The National League Most Valuable Player award will be announced Tuesday afternoon. I believe Ryan Braun will be the winner.
At the end of the regular season — when the Baseball Writers Association of America receives the ballots — I was unsure if the award would go to Braun or Matt Kemp of the Dodgers. Braun put up arguably the best offensive season in Brewers’ franchise history and was the lynchpin of the team’s first National League Central championship. Despite doing it on a losing team, Kemp had a fantastic year himself, earning an eight-year, $160 million dollar contract just a couple weeks ago. Suitably, at $20 million per year, the Brewers and Dodgers will each be paying their star outfielders similar sums in the latter half of the decade.
Who deserves the MVP award? The real, boring answer is they both do. There are coherent, reasonable arguments for both players. Braun’s raw batting numbers were better. His .332 batting average, .597 slugging percentage, .433 wOBA and 179 wRC+ were all better than Kemp, with the last two being the most accurate measures of offensive production available. Kemp did hit four more home runs and steal seven more bases, but he did so in 60 extra plate appearances.
As such, the difference at the plate is small enough where the value of defense clearly comes into play. Neither Kemp nor Braun is particularly good at their positions, but Kemp patrols center field while Braun plays the much easier left field. When it comes to total value produced on the field, ignoring any other contextual differences, Kemp’s defensive advantage combined with the 11 extra games played is enough to push him over the top. FanGraphs’s WAR favors Kemp 8.7-7.8 and Baseball-Reference’s favors Kemp 10.0-7.7.
Whatever. WAR is imperfect, park effects aren’t completely agreed upon, fielding stats are unrefined at best and garbage at worst, et cetera. But I am inclined to agree: Matt Kemp was slightly better than Ryan Braun in 2011. I think most of the award voters feel this way too. But it hasn’t ever simply come down to who was better — especially not with the BBWAA voting on the awards. The electorate always finds a way to bring in another factor, whether it’s the quality of the player’s team, his clutch ability, if he’s nice — something.
Many of the decisions the electorate have made aren’t justifiable. Juan Gonzalez didn’t deserve the 1996 MVP award. Michael Young didn’t deserve a first place AL MVP this season.
But when things are so close that the discussion comes down to the vagaries of park factors and UZR, we are venturing into the clear land of opinion — not only opinions on the value produced by the players, but also of what defines value. I would certainly understand of the BBWAA decides the merits of Matt Kemp’s 2011 outweigh the merits of Ryan Braun’s 2011 on the field. I also would understand if they decide the fact that Braun’s campaign boosted the Milwaukee Brewers to a National League Central championship pushes him over the top. At least in my opinion, both decisions are fully justifiable.
Having followed the actions of the BBWAA for some years now, it is clear that if the option to award the elite player on the playoff team presents itself in the MVP voting, they will take it. Even if a similar or better option who was on the couch in October is around, like Matt Kemp this year, the writers typically value the playoff performer. Just look at yesterday’s selection of Justin Verlander over Jose Bautista (my pick) or Jacoby Ellsbury for the AL MVP award.
Matt Kemp deserves recognition for his season. So does Ryan Braun. Fans of either side should not be bothered by tomorrow’s decision, regardless of the direction. Trophies are nice, but a second-place finish hardly invalidates the accomplishments of an entire season. It will probably be Ryan Braun walking out with the trophy, and, as with every other MVP candidate, the final distinction will be some factor outside of his control. But hardware is hardware, and Ryan Braun, the Brewers, and their fans will, I predict, be the ones enjoying it this afternoon.