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Now About That National League MVP Race

17 August 2009

In response to the Internet war battle argument slapfight polite exchange of opinions that’s broken out between Tyler Kepner (Yankees beat writer for the New York Times, one of the finest in the business, believes Mark Teixeira should be the overwhelming favorite for AL MVP), Rob Neyer (friend of JonahKeri.com, though Rob wins based on sound logic, not favoritism), e-migo Joe Posnanski and others over who should win AL MVP, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek response that advocated for Victor Martinez taking AL honors, Rafael Betancourt in the NL.

For the record, my actual AL pick would be Joe Mauer. Even if the Twins lost 110 games. With apologies to Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, Ben Zobrist and Derek Jeter (all better choices than Teixeira), Mauer’s the guy as of right now.

But what about the NL? The reason we haven’t had a Twitter war about the senior circuit, aside from the fact that esteemed Cardinals writers Bernie Miklasz (@miklasz), Derrick Goold (@dgoold) and Matthew Leach (@matthewhleach) are among the most stat-literate souls in the biz, is because Cardinals Nation would merely be joining the rest of America in handing the award to Albert Pujols right now.

Pujols would seem to be the clear choice based on the major offensive stats (1st in On-Base Average, Slugging Percentage, Home Runs and Weighted On-Base Average, 2nd in RBI, 3rd in Batting Average). But even making the huge adjustment for position and stacking him up against fellow superstars like Hanley Ramirez, Chase Utley and Ryan Zimmerman (all of whom get bonus points for playing tougher positions), Pujols still comes out on top. Given the Cardinals’ hold on first place, and my own history of stumping for Albert even when St. Louis is a non-contender, this would seem to be a slam dunk.

Except it shouldn’t be. As much as I’ve supported Pujols in the past, I also fully endorse the MVP award’s willing inclusion of pitchers as candidates. Of course most baseball writers (and many fans) don’t. Which is how you get a situation similar to last year, when out of 27 ESPN.com baseball writers polled last year, I was the only one to back Cliff Lee for AL MVP.

Anyway, go back to FanGraphs’ value rankings, only this time for pitchers. You’ll find that Tim Lincecum is having one of the best seasons by any pitcher in the past quarter-century. He’s at 7.3 Wins Above Replacement as we speak, which in monetary terms means *he’s been worth just over $33 million for the Giants so far this season. Meanwhile Pujols has been worth a full Win less, at 6.2 WAR ($27.8 million).

Here are some other Lincecum stats (all rankings are MLB-wide, not just NL):

1st in ERA (2.19)
1st in xFIP (2.70 – xFIP measures outcomes a pitcher can control, namely strikeouts, walks, and home run rate adjusted to league average)
1st in strikeouts (205)
1st in innings per start (7.2)

You can’t even play the contender card in this argument, because the Giants are very much in the thick of the pennant race too, and unquestionably would have little to no chance without Lincecum.

Lincecum is having the kind of season that could rank up there with Ron Guidry’s 1978, Dwight Gooden’s 1985, Greg Maddux’s early-90s peak and…well, not Pedro Martinez’s 2000, but that might be the best performance by a starting pitcher that we’ll see in our lifetimes.

There are still nearly 50 games left to play this season. But if Tim Lincecum keeps up this pace, he should be the choice for NL MVP.

*(For those of you who are unfamiliar with Wins Above Replacement or the corresponding monetary formula: WAR measures the numbers of games a player helps a team win — using a combination of offensive and defensive value, adjusted for position to reflect positional scarcity — when compared to the average Triple-A veteran or waiver wire pickup. FanGraphs takes average free-agent salaries, divides by WAR, then calculates the going rate per Win. The going rate in 2009 is about $4.5 million per 1 WAR, which is how you get the above dollar figures for Lincecum and Pujols.)

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. 17 August 2009 6:38 pm

    The one thing that bugs me with Timmy: Lincecum’s blowing away the NL, where only three of the top 10 and six of the top 15 teams in the majors in wOBA are. He doesn’t, unfortunately, get to pitch to the worst team in the league in wOBa, but that’s because they’re his Giants.

    Why aren’t we talking about Greinke decimating the AL (and far better offenses) in ways similar to Timmy, and why doesn’t he make your list? (I know FanGraphs has some league-based adjustments, but I’m not sure how much of that factors into WAR.) As Neyer wrote: “Let’s be honest. It’s really about the guy on the best team with the most RBI.”

    That is sad.

  2. Jonah permalink*
    17 August 2009 6:47 pm

    Re: Lincecum, if you want to argue that he should be dinged for facing NL competition, the same goes for Pujols. Lincecum vs. Greinke for ’09 might be more interesting, since each pitcher’s facing different batters.

    And I agree that Greinke deserves consideration for AL MVP too. Purely an oversight on my part. Realized it a minute after putting up the post, but didn’t want to sneak it in there after the fact, prefer to accept the whiff.

  3. 17 August 2009 7:14 pm

    I know that Pujols gets dinged, too, but how much or how it could be compared to Lincecum, I don’t know. I’m sure there’s a study somewhere in whether a lower level of talent in the order in the NL plus the benefits of no DH is more valuable to the NL pitcher than a lower level of talent in the rotation and bullpen is to the NL hitter. Paging Dave Cameron?

    I’m not sure who I’d vote for, Lincecum or Pujols, but it seems (going blind, not looking at monthly splits) like Lincecum’s getting better while Pujols can’t quite maintain his absurd pre-ASG pace. This would lead me to lean Lincecum.

    Most importantly: I’m glad I understand stats well enough to understand arguments like these. And learning them wasn’t even hard.

  4. sheadawg permalink
    20 August 2009 2:21 pm

    Jonah – while I agree that your premise that a starting pitcher can be the MVP (the fact that the Cards have had Carpenter for most of the season is case in point – seems like he is as big of a reason as any that they are in first), I think two things have been demonstrated over the last couple of days.
    (1) Lincecum may not be able to keep up his ridiculous level of play over the last month in a half of the season. He had what for him was a terrible start with 5 ER, 3BB and 6 hits in 6 innings. The Giants won, but this is one of the few times they could thank their offense.
    (2) Pujols, yet again, helped win a game for the Cards with not his bat, but his baserunning. He works a walk from Broxton in the 9th, steals second on a 3-0 count to Matt Holiday, and advances to third on a wild throw by Russell Martin. Holliday drives him in with a sac fly – Cards win, 3-2. That is amazing stuff – not sure how something like this can be properly quantified even in the more advanced measurements like WAR. He picked the right situation, perfect moment, etc, and it was not the first time this season.
    This combined with his ridiculous numbers just highlights to me why he is MVP this year. Still it is an interesting argument.

  5. Jonah permalink*
    20 August 2009 2:31 pm

    Welcome to the blog, Mark – excellent first comment.

    My response would be that one day isn’t enough to change my mind.

    Lincecum has undoubtedly done things that are hard to quantify but hugely valuable too. As I noted in the BTF thread that sprang from this post, we’ve yet to see a definitive study on how much a SP helps his team when he saves his bullpen. Lincecum leads MLB in IP per start, on *average* pitching into the 8th inning. That means every time Timmy pitches, either the Giants can avoid using their crappy RP and just their 1-2 best guys in a high-leverage spot — or if they’re up by 4 or more, they can use their crappier guys, knowing Lincecum has done the heavy lifting and an inning and change probably isn’t enough time for even their stinkiest RP to blow the lead.

    I do agree that was a great play by Pujols, though. Also a spectacularly lazy effort by Matt Kemp: http://myespn.go.com/blogs/sweetspot/0-4-191/Pujols-runs-over-Dodgers.html

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