It’s been a refrain on repeat at Disciples of Uecker throughout the 2012 season: Brewers leftfielder Ryan Braun is playing well enough to win his second consecutive NL MVP. However, given (a) the Brewers’ lack of contention, and (b) Braun’s labor victory over the MLB Joint Drug Agreement, most of us Disciples have agreed that Braun is unlikely to receive votes from a frequently cantankerous electorate.
Lately, a new narrative emerged from Brewerland, one where the Brewers improbably capture the final 2012 NL Wild Card, riding a surging September beyond the faltering Pirates and a gang of other Senior Circuit clubs. In this narrative, Braun plays the heroic ex-villain, you know, the kind of guy that goes from robbing old ladies’ purses on the train to giving life-saving CPR on a crowded subway platform: redemption! What could be better than the unrepentant cheater leading a reformed gang of Beasts to claim the NL’s final playoff spot?
Unfortunately, the Brewers’ Labor Day loss to the Miami Marlins brings an abrupt end to sudden late season playoff fantasies. Of course, most Brewers fans would admit — if pressed — that the Brewers truly were out of contention, but a series of victories against the Cubs and Pirates allowed the players to have some fun for a moment and add some “contending” quotes to their scrapbooks. The Brewers fell to 7.5 games out of the final Wild Card spot after yesterday’s loss. In order to make the playoffs, the Brewers would have to (a) outplay Arizona, (b) catch Pittsburgh, (c) hope for both Los Angeles and St. Louis to suddenly play .500 ball (or worse). Basically, the Brewers’ playoff plan amounted to winning nearly every remaining game and hoping for help — not a probable situation, but fun to talk about for fans, players, and writers.
(For example: even if St. Louis maintains their current pace, winning 9 of every 20 games, the Cardinals are still in good shape to win 85 games. Even if Los Angeles maintains their current pace, winning 10 of 20 games, the Dodgers are still in good shape to win 86 games. For the Brewers to surpass either club, they would need to win at least 21 of their remaining 28 games.)
Perhaps the most important result from the Brewers’ ability to stick around and make some noise is their ability to convince the front office that they can win once again in 2013. A strong finish in a mediocre league could indeed prove that the Brewers are, at their core, a good club that failed in a few key aspects — rather than a poor club that requires a rebuilding spree.
Is it me, or does the 2012 National League offer fewer legitimate MVP options compared with previous seasons? Perhaps I should be clearer; doesn’t it seem like there are fewer players on contending clubs that fit the MVP’s traditional “middle of the order” batting traits?
J.P. Breen surveyed the NL MVP landscape last week, focusing specifically on Ryan Braun and Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen holds an advantage over Braun in batting average and on-base percentage, but falls short in overall slugging performance. Furthermore, McCutchen’s runs scored total matches that of Braun, but he is short in the RBI department. Breen wrote:
Unfortunately, the Brewers’ slugger will undoubtedly be deducted points for his team’s lack of postseason contention (much like Matt Kemp last season) and all of the continued speculation that he cheated last season, winning his appeal by a “technicality” over the winter. In my opinion, for Braun to win the NL MVP for the second-consecutive year, his on-field production would have to absolutely dwarf the competition. Currently, that’s not the case.
I agree that this is ultimately the clearest assessment of Braun’s MVP chances. However, does the “playoff” requirement give good MVP choices to BBWAA voters?
First and foremost, judging NL MVP candidates by their bats alone, the top wRC+ batters create offense in a lot of different ways. Buster Posey is another strong batting average candidate, and his .533 SLG is largely driven by his doubles total. Giancarlo Stanton is the other way ’round, generating the bulk of his offensive value with his impressive isolated slugging — he tops the league in terms of PURE power. Matt Holliday is to Yadier Molina as Ryan Braun is to Buster Posey; that is, the Cardinals’ top offensive players have strong seasons with batting traits that mimic-but-fall short of two other top NL performers. David Wright, Chase Headley, and Aramis Ramirez round out the Top 10, largely on the strength of doubles slugging (although Headley boasts 24 HR).
If we assume that voters will select the 2012 NL MVP from a playoff team, the potential candidates become even more difficult to analyze. In case you’re skeptical of the playoff bias, we can use the last 20 seasons as a clear indicator of voting trends; 13 of the last 20 NL MVP selections played for a Senior Circuit club that made the playoffs (really, it should be 13 of 19, since the 1994 MVP selection could not have played for a playoff-bound team if he tried). Here are the non-playoff selections:
Excluding the strike-shortened 1994 campaign and Barry Bonds, justifiable 1st ballot Hall of Famer according to the BBWAA’s own voting record (he was good enough to be the exception to their “MVP Rule” three times!), we have three non-playoff MVPs. Larry Walker batted .366 and slugged higher than .700, a feat impressive even in Coors Field; Ryan Howard followed his Rookie of the Year campaign with 58 HR; Albert Pujols consistently maintained the dignity of the game in St. Louis, ensuring that those players around him comported themselves with the class required of a professional ballplayer (I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist).
