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The Big NL MVP Post

Ok, here it is, my overly long post on the National League MVP Award.  For now I'm only going to address position players, and then discuss where, if at all, pitchers should fall in the top ten at a later date.  Why?  Because I'm lazy and haven't gotten that far yet.  If you're wondering whether it's worth reading the whole article, here's a teaser -- my NL MVP isn't the guy being touted by most statheads and it's not someone being pushed by most of the mainstream media.  Oooooh, now you're hooked, right?

I'm defining MVP by my own criteria, only slightly catering to popular opinion. I don't believe MVPs have to come from playoff teams (although it's easy enough to adapt my list to fit that requirement).  I don't believe games in September count more than games in April.  I do believe defense should matter.  I do believe playing time should matter.  And, finally, I believe clutch performances should count.

Let's start with that last claim, that performance in clutch situations matters.  No, I don't think clutchiness is a real skill -- that is, you can't predict who's going to be clutch in the future.  But looking back over the season, the players who performed better in the clutch did help create more runs for their teams, leading to more wins. 

I also believe players should receive credit for what they do towards helping their team win (hat tip Tom Tango) even if their team doesn't actually end up winning the game.  If Hitter X hits two grand slams and his team loses 9-8, he was still quite valuable (and the pitching staff was not.)  Therefore, Win Probability Added is my statistic of choice for offensive performance.  If you're not familiar with WPA, check out this primer at THT.

Comparing players to average isn't ideal, however.  It's the classic Bill James argument -- you'd rather have an average player over 500 at-bats than a slightly above-average player for 100 at-bats.  The best baseline to use is replacement-level.  In order to convert from WPA-above-average to WPA-above-replacement, I'm crediting NL hitters with two wins per 700 plate appearances -- thanks to Sean Smith for this little shortcut.  (I'll be using two and half wins per 700 plate appearances for AL hitters to account for league differences, but it doesn't matter much within each league.)

That's it for offense.  I'm not adding an adjustment for coming through in September, when playoff spots are "on the line".  Yes, I'm perfectly familiar with the concept of Playoff Probability Added -- for teams in contention, the probability they make the playoffs will swing more wildly during September than earlier in the year.  But early season wins allow September games to matter -- just ask Astros fans if they wish their team had won more games in April.  This is especially important for guys like Carlos Delgado and Ryan Howard, who are just now making up for putting their teams in a hole with their crappy early season performances.

Ok, now for defense.  Ideally we'd give credit for clutch fielding just like with offense, but those stats don't yet exist.  If UZR or Dewan's +/- were freely available I'd use those systems to measure fielding.  But instead I'll settle for Justin's aggregate fielding number, an average of BIS and STATS zone ratings converted to runs saved.

But it's not just fielding your position that's important -- what position you play matters, too.  I might be beating a dead horse here, but it's much easier to find someone to play first base who's a competent hitter than it is to find a competent hitter at shortstop.  To convert from runs to wins using Justin's stats, I'm dividing by 9.3, which is the MLB-average for runs per game by both teams.

Over a full season, here's how much each position is worth relative to the average position: catcher (+1.0 wins), shortstop (+.6 wins), center field (+.4 wins), second base and third base (+.1 wins), left field and right field (-.6 wins), first base (-.9 wins), and DH (-1.5 wins).

And that's it.  Here's the short version: start with WPA and convert to a replacement-level baseline.  Then add in defense, which is position plus fielding.  I'll present all the pieces of the puzzle for the top twenty-five players in the NL at the end of this post, but let's first go through the league from bottom to top, Bill Simmons-style.  All numbers through September 16th.

351. Jeff Francoeur (-2.6 wins) -- Here's your LVP, folks.  Over 607 plate appearances he compiled a .644 OPS and cost the Braves a full win with his lack of clutch hitting.  Too bad he's not getting any credit for his impressive throwing arm.

340/330/327.  Khalil Greene (-1.4 wins), Kevin Kouzmanoff (-1.1 wins), and Tadahito Iguchi (-1.0 wins) -- Three Padres at least a win worse than replacement-level.  Ouch.  (Although, Fangraphs doesn't yet park adjust WPA.)

288. Lastings Milledge (-.4 wins) -- Are Mets fans still upset about trading him away for Ryan Church and Brian Schneider?  Not yet, at least.

282. Mike Jacobs (-.3 wins) -- His unclutchiness and total lack of defensive talent are the answers to the question "how do you post an .814 OPS and still hurt your team?"

