to advanced fielding statistics, about which many voters remain skeptical.

Three pitchers—Greinke, Kershaw, and Arrieta—have a case. I note, however, that the only two pitchers who have won the MVP in the last 20 years have each dominated their league, so having three viable pitching candidates probably works against them all. I’ll also note that the “Tango Tiger Cy Young Points,” which are tracked on baseballmusings.com, are a better guide than WAR to voters’ evaluation of pitchers. In addition to runs allowed, strikeouts, and walks, the formula includes factors like wins, losses, and shutouts, which are not included in either of the FanGraphs pitching WAR formulas. Greinke has a lead over the other two pitchers in Cy Young Points and will probably also receive some MVP support, though I doubt it will be enough to overcome the bias against giving the MVP to a pitcher.

McCutchen and Rizzo will also get some support, and if the Giants manage to make the playoffs, I can see Posey drawing quite a bit of support. But at this point, basically none of the playoff-bound candidates appear to have an especially compelling case.

Turning to Bryce, while the Nats’ poor performance definitely hurts his case, I still think he’s a pretty strong MVP candidate. He fits the profile of past non-playoff bound MVP winners—great hitters who are pretty clearly the best hitter in the league. In the absence of a compelling rival, I’d still consider him at this point to be the leader in the MVP race. He won’t get unanimous support—some voters simply refuse to vote for a player on a non-playoff bound team—but if the vote were held today, I tend to think he’s the likely winner. Of course, there’s a lot of baseball left to play over the next 5 weeks, so we’ll take another look at the race later.

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  1. The MVP race: Harper and his rivals | Nats Noodles

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