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Monday, November 21, 2011
SweetSpot's NL MVP take

By Christina Kahrl

Tuesday’s National League Most Valuable Player vote probably isn’t going to inspire quite the same outcry as Monday’s American League outcome. That’s because the AL MVP race gave us reasons to re-explore the reliably entertaining debate about whether or not pitchers should be considered, whether or not it’s “a hitter’s award,” and maybe even made a few of us ponder the more esoteric question of why the Hank Aaron Award for the top hitter in each league ought to be invested with greater significance.

Matt Kemp
Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp had 39 home runs and 40 stolen bases this season.
The NL’s shorter spread of top candidates and possible victors makes for an easier choice, with Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers representing the heavy favorite among statheads, while Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers might represent the favorite for those inclined to invest some additional significance in the performance of a player's team. Arguing whether that latter perspective has a place in the argument is an argument all to itself about what the MVP award is supposed to reward, and that ambiguity is sure to keep debates raging, year after year.

Statistically, the raw hitting data might seem to slightly favor Braun’s case over Kemp’s: Braun hit .332/.397/.597 with 33 home runs to Kemp’s .324/.399/.586 with 39 homers, and Kemp’s 40 steals in 51 attempts doesn’t represent a huge advantage over Braun’s 33-for-39 breakout performance on the bases.

But take into account their home parks -- Dodger Stadium being a tougher place to hit -- and Kemp’s solid performance at a key defensive position to Braun’s mediocrity in a corner outfield spot, and you get a couple of big reasons to wind up with Kemp over Braun. Whatever flavor of WAR you care to employ if so inclined gives Kemp a decided advantage, 10.0 to 7.7 using Baseball-Reference.com, or 8.7 to 7.8 if you’re using FanGraphs. If you’re using BaseballProspectus.com’s variation on this theme, BWARP, the gap widens to 8.9 to 6.4, with Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds slipping in between them at 7.0.

With all of that in mind as we look forward to the announcement, we polled the SweetSpot network’s bloggers for their two cents and top five choices for NL MVP. The results:

Matt Kemp, Dodgers: 335 points (22 first-place votes)
Ryan Braun, Brewers: 238 points (3)
Joey Votto, Reds: 134 points
Justin Upton, Diamondbacks: 102 points
Prince Fielder, Brewers: 84 points
Roy Halladay, Phillies: 60 points
Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies: 56 points
Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers: 26 points
Albert Pujols, Cardinals: 26 points
Jose Reyes, Mets: 19 points
Shane Victorino, Phillies: 12 points
Lance Berkman, Cardinals: 8 points

The gang’s as data-savvy a group as you’d wish for, so to some extent the result might have been a foregone conclusion; we’ll see if this year’s BBWAA electors arrive at the same result. Certainly if I had a vote, Kemp would have been my selection. Perhaps it was with the anticipation of this outcome that the Dodgers consummated their eight-year, $160 million deal with him, but the award should be immaterial to his compensation -- he had a great season with or without the trophy, and the deal’s fraught with risk, as David Schoenfield has noted.

After Kemp, the SweetSpot crew sensibly ran with Braun and Votto. Justin Upton’s case as best Diamondback and overall fine season (.289/.369/.529) get a healthy amount of respect, with standbys like Fielder, Pujols and Tulo getting some due down-ballot. Seeing both Reyes and Victorino is a nice reflection of their importance as top performers at key defensive positions, albeit stars whose seasons suffered from being shortened by injury.

What might also be interesting about this spread in light of Justin Verlander’s triumph in the AL MVP voting is that a couple of pitchers drew attention in the SweetSpot’s internal ballot. Statheads’ champ Roy Halladay -- well, my own, at any rate -- came out ahead of NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw in the network’s MVP voting. We’ll see if pitchers command anything like this amount of respect among the BBWAA’s NL Cy Young voters.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.