Who should win the NL MVP award?

Doug Pensinger

Will it be Paul Goldschmidt, Andrew McCutchen, or someone else?

When you look at baseball awards, from the Rookie of the Year at one end to the Hall of Fame vote on the other, the one constant is that voters hate thinking. They'd prefer the numbers to provide a big flashing indicator so that they can avoid taxing their minds. When it comes to the Hall of Fame, if you have 300 wins, like Early Wynn, you're in. If you have 287, like Bert Blyleven, or 288, like Tommy John, a massive chasm opens in the brain that prevents the "Yes" lever from being easily pulled.

Until recently, 20 wins was the same trigger for the Cy Young Award. You can find some of the worst choices -- Steve Bedrosian, say -- in years when there wasn't an obvious option among the starters. Perhaps Felix Hernandez's 2010 award, which came despite a 13-12 record, changed that, but for now it remains the great outlier.

RBI are the dog whistle for position-player awards. Since both leagues began offering an MVP award in 1931, there have been 165 winners between the two leagues (the odd number results from the NL's 1979 tie between Willie Stargell and Keith Hernandez). Of these, there have been 143 non-pitchers to win the award. Fifty-five of them, or 38 percent, have led their leagues in RBI. That includes Hank Sauer and Jeff Burroughs and most of the sketchier awards decisions.

The 2014 NL MVP race may offer another chance for one of those fractured decisions that come along when there isn't a bright-line choice. Over in the American League, it seems as if the voters will have a fairly clear decision between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout -- several other players, including Chris Davis, are having good years, but there's a clear gap between the frontrunners and the rest of the pack. In the National League the division between those groups is nowhere near as dramatic and the picture has become murkier of late. A few weeks back, with the Cardinals leading the NL Central and Yadier Molina contending for the batting title, the catcher seemed like a very likely choice. Molina hasn't played since July 30, however, thanks to knee problems. Even if he returns on August 15, the first day he is eligible, and plays in six of every seven games from thereon, he would finish the season with approximately 134 games. In recent years, players have won MVP awards with game totals in the 130s (for example, Josh Hamilton played only 133 games in 2010), and George Brett picked up an award for hitting .390 in 117 games in 1980. He is the outlier, however, and should Molina play anything less than 130 games it seems likely that voters would look elsewhere.

Through Sunday, the Cardinals are 11-13 when Tony Cruz or Rob Johnson catches, 56 -37 when Molina does. Still, a player can't prove his value only by implication, he has to actually show up and perform as well.

Where would they look? We can glance at the leaderboards for a hint, beginning with the number-one indicator, RBI. Here is the top five in that category:


Player

RBI

1

Paul Goldschmidt

91

2

Allen Craig

87

3

Brandon Phillips

87

4

Freddie Freeman

79

5

Jay Bruce

79


Goldschmidt is having an excellent year. He's hit well both at home and on the road. The fielding metrics agree that he's done excellent fielding work. He's even stolen 13 bases in 17 attempts. Before we crown him, however, let's take a look at what wins above replacement says about the NL's best players. On the left, the top-10 players according to WAR (Baseball-Reference version). On the right, position players only.

1

Clayton Kershaw

6.4


Andrew McCutchen

6.2

2

Andrew McCutchen

6.2


Carlos Gomez

6.2

3

Carlos Gomez

6.2


David Wright

5.6

4

David Wright

5.6


Joey Votto

5.3

5

Jhoulys Chacin

5.4


Paul Goldschmidt

4.9

6

Joey Votto

5.2


Carlos Gonzalez

4.8

7

Matt Harvey

5.1


Andrelton Simmons

4.6

8

Adam Wainwright

5.0


Starling Marte

4.6

9

Paul Goldschmidt

4.9


Matt Carpenter

4.4

10

Carlos Gonzalez

4.9


Yadier Molina

4.1




The Pirates' Andrew McCutchen is not currently leading the NL in any key category. That may yet change; he's currently on one of the torrid streaks akin to last season's .392/.450/.706 from May through July. Through Sunday, McCutchen had hit .357/.440/.608 over his last 40 games, and he's only getting hotter, hitting .483 in his last 10 games. If he finishes strong and the Pirates do likewise, there's little doubt that he would win Pittsburgh's first MVP award since Barry Bonds in 1992 -- coincidentally, that's also the last season the Pirates were over .500.

Carlos Gomez makes for an intriguing choice. His Brewers are dead in the water at 51-67, so he doesn't have the frisson of pennant-race pressure to go with his breakthrough season, but nonetheless, he's having one of those everything-bagel seasons where he has hit for average and power, stolen 30 bases, and played excellent defense. He's gone a bit cold of late; he was hitting .300 as late as July 31, but having slumped to .222/.299/.413 since the beginning of last month, he's down to .286 now.

Brandon Phillips( Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports )

Returning to the RBI list, it's worth nothing what a rough year Brandon Phillips is having in some respects. Ballplayers have two jobs on offense: starting trouble and finishing it. Phillips has been terrific with men on base (.319/.376/.480) and runners in scoring position (.376/.434/.544), but that's only half the job. Phillips has had 478 plate appearances this year. Thanks to Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto, a large number of them, 55 percent, come with men on. The other 45 percent have come with the bases empty, and Phillips has hit only .195/.229/.332 in those situations.

Allen Craig, second on the RBI list, would be an interesting choice in that he's doing everything that Phillips is doing, plus at least some aspects of the other part of his job. He's hit .464 with runners in scoring position and .381 with men on, but also .264/.312/.407 with the bases empty. Craig's defensive versatility has allowed the Cardinals to get Matt Adams into the lineup at times, so that's a plus, but it comes with the price tag of defense that is average at best regardless of where he plays.  Note also Matt Carpenter's presence on the overall WAR list; his OBP in the leadoff spot has made Craig's season possible.

Of course, we can't dispense with the idea that a pitcher will win the award. However, such an award is just only when a pitcher vastly outdistances the position players who are also contenders, though, Justin Verlander did take home both MVP and Cy Young honors in 2011 despite proximity in value to both Jacoby Ellsbury and Jose Bautista. Then again, Verlander also led the league with 24 wins against just five losses, so maybe that helped tip the scales for enough voters. Since McCutchen and Kershaw have been of about equal value so far (and may yet diverge further) that seems uncalled for (and unlikely) in this case, especially since Kershaw owns less than half as many victories as Verlander.

As long as the Pirates' return from competitive oblivion remains the story of the season, McCutchen will probably merit strong consideration, and rightly so. He is clearly the team MVP, standing head, shoulders, and dreadlocks above his teammates. Should his impressive stretch drive continue, that will likely serve as the clinching argument for his election. Still, so long as there is no black ink on the back of his baseball card, voters may be tempted to look at more traditional categories for a player they perceive as having been dominant -- and that would lead them back to Goldschmidt.

That might seem unlikely, but think back to all the MVP votes not won by Yankees during their World Series run of 1996-2001. Years in which the multi-dimensional Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter had strong arguments the award went to the likes of Juan Gonzalez. We might be more enlightened than that now, but a lot of us were then as well; the voters remain a distinct and recalcitrant subpopulation.

In other words, keep hitting, Andrew: You might have to win the batting title to lock this thing up.

More from SB Nation:

Triple Crown or no, Miguel Cabrera's 2013 is special

Mike Trout wants lifetime ban for PED users

Roth: A-Rod is still kind of a dork

Matt Harvey likely to be shut down after 200 innings

Longform: The death of a ballplayer

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