As we approach the last few weeks of the season, an interesting litmus test is unfolding in the 2015 National League MVP race. Oddly, the top four players in the National League by Fangraphs’ WAR metric are all on non-playoff teams: Bryce Harper (WAS, 9.7 WAR), Joey Votto (CIN, 7.4 WAR), Paul Goldschmidt (ARI, 7.0 WAR), and A.J. Pollock (also of ARI, 6.2 WAR). Kris Bryant of the Cubs is ranked 5th at 6.0 WAR and Andrew McCutchen is ranked 7th with 5.7 WAR.
Putting aside any black-and-gold biases you may have, look at Bryce Harper’s ridiculous season at age 22:
- .342 AVG/.471 OBP/.672 SLG (1143 OPS)
- 206 wRC+, meaning he has produced 106% more offense than the average player. Essentially, he is hitting like two players.
- 41 HR, 95 RBI, 116 Runs scored
- 19.3% walk rate, 19.8% strikeout rate
- Again, only 22 years old. He’s 9 months younger than Kris Bryant.
That’s not to say that McCutchen is some sort of slouch (as you can see in the table above), but sweet spaghetti monster is Harper having a season for the ages. In the history of baseball, which stretches back to 1871, there have only been 33 player-seasons over 200 in wRC+. Some players had multiple seasons (Bonds, Ruth, Williams, etc.) over 200 wRC+, so when you look at individual players that have done this, there have only been 12 players who have done it. Bryce Harper is on the precipice of becoming the 13th player.
There are voters who vote for these awards that have some peculiar voting criteria. One of them is that pitchers shouldn’t win the MVP, as they have their own award in the Cy Young. That’s unfair to the great seasons being put forth by Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw, but for MVP voting purposes they would probably split the vote anyway. The second criteria is that the MVP should only come from a playoff-bound team, because how valuable was that player if he couldn’t even get his teams to the playoffs (their thinking, not mine). In my opinion, it’s unfair to dock points from a player because the rest of his team couldn’t perform their jobs to a level befitting his.
If two players were tied or very close to each other in terms of value, using Fangraphs’ WAR here to determine value, then I would lean towards voting for the player on the playoff-bound team. This is how Josh Donaldson (8.1 WAR) will probably win the AL MVP over Mike Trout (8.0 WAR). But in this case where Harper is far beyond 2nd place, let alone Bryant/McCutchen’s WAR totals, it’s hard to see how he can’t be the MVP. However, that didn’t stop MVP voters from shafting Mike Trout in previous years, either. Back in 2012 and 2013, Trout put up 10.3 WAR and 10.5 WAR, respectively, and somehow finished 2nd in both years to Miguel Cabrera. One year was because Cabrera hit for the Triple Crown, which was like a siren’s call to a subset of older voters. Both years, Trout had far more defensive value than Cabrera’s butchery at 3B.
But back to matters in the Burgh, McCutchen is going to garner some support from the corners of voters that go for the playoff-bound theory. However, I can’t see any possibility that Bryce Harper does not win the NL MVP award this year. What I’m hoping for is that McCutchen finishes in the top 3, which would be his fourth consecutive year doing so. If he were to do so, McCutchen would become the first Pirate to ever finish in the top 3 of the MVP race in four consecutive years (Bonds did it four years in a row, but the fourth was as a Giant in 1993). That would take him one step closer to not only being considered one of the greatest Pirates of all time, but also one more accolade for his potential Hall of Fame candidacy when he steps away from the game.
It’s OK if McCutchen doesn’t win the MVP this year. Sometimes you just have to recognize true greatness on another team, no matter how underachieving that player’s teammates were this year.