247. Dmitri Young (-.1 wins) -- Did anyone foresee this contract backfiring?  Yeah, me, too.

211. Garret Atkins (0 wins) -- Here is your 2008 NL definition of replacement-level.

161. Orlando Hudson (.4 wins) -- Should he still expect a big free agent contract?  His bat dipped, his fielding no longer rates all that well, and he'll be coming off major surgery.  Somebody will overspend, making Mrs. Hudson quite happy.

153. Ken Griffey Jr. (.5 wins) -- In honor of his past  achievements and my buddy Kevin from high school who named his dog after The Kid, I will make no further comment.

149. Troy Tulowitzki (.5 wins) -- Because I made such a big deal out of Tulo unfairly losing the 2007 Rookie of the Year award to Ryan Braun, I feel required to mention his poor 2008 sophomore campaign.  I'm still hopeful going forward, as this year was hampered by injuries.

137. Corey Hart (.7 wins) -- Here is your last man for the NL All-Star team, fans.  Well done.  Your voting priveleges have been revoked and next year's All-Star teams will be picked by Sammy the Epileptic Goat.

127. Jason Kendall (.8 wins) -- When will teams ever learn?  To be fair, he's nearly league-average in a context-neutral evaluation.

110. Brian Schneider (1.1 wins) -- See #288 above.  For the record, Paul Loduca was -.7 runs in fewer than 150 plate appearances.

108/109. Justin Upton & Jay Bruce (1.2 wins) -- I'll bet anyone that these guys finish higher in next year's MVP voting.  Any takers?

98. Miguel Tejada (1.3 wins) -- You'll have to wait until the AL article to see where Luke Scott falls.  Hint: better than 1.3 wins above replacement.

96. Matt Kemp (1.4 wins) -- It's really tough to be .7 wins worse than average when you play a lot of center field, but that's what Kemp has accomplished.  He's still a good trade target for the Rays this off-season if they can't snag Andre Ethier.

79. Ryan Church (1.7 wins) -- See #288 above.  Concussions limited him to half a season, but I fully expect Mets fans to fall in love with him in 2009.

71/72/73. Jim Edmonds, Rick Ankiel, and Aaron Rowand (1.8 wins) -- I didn't even have to fudge anything to get these three center fielders to finish right next to each other.  Ankiel's got the best arm of the three and was extremely unclutch this year, meaning he's the one you want going forward.

65. Gabe Kapler (2.0 wins) -- And in only 245 plate appearances!

61. Carlos Delgado (2.1 wins) -- I only list him because I know people will ask.  Is he really an MVP candidate.  No way (link).

54. Ryan Howard (2.3 wins) -- He's one spot ahead of Shane Victorino.  Please tell your friends to stop their Howard for MVP campaigns.  His OBP is league-average and even though he's hit .300 with runners in scoring position, he actually hasn't been clutch overall (-1.07 clutchiness and a .163/.303/.347 line over 119 PAs in "close and late" situations.)

53. Manny Ramirez (2.3 wins) -- You see, there are nine players on the field at a time and the season doesn't start in August.  Wait, what, I'm supposed to give Many extra credit for making everyone on the team better?  Because he's a great clubhouse guy and told Ned Colletti to call up Clayton Kershaw and trade for Greg Maddux?  Uh, ok.

49. Ryan Ludwick (2.5 wins) -- He had a strong showing in the MVP primaries, but Pujols' negative ad campaign destroyed him.

46. Jose Reyes (2.5 wins) -- Can a Mets fan please tell me where his glove went?

43. Fernando Tatis (2.6 wins) -- I still don't believe this is true.  Tatis?  Seriously?

41. Brian McCann (2.8 wins) -- McCann's been one of the worst clutch hitters in the NL this year.  By WPA/LI he's 1.6 wins better and a top 15 guy.

38. Geovanny Soto (2.9) -- NL Rookie of the Year.

26. Yunel Escobar (3.6 wins) -- That Edgar Renteria for Jair Jurrjens trade was brilliant.  For the Braves.

19. Jason Bay (4.2 wins) -- Clutch-inflated.

16. Chris Iannetta (4.4 wins) -- He's the top rated catcher in the NL.  I love when top prospects flame out and then finally live up to expectations a few years later.

