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Who Should Be MVP?

Goldschmidt, Arenado, and Machado are finalists for MVP. Who should win?

On Monday MLB announced the finalists for a whole bunch of offseason awards including the one most relevant to Cardinals fans: MVP. Most Valuable Player.

As expected, two Cardinals are on the list. Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado along with (could have been a Cardinal) Manny Machado.

Today I just want to look at some of the stats and try to answer the simple question: who should be the MVP? We’ll look at all aspects of the players’ games and try to provide a relatively objective answer.

At the end, though, I want to introduce a little bias into the equation, a relevant fact that I think tilts the discussion in the favor of one player (a Cardinal) over another (also a Cardinal). Off we go!

Offensive Production

Let’s start with pure offense. Here’s the relevant information from Fangraphs, using categories I selected to provide a diverse range of batting stats. Since this is offensive production, I sorted it by my preferred offensive stat, wRC+.

From a strictly offensive perspective, this isn’t a very close matchup. Paul Goldschmidt had a 177 wRC+, 25 points above Machado and Arenado. His wOBA is .419, 37 points higher than the others.

25 points of wRC+ and nearly 40 points of wOBA are VERY significant. While we tend to just lump any RC+ over 150 (or wOBA over .380) into the “elite” category, there are levels of elite.

Goldy’s 177 wRC+ would be in the top 10 seasons by the statistic in the last 5 years. Not only was he amazing this year, he lines up well with the best of almost every year. That’s not true of Arenado and Machado. While a 150 wRC+ is certainly elite production, there are between 5-7 players every season who come in at or above that number annually.

The gap between these players shows up just as well when we look at the more traditional slash/counting line stats. I’ll throw a bone to our old-school readers and list them by batting average.

Goldschmidt - .317/.404/.578 with 35 homers and 115 RBI.
Arenado - .298/.366/.531 with 32 homers and 102 RBI.
Machado - .293/.358/.533 with 30 homers and 103 RBI.

Goldschmidt has a decent advantage in BA but the gap between him and the other two in slugging and on-base percentage is pretty big. 40 points in both OBP and SLUG (or 80 points of OPS if you prefer to look at it that way) is nothing to sneeze at.

What about the luck factor? Did all of these players earn their production or did one or more of them luck into their impressive stats?

Let’s start with BABIP, which someone is sure to bring up. Goldy and Machado both had BABIPS well above league expectations. Does that matter? I don’t really think so. The MVP is about what a player did not whether what they did is replicable. Every season the best offensive players in the league probably also have BABIPs that are well above average. A high BABIP isn’t always about luck if the surrounding peripherals can support it. (And they usually can from MVP-caliber hitters.)

More useful is xwOBA – expected weight on-base average. Goldschmidt again laps the field in expected production by generating a .367 xwOBA. Machado and Arendado’s expected stats are surprisingly pedestrian at .338/.339 each. I wouldn’t give the MVP to a player with the highest expected stats, but in a tight race, I might let it influence my decision a tad.

Add it together and what do we have? Based on offensive stats, who should be the MVP? Paul Goldschmidt. Easily.

Defense & Baserunning

Traditionally MVP discussions have centered around offensive stats. That’s still the case but baseball has become increasingly aware of the contribution a player can make to his club on defense and through baserunning. Let’s give those two categories of production worthy consideration.

We have three defensive stats to consider here: OAA, DRS, and UZR. I sorted these stats by OAA because this newer stat from Baseball Savant is the best of the three (with a caveat I’ll mention later.)

Not surprisingly Nolan Arenado has a huge edge in OAA over the others. The Gold Glove winner at 3b had 15 OAA. That was 7th in all of baseball and 2nd among 3b’man. Machado was positive in the category, with a +8 overall.

Goldschmidt didn’t fare as well by OAA, rating out as a -6 at the position. That’s unusually poor for him. He was +6 last season and hasn’t had a negative rating since ’18. I don’t write that to discount the statistic; just to point out that it’s inconsistent with the rest of his career.

Then there are the other two stats. DRS and UZR aren’t as good as OAA, in my opinion, but they are certainly viable stats to consider in this conversation, which requires a diverse examination of all the variables.

Not surprisingly Arenado takes this as well. His DRS is +19. His UZR was +13.0. A clear winner here.

What changes, though, is the way the other two stats rate Machado and Goldschmidt. Goldy is the second-best defensive producer with a +2 DRS and +4.5 UZR. That’s a huge difference from his OAA. What do we do with that? Not much, to be honest. OAA is a better system but the things it does better than DRS and UZR are somewhat minimized by the way 1b is played defensively. I would still take OAA over the others regardless of position, especially over a large sample, but considering Goldy’s career defensive production by OAA and his current and career UZR/DRS, it’s really hard for me to take one outlier year of OAA and count it for much.

Machado rated out just a bit below average by DRS (-3) and UZR (-.8), so his problem is the opposite of Goldy’s.

I’m willing to give all the credit in the world to Arenado for being an incredible defender by any and all metrics. What I’m not willing to do is shrug off Goldy or Machado because of (very common) disagreement in the defensive stats. Arenado is great. Goldy & Machado are generally pretty good & that was probably true for both this season.

