Why the NL MVP will come from a losing team, and should

The Cincinnati Reds won 68 games in 2017 and finished in last place in the NL Central, seven games behind the fourth-place Pirates and 24 games behind the division-winning Cubs. The Reds were outscored by 116 runs and couldn’t muster 70 wins for the third straight season, all of them spent mostly in last place.

Could the Reds, one of the worst teams in MLB, have the most valuable player in Joey Votto, one of three finalists for the award to be announced Thursday?

Awards week, which has been as dull for its three first days as a Padres-Giants September game overrun with call-ups, is about to get interesting.

Like the postseason, that’s in no small part due to the Yankees, whose Aaron Judge is a  finalist dueling with Houston’s Jose Altuve for the AL award, which seems equally competitive. But Judge and Altuve are from teams which played to represent the AL in the World Series; the NL winner — Votto or the Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton — will come from teams which combined to finish 44 games out of first place and 39 out of the playoffs.

The NL MVP will be the seventh from a team with a losing record, according to radicalbaseball.blogspot.com, and the second in a row, and he’ll deserve it because the value of the MVP shouldn’t be determined by the value of his teammates.

Mike Trout, whose Angels were 80-82, was last year’s AL MVP, even though runner-up Mookie Betts’ Red Sox won the AL East. Though Betts wouldn’t have been an awful or even bad pick (the 45-point differential in the vote seems about right), it was another acknowledgement that awards voting isn’t what it used to be. Voters don’t think like they did, and that’s a good thing.

Andre Dawson, one of the first six to win the MVP on a losing team, did so in 1987 because he led the NL  in home runs (49) and RBIs (137) and won a Gold Glove for a 76-win Cubs team. But Dawson walked just 32 times, had a .328 on-base percentage and couldn’t muster a .900 OPS in Wrigley Field in a year in which nine players topped .936.

Voting Dawson the MVP in ’87 because he led the NL in homers and RBIs was like awarding the Nobel Prize in literature to the author who sold the most books. By the standards of today, Dawson wouldn’t even be a finalist. (It’s an interesting question of whether Dawson would have made the Hall of Fame without the MVP; his was a marginal case with it).

The other winners from losing teams were deserving: Ernie Banks with the Cubs in 1958-59, Alex Rodriguez with the 2003 Rangers and Cal Ripken with the 1991 Orioles, who won just 67 games, the least of any winner. Even Votto’s Reds have that beat, if barely. (Ripken hit .323, slugged .566, won a Gold Glove and had a WAR of 11.5, which demonstrates how bad the other Orioles were. They were 10th in runs scored and last in the AL with a 4.59 team ERA; after 19 seasons with the Red Sox, Dwight Evans played his final one with the ’91 Orioles. Who could blame him for getting out?)

Votto and Stanton were the two best players in the NL. Votto hit .320 and led the NL in walks (134), on-base percentage (.454) and OPS+ (168), hit 36 homers, knocked in 100 runs and scored 106. It’s not his fault the Reds were last, and it’s some kind of weird prank that Paul Goldschmidt, whose OPS was 66 points less, won the Silver Slugger award at the position (Goldschmidt is the third NL finalist though Colorado third baseman Nolan Arenado should be).

Stanton hit 59 homers and led the NL in homers, RBIs (132) and slugging percentage; his 1.007 OPS was just 25 points less than Votto’s. It’s not his fault the Marlins finished below .500.

The Marlins signed Stanton to a $325 million contract not long ago but haven’t had a winning season in almost a decade, since 2008 (in the franchise’s 25 years of play, it’s had six winning seasons). Derek Jeter is trying to shred Stanton’s contract; it’s odd that the first major step of new ownership is to get rid of its best player.

The Reds signed Votto to a $225 million contract and haven’t had a winning season in the last four. That’s not Votto’s fault. Except for 2014, when he was injured and only played 62 games, he’s performed to the level he’s being paid. That the Reds — and the Marlins — are and have been bad teams, is because of management, not their best players.

Judging an individual by his team’s performance is not particular to baseball. Quarterbacks are often ranked by how many Super Bowls they’ve won, or NBA players by how many titles they’ve won, as if their teammate have little to no impact on the end result. It’s simplistic and as silly as voting for the MVP based on who had the most RBIs, as if teammates aren’t part of the equations. Baseball isn’t boxing.

The Reds were last in 2017 in the NL and 29th in MLB in team ERA (5.17), and their starting pitchers had a 5.55 ERA. That’s how valuable Votto was that the Reds won 68 games; how many times did he bat for the first time with his team already trailing? The Marlins were 26th in pitching; that’s how valuable Stanton was that they finished near .500.

Both players would be deserving winners. Here’s a vote for Votto, if only for the reaction it may trigger.

AL MVP: Judge and Altuve couldn’t be more opposite as players, in size and style, and so near in value. Judge led the AL with 52 homers, 127 walks and 128 runs scored; he slugged .627 and had an OPS of 1.049 and an OPS+ of 171. Altuve led the AL in average at .346 and hits (204), hit 24 homers, slugged .547 and had a .957 OPS and an OPS+ of 164. Here’s a vote for Altuve, if only because he produced that offense at second base, but both are deserving. Then again, if Trout isn’t hurt, the competition between Judge and Altuve may well be moot.

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