15. Ryan Braun (4.5 wins) -- Even starting behind the eight-ball as a corner outfielder he has positive defensive value (+.1 wins).  Nice call on that move to the outfield.  If he could take a walk he'd be a perennial MVP candidate.

14. Cody Ross (4.6 wins) -- Ross wins the award for least talked about top 20 MVP candidate.  In fact, that might be the first time Ross and MVP have been typed on the internet.  (Please don't google it.)

10. Chase Utley (4.8 wins) -- It pains me to see Utley this low, but it's because he's been horrible in the clutch this year.  By WPA/LI he's top five.

9. Carlos Lee (5.0 wins) -- Lee is the anti-Utley: bad fielder, great clutch hitter.

8. Pat Burrell (5.2 wins) -- Here's your real Phillies' MVP.  No, his second half hasn't been spectacular, but he was the best player in the NL during the first half, he's been clutch, and he apparently figured out how to field.

7. David Wright (5.7 wins) -- He's still not a great fielder, but doesn't a Gold Glove winner who improves his fielding have to win it again?

6. Chipper jones (6.5 wins) -- He's the Milton Bradley of the National League (in the great rates stats and low plate appearances sense, not the zero defensive value and psycho sense.)

5. Matt Holliday (6.7 wins) -- Yes, this is a bit Coors inflated, but he's still a phenomenal player.  Please don't use his road stats as an argument for how overrated he is.

4. Hanley Ramirez (6.8 wins) -- Happy learned how to putt.

3. Carlos Beltran (7.1) -- The man can hit, the man has been clutch, and the man can field circles around almost everyone else.  But yes, Mets fans, continue to blame him for everything that goes wrong in Gotham City.

2. Albert Pujols (7.9 wins) -- Disregarding clutch, he's number one (and he hasn't really been unclutch). Since the BBWAA is going to screw him out of another MVP award in favor of someone like Carlos Delgado, I figure I might as well pass him over in favor of...

1. Lance Berkman (8.6 wins) -- Even without his great clutch performance, he managed to give Pujols a run for his money, trailing by one win in WPA/LI and only half a win in the field.  But by being clutch to the tune of 1.8 wins, Berkman was able to do more for his team than even Prince Albert did.  But yes, Randy Wolf was the catalyst for the Astros' playoff chase.

And finally, your top twenty-five NL MVP candidates.  Any differences of less than .5 wins are definitely not significant, and I usually like to see almost a full win difference before making bold claims. Total Value is Rep + WPA + Defense, with WPA/LI just listed for reference.

NL Rank Player WPA (WPA/LI) rep Defense Total Val
1 Lance Berkman 6.7 4.7 1.8 0.1 8.6
2 Albert Pujols 5.6 5.7 1.7 0.6 7.9
3 Carlos Beltran 3.9 2.8 1.9 1.3 7.1
4 Hanley Ramirez 4.6 3.7 1.9 0.4 6.8
5 Matt Holliday 5.1 4.2 1.7 -0.1 6.7
6 Chipper Jones 3.6 4.1 1.5 1.5 6.5
7 David Wright 3.4 4.4 1.9 0.3 5.7
8 Pat Burrell 3.6 2.5 1.7 -0.1 5.2
9 Carlos Lee 4.8 3.1 1.4 -1.2 5.0
10 Chase Utley 0.9 3.0 1.9 2.0 4.8
11 Aramis Ramirez 3.1 2.6 1.7 -0.1 4.7
12 Dan Uggla 2.8 2.3 1.6 0.2 4.7
13 J.J. Hardy 1.7 1.7 1.7 1.3 4.6
14 Cody Ross 2.2 1.7 1.3 1.1 4.6
15 Ryan Braun 2.7 2.6 1.7 0.1 4.5
16 Chris Iannetta 2.8 2.2 1.1 0.5 4.4
17 Nate McLouth 3.8 2.5 1.8 -1.3 4.3
18 Russell Martin 1.4 0.5 1.8 1.1 4.2
19 Jason Bay 3.9 2.8 1.3 -1.0 4.2
20 Brian Giles 1.5 1.3 1.8 0.9 4.2
21 Andre Ethier 2.8 2.3 1.6 -0.3 4.1
22 Adrian Gonzalez 3.0 2.3 1.9 -0.9 4.0
23 Randy Winn 1.9 1.7 1.8 0.2 3.9
24 Mark Teixeira 1.8 2.8 1.3 0.7 3.8
25 Jayson Werth 1.8 2.8 1.2 0.6 3.6