NL MVP Rankings: Has Buster Posey Overtaken Andrew McCutchen for Top Spot?
For this week's National League Most Valuable Player rankings, we ponder the question of defense and how much it should factor into a player's MVP candidacy.
The player provoking this discussion is the Atlanta Braves' Michael Bourn. We'll go into far more detail in the next slide, but Bourn's outstanding defense is enough to put him among the leaders in WAR (wins above replacement) despite offensive numbers that don't match up to his peers.
Another player who warrants consideration, though he's not on this week's list, is Miami Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton has had an explosive August with 10 home runs, 22 RBI and a .316/.345/.785 triple-slash average.
With 29 homers, Stanton ranks second in the NL. His .604 slugging percentage is the league's top mark in that category. And his .965 OPS ranks third among NL batters. So is he being snubbed?
Please share your thoughts on Bourn, Stanton and defense in the comments. Of course, your responses and suggestions for this week's top five are also welcome. You can also reply to me on Twitter. My address is at the end of this article. That feedback factors into how these rankings are put together each week.
In our view, these are the top five leading candidates for the NL MVP Award. All the statistics mentioned here are current as of Aug. 30.
The Michael Bourn Dilemma
In the comments for last week's NL MVP rankings, Izzy Hechkoff mentioned Atlanta Braves center fielder Michael Bourn as someone who should get some consideration.
WAR certainly views Bourn favorably. Baseball-Reference's version has Bourn rated as the third-best player in the NL at 5.6 wins above replacement. FanGraphs places him No. 4 in the league with a 5.8 WAR.
What Bourn's case comes down to is how much his defense should be valued when judging him as an MVP candidate.
FanGraphs' Ultimate Zone Rating rates Bourn as the best defensive player in baseball this season. By this metric, he's saved 17.2 more runs than the average player at his position. If Defensive Runs Saved is your metric of choice, Bourn has saved 21 runs this year, the second-most in the majors.
(Here is a fuller explanation of UZR from FanGraphs, if you're interested.)
In looking at Bourn's offensive numbers, however, he doesn't rank with the top hitters in the league.
His .283 batting average is tied for 18th in the NL. It would be the lowest batting average for an NL MVP since Dale Murphy hit .281 in 1982. Bourn's .761 OPS is tied for 30th in the league. No player has won the NL MVP with an OPS that low since Maury Wills finished with a .720 mark in 1962.
(Here is a list of all the NL and AL MVP winners, courtesy of Baseball-Reference.)
But it is worth noting that Bourn is second in the NL with 85 runs scored, has the league's third-most hits with 153 and leads all NL batters with 37 stolen bases.
Bourn is certainly an extremely valuable player for the Braves, perhaps their most valuable. But is he the most valuable player in the NL this season? How much should his defense factor into that judgment?
5. Matt Holliday, St. Louis Cardinals
Last week: No. 5.
Of our five top MVP candidates, Matt Holliday had the best week at the plate.
In seven games since our last rankings, the St. Louis Cardinals left fielder batted 11-for-30 (.367) with three doubles, a triple, one home run and nine RBI. He almost hit for the cycle on Sunday (Aug. 26), finishing a home run short of the feat.
Going 0-for-7 in the Cardinals' last two games has pushed Holliday's batting average down to .309, tied with Dexter Fowler for the seventh-best in the NL. Holliday's .905 OPS also ranks seventh in the league. His 24 home runs are put him seventh among NL hitters. Perhaps he's just following the No. 7 on his jersey.
One category where Holliday is No. 1 is RBI. His total of 90 is tied with Ryan Braun for the top mark in the league.
But is Holliday actually the most valuable player on his team? There is growing support for catcher Yadier Molina as an MVP candidate. His .325 batting average is tied for third in the NL, and he plays excellent defense at the most demanding position in the sport.
I'd argue Holliday is having the better season, but it's difficult to say he stands out among the Cardinals' other great hitters (who are contributing greatly to his league-leading RBI total).
4. David Wright, New York Mets
Last week: No. 4.
After a week in which he hit 6-for-23 (.261) with one home run and three RBI in six games, David Wright continues to rank among the top five hitters in the NL.
Wright's .315 batting average is the league's fifth-highest, his .408 on-base percentage ranks second (just one percentage point behind Andrew McCutchen) among qualifying hitters and his .908 OPS places him fifth among NL hitters.
But WAR might make the best case for Wright. Baseball-Reference now has him as the best hitter in the NL at 6.0 wins above replacement. FanGraphs rates him the league's third-best hitter with a 6.2 WAR.
