Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Early MVP Predictions

Baseball is days away from taking center stage in the sports world as both the NBA and NHL playoffs will end and NFL training camps don't open for another month or so. Given that, it's not too early to make predictions for the end-of-season awards. When discussing the MVP, I will NOT discuss pitchers, since they'll get their own coverage whenever I get around to writing about the Cy Young Award, but I don't categorically rule them out as candidates. I think it was Joe Sheehan (@joe_sheehan) who wrote last year or the year before (I think it was in conjunction with Justin Verlander winning the 2011 AL MVP, but I could be wrong on all of this) that while batters have 650-700 plate appearances in a season, a pitcher will face 1,000 batters. I'd never thought about it that way before, and as usual, he was absolutely right.

All numbers are taken from Baseball-Reference and sorted by WAR. This table outlines the top 10 candidates in the American League:

Let's just clear the chaff and get it out of the way--forget about Howie Kendrick, J.J. Hardy, Jhonny Peralta, Josh Donaldson, Evan Longoria and Joe Mauer for now. Every comment will be with the huge caveat that dramatic changes can occur in the second half of the season--the Twins could go on a serious winning streak and challenge the Tigers for the AL Central and put Mauer in the thick of the discussion (won't happen), Donaldson and the A's will continue to play well (a very real possibility) or the Angels could wake up from their season-long funk (uh, no). In a 162-game season, anything can happen, but I'm working from probability, not what-ifs.

Manny Machado isn't eligible for Rookie of the Year since he had 202 plate appearances in 2012 (the threshold is 130). His power numbers are unremarkable (particularly for a third baseman), but if he's not the best-fielding third baseman in the league, he's knocking on the door. Don't get hung up over the fact that the last two columns (oWAR=offensive WAR and dWAR=defensive WAR) don't add up to the WAR number, since there are a couple of other components that aren't included that make up the complete WAR number, but in Machado's case, his fielding is a full 40% of his value. It's a rare day when defense is recognized in MVP voting, and while I suspect he'll get his share of votes, I don't think he'll win.

When Dustin Pedroia won the MVP in 2008, his defense WAS a facet in that selection, but he's a solid all-around player. The AL is rich in second basemen now with Pedroia, Robinson Cano, Kendrick and up-and-comers like Jason Kipnis and Jose Altuve. Nothing suggests the Red Sox are going to fade going down the stretch, but Pedroia would have to step up his batting in order to attract serious consideration.

I see it as a race between two first basemen, one of whom actually PLAYS first base: Chris Davis and Miguel Cabrera. No other team in the AL Central seems interested in contending, and Cabrera is at the point in his career that serious all-time comparisons can start being made. For example, consider some of his career thresholds:
1. Cabrera is in his 11th season--in baseball history, he's hit the 7th-most home runs through season 11 and will probably move up to #5 by season's end. The four ahead of him (in ascending order): Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Eddie Mathews and Albert Pujols.
2. He's 13th in hits after season 11 and will probably make it to 10th or 11th. Ahead of him (this deserves a chart:

1 Ichiro Suzuki 95 8060 2001 2011 27-37 1749 7456 1127 2428 280 74 605 496 752 423 95 .326 .370 .421 .791
2 Paul Waner 97 7398 1926 1936 23-33 1638 6486 1228 2254 451 165 957 741 231 94 .348 .417 .513 .930
3 Al Simmons 240 6733 1924 1934 22-32 1524 6182 1147 2188 408 115 1380 431 510 73 51 .354 .398 .574 .971
4 Pete Rose 114 7707 1963 1973 22-32 1697 6907 1107 2152 349 84 650 676 669 95 86 .312 .375 .436 .811
5 Kirby Puckett 184 7229 1984 1994 24-34 1646 6706 988 2135 375 57 986 394 876 131 74 .318 .358 .474 .832
6 Wade Boggs 85 7323 1982 1992 24-34 1625 6213 1067 2098 422 47 687 1004 470 16 27 .338 .428 .462 .890
7 Hank Aaron 366 7216 1954 1964 20-30 1656 6510 1180 2085 351 79 1216 603 655 125 41 .320 .376 .567 .943
8 Albert Pujols 445 7433 2001 2011 21-31 1705 6312 1291 2073 455 15 1329 975 704 84 35 .328 .420 .617 1.037
9 Richie Ashburn 21 7563 1948 1958 21-31 1641 6558 1028 2067 271 95 479 867 413 190 64 .315 .397 .395 .792
10 Stan Musial 227 6754 1941 1952 20-31 1524 5844 1149 2023 415 133 1014 846 304 60 12 .346 .431 .579 1.010
11 Earl Averill 236 7078 1929 1939 27-37 1597 6218 1212 1984 397 127 1142 768 500 70 58 .319 .397 .538 .934
12 Derek Jeter 169 6996 1995 2005 21-31 1525 6167 1159 1936 308 47 763 636 1089 215 57 .314 .386 .461 .847
13 Miguel Cabrera 340 6794 2003 2013 20-30 1581 5936 1016 1900 402 14 1194 751 1155 35 18 .320 .397 .564 .962
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 6/19/2013.
Just as Michael Jordan could have won the MVP just about every year he played (same with LeBron James today), Cabrera is so good that he could win it every year, but voters just don't vote that way. That's why TODAY, I'd put my money on Chris Davis. He's followed up his strong 2012 by showing no signs of slowing down, hitting the third-most home runs since the beginning of 2012 (behind Cabrera and...Edwin Encarnacion?!?!). If the Orioles can stay in the AL East race (they'd be a wild card team if the playoffs started today), a big reason will be because of Davis. 
AL MVP--Chris Davis