BsR is the stat we would look at for baserunning. Machado and Goldschmidt were both +3.0 on the basepaths. Arenado came in at -1.6. There’s very little separation between the three in terms of stolen base numbers. I would knock Arenado down a peg, but it’s just baserunning, so…

Based on defensive stats and baserunning, who should be the MVP? Nolan Arenado. Easily.

Cumulative Stats & Other Considerations

With no player clearly ahead in both offensive and defensive production, we need a bit more to make a final decision. How much value do we place on offensive stats? Defensive stats? Baserunning ability?

That’s where a statistic like WAR – Wins Above Replacement – comes into consideration. WAR combines offense, defense, and baserunning into one cumulative stat and compares them to your average AAAA replacement player. In other words, if you had a team full of Miguel Cairos and one Paul Goldschmidt (or Arenado or Machado) how many more games would that team win than a team that just had Miguel Cairos? It’s all a bit hypothetical because no one was brave enough to fill their team with Miguel Cairo. (Cowards). Still, it’s a useful stat to compare cumulative value on an equal scale.

So, what does WAR tell us about the MVP race? Practically nothing.

Machado leads this group in fWAR (Fangraphs’ version of WAR) at 7.4. Arenado sits in second at 7.3. Goldy comes in next at 7.1.

If you want to quibble over a .3 gap in fWAR good luck to you, but that’s well within the margin of error for a constructed cumulative stat based on hypothesized linear weights. All three provided essentially equal cumulative production relative to Miguel Cairo.

So… we still haven’t settled anything. Are there other considerations that we need to look at before we make our final decision? Any factors that could push this over the top for one player or the other?

There are always subject arguments if that’s your jam! Over the years fans have made all kinds of arguments for or against players centered around the elusive concept of most valuable.

If you’re the only good player on a decent but not great playoff team? That’s an MVP player! If you’re the best team on a team full of great players? Not so MVP… even if your team won a lot of games. (See Freddie Freeman.)

I find most of these arguments silly, but thankfully they don’t come into play with this debate. Arenado and Goldschmidt played on the same team with mediocre surrounding talent and led their team to the NL Central title. Their MVP-ness kind of cancels each other out.

The Padres finished far back from the elite Dodgers. They did reach the playoffs and weren’t that great offensively before Soto’s arrival, so Machado had a lot to do with their success. Still, the club had some high-impact starting pitchers and they entered the season with high expectations that they didn’t meet, so how MVP’ish was he?

It all evens out in the wash. Based on cumulative stats and other considerations, who should be the MVP? All we did was make it more confusing by casually mentioning Freddie Freeman.

Who Should be the MVP?

After looking at all the stats, I’m not sure there’s a wrong answer. Maybe Machado since he can’t claim superiority over Goldy offensively or Arenado defensively. But Padres fans will just point to that fWAR total.

So, anything goes here.

If I had a vote, and I don’t, I would give it to Paul Goldschmidt.

I have two reasons for this. The first is that he has a pretty significant edge in offensive stats. It’s hard for me to overlook the statistical differences in both sabermetric and standard stats that I listed above. That offensive gap means more to me than the defensive one, especially since the defensive stats are all over the place for both Goldy and Machado.

My second reason is entirely manipulative and has little to do with this specific season. Paul Goldschmidt is a 7-time All-Star, a 4-time Gold Glove winner, and a 4-time Silver Slugger. He has finished second in the MVP voting two other times. Goldy currently has 54 fWAR. He has 97 points in Baseball References Hall of Fame Monitor. 100 is a likely HOF’er.

Right now, at age 35 with at least two seasons to go in the majors, Goldy has worked himself right on the Hall of Fame’s fence. He needs something to push him over.

With a 7 fWAR season this year, all Godly has to do over the next 4 years (through age 39) is produce something like a 4, 3, 2, and 1 fWAR by and he could finish his career at 64 fWAR. That would put him right there with Miguel Cabrera, Willie McCovey, Harmon Killebrew, Ernie Banks, and Willie Stargell in terms of career production at 1b.

It’s hard not to put a player with those kinds of credentials in the Hall of Fame.

What would help is if he had that one special thing; that one moment that can appeal to old-school voters and drive home his uniqueness relative to his peers. 4 more very consistent and awfully good seasons might not do that, despite the impressive career fWAR numbers he’ll finish with.

But an MVP award on his mantle? That’s the stuff.

Since he lost his bid at the Triple Crown, Goldy needs this MVP win to solidify his chances at the Hall of Fame. Arenado doesn’t; he’s probably a lock already assuming something horrible doesn’t happen over the next 5-9 years. I don’t really care about Machado, being a Cardinals fan and all, but he’s probably drawing close to “lock” territory, too.

Paul Goldschmidt would get my MVP vote.

Arenado would be second because of his defense.

Machado is third because he’s a Padre and this is a Cardinals site.

Where am I right? How am I wrong? The comments are the place to weigh in. Have at me all you Padre fan readers!