Do MLB MVPs Always Get Off to Hot Starts?

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Do MLB MVPs Always Get Off to Hot Starts?
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Back in April 2005, Albert Pujols hit .322 with six homers and 19 RBI, which is just about the average first month for an MVP winner.

You might've heard Bryce Harper's season got off to quite a start.

The Washington Nationals outfielder—whom many consider a Most Valuable Player candidate in only his second season and at the ripe old age of 20—smashed a pair of homers in the season opener.

The performance already has triggered all sorts of talk about what's to come in 2013 for Mr. Harper, including a piece by Bleacher Report MLB lead writer Zachary D. Rymer on why Harper's hot start is just the beginning of what will be an MVP campaign.

But do MVPs actually need to start hot in order to get the hardware?

A review of the first-month production* of past MVPs dating back to the turn of the century revealed some impressive results.

From 2000 through 2012, there were 25 total MVP-hitter seasons. For the purposes of this research, we'll ignore Justin Verlander's 2011 because, comparing hitters to pitchers is like comparing apples to, well, you know. 

Here are the average triple-slash stats (average/on-base/slugging) for the first month of those 25 seasons: .321/.415/.633.

Pretty darn good, huh?

In chart form, it looks like this:

The first-month triple-slash averages of an MVP season: .321/.415/.633.

But what about some other key MVP numbers? You know, the ones that get voters all hot and bothered?

The first-month averages of an MVP season: seven home runs, 20 RBI and 18 runs.

Again, that's dynamite production in the first month: seven home runs, 20 RBI and 18 runs scored.

Where things get even crazier, though, is with OPS (on-base plus slugging). Or, more specifically, sOPS+, which is a version of OPS that scales the stat to league average, which is 100 (anything above 100 is better than league average). Get it?

But before we look at that, let's consider comparing these MVPs to themselves.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
While it may sound impossible to compare Miguel Cabrera to himself, a neat little statistic called tOPS+ enables us to do just that.

Sounds tricky, right? But it can be done by using a fun little metric called tOPS+. While it looks intimidating, all that tOPS+ does is allow us to compare Miguel Cabrera against...Miguel Cabrera.

Say whaaat?

To simplify, let's focus on Cabrera's 2012 Triple Crown—and MVP—season. In April of last year, Cabrera posted an OPS of .940. Now, his sOPS+ for that month was 157, meaning Cabrera's April OPS was 57 percent better than league average. That's the stuff of an MVP.

But the tOPS+ of Cabrera's April was just 88, meaning it was below average...when compared to Cabrera's overall 2012 OPS of .999. In other words, Miguel Cabrera's OPS in April of 2012 was below-average for Miguel Cabrera's OPS in the entirety of the 2012 season.

If you're still with me, maybe this graph will make more sense:

Miguel Cabrera's OPS in 2012 was .999, but he didn't actually break that threshold in any single month until July.

As for the grand scale, which includes Cabrera along with all of his MVP brethren, here's the average sOPS+ and tOPS+ figures:

The first-month averages of an MVP season: sOPS+ of 177 and tOPS+ of 97.

Here's the takeaway from that: The average first-month sOPS+ of the past 25 individual MVP seasons was 177—or 77 percent better than league average. The average tOPS+, though, was just 97—or actually three percent worse when compared to the MVPs' OPS for their entire award-winning season.

Put another way: A hot start is a necessary part of an MVP season, as Justin Morneau, who posted an sOPS+ of 78 in April 2006, was the only winner since 2000 to have an OPS below the league average in his first month.

But it just may be even more important for a player with MVP aspirations to get better as the season progresses, as 15 of the 25 most recent winners had a below-average OPS—for them—in their first month.

To bring this back around to Mr. Harper, while his Opening Day showing was mighty impressive, Bryce might want to keep hitting this month—and beyond—if he hopes to have his name on the award at season's end.

 

All stats come from Baseball-Reference.com.

*Note: In 2009, Joe Mauer actually missed all of April, which makes his MVP performance that season even more impressive. It's also the reason why these stats are based on "first-month" production, rather than April performance.

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