Things are not so clear-cut in the National League. Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura have no shot since they play for the Brewers, and in Gomez's case a fair amount of his value is from his defense. I can't categorically state that Troy Tulowitzki doesn't have a chance, but he's on the DL and expected to miss 4-6 weeks. If the Rockies stay relevant in the NL West I won't rule him out, but I'm thinking no. Forget about David Wright, and Gerardo Parra is having a strong season, but also gets quite a boost from his defense.

This is the point where things get interesting. Carlos Gonzalez leads the NL in home runs and slugging and the majors in runs scored. Rockies have never had much luck in the MVP voting (other than Larry Walker in 1997), and while Gonzlez did finish 3rd in 2010 , I suspect the bias against Coors Field and a team that doesn't really enter into the voter's mind will not help him. Same for Paul Goldschmidt--the Diamondbacks are as overlooked as the Rockies, but the one thing they both have going for them is that the NL West will be a tight race (absent injuries or other things that can't be predicted, of course). Tight races get coverage, even if it's next-day due to the lateness of the games, but for anyone who REALLY wants to know what's going on, the information is out there. If I could look at everything blindly (i.e., no idea who the player is or what team he plays for), I'm not sure that I wouldn't choose Goldschmidt, but other than the Los Angeles teams (and San Francisco if they're playing well), the teams west of the Rockies (this works both metaphorically AND literally--think about it) simply don't receive the amount of coverage other teams do.

I see it as a three-man race between Yadier Molina, Joey Votto and Andrew McCutchen, and as I begin writing this section, I THINK I know whom I favor, but I might change my mind. I'll go ahead and rule out Votto because his power numbers are pedestrian--he leads the majors in walks but MVP voters don't care about that. He could have a strong second half  but as thing sit today, no. Yadier Molina is a primary cog on a team that isn't filled with superstars but with stunningly competent players and a smattering of select free agents thrown in for good measure (refer to this post where I discuss the Cardinals and their roster). Molina's offense is nothing special, and even from a defensive standpoint he's not having a lights-out year--he's thrown out 41% of base stealers (11 of 27) as teams realize running on him isn't a solid strategy. Back in the day MVP voters absolutely loved to vote based on "intangibles" like "leadership," "clutch performance" or "The Will To Win," but that was before people realized that intangibles really can be quantified. Other than Pedroia in 2008, the MVP doesn't go to people who don't have outstanding counting stats, which could be Molina's bane.

Which leaves Andrew McCuthen, and I'm starting to vacillate again. His pro-rated stats project to around a 20 HR-80 RBI season, so-so for a #3 hitter. He has the lowest OPS of anyone on this list, and I consider his stolen bases so important that I didn't list them. However, think about what happens if the Pirates maintain their strong start (the best since 1992) and make the playoffs (they're five games up in the wild card as of now)--THAT'S a story with a chance of transcending sports and becoming a news story. With extensive coverage and McCutchen quite likely the best player on the team, that's going to get some attention--and some votes.
NL MVP--Andrew McCutchen

I don't see the MVP going to a pitcher in either league this year unless Max Scherzer goes undefeated with something like a 18-0 record. Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee are playing for teams going nowhere and Seattle has managed to ride outstanding pitching from Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma absolutely nowhere. It's early with a lot of baseball left to play and many factors totally beyond the control of the players listed, but I wrote it and I'll own it. I'll probably revisit all the awards as we near September, but anyone can make predictions when the season is 80% complete--it's daredevils like me that go out on a limb and boldly go where no blogger has gone before and do it in June.

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