The National League MVP Race With A Month To Go

Andrew McCutchen has been seen as the runaway leader for the National League MVP, although the Pirates’ struggle to hold on the playoff race make take its toll in the final voting for their centerfielder. What McCutchen does have going for him is that there aren’t clear-cut candidates from other contenders. With that as the landscape, let’s size up the race for National League MVP as the regular season has exactly four weeks left.

In yesterday’s post about the AL MVP race I noted two disclaimers—I don’t have the same bias in favor of players on contenders, nor do I have a problem with starting pitchers, given the impact on the games they pitch. This was seen last year when I opted for Matt Kemp over Ryan Braun in the National League race. Kemp had numbers that were a little bit better, he played on a team without a lot of lineup support and he helped the 2011 Dodgers reach .500, a legitimate team accomplishment given the talent level. I cite this not to rehas the ’11 race, but to note the irony—things have come full circle and that’s exactly the argument that Braun can bring to the table in 2012.

The Brewer left fielder has a .389/.605 stat line for on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He’s batting .312, and has driven in 98 runs. Even more surprising given the lack of great offensive talent around him after the loss of Prince Fielder, Braun has also scored 90 runs. And for those who thought he’d lose power after the steroid controversy of the offseason? How about 37 home runs, the final seal of vindication. And in spite of not just losing Fielder, trading Zack Greinke and in general having an injury-riddled season, the Brewers have a  shot at .500, with a 66-69 record. Furthermore, the offense ranks 3rd in the league in runs scored, meaning it’s the Braun-led attack carrying the team. As far as I’m concerned that adds up to a good definition of an MVP.

Before we give the lead in the race to Bruan though, let’s vet the other candidates. McCutchen’s stat line is .409/.565, and while he doesn’t have the same power as Braun (24 home runs), he’s hitting .347 and statheads believe—and I agree—that a point of on-base percentage is worth more than a point of slugging percentage. And it’s the former where McCutchen is superior to Braun. The Pirate lineup provides no real support and though Pittsburgh ranks 13th in the NL in runs scored, without McCutchen they would likely rank about 18th in the 16-team National League. In spite of it, the Pirates are still in striking distance of a wild-card sport and certainly in position to seal their first winning season since 1992. That too, adds up to a good definition of an MVP.

The dark horse candidate in this field would be San Francisco catcher Buster Posey. At .401/.527, his stat line isn’t as dazzling, but the relative value of a catcher posting numbers like that can make up for a statistical gap. If we had to vote right now, I’d still have Posey in third, mainly because for much of this season he’s had help from Melky Cabrera, who was having an MVP-level season of his own before being suspended for steroid use. If Posey closes with a flourish, it eliminates that argument and it certainly helps if San Francisco holds its lead in the NL West. The offense has been a bigger part of Frisco’s success this year, and Posey is the biggest remaining reason.

We can give a shout-out to players like Carlons Gonzalez (.382/.532), David Wright (.403/.501) and Matt Holliday (.379/.522), although they are second-level candidates. Holliday is stacked with support in St. Louis, while Gonzalez has the aid of Coors Field in Colorado. Wright could make a stronger case given the tough dimensions of New York’s Citi Field, although even given that I’d like to see the slugging percentage come up 20-25 more points before considering him for the award.

Pitching-wise, Wright’s teammate R.A. Dickey has won 18 games and worked nearly 200 innings already, while Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto has a 17-7 record and 2.58 ERA. Because Cueto, who works in a much worse pitching environment than Dickey, has a slightly better ERA (Dickey’s at 2.64) I’d have to give the nod to the Cincy ace. He’d also make a worthy candidate for MVP,  but even though his 188 IP is solid, it’s a little behind what I’d want to see from a starting pitcher before giving him the nod (Justin Verlander worked 240 IP a year ago and won 24 games by way of comparison).

As the race stands right now, I’d give Braun a slight edge over McCutchen, with Posey coming hard on the outside and still a possibility for Cueto if he finishes on a tear.