So, basically, the voters really do mean it when they make their “MVP is not simply the best statistical player” arguments. In the same tradition of “Thank Goodness we finally have someone to vote for instead of Barry Bonds,” Ryan Braun is probably likely to fall victim to a gang of writers looking to clear their names from voting for such a controversial batter. Of course, everyone wants to see the Pirates recover and make the playoffs so Andrew McCutchen can be the logical MVP choice. It’s interesting to note that two of the non-playoff MVPs in the last 20 years were voted MVP not long after winning the NL Rookie of the Year; using Jeff Bagwell and Howard as precedent, one could argue that McCutchen’s lack of BBWAA ROY love does not bode well for his MVP campaign (if the Pirates miss the playoffs).
Excluding Braun and McCutchen, BBWAA voters might place themselves into a difficult spot with the remaining NL playoff teams.
(1) Should the Braves keep their playoff spot, intriguing defensive wizard and lead-off batter extraordinaire Michael Bourn gives voters the opportunity to select a non-traditional MVP. Jimmy Rollins was arguably the last “non-traditional” MVP, and Bourn will likely suffer in the voting because he is not a bigtime HR/RBI guy (by virtue of his role). Bourn’s .353 OBP would be the lowest of an NL MVP since Rollins, and he’d be the first NL MVP to slug lower than .450 since Pete Rose. Nevertheless, his overall fielding and baserunning value makes him a better MVP candidate than teammates Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman.
(2) The Nationals and Reds are simply solid teams all around, with few standout batters. Joey Votto‘s injury-shortened campaign robs voters of a legitimate MVP candidate, whereas the Nationals’ Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, and Adam LaRoche are solid batters, if uninspiring MVP candidates. Both clubs boast strong pitching MVP candidates, but voters made it clear last year that their selection of Justin Verlander as American League MVP was a begrudging one-time occurrence — the “someone who plays once every five days can’t be MVP” bias is even stronger than the “MVP should come from a playoff team bias.” This arguably makes it difficult for pitchers like Gio Gonzalez, Johnny Cueto, or even Stephen Strasburg to win the MVP.
(3) The Cardinals benefit the most from this crowd of uninspiring or non-traditional MVP candidates. If they can outlast the Dodgers and Pirates, they boast strong campaigns from Holliday and Molina.
(4) If the Dodgers overtake the Giants or Cardinals, they pretty much have the same problem as the Cincinnati Reds. Not only does Matt Kemp‘s injury-shortened season take him out of MVP running, but Clayton Kershaw is cursed with being a pitcher (and despite his strong pitching performance, his W-L is nothing to write home about).
(5) If Melky Cabrera‘s suspension takes him out of the MVP running for the Giants, it improves Posey’s odds of being selected as MVP. Posey has the added benefit of putting together exceptional offensive production at a prime position on the diamond. Should the Giants maintain their playoff spot, Posey might be the best MVP candidate.
The most unfortunate aspect of Ryan Braun’s assumed guilt in the eye of the public (and sportswriters) is that voters seem destined to rob a great player of legitimate awards during the best years of his career. Braun has come into his own as one of the National League’s truly elite players, and one could argue that he’s the best player in the League over the last few seasons. Of course, baseball voters jumped at the opportunities to slay Braun’s image, allowing them to pre-empt a “Can’t We Vote for Someone Other than Braun?” question two or three years earlier than necessary. It also doesn’t help that writers are moralizing about baseball like it’s the 19th century all over again; suddenly, in the wake of the steroids crisis, there’s a great opportunity to turn professional baseball — a field of entertainment — into an exemplary institution. This allows writers to remind fans that even though they like football better, baseball still holds the moral heart of American sports. Nevermind that the BBWAA members are largely trying to forget that they voted for Barry Bonds a handful of times throughout his career, crowning him as the best player of his generation (he was) regardless of whatever off-field issues could be connected to the slugger.
Anyway you look at it, Ryan Braun deserves to be in the running for the NL MVP, and he’s surely as legitimate a repeat MVP as Albert Pujols or even Barry Bonds (to some extent). What makes this year’s MVP voting so interesting is that the very excuse that allows writers to exclude Braun from MVP consideration — his team didn’t make the playoffs — forces those writers to face a gang of players that are not as strong of candidates as Braun. Luckily for those writers, in the eyes of the public, they can double back on their playoffs requirements and exclude Braun in the name of morality, too. Hopefully, in that case, they at least choose Michael Bourn!