Monday, August 15, 2011

NL MVP Watch: History in the Making

This year's AL MVP race is shaping up to be a very interesting study in 'old school' versus 'new school' thinking in baseball. The race (if it can even be called one) is shaping up to be any above average player on the Boston Red Sox or the New York Yankees versus Jose Bautista. If you have followed along all year its been a back and forth in the 'old school' realm of baseball between these two teams. First it was Adrian Gonzalez because he led the league in RBIs. Then Dustin Pedroia started to heat up in the second half and he became a favourite for his second title. But Yankee's fans started to get angry that all the talk was about the Red Sox and Curtis Granderson's name started to emerge as a 'favourite' for the award. Naturally the Boston media decried that their centrefielder Jacoby Ellsbury was even better and that he deserved to win the MVP. All the while not one of these players has approached the overwhelmingly better season Toronto's Jose Bautista is having on a far more underwhelming team. The argument has been made here, and here, and here, and even here. Enough said.

But the NL MVP race is proving to be far more interesting. Matt Kemp jumped out as an early favourite to start the season. He has been dominant in the post-Rihanna era. He has flirted with entering baseball's 40-40 club all season long, and still has a pretty decent shot of pulling it off. In the BBWAA beloved counting stats - he is second in home runs, second in RBI, third in stolen bases and fourth in batting average. He would become only the second 40-40 member to win an MVP award in that same season (Jose Canseco in 1988 was the other). It's still well within the realm of possibility that Kemp could join the 40-40 club and win the Triple Crown in the same season, an accomplishment that no-one else has achieved in the history of baseball.

In terms of the advanced stats that many of the younger voters are using these days - Kemp ranks fourth in the NL in WAR, second in wOBA, and third in OPS. The negatives in Kemp's season have been hard to find. Likely the biggest knock against him is that he plays for the Dodgers this season who have been beyond terrible. The second biggest is that he is not a strong defensive player. While that is certainly his fault, most argue that he shouldn't be a CF and would be a far better corner outfielder defensively.

Many thought the thorn in Kemp's side would be Jose Reyes; his 5.6 fWAR is only .1 less than Kemp despite playing 21 fewer games. But it would appear that Reyes' chances have slimmed significantly now that he has been placed on the disabled list for the second time this season. While Reyes' numbers over a full season may have been enough to unseat Kemp, he also faced the burden of playing for a team far out of contention.

A quick scan of the rest of the NL and it's quite noticeable that there are very few candidates worthy on the league's top honour. While the Phillies' Ryan Howard is having a tremendous season as usual, it's far from his best and definitely not enough to win him the award. The Braves will likely win the NL Wildcard, but no single player there is likely to take home the MVP. The NL Central produces a couple interesting candidates. The Central leading Brewers are home to both Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun. Both are outstanding players and are in the top 10 in the NL in WAR. However since neither one is more outstanding than the other - they will likely both be the victims of a split vote. It's amazing that we can mention the NL Central and not mention the name Albert Pujols. While he leads the league in home runs, it has been far too much of a down year for Pujols considering the competition. The other intriguing choice for much of the season was the Non-All-Star-All-Star-Snub Andrew McCutchen. While McCutchen has had a fantastic season for the Pirates, their inevitable slide down in the standings all but guarantees he is once again forgotten in the abyss that is Pittsburgh.

Which brings me to here. Yes it might have taken a while but I thought it was important to be thorough. While Matt Kemp has dominated the NL all season, and may very well join the 40-40 club while also in the running for the triple crown, their is an even better, even younger outfielder in the NL West that will make his own history if he wins the MVP.

Justin Upton.

Justin Upton hasn't yet turned 23. Yet his 6.0 fWAR leads the NL. His Arizona Diamondbacks were pretty much the consensus pick to finish last in the NL West behind even the Padres, yet they find themselves two games up on the defending World Series Champion Giants. In a recent broadcast - Vin Scully commented that the Arizona Diamondbacks field a team with Justin Upton and seven others. That about sums up the Diamondbacks. As this years all star game was being held in Arizona, the Dbacks were 3 games behind the Giants. In 29 games since the break, the Dbacks have gone 19-10 to pull 2 games up on the Giants. It should come as no surprise that in those 29 games - Justin Upton has posted a .345/.390/.743/1.134 split with 10 home runs and 19 RBIs. If he keeps up anywhere close to that pace while keeping the Diamondbacks in first place - that will be more than enough to send 'old school' and 'new school' voters alike into a venomous frenzy.

Oh and as for history - remember his age?

Justin Upton would become the 4th youngest MVP in MLB history and the the third youngest position player to win MVP. The two guys younger than him?

Hall of Famers Johnny Bench and Stan Musial.

Upton would be younger than Hall of Fame inductees Cal Ripken Jr., Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays when they won their first MVP at 23.

I'd say that's pretty historic company if you ask me.

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