The 2018 NL MVP race is one of the most interesting in recent memory. The best position players have more or less formed a logjam at the top where it’s difficult to differentiate candidates, and none of them compare to the best candidates in the AL. In fact, the best candidate would be a pitcher, but that is pretty unlikely to happen. None of them have a chance at making the playoffs (even though that shouldn’t matter) except for Kyle Freeland, and voters have historically had a bias against voting for pitchers because they “have their own award” (even though they’re eligible and value is value).
All of this is to say that, agree with it or not, the NL MVP is likely going to be a position player. Though it is difficult to choose an objective, correct choice among those candidates, Javier Báez is certainly among them.
I first caught wind of Báez’s candidacy a couple of months ago, and to be honest, I dismissed it without even checking the numbers. I was being a bad stathead. I was well aware of his track record posting mediocre OBPs. On-base percentage is the most important number in position player evaluation. It is very difficult for a player to be the best in his league without a high OBP. He would have to excel in all other areas and hope for a down year from any other potential candidates.
Well, that’s basically what is happening.
Once I checked the stats, I saw that Javy’s OBP held no surprises. He still swings at everything and has a walk rate that ranks in the bottom ten in baseball among qualified hitters. The thing is that he really is making up for it in other areas. He is an excellent defender at an up-the-middle position. He adds value on the bases. Most of all, he is absolutely crushing the ball. He has a .566 slugging percentage (second in NL), 32 home runs (sixth in NL), and he leads the league in total bases.
El Mago is very popular among fans, and he might be one of the most fun players to watch. That combined with his mostly excellent stats could very well win him the award.
It is almost crazy to think that a player could win the MVP award in this day and age with a .328 OBP. Caring about OBP is a relatively new concept in baseball. Nobody cared about it much before this century. Still, if you were to go through the list of MVP winners throughout history, you would find a lot of high OBPs. That might be a little surprising given that position players were evaluated based on triple crown stats for almost the entirety of the existence of the award. The fact of the matter is that players who hit for the highest averages and hit for the most power tend to get on base a lot. They generally have great plate discipline, and they likely see fewer strikes than most other hitters.
The last player to win an MVP with an unremarkable OBP was Jimmy Rollins in 2007. His .344 OBP was barely higher than the league average among non-pitchers. He slugged .531 as a great defensive shortstop, but history has has not judged that MVP win well. Rollins was not even the best player in his own infield. Chase Utley was an excellent defender himself, and he was a much, much better hitter. Besides him, Chipper Jones, David Wright, or Albert Pujols would have been better choices.
It should probably come as no surprise that Báez’s .328 OBP would be one of the lowest in major league history for an MVP winner. It would be tied for the third-lowest ever. It should also come as no surprise that two of those MVP winners were less than stellar choices in the context of modern player evaluation.
Andrew Dawson won the 1987 NL MVP with just a .328 OBP in what has since been one of the most heavily criticized wins when viewed through a modern lens (George Bell, the AL MVP selection, was much maligned as well). Back then, if you led the league in home runs and runs batted in, as was the case with Dawson, you were pretty much a lock to win the MVP. Dawson hit for a ton of power that year, but he didn’t do anything else well. I doubt such a season would garner any MVP votes at all, today, let alone an actual win. As an aside, many have wondered whether or not he would have made the Hall of Fame without that MVP (his career .323 OBP is lower than any other Hall of Fame outfielder).
Marty Marion became the first shortstop to win the NL MVP in 1944 — he only won by one point! — and he did so with a .324 OBP. He was an excellent defensive shortstop for the Cardinals, perhaps the best in history until Mark Belanger came along. But he had a sub-.100 ISO. Even viewed through the context of that era, how did he win an MVP when he was on the same team as Stan Musial??? Some people complain about how defense is overvalued today, but it actually used to be much worse, it’s just that it has been so long since that was the case. Musial had won the year before, too, and voters were loathe to repeat themselves.
Zoilo Versalles had the lowest OBP ever by an MVP winner. He had a .319 OBP in 1965. Versalles was a good defensive shortstop, though likely far from elite. Unlike Marion, he did hit for a fair amount of power. He had a .462 SLG, and he led the league in doubles, triples, and total bases. He also led the league in runs scored, which was obviously more valued back then. He stole 27 bases against just five times caught, too. Believe it or not, his MVP win holds up surprisingly well today! That is saying a lot considering he was in the same league as Carl Yastrzemski, who was the best hitter in the AL that year. Versalles’s position, defense, and baserunning make the difference.
In the eyes of today’s voters, Javy has a lot working in his favor in the NL MVP race. We’ll see if he joins Juan González, Iván Rodríguez, Orlando Cepeda, Willie Hernández and the legendary Roberto Clemente as the only Puerto Rican-born players to win the MVP.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.