The National League MVP Debate

We’re wrapping up the baseball regular season here at TheSportsNotebook, and in this post we’ll focus on the National League MVP vote and other major individual awards. After picking a National League All-Star team yesterday, we’ll now narrow it down to the four players I think  need to be in the MVP conversation—Buster Posey for San Francisco, Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun, Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen and the dark horse contender would be Chase Headley in San Diego.

The politics of MVP voting will work in Posey’s favor, as he’s the only one on a playoff team, so we’ll begin with his case. It’s a strong one, built around his .408 on-base percentage and a nice power year, marked by 24 home runs and .549 slugging. He was at his best after Melky Cabrera was suspended and Frisco became more dependent on Posey’s bat. And as a catcher he did all this at a very demanding position.

Braun hit 41 home runs to lead the National League and kept the Brewers in the playoff race to the very end and also helped them achieve a winning season with a strong September push. His .391 on-base percentage was dazzling and he was the clear leader on a team where it took a while for the other component parts—Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart most notably to really get in gear. Braun kept the offense afloat when his teammates were struggling and when they got hot and enabled him to get more pitches to hit, he took off.

If we’d have had this conversation six weeks ago, Andrew McCutchen would have been a lock, as Pittsburgh was on the fringes of playoff contention and their centerfielder was putting up huge numbers. The team faded and McCutchen slumped in September as a well, but this is still an award that’s based on the full body of work. McCutchen’s .400/.553 stat line for on-base percentage and slugging percentage was outstanding and with little to no offensive support, he still drove in 96 runs and scored 107, all the while playing a stellar defensive centerfielder.

No one thinks of Chase Headley as anything more than a pretty good up-and-comer at third base, but did you know the Padre third sacker lead the National League in RBIs with 115? He posted a .376/.498 stat line while hitting in one of baseball’s most pitcher-friendly parks and popped 31 home runs. How many home runs might the left-handed hitting Headley have drilled in Yankee Stadium?

My choice of these four would be Braun, because he brings the complete package of statistical dominance, importance to his team and then helping lead the team to a winning record after they were decimated in free agency prior to the season (Prince Fielder) and gutted at the July 31 trade deadline (Zack Greinke). I’m not sure why a playoff berth is considered magical for winning the award, but helping an undermanned team win more than they lose is not.

Dodger fans, I hear you. Matt Kemp had the exact same argument a year ago, and Braun won the award over him. All I can say is that wasn’t my doing—in 2011, I felt Kemp deserved to be the MVP, using mostly the same argument advanced in the paragraph above. That same logic this year points to Braun.

If we look at pitchers, I don’t see a serious candidate for MVP, but the Cy Young race is very compelling with R.A. Dickey, Gio Gonzalez and Johnny Cueto. Had Cueto gotten his 20th win last weekend, I’d have considered him an easy winner—he also has a 2.78 ERA, which is ahead of Gonzalez and only 0.05 points behind Dickey, in spite of the fact Cueto pitches in an extreme hitters’ park.

Cueto didn’t get #20 though,  so there’s a decision to be made. If it’s just about a one-win difference in the case of Dickey, and a two-win difference with Gonzalez, should that really matter just because they fall on the 20-game border? I’m okay with this mattering to a certain extent. Baseball functions by magic numbers, players are very aware of them and I think it adds something special to the game for this to be a vibrant part of the debate. But it should only matter if you feel the debate is really close. To me, it’s not—Cueto’s role as the ace on a team that won with pitching should put him in the top five of the MVP voting. Dickey and Gonzalez had very good years, but weren’t at that level.

Finally we come to Manager of the Year. Clint Hurdle looked like a runaway winner for a little while, but then Pittsburgh collapsed hard. When you consider the talent (or lack thereof) that Hurdle had, I still think he did a good job, but I’d like a Manager of the Year to have a winning record.

The guy I’ll go with is Fredi Gonzalez in Atlanta. He had to overcome the hangover of last year’s collapse (ask any of us in Red Sox Nation how easy that is), his starting pitching was far from reliable and he still won 94 games and easily rolled into the playoffs. Gonzalez also had a top starting pitcher whose innings had to be limited. Unlike the higher-ups in Washington, Gonzalez actually thought ahead, and had Kris Medlen start later rather than be shut down earlier. Medlen’s only been the hottest pitcher in baseball and is set to pitch Friday’s wild-card game. A good job all the way around by the Atlanta skipper.

Thus, we conclude the National League season with choices of Ryan Braun for MVP, Johnny Cueto for Cy Young and Fredi Gonzalez for Manager of the Year. Click here to read the choices in the American League.