NL MVP Race

NL MVP Race 2011

If you thought the AL leader board was crowded, then the NL’s best are forming a massive traffic jam right now. Prince Fielder is hitting .304 with 27 home runs, Matt Holliday has a .417 OBP to go along with a .561 slugging percentage, and Jose Reyes has stolen 34 bases while posting a .336/.377/.507 slash line from the shortstop position. And these guys aren’t even in my top 5!

Like in my AL MVP article, I’m assessing value as the extra stupendicalness a player brings to his team relative to his position. It’s harder to play center field than first base, and harder to play shortstop than center. These things will be taken into account.

Let’s start with the reigning champion, Joey Votto. Like Adrian Gonzalez in the AL, Votto loses value for playing a heavy-hitting position, first base (more to come on that). What Votto has going for him – aside from sharing a name with my AL MVP leader – is plate discipline, mashability and longevity.  He walks nearly 16% of the time, and then when he swings, good things happen. A .318 average and .519 slugging percentage are actually down from his last two seasons, but that’s still an excellent combination of patience and contact. As for longevity, the Reds have played 122 games this season…Joey Votto has played 121.

There are two reasons Jose Reyes was instantly dropped from the conversation—not that it was an easy decision. The first is that he has only played 4/5 of his team’s games this season. Games played are not the most important component in my mind, but Reyes has left his team high-and-dry at short for 24 games. The other reason can be found in Coors Field. Troy Tulowitzki, the Rockies’ shortstop, has a stranglehold on his position in the NL. Yeah, I know he plays at Coors, but he does so much more than hit (though he hits well). Tulowitzki has always put up good defensive numbers from the most difficult position on the diamond. He has finally been healthy all season, and his UZR, Defensive Runs Saved and runs Plus/Minus figures are all showing that. All three defensive systems suggest Tulowitzki has saved the Rockies double-digit runs with his glove.

We continue moving west where Justin Upton is giving baseballs nightmares. The Diamondbacks’ right fielder has hit 25 dingers while racking up 18 steals, combining above-average power and speed on the basepaths. His triple slash line goes like this .305/.378/.561. That’s pretty OK. Like Tulo, Upton gets additional value from his defense. The three defensive systems agree that Upton has saved his team in the range of 10 to 11 runs this season. The knock on Upton? He doesn’t walk a ton, keeping the OBP below .400, and he plays in the thin air of Arizona where balls fly far. We’ll get into ballparks soon enough.

Matthew Ryan Kemp had conversation with Justin Irvin Upton the other day, and it went like this.

Upton: Bro, did you see my OPS in the nerd paper the other day? .939, fool, and don’t forget those 25 bombs and 18 steals.

Kemp: (Pushing all his chips into the center of the lunch table; potato chips, mind you): I raise you to 28 homeruns, 32 stolen bases, and a .971 OPS….in a pitchers’ park. Boom! Roasted.

Upton: Shit, FML.

On a more serious note, there’s no doubt Kemp is more valuable than Upton offensively this season, especially considering the ballpark factors of Arizona’s Chase Field (106) and LA’s Dodger Stadium (95). Kemp loses ground, however, on the defensive side of the game where his prowess in center field, measured on a 1-100 scale, is approximately pi…ish.

Let’s compare our position players all together now. WAR attempts to account for positional value, and I’ll add that to the analysis, but I’m also going to play with a different rating system. First of all, I’ve already pointed out that these four players play in very different ballparks. Upton, Tulo and Votto all play in hitters’ parks, while Kemp plays in a stadium that cuts run-scoring by 5%. So wOBA, a stat not adjusted for ballpark, isn’t totally fair. But its cousin, wRC+ (which sounds more like a Star Wars droid), is perfect. I’m going to measure each player’s Star Wars offensive value using Z-scores (are we even talking about baseball anymore?), a method that adjusts for the average level of production and variability within each position. In other words, how much better is Matt Kemp at hitting than the other every-day center fielders in the NL. To the results!

Player

wRC+ (Z)

Defense

WAR

Kemp

1.95

-0.8

5.9

Tulo

1.55

13.6

6.1

Upton

1.09

10.2

6.4

Votto

1.29

1.4

5.4


This chart tells me two things. Votto does not currently belong in the conversation, and the top three are hard to separate. We’ll get to that in a second, but if you’re good at counting like me, you know that I have only mentioned four players thus far, and I promised five. The fifth player in the mix plays about once every 5.15 days, and his name is Roy Halladay.

Pitchers don’t generally get considered for the MVP award because there’s only so much a player can do when he plays in just 1/5 of his team’s games. Halladay is special in a number of ways, though. Obviously he’s good, but beyond his aptitude for run prevention, Halladay is a horse. Consider this: Halladay and the jello-armed Tim Lincecum have started the same number of games this season—25—yet Halladay has pitched 20 more innings. He averages more than 7 1/3 innings per start and still maintains an ERA second only to the Giants’ Ryan Vogelsong.*

By now I hope you’re cursing me for even thinking to use a partial season of ERA to measure value. If we focus on the things Halladay has the most control over—Ks, walks and homers—Halladay enters another stratosphere. His 2.14 FIP blows the rest of the league out of the water. It’s 46 points better than the next best competitor, Clayton Kershaw, AND I didn’t even mention that Halladay pitches his home games in Citizen’s Bank, a hitters’ park. If we adjust for ballpark, here’s an equivalent pitchers’ chart to the hitters’ one above.

Player

FIP- (Z)

WAR

Halladay

2.38

6.7

Hamels

1.65

4.9

Lee

1.65

4.9

Kershaw

1.60

4.9

Clemens (’86)

2.47

8.0

FIP- for pitchers is similar to wRC+ for batters. It attempts to value the pitcher for the things he is most in control of, and then adjusts for ballpark factors. This means Halladay is nearly 2.4 standard deviations better than the average qualified pitcher according to park-adjusted FIP. The last starter to win the award, Roger Clemens, performed better than Halladay has in terms of my adjusted FIP-, but his number of innings was not as impressive when compared to league-average endurance at the time.

We can argue all we want about whether or not Upton’s defense catches him up to Kemp’s offense, or Tulowitzki’s ability to play the hardest position in baseball (next to catcher, maybe) gives him the nod over the two outfielders. But here’s the thing: Halladay is even more valuable. He makes the next-best pitchers in the National League look average. Halladay leads the league in all three ERA equivalents—FIP, xFIP and SIERA. He leads the league in K/BB ratio and innings pitched, and he’s third in homerun prevention (the two ahead of him pitch in parks with homerun factors below league average). Halladay is so much better than everyone else at his position that, in my mind, he makes up for taking constant 4 and 5-day weekends.

So here’s the list, in order of most valuable to least valuable:

Halladay

Kemp

Upton

Tulowitzki

Votto

Argue away.

*You can’t tell me Vogelsong has pitched even remotely close to the level Halladay has. He has relied on his defense and ballpark far more than Halladay. Plus, he’s pitched nearly 60 less innings.

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3 Responses to NL MVP Race

  1. Pat Burrell says:

    Pat Burrell.

  2. Fishing GPS…

    […]NL MVP Race « Reading into the Numbers[…]…

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