NL MVP Retrospective, or Why Chase Utley Will Never Win Anything in His Lifetime

Yesterday, the final end-of-season award of 2009 was announced, and it comes as no surprise that Albert Pujols was not only the winner, but a unanimous first-place winner, with all 32 first-place votes going to him.

Now, I have no issues with Mr. Pujols (though I will say that, if you went by WAR, it wasn't as much of a blowout as it is shown by the voting). He is likely the best player in baseball right now and far and away the best hitter in the game. No reasonable person would have an issue with this call. All congratulations go to him. But I thought it would appropriate to mention one quibble I had with the voting on which most readers here at Beyond the Box Score would share my distaste. Let me share the top 10 list with you, with the offending line in bold.

Voting Results Batting Stats
Rank Tm Vote Pts 1st Place Share G AB R H HR RBI SB BB BA OBP SLG OPS
1 Albert Pujols STL 448.0 32.0 100% 160 568 124 186 47 135 16 115 .327 .443 .658 1.101
2 Hanley Ramirez FLA 233.0 0.0 52% 151 576 101 197 24 106 27 61 .342 .410 .543 .954
3 Ryan Howard PHI 217.0 0.0 48% 160 616 105 172 45 141 8 75 .279 .360 .571 .931
4 Prince Fielder MIL 203.0 0.0 45% 162 591 103 177 46 141 2 110 .299 .412 .602 1.014
5 Troy Tulowitzki COL 172.0 0.0 38% 151 543 101 161 32 92 20 73 .297 .377 .552 .930
6 Andre Ethier LAD 113.0 0.0 25% 160 596 92 162 31 106 6 72 .272 .361 .508 .869
7 Pablo Sandoval SFG 89.0 0.0 20% 153 572 79 189 25 90 5 52 .330 .387 .556 .943
8 Chase Utley PHI 84.0 0.0 19% 156 571 112 161 31 93 23 88 .282 .397 .508 .905
9 Derrek Lee CHC 66.0 0.0 15% 141 532 91 163 35 111 1 76 .306 .393 .579 .972
10 Matt Kemp LAD 49.0 0.0 11% 159 606 97 180 26 101 34 52 .297 .352 .490 .842
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/25/2009.

 

As many of the astute readers would have already figured out, I'm going to join in on the parade of whining about Philadelphia Phillies second baseman Chase Utley. There are more funny things to mention, such as the 10th place votes for Jeremy Affeldt and Brad Hawpe, but those silly votes are a novelty if anything. Chase Utley not receiving MVP recognition for his elite play is not a novel concept.

First, the Numbers

Of course, I don't think any award comparison article could honestly be attempted without a good old fashioned table of WAR values! All data taken from FanGraphs, so as not to step on anyone's toes using my own calculations of wOBA weights for the season (I keep getting average wOBA of .333, but FanGraphs has it as .329, which worries me). SB/CS baserunning is already included in FanGraphs wOBA, so I only added non-basestealing runs from Baseball Prospectus' EqBRR.

Rank Player Batting Baserunning Defense PosAdj RepAdj WAR
1 Albert Pujols 72.1 -0.6 1.3 -12.4 23.3 8.4
2 Hanley Ramirez 44.2 1.7 -0.3 7.0 21.7 7.4
3 Ryan Howard 35.6 -2.8 1.3 -12.4 23.4 4.5
4 Prince Fielder 55.4 -3.1 0.6 -12.5 24.0 6.4
5 Troy Tulowitzki 27.4 3.9 -1.2 7.0 20.9 5.8
6 Andre Ethier 25.3 0.9 -16.2 -7.4 22.8 2.5
7 Pablo Sandoval 34.9 1.1 -4.2 -0.1 21.1 5.3
8 Chase Utley 39.4 5.4 10.8 2.4 22.9 8.1
9 Derrek Lee 39.8 0.7 3.7 -10.9 20.5 5.4
10 Matt Kemp 23.2 1.5 2.6 2.0 22.2 5.2

 

I'll first mention that the overall list is not all that bad. If you went by FanGraphs' WAR totals, you would only be missing Ryan Zimmerman and Adrian Gonzalez from the top 10. Gonzalez finished 12th in the balloting despite playing for the San Diego Padres, but Ryan Zimmerman was snubbed of an excellent season, finishing 25th. Such is the perils of depending on defense for your value (and for playing for the Washington Nationals).

