April performances often indicate who is and is not an MVP candidate
Awards Watch will commence ranking the candidates for Most Valuable Player, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year in each league next Thursday, May 1. As happens every year, those early rankings will prompt some readers to protest that it is too early in the season to rank the top candidates for awards that are handed out based on the entire regular season. Those protesters miss the point of this column.
The purpose of Awards Watch is not to predict the winners (though I do make predictions at the end of the season, and have correctly picked the MVP, Cy Young award and Rookie in the Year winners in each league in each of this column's four previous seasons). It is to follow the races for those awards and track the ups and downs in the seasons of the players who will vie for the voters' affections. It's about the journey as much as the destination, and as such, it's never too early to start ranking candidates for the awards. Obviously my rankings in late September will more directly reflect the voting results than those in early May, but the players leading the races on May 1 are hardly irrelevant in the final evaluation.
To illustrate that last fact, I took a look at the players who were leading their respective leagues in OPS (minimum 75 plate appearances) at the end of April during the Wild Card Era and checked to see how they fared in the MVP voting. I chose OPS because it is advanced enough to use as a shortcut total-offense stat but simple and blunt enough to reflect the fact that the MVP voters have been slow to accept advanced statistics and analysis. I went back to 1996, which gave me every full, 162-game season of the wild card era and a sample of 36 MVP races.
Of the 36 April OPS leaders, 28 of them (78 percent) received MVP votes at the end of the season. The average finish of those 28 men was ninth. Twelve of those 36 players, or more than a third, finished in the top five of the voting, 10 finished in the top three and four went on to become their league's MVP (Larry Walker in 1997, Barry Bonds in 2002 and '04 and Alex Rodriguez in 2007).
Of the seven April OPS leaders who did not receive MVP votes, five played fewer than 130 games that season due to injury (Matt Kemp and David Ortiz in 2012, Bryce Harper last year), drug suspension (Manny Ramirez in 2009) or age (Barry Bonds in 2007), and one could argue that a non-disabling injuries slowed Jermaine Dye in 2000, as well. Meanwhile, two players out of those 36 April OPS leaders were traded to the other league later in the year and were so good over the remainder of the season that both picked up MVP votes in the new league. Those players were Mark McGwire, who was traded from the A's to the Cardinals on July 31, 1997 and still finished 16th in the NL voting, and Carlos Beltran, who was dealt from the Royals to the Astros on June 24, 2004 and finished 12th.
That's a pretty strong indication that April's best players continue to at least be factors in the MVP races over the remainder of the season. That's good news for this year's leaders so far, Troy Tulowitzki in the National League (1.196) and Jose Bautista in the American League (1.058).
What, if any conclusions, can we could draw from the Aprils of the players who did win the MVP award? The first thing that stands out from the sample of 36 MVP races dating back to 1996 is that very few eventual MVPs have their best month in April. In fact, of those 36, just six posted their highest single-month OPS (or, in the case of 2011 AL MVP Justin Verlander, lowest ERA) in April, while a full third of them (12 to be exact) peaked in August.
Looking closer, it's clear that very few had poor Aprils. That stands to reason. The MVP award should be won over a sixth month season, not on the strength of one or two hot months, and it's very hard to be the best over six months when you were lousy for even one of them. One glaring exception from that group of 36 is Joe Mauer, who didn't make his 2009 debut until May 1 due to a back injury. However, there is a difference between having a lousy April and no April. Mauer didn't accumulate home runs or RBIs during April of his MVP season, but he also didn't hit .140 over 100 at-bats or the like, the sort of performance that can be difficult to overcome even with five months left in the season.
The eventual MVP with the lowest April OPS since 1996 was then-Twins first baseman Justin Morneau, who hit a mere .208/.274/.416 (.690 OPS) in April 2006. The irony there is that Morneau was widely panned as an undeserving winner at the time, with his teammates Mauer and Johan Santana among the many players others felt were more valuable in the AL that year. No other eventual MVP from my sample hit lower than .240 in April, had an on-base percentage below .308 or slugged less than .420. That's bad news for reigning two-time AL MVP Miguel Cabrera, who is off to .236/.296/.403 start.
Using raw averages (not weighed for plate appearances), the 34 eventual MVPs who had at least 75 plate appearances in April in my sample posted an average April slash line of .321/.405/.611. That works out to a 1.016 OPS, a mark just six qualified hitters have matched or bettered to this point in the current season.
The caveat here is that I'm using an unadjusted stat, taking a sample that covers the majority of the Steroid Era and comparing it to the current hitting environment, in which scoring has decreased significantly relative to the bulk of my sample. Still, the basic point stands: While few Most Valuable Players do their best work in April, they are far more often among April's hottest hitters than they are not. Thus a sampling of April's hottest hitters, such as Award Watch's top five MVP candidates, has a good chance of capturing several of the top finalists for the award, even if it's impossible to predict the actual winner that early in the season.