Ryan Braun should spend the next few days shopping for gifts for his teammates, because they just delivered him the 2011 National League Most Valuable Player award. Braun, who was named first on 20 of the 32 ballots, had an outstanding season, hitting .332/.397/.597 with 33 home runs, 33 stolen bases (while being caught just six times), 111 RBIs and 109 runs scored for the NL Central champion Brewers. As great as that year was, it was clearly inferior to the season Matt Kemp had for the Dodgers, who finished third in the NL West.
Here are Braun's and Kemp's seasons side-by-side:
That's close. Braun was terrific, and easily one of the two best players in the National League this year, but Kemp was better. That becomes even more clear when you consider that Kemp's home ballpark is less friendly to hitters (which OPS+ does), and that he played centerfield while Braun played left, the former a position that requires more skill, has a larger impact on the overall defensive performance of a team and at which productive offensive players are much less common. Those factors are both reflected in Kemp's significant leads in the wins-above-replacement stats at the far right (bWAR is Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement, fWAR is FanGraphs', WARP is Baseball Prospectus's Wins Above Replacement Player), all three of which attempt to translate total contributions on offense and defense into wins, and all three of which adjust for ballpark and position.
So if Kemp was better, why didn't he win the award? The explanation you'll hear from almost every one of the twenty writers who listed Braun first is that Braun played for a contending team. For some, that means that he had a larger impact on his team, something that's clearly not true based on the wins-above-replacement numbers. For others, that means that Braun's production came in higher-pressure situations and thus was both more difficult and more significant. That's specious at best. In reality, the Brewers won 14 more games than the Dodgers this year because Braun's teammates, led by Prince Fielder, who finished third in the balloting, were more than 14 wins better than Kemp's.
Kemp's teammates did have one impact on his actual production. Hitting ahead of the likes of James Loney (45 times), Juan Uribe (41 times), Juan Rivera (15 times) and Aaron Miles (19 times), Kemp was intentionally walked 24 times, while Braun, hitting ahead of Fielder, was intentionally walked just twice. One could argue, then, that Kemp's on-base percentage was inflated (it was .377 in his other 655 plate appearances). Then again, Kemp still managed to lead the league in runs despite having that motley crew attempting to drive him in. One could also argue that Braun got better pitches to hit with Fielder serving as his protection in the lineup.
For those who want to harp on those 24 intentional walks, it's worth noting that not all 24 of those plate appearances would otherwise have been outs. In fact, given Kemp's rate of production in his other 665 plate appearances, if he had never been walked intentionally this season, he would have reached 200 hits, 130 RBIs and 40 homers. That last would have made him just the fifth man in baseball history to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in a single season.
As it was, Kemp's season was still historically significant. It was arguably the best ever by a hitter who played his home games at Dodger Stadium, ranking right alongside Mike Piazza's 1997 and Adrian Beltre's 2004. To put it in another context, Albert Pujols has won three MVP awards and deserved as many as four others, but he has had just one season better than the one Kemp produced in 2011. According to bWAR (which is not the final word, but a good indicator), no player or pitcher in either league has had a better season since Barry Bonds in 2004.
The reason voters favor players on contending teams in the Most Valuable Player award voting is the word "valuable." According to the dictionary, "valuable" means either "having great worth" or "esteemed, important, of great use or service." At some point many decades ago, the electorate decided that production that didn't come in the service of a winning team was worthless and unimportant. That's ironic given that the Baseball Writers' Association of America, the organization which hands out these awards, is comprised largely of beat reporters and thus the majority of the written output of the voters is coverage of games that, in their own view, are worthless and unimportant, at least according to how they treat those games when they vote for this award.
I, and Kemp's new $160 million contract extension, beg to differ. As advanced statistical analysis and the market for player services, has shown, player value is absolute, and, as I argued on Friday, I believe the MVP ballot instructions recognize this. Again, the first criteria voters are told to consider is, "actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense." The "to his team" part throws many voters off the scent, but the key phrase is not those three words, but what follows, "that is, strength of offense and defense."
Though the preamble in the instructions says that "there is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means," value is defined right there, and it has nothing to do with team wins and losses. It has only to do with the performance of the player being considered. That's as it should be. The MVP is an individual award and only an individual's performance should be factored into the voting.
There are years that player performance has been able to overcome this bias. Albert Pujols won this award for a fourth-place Cardinals team in 2008. Ryan Howard (2006) and Barry Bonds (2004, 2001) both won for second-place, non-wild card teams. However, no player has won an MVP award for a team that has won fewer than 86 games since Alex Rodriguez won the American League MVP almost by default in 2003, a year in which 10 different players received a first-place vote, and Rodriguez picked up just six of the 28 first-place endorsements.
In general, the BBWAA is getting smarter as a voting body. The electorate's willingness to look past pitching wins and losses and deliver the Cy Young award to each league's best pitcher in 2009 and 2010 was a major step forward. Though I would have voted differently, I thought the fact that Justin Verlander won the AL MVP on Monday was another significant step, as pitchers had been disregarded for far too long in the MVP voting. However, I fear that might have been an isolated event. No pitcher finished higher than ninth in the NL voting despite the fact that the top three Cy Young finishers were all in the top five in the league in bWAR, and the man that finished ninth was not Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, who pitched for Kemp's mediocre Dodgers, but runner-up Roy Halladay, who pitched for a first-place Phillies team.
The MVP voting continues to defy logic and reason, and as a result, what was arguably the best single-season performance in the last seven years, has gone unrecognized. As far as the BBWAA has come, it still has a long way to go.