And the awards voters were doing so well. Until Tuesday.
They voted Felix Hernandez as AL Cy Young Award winner last year, as they should have, and Clayton Kershaw NL Cy Young Award winner this year, as they should have, and Justin Verlander as AL MVP this year, as they could have.
Then they went and gave Ryan Braun the NL MVP, as if to prove voters will only take unconventional so far.
On the surface, the Ryan Braun-Matt Kemp MVP vote was as close as scoring a ground ball in the hole: Braun had a .994 OPS, Kemp .986, Braun stole 33 bases, Kemp 40, Braun’s team won its division, Kemp’s won more than it lost. By the last factor, ergo, Braun was more valuable.
The Wall Street Journal even printed an analysis defending Braun’s selection, proving only it should stick to what it knows (though it raised some fair points, it said one of Braun’s positions was third base; it used to be, but no more recently than 2007).
Braun got twice as many first-place votes as Kemp, which only indicates – along with the wayward AL first-place MVP vote for Michael Young — we have twice as far to go as we thought after Hernandez won the Cy Young last year.
Braun was first or second on every ballot — fair enough — but Kemp was third on six, finishing behind Prince Fielder on five and Justin Upton on one. Unfair.
There’s a certain irony to Braun winning the MVP when his teammate (Fielder) finished third in the voting, 200 points ahead of Kemp’s nearest teammate. Kershaw received 29 points in the voting, not quite one for every game he played.
That’s a big reason why the Brewers won their division and the Dodgers didn’t win theirs, and not because Braun was more “valuable” than Kemp.
Two factors should have swung the vote in Kemp’s favor: defense and home-park advantage.
The Wall Street Journal did a decent job debating the first. Though Kemp won a Gold Glove, it’s often an inaccurate measure of fielding (still, it shouldn’t be totally discounted; Braun didn’t win one, and never has). The defensive stats are inconclusive.
But here’s what isn’t: Kemp played center field, a premium defensive position, and Braun played left field, where good hitters are exiled because they can’t play anywhere else (no one should know this better than Braun, who started the season next to Carlos Gomez, who produced .307 less points of OPS in center field than Kemp; Braun finished it next to Nyjer Morgan, who eliminated only 99 points of that discrepancy).
If we’re discussing “value,” then consider this: Braun was the best-hitting left fielder in the National League, for sure, but only by 82 points of OPS over Matt Holliday; Kemp was the best-hitting center fielder by 139 points (over Shane Victorino).
Even if we accept the metrics that most diminish Kemp’s defense — and the Gold Glove is still a reasonable counter argument — Kemp should be indisputably elevated because of the position he plays (part of the reason Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury and New York’s Curtis Granderson were 2-4 in the AL MVP race presumably; funny how the position’s value apparently dropped in 24 hours).
The WSJ article didn’t tackle the second factor — home park differentials. We can guess why: some numbers are inarguable.
The Dodgers played 81 games at Dodger Stadium, which has a longstanding reputation as a pitcher-friendly park. 2011 was no different. The Dodgers were eighth in the NL in runs scored overall (the Brewers were fifth), but on the road the two were reversed; at home the Brewers were third and the Dodgers 12th.
Kemp was every bit as good away from Dodger Stadium: he hit .329 at home, .319 away from it, 19 homers at home, 20 away, with a .981 OPS at home, .990 away.
Not so for Braun, who was an MVP at home but just another top-five finisher away from it: .351 average, .646 slugging, 1.069 OPS at home, but .315, .553 and .926 away from it. One is left to wonder how much better Kemp’s numbers would be if he were a Brewer and how much worse Braun’s would be if he were a Dodger.
None of this is to suggest Braun was an outrageous pick. He’s not. His numbers were MVP worthy, but just not as good, in context, as Kemp’s. The voters might have tried to apply the word “valuable” to their vote, but they misapplied it.
It’s one thing for Kemp to be penalized by his teammates by having to play with them all season; it’s quite another to be penalized for the same offense all over again by the MVP voters.