As longtime (three month) readers of St. Louis Bullpen may remember, I attended three St. Louis Cardinals games in San Diego from May 10-12 (I even recapped one of them from the stadium after sucking down some cheaper-than-at-Busch-Stadium Bud Lights). One of the friends with whom I attended games brought with him a Matt Carpenter jersey. He refused to wear said jersey because, in his words, Matt Carpenter was “embarrassing” him.
My friend is, of course, an idiot, though in his defense, he never claimed that Matt Carpenter was suddenly, permanently bad. Even the most religious of Matt Carpenter haters, of which there are many, could acknowledge that the most consistent hitter of the post-Albert Pujols Cardinals was not suddenly a true-talent .152/.305/.295 hitter. But even his most rigorous defenders, those who touted his high xwOBA and cited his low BABIP as evidence that Matt Carpenter would inevitably rebound to something in the vicinity of his 2013-2017 excellence, could not have predicted the extremity of his turnaround. From the end of the aforementioned Padres series through the end of last weekend’s three-game set in Pittsburgh, Carpenter’s triple-slash stood at .337/.436/.717. His wRC+ over the course of nearly three months of 202 has been bested in the 21st century in a full season only by Barry Bonds.
Yesterday, Mike Bauer covered Matt Carpenter’s MVP case and compared him to other NL MVP candidates such as Nolan Arenado, Javier Baez, and Freddie Freeman. While I believe that Matt Carpenter’s rough start, largely caused by bad luck or not, should factor into the decision for who should win the award, I also believe that this is what full season statistics are for, and that by full-season statistics, Matt Carpenter is one of the very best players in the National League. By FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, Carpenter ranks first among position players; by the Baseball Reference measure, he ranks second, just behind Milwaukee Brewers center fielder Lorenzo Cain.
While I believe that anybody declaring Matt Carpenter to be a slam-dunk, obvious MVP pick is seeing the situations with somewhat Cardinal-colored glasses–at least some of Carpenter’s value over the last three months is off-set by his awful start–I also believe that he is clearly in the discussion. But one factor inevitably comes up nearly every year in at least one of the two MVP discussions–team success.
While the Cardinals have a chance at making the playoffs, they are currently on the outside looking in, and some voters have an interpretation of the word “valuable” that requires a player’s team to make the playoffs. It is not a viewpoint I share–I believe you can just as easily make the argument that an MVP shouldn’t come from too good of a team because that team was going to be good with or without that player–but it is a viewpoint that exists.
Albert Pujols won three MVP awards with the St. Louis Cardinals and he easily could have won six in a row (I’m a little bit less religious on the 2010 NL MVP award than others, but to each their own). While the 2006 MVP, which went to Ryan Howard, should have been won by Albert, the reasons that Howard won were less related to team success and more related to the statistical areas in which Howard excelled–Albert Pujols made the playoffs, Ryan Howard’s Philadelphia Phillies did not (though they won 86 games), but Howard had a nine home run edge and a 12 RBI edge and the Triple Crown statistics were still very much in mainstream fashion in 2006 (look, this was also the Fall we were really into Fergie–it looks really silly now but you have to think back to the state of the world at that time). In 2007, however, Pujols never really had a chance, despite a very credible statistical argument.
2007 Pujols finished ninth in MVP voting despite leading the National League in WAR. While WAR is not a perfect measure of player production, it is an objective one, an all-encompassing statistic which relies on hard statistics (even if you dispute the weights given to the statistics) and one which is not swayed by narrative and the aesthetic prettiness of numbers (a 50 home run season garners more attention than a 49 home run season to a greater degree than a 23 home run season gets more attention than a 22 home run one, for example). And by WAR (the Baseball Reference version, the one whose merits relative to FanGraphs are arguable but it is the one which gets more mainstream attention and thus likely impacts more MVP ballots), Pujols was more valuable than the first basemen who finished third and fifth (Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard, respectively) combined. But his team won 78 games and stumbled down the stretch.
This precedent would seemingly act as a warning against Matt Carpenter’s MVP case, but there are three important differences.
- Matt Carpenter has never received a first-place MVP vote, whereas Albert Pujols was a perennial MVP candidate who had already won one. Matt Carpenter in 2018 is doing something he has never done before; Albert Pujols in 2007 was easy to overlook because it was arguably the worst offensive season of his career to that point (side note: Albert Pujols was extremely good).
- Matt Carpenter is on a better team than Albert Pujols was. The Cardinals of 2018 are currently four games over .500; if they play .500 ball the rest of the season, they’ll have won six more games than last season’s NL MVP’s team. In order to finish with the same record as the 2007 Cardinals, the 2018 Cardinals would have to be worse than the New York Mets so far this season. Possible, but not probable.
- Fall 2007 was a very different time than Fall 2018. It was a time of Soulja Boy, now a guy who occasionally has viral tweets, being a major pop sensation. It was a time of aging veteran Tom Brady helming a dominant New England Patriots team, a thing which obviously dates the era greatly. Voter sentiments have changed, marginally if not radically, but enough to impact the overall results.