Does that mean we're ranking Wright too low on this list? That could be.
Wright's defense at third base likely factors into his high WAR totals. FanGraphs' UZR ranks him as the best defensive third baseman in baseball. His 14 Defensive Runs Saved are easily the most among his peers at the position.
Are we anti-defense in these rankings? Bourn and Wright are giving us that look. Before next week's rankings, there might have to be some re-evaluation here.
As unfair as it might be, however, I do still feel like the New York Mets' record hurts Wright's case. The Mets are 61-69, putting them 17.5 games behind the Washington Nationals for third place in the NL East. But perhaps it could be argued that Wright is keeping his team out of last place.
3. Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers
Last week: No. 3.
Leading the league in home runs and RBI should make a pretty strong argument for a player's MVP candidacy, right?
With 35 homers and 90 RBI, Ryan Braun tops each of those categories among NL hitters. His .308 batting average ranks sixth in the league, his .385 on-base percentage is seventh and his .600 slugging percentage puts him second in that category.
Braun also has 20 stolen bases, a total you might associate with one of the league's speedsters. That ranks 13th in the NL.
As with Wright, Braun has to be penalized for his team's performance. The Brewers are slightly better than the Mets with a 62-67 record that puts them fourth in the NL Central, 16.5 games behind the Cincinnati Reds.
Braun's numbers are so impressive that he earns NL MVP consideration regardless of how badly the Brewers are playing. But with Buster Posey playing so well for the San Francisco Giants and Andrew McCutchen also doing so for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Braun will likely lose out in the end.
Then there's the question of whether Braun has any chance of winning with his offseason drug-testing controversy hanging over his head.
His performance this year is a convincing argument against him being a testosterone-loaded fluke. But MVP voters who felt duped by Braun last year probably won't give him any benefit of the doubt this time around.
2. Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants
Last week: No. 2.
As the Pirates struggle to maintain their footing in the NL Central and wild-card standings while the Giants appear to be building a first-place lead in the NL West, there's a growing sentiment that Buster Posey should be the front-runner for the league's MVP Award.
But not just yet.
The Giants catcher still trails Andrew McCutchen in batting average (.325 to .344), on-base percentage (.409 to .402) and slugging (.566 to .531). McCutchen also surpasses Posey in OPS with a .975 mark to Posey's .933.
With 19 home runs, Posey trails McCutchen in that category as well. But Posey does have 80 RBI, which is one more than McCutchen.
Could defense end up being a determining factor if both players hang close to each other statistically and both the Giants and Pirates make it to the postseason?
Catcher is the most demanding position in baseball, but center field isn't exactly where a team sticks its worst outfield glove.
McCutchen is almost inexplicably bad in center field, according to UZR. He's cost the Pirates six runs with his defense this year by FanGraphs' measure. More on that later.
UZR doesn't measure catcher defense, but Posey has allowed only one passed ball this year, the fewest among qualifying catchers. Only two other big league backstops have allowed fewer than his 21 wild pitches as well. Posey has also thrown out 28 basestealers this season, the second-highest total at his position.
For the other side of the argument, please check out this article by fellow MLB Lead Writer Zach Rymer. He believes Posey should be the MVP.
1. Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates
Last week: No. 1.
Andrew McCutchen's status as the NL MVP front-runner has taken a hit as he struggles through a rough August.
For the month, he is batting .252/.347/.346 with two home runs and 13 RBI. That will give him his worst month of the season (though he had no homers and seven RBI in April).
In his past six games, the Pirates center fielder batted 6-for-24 (.250) with one double and one RBI. That dropped his season batting average to .344, two percentage points below Melky Cabrera's .346 for the NL lead.
As we know, Cabrera's average isn't moving for the rest of the season. So McCutchen will need to improve during September to finish ahead of the suspended Giants outfielder and prevent MLB from an embarrassing mark in its record books.
Despite the slump, however, McCutchen still leads the NL with a .409 on-base percentage, ranks third with a .566 slugging mark and has the second-highest OPS in the league at .975. As we explained in the previous slide, that gives him the lead over Buster Posey in virtually every offensive category.
One curiosity with McCutchen is his defense. FanGraphs' UZR rates him as one of the worst defensive center fielders in baseball this year.
That doesn't seem possible, especially considering he's playing between Jose Tabata and Garrett Jones in the Pirates outfield. Yet UZR says both of those players are playing well defensively. Do they have less ground to cover because of McCutchen's range in center, however?
If Bourn and Wright earn extra MVP consideration because of their defense, could that end up costing McCutchen the award? This is definitely worth keeping an eye on.
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