Handicapping The National League MVP Race

SAN FRANCISCO - Buster Posey #28 of the San Francisco Giants stands on the field during Game Three of the NLCS against the Philadelphia Phillies during the 2010 MLB Playoffs at AT&T Park. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

I was going to write something about the likelihood of the different National League MVP candidates winning the award, but Jayson Stark got there first. Well, I never. Who could have predicted that another baseball writer would be writing about the MVP in mid-September? Not this intrepid reporter.

Stark puts odds on the top three candidates, Buster Posey, Andrew McCutchen, and Ryan Braun:

Buster Posey: 2-to-1
Andrew McCutchen: 5-to-1
Ryan Braun: 50-to-1

You might quibble with the exact odds, but the order seems right: Posey, McCutchen, then Braun. Stark gets into Braun's testosterone-related nonsense from the offseason, but I think it's more simple than that. It's all about the playoffs.

McCutchen was the MVP front-runner a month ago. He was more than the front-runner. The powers-that-be had already started engraving his name on the plaque. You can turn "Andrew" into different words if you need to. "And rewarding the best player in the league, here is the MVP plaque." They had a few options.

Since then, the Pirates have fallen into a pit, where they have found a new definition of pain and suffering, as they are slowly being digested over a thousand years. They fell into the pit in 1993, so it will apparently be a while yet. And as the Pirates cooled, so did McCutchen (or vice versa). In his 80 at-bats since the 19-inning game on Aug. 19, McCutchen has hit .263/.330/.375 with two homers. The Pirates have gone 5-16 in that stretch.

Which isn't to say that McCutchen doesn't deserve the award now. But this is a reminder that we reside in an Internet echo chamber. I'll make a statement. See how controversial you find it:

The MVP doesn't have to go to a player whose team made the playoffs.

You probably agree. There's nothing controversial about it. But there are people who actually disagree. Some of them have votes for the MVP. It's a fascinating thing, and it was probably a factor in Ryan Braun winning last year over Matt Kemp. So when handicapping the National League MVP race, McCutchen is suddenly at a disadvantage. It isn't just his cold streak. He's still hitting .340/.406/.559 and playing a premium position. He's still leading the National League in wins above replacement according to Baseball Reference, and a close third according to FanGraphs. It's the Pirates' cold streak that's killing him. Which is grossly unfair.

That isn't to suggest that Braun or Posey wouldn't be worthy recipients. Posey leads the NL in OPS+, and he's a solid defensive catcher. That will always get you MVP votes. He's bunched right at the top with the other candidates when it comes to WAR. He'll probably get subconscious bonus points for coming back so strong after his horrific injury, too. There was some concern that he'd never catch again, and when those fears were allayed, they were replaced with fears that he'd break down by the end of the year. Instead he's had one of the greatest second halves of the decade.

We wrote about Braun here and suggested that his path to the MVP was either win the Triple Crown (unlikely) or have the Brewers crawl back into the playoff race (hahahaha). Well, huh. Looks like the Brewers are back in the race. Going into the game on July 30, the Brewers were 45-56. They've gone 27-15 since then, with Braun hitting .313/.374/.588. That's pretty danged valuable. But it's worth noting that those numbers made Braun's line go down. That's how good he's been.

But this is all unnecessary. All of those words. This is the simplest calculus in the history of the MVP award. Here's how the MVP will shake out:

If the Pirates win the second Wild Card:
Andrew McCutchen wins the MVP.

If the Brewers win the second Wild Card:
Ryan Braun wins the MVP.

If neither of the above happen:
Buster Posey wins the MVP.

If the Brewers and Pirates both take Wild Card spots:
Jeff Francoeur wins the MVP because we're in an alternate universe, and I'm wearing a hat made of ice cream because that's very fashionable over here. Try it.

The only way this calculus is upset is if the Giants fritter away their 7½-game lead, which is possible but just barely. Other than a complete Giants collapse, it's Posey's to lose. If the Pirates or Brewers rally to win a playoff spot, they'll certainly do it with the help of their best players, and that will add to the MVP legend, especially since those playoff berths would be completely unexpected. Voters like legends.

Knowing what we know now, with the final numbers unlikely to change with a two-week hot streak or slump, the MVP is Posey's to lose. The standings tell us so, even if they shouldn't.

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