Baker Mayfield Is Right, Christian Yelich Is the Clear NL MVP

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterSeptember 26, 2018

MILWAUKEE, WI - SEPTEMBER 18:  Christian Yelich #22 of the Milwaukee Brewers bats in the ninth inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Miller Park on September 18, 2018 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Today in "Unusual-Yet-Valid Endorsements," we have a Cleveland Brown stumping for a Milwaukee Brewer to win National League MVP.

OK, fine. This endorsement was technically issued Thursday, Sept. 20, after the Browns defeated the New York Jets for their first victory since 2016. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield had a lot to say about that, but Major League Baseball fans may only care about his parting words: 

For anyone who doesn't feel like pressing play on the above video: "We deserve it, but at the same time, we're just getting started. And Christian Yelich for NL MVP."

This particular pigskin-chucker isn't some random Yelich fanboy. The two met and became friends while training at the same California facility this past winter, according to Alan Saunders of MLB.com. That's also when Mayfield acquired and had Yelich sign the No. 22 "Yeli" jersey that he wore upon his arrival to Thursday's game.

Which is to say: Mayfield's endorsement might be primarily motivated by personal bias. One could also raise a stink about his expertise in this matter, given that he doesn't have an MVP vote and, well, plays an entirely different sport.

Alternatively, perhaps he's looking at the numbers and is drawing a perfectly rational conclusion.

Morry Gash/Associated Press

The Senior Circuit doesn't have Mookie Betts, Mike Trout, Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor or J.D. Martinez among its position players. That's helped three ace pitchers—Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer and Aaron Nola—maintain a consistent presence atop the league's wins above replacement leaderboards at Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

The NL MVP voters should arguably gravitate toward one of those three pitchers. But while WAR is a helpful guideline in awards races, it hasn't and shouldn't determine who ultimately wins. That's too easy and, frankly, lazy.

Indeed, the traditional measures of an MVP work fine. These aren't explicitly stated anywhere, but they generally require that an MVP be:

  • 1. A great player
  • 2. An important player on a contender

Through the first five years of his major league career, Yelich was a great player on bad Miami Marlins teams. But with the Brewers in 2018, he's now checking both boxes with ease.

Among NL position players, the 26-year-old ranks first in WAR at FanGraphs (6.7) and second in WAR at Baseball Reference (6.6). Brewers teammate Lorenzo Cain is the only position player ahead of him for the latter, mostly because of a huge gap (19 to 1) in defensive runs saved. Their defensive difference is less huge in ultimate zone rating (7.1 to 0.2) and Statcast's outs above average (16 to 3) metric.

What can be taken at face value, meanwhile, are Yelich's offensive numbers.

They include NL-best marks in batting average (.321), slugging percentage (.583), OPS (.973) and OPS+ (157). Factor in his 33 home runs, 21 stolen bases, 110 runs scored and 104 runs batted in, and there isn't a more well-rounded offensive player in the National League.

This is curiously good stuff for a guy who had previously peaked with an .859 OPS and 21 homers back in 2016. But it's also befitting of a natural-born hitter with low-key explosive power. To wit, Yelich hit fly balls and line drives at the same average speed (95.4 mph) between 2015 and 2017 as Yoenis Cespedes.

At long last, Yelich's power has been unleashed in 2018. Some of that is due to him swapping Marlins Park for Miller Park, resulting in a career-best .627 home slugging percentage. Otherwise, it has to do with him pushing his ground-ball rate closer to the MLB average. 

Rather than fold under pressure, Yelich is only getting hotter as October approaches. He has an MLB-best 1.168 OPS and 22 homers since the All-Star break, and a 1.242 OPS and eight homers since August 29.

That's the day after the Brewers found themselves in dire need of a spark upon sinking to a season-worst six games behind the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central race. Yelich has provided it while mostly hitting in pressure spots (see his 1.13 average leverage index). In so doing, he's helped cut the Brewers' NL Central deficit to 0.5 games while also elevating them into the NL's top wild-card spot.

"He's doing special things," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said, according to Adam McCalvy of MLB.com. "This is what guys in [the MVP] conversation do."

What might matter most is how all of this compares to fellow MVP candidate Javier Baez. He deserves credit for how he's carried the Cubs amid down years by Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, but he only has Yelich beat in homers (34) and RBI (110). With an .897 second-half OPS and an .850 OPS since August 29, he also hasn't dominated the stretch run like Yelich has.

By way of a 1.046 second-half OPS, Atlanta Braves wunderkind Ronald Acuna Jr. comes the closest to being Yelich's peer in stretch-run hitting. He nonetheless hasn't been quite as good. And like Baez, his overall numbers don't measure up to Yelich's.

If the season were to end today, Yelich could offer everything that MVP voters typically look for. Because the season ends in only a few days, it's safe to conclude he'll keep it that way.

So, what the football dude said: Christian Yelich for NL MVP.

        

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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