But back to the man of the hour, so to speak. How does Chase Utley rank among the top 10 MVP candidates in each (non-playing time) category? As you can see, Utley was the best defender using single-season UZR. We shouldn't consider that "the truth," but if we look at regressed projections such as the ones I made for the Gold Glove vs. UZR series, you'll see that Utley comes out even better after considering the past few seasons in UZR and Fans Scouting Report data (Pujols would also look very well, while a few others remain around where they are). Utley was also the best baserunner by a good margin, and that should not surprise anyone. He stole 23 bags out of 23 attempts this year, which is incorporated in to his batting totals, and in addition gathered up five more runs taking extra bases on hits, grounders, and fly balls according to EqBRR.

Who did not look so good? Well, if you trust the data listed here, Andre Ethier should not even have sniffed this ballot. Not a lot of consideration was given to his defense, which did not appear very good. Using just a weighted UZR projection, I had him at -7 runs, which is a good win or so better than what he supposedly showed as listed here, but would still put him well behind the other candidates in terms of production. Ethier was also the second worst hitter in terms of wRAA and baserunning, ahead of only Los Angeles Dodgers teammate Matt Kemp. Much was made of Ethier's "clutch" performance this year (he won the award for ESPN!), and his 1.01 wins in the clutch according to FanGraphs generally supports that. So he's got that going for him, I suppose.

The Ryan Howard-RBI Conspiracy

Of course, I didn't mention the giant elephant in the room, in the form of Phillies slugger Ryan Howard. We know that Utley has been a better hitter compared to Howard the past three seasons, based on wOBA/linear weights. What Howard brings in home run power, Utley more than makes up for in doubles and not making outs.

However, Utley bats third in the Phillies lineup behind Jimmy Rollins (career OBP .329) and Shane Victorino (career OBP .347, though it's been higher in recent seasons). Meanwhile, Howard bats fourth in the Phillies order and regularly has, well, Chase Utley (career OBP .379) on base. And people wonder why Utley gets RBI totals in the 90-100 range regularly, while Howard has those "marvelous" 140-RBI seasons.

While it is true that Howard has done a better job of bringing runners home when he has been at the plate the last two seasons (20.5% of baserunners have come home to score during Howard's appearances the last two seasons) than Utley has (15.9% over the same time span), I think it's pertinent to note that Howard has had over 14% more runners on base the last two seasons. Keep the two-year "run-driving" rates the same and give Howard the number of baserunners Utley had, and Howard would have been expected to drive in 176 baserunners compared to Utley's 137, a difference of only 39 runners over two years. Is 20 RBI's a season really that much of a difference between an MVP competitor (Howard placed 3rd this season, 2nd last season) and an MVP also-ran (Utley placed 8th this season and a staggering 14th last year)?

And of course, this doesn't even consider their differences in position, defense, baserunning, and all those other things regularly glossed over during MVP voting season.

Will he ever win?

I can't tell you that, my friend. It seems like the lure of the RBI still looms large over Chase Utley's head. After all, how can you be the most important player on your team when you don't drive in the most runs? I mean, coincidentally, the highest ranking player from each team represented on the ballot led their team in RBI's this season. Without having looked at the award ballots from previous years, I'd hazard a guess that that is more the rule than an exception. Unless Utley magically starts hitting 40 home runs a season, I don't know if he can avoid being on base for Howard not to drive him in. And if he stops getting on base in general, well, we can't have that type of player win awards?

Well, I guess we could, since Jimmy Rollins won the MVP in 2007 with a .344 OBP (more on that season a little later). But for that to happen, I think Utley would have to be the only player to hit 50 doubles, 30 home runs, 20 triples, 30 steals, and 15 sacrifice flies, or some other "prestigious" club that he'd have created himself that year. And clearly he's just not good enough to have that kind of MVP-caliber season.

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