To the third point, let’s look at the MVP races since 2007 by looking at the winner’s rank in position player WAR as well as where the position player WAR leader ranked in voting. I am purposely excluding pitchers because “Should pitchers get MVP consideration?” is a completely different discussion, and that is why 2011 Justin Verlander and 2014 Clayton Kershaw aren’t listed here, in the interest of fairness, despite being their respective league WAR leaders.
- 2008 AL: Dustin Pedroia (1st in voting, 1st in WAR)
- 2008 NL: Albert Pujols (1st in voting, 1st in WAR)
- 2009 AL: Joe Mauer (1st in voting, 2nd in WAR); Ben Zobrist (9th in voting, 1st in WAR)
- 2009 NL: Albert Pujols (1st in voting, 1st in WAR)
- 2010 AL: Josh Hamilton (1st in voting, 1st in WAR)
- 2010 NL: Joey Votto (1st in voting, 2nd in WAR); Albert Pujols (2nd in voting, 1st in WAR)
- 2011 NL: Ryan Braun (1st in voting, 2nd in WAR); Matt Kemp (2nd in voting, 1st in WAR)
- 2012 AL: Miguel Cabrera (1st in voting, 4th in WAR); Mike Trout (2nd in voting, 1st in WAR)
- 2012 NL: Buster Posey (1st in voting, 1st in WAR)
- 2013 AL: Miguel Cabrera (1st in voting, 4th in WAR); Mike Trout (2nd in voting, 1st in WAR)
- 2013 NL: Andrew McCutchen (1st in voting, 1st in WAR)
- 2014 AL: Mike Trout (1st in voting, 1st in WAR)
- 2015 AL: Josh Donaldson (1st in voting, 2nd in WAR); Mike Trout (2nd in voting, 1st in WAR)
- 2015 NL: Bryce Harper (1st in voting, 1st in WAR)
- 2016 AL: Mike Trout (1st in voting, 1st in WAR)
- 2016 NL: Kris Bryant (1st in voting, 1st in WAR)
- 2017 AL: Jose Altuve (1st in voting, 1st in WAR)
- 2017 NL: Giancarlo Stanton (1st in voting, 1st in WAR)
Of the eighteen MVP votes in which a position player won the award since Albert Pujols’s no-show in 2007, twelve times the award went to the WAR leader. This includes last year’s NL MVP, in which Giancarlo Stanton won the award with a team with a losing record, while runner-up Joey Votto, who finished 2nd in WAR, played on an even worse team. This includes 2016 AL MVP Mike Trout, whose 74-88 Los Angeles Angels team did not weigh down his candidacy despite the league’s second-best player by WAR, Mookie Betts, amassing a 9.7 WAR season of his own for a 93-win, high-profile Boston Red Sox team.
The exceptions can be explained pretty easily. Ben Zobrist didn’t have WAR for obvious reasons–it mostly came from positional versatility, and Joe Mauer led the American League in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage as a catcher (I generally believe in WAR, but I would have voted for Mauer without flinching). Votto and Donaldson were essentially coin-flips against Pujols and Trout, and in both cases, the second-place finisher was the defending MVP. Miguel Cabrera won a contentious MVP race in 2012 largely on the strength of his Triple Crown win; you (and I) could argue Trout should have won it, but his Angels actually had a better record than the Detroit Tigers. In 2013, Cabrera was better than in 2012, and a common refrain was that if he won MVP and was better, he was obviously still an MVP. Yes, this is a logical fallacy, but it was his numbers, even the antiquated ones, which formed the basis of his case, rather than his team’s success.
But perhaps the most relevant comparison to Matt Carpenter in 2018 is the 2011 MVP race between Ryan Braun and Matt Kemp. They were very close by WAR, and like in 2010, the voters opted for the guy on the playoff team. Kemp’s Los Angeles Dodgers went 82-79, the kind of record that seems like the Cardinals may finish with in 2018. It is not an outlandish take to think that Kemp lost an MVP award because his teammates were lackluster. But had Kemp been a 9 WAR player instead of an 8 WAR player (Braun was worth 7.8 WAR), would that have made the difference? I’m not sure, but it is no longer a coin-flip. What about if the vote had happened in the years following the emergence of Mike Trout, easily the most important player in the breakthrough of WAR as a mainstream baseball statistic? I’m not sure. This may be the year we find out.
There has been something pre-determined about Nolan Arenado as MVP–he was a contender for the award in undeserving seasons, and now that he is putting up numbers commensurate with his reputation, it appears the stars are aligning. And if the Colorado Rockies make the playoffs while the Cardinals do not, and Arenado finishes, say, 0.5 WAR or less behind Matt Carpenter for the league lead, I think Arenado would still get it. And while I would disagree with the pick, it isn’t the hill I’d want to die on.
But the notion that Matt Carpenter is simply going to disappear into the pack because he is on a mediocre team is shortsighted and based on an antiquated notion about just how important team success is in MVP voting. At best, being on a good team is a tiebreaker. So now it is up to the Cardinals to make the playoffs, or for Matt Carpenter to continue his hot streak to separate himself from the other best players in the National League. I’m certainly not counting out the possibility of the latter.