The race for Most Valuable Player in the AL looks to be dominated by Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton. But what about in the NL?
As you may or may not know (depending on whether you’ve read any of my articles), I’m pretty fond of a stat called "wins above replacement," or WAR. WAR is a stat that takes a player's offensive and defensive numbers and determines how many wins a player has been solely responsible for over a replacement player. Conceivably, we can use this stat to get an idea of who should at least be in the running for NL MVP.
So, after a quick search at Fangraphs, we see the National League’s leaders in WAR. The top 20 is littered with All-Stars, from Martin Prado to Carlos Gonzalez, Power Padre Adrian Gonzalez to Bespectacled Backstop Brian McCann, and so on.
The top five is what’s particularly interesting though.
Fifth is Matt Holliday, who has so far amassed 4.7 WAR (WAR is a counting stat, not a rate stat, so a higher number is better). Second through fourth place is a virtual tie between Everyone’s Favorite All-Star Snub Joey Votto, center fielder for the Giants and surprise player of the year Andres Torres, and dual-reigning MVP Albert Pujols, in that order. However, they are separated by only .3 wins (5.5, 5.4, and 5.2, respectively), so it’s likely that we’ll see some change there. However, this leaves one rather large question—who is first?
The answer is none other than slick-fielding Nationals third basemen Ryan Zimmerman, with 6.0 full wins to his name.
Some of you may be rather incredulous. You may be thinking, “How can someone be the Most Valuable Player in the league if he wasn’t even an All-Star?”
Well, first, I would say remember how we pick All-Stars; that should answer that question (for those who may wonder, Zimmerman’s spot on the roster went to Omar Infante, according to MLB.com, in case you were worried that it wasn’t filled wisely).
In all seriousness, though, why is Zimmerman calculated as the Most Valuable Player in the league?
Well, if you aren’t quite sure, you may first want to check how well Ryan’s done this season. At 25, the third baseman is having his second career year in a row; 24 home runs, 24 doubles, a .302 average, a .388 on-base percentage, and a .549 slugging percentage.
His .937 On-base Plus Slugging (OPS) is third right now, behind only Votto and Pujols. OPS+ is a stat that compares a batter’s OPS to league average to determine how much better he’s been, even accounting for home-field differences.
By this measure, Ryan Zimmerman’s posted a 150 OPS+ (meaning he’s been 50 percent above league average), good for third in the NL, tied with Adrian Gonzalez and behind only Joey Votto (169) and Albert Pujols (166).
If you want more traditional measures, Ryan’s eighth in home runs and 11th in average. He’s even managed to get 68 RBI (tied for 18th), despite playing for a Nationals team that ranks 14th in runs and 13th in RBI in the NL.
So, how does he rank above Pujols and Votto, and even Gonzalez in WAR? Well, there are two major reasons.
Reason one is WAR accounts for position. The more good hitters there are at one position, the easier it is to replace them. You may notice that Pujols, Votto, and Gonzalez are all first basemen, which just demonstrates the depth of quality first basemen. Basically, they provide a lot of offense, but they do so while playing a position that’s expected to provide a lot of offense.
Second, however, is his defense. Zimmerman is possibly the best player manning the hot corner this season, according to Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR). UZR is a fairly complicated defensive stat that is determined by breaking down every play that occurs in a year, and grading a player based on how far away the ball was, how hard it was hit, and so on (if you want more information, I would recommend this Boston Globe video as a good intro).
Zimmerman has the best Ultimate Zone Rating for the year at third, with 12.2 runs saved (his nearest competition, Chase Headley, is at 10.9, followed by Kevin Kouzmanoff with 10.6 and Placido Polanco at 10.2).
So, basically, Zimmerman has the most WAR for the year because he's been both a strong defensive player at a difficult position and a major offensive threat at a position that is comparatively weak this season.
Is Zimmerman the National League MVP for the year? WAR is by no means the end-all-be-all, but he definitely deserves some of the MVP talk.