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Trout will win AL MVP, but NL race is much tougher to call

Breaking down the candidates for American and National League Most Valuable Player honors.

Awards week draws to a close Thursday night with the announcement of this year’s Most Valuable Player award winners in the American and National League, which will take place during an hour-long program on MLB Network starting at 6 p.m. ET. Corey Kluber's AL Cy Young victory on Wednesday ended my streak of correctly predicting the winners of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America player awards, which dated back to the first year of Awards Watch in 2010, at 27 (I’m now 27-for-28 overall). This year’s NL MVP race could knock me down another peg because it is as tight as any in recent memory. Here’s a look at the two groups of MVP finalists along with my take on who will win and who should win.

Note: Finalists are listed in alphabetical order. League leading statistics are in bold, major league leading stats in bold and italics. Voting for each award was submitted at the conclusion of the regular season and before the start of the postseason.

American League Finalists

Michael Brantley, LF, Cleveland
Season Stats: 156 G, 676 PA, .327/.385/.506, 20 HR, 97 RBI, 94 R, 200 H, 45 2B, 309 TB, 23 SB, 96 SB%

Victor Martinez, DH, Tigers
Season Stats: 151 G, 641 PA, .335/.409/.565, 32 HR, 103 RBI, 87 R, 188 H, 33 2B, 317 TB

Mike Trout, CF, Angels
Season Stats: 157 G, 705 PA, .287/.377/.561, 36 HR, 111 RBI, 115 R, 39 2B, 9 3B, 338 TB, 16 SB, 89 SB%

Martinez had an outstanding season at the plate that include just 42 strikeouts against 70 walks, a major league-leading 28 intentional walks and a major league best .974 OPS. However, he started just 35 games in the field, all but two of them at first-base. Given his utter lack of contribution defensively and on the bases (where he was 3-for-5 in steals and took the extra base in just 18 percent of his opportunities, compared to 40 percent for Brantley and 58 percent for Trout), he needed to out-hit Brantley and Trout to a much greater degree to become the first primary-DH ever to win the AL MVP. As it is, Martinez's OPS+ bests Trout’s by just one point, 168 to 167, which serves as a reminder that Angel Stadium is a pitcher-friendly ballpark while Comerica plays more neutral these days and could even be considered a hitter-friendly stadium.

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Trout and Brantley are more of an apples-to-apples comparison, and a much closer one than you might expect. Brantley hit for a much higher average -- which also lifted his on-base percentage above Trout’s -- while being a more prolific and effective basestealer and striking out just 56 times to Trout’s league-leading 184. Still, Trout’s superior walk rate (he drew 77 unintentional walks to Brantley’s 48) makes up for much of the difference in batting average, and his 54-point advantage in slugging more than compensates for the rest, giving Trout a 167 OPS+ to Brantley’s 154. Per the above, Trout bettered Brantley in taking extra base outside of steal attempts, and Trout started 149 games in center to the 40 of Brantley, who spent most of his time in leftfield (the quality of their defense remains the subject of some debate, so it’s probably best to say that Trout has the better range while Brantley has the better arm and leave it at that).

If you add total bases, net steals and walks, Brantley accumulated a whopping 383 bases this season. Trout had 435, the most in the major leagues this season. For Brantley, that’s .567 bases per plate appearance. For Trout it's .617. Add in the fact that Trout produced at that level as a centerfielder and the choice is easy.

Who will win: Trout
Who should win: Trout

Why would anyone not vote for him?

Just to troll those of us who thought he should have won the last two years as well.

Clayton Kershaw MVP preview top

National League Finalists

Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers
Season Stats: 27 GS, 198 1/3 IP, 21-3, 239 K, 1.77 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 10.8 K/9, 7.71 K/BB, 6 CG, 2 SHO, 197 ERA+

Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates
Season Stats: 146 G, 648 PA, .314/.410/.542, 25 HR, 83 RBI, 89 R, 297 TB, 18 SB, 86 SB%

Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Marlins
Season Stats: 145 G, 638 PA, .288/.395/.555, 37 HR, 105 RBI, 89 R, 299 TB, 13 SB, 93 SB%

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The easiest place to start here is with a comparison of the two outfielders. Using the same total-bases-accumulated stat I used for Trout and Brantley above -- adding total bases, net steals and walks -- gives us 405 for Stanton and 396 for McCutchen. Stanton also drew 16 more IBBs than McCutchen. Take those out of the equation and you get 381 bases for Stanton and 388 for McCutchen. However, McCutchen came to the plate 10 more times than Stanton. As a result, when their total bases accumulated per plate appearance are calculated, leaving out both intentional walks and the plate appearances in which they occurred, we get .621 for Stanton and .606 for McCutchen.

McCutchen gets a value boost for playing centerfield, while Stanton did his work from the less-demanding rightfield. However, McCutchen received lousy marks across the board for defense this year (-11 DRS, -10.8 UZR, -8.0 FRAA), while Stanton generally graded out well (7 DRS, 1.6 UZR, 11.3 FRAA). As for extra-bases taken as a baserunner (not counting steals), Stanton (46 percent) did so slightly more often than McCutchen (41 percent). McCutchen led the league in OPS (.952, two points ahead of Stanton) and OPS+ (169 to Stanton’s second-place 160), but after a closer look at the all-around play of both players, I believe that Stanton was the best player in the National League in 2014.

Or was he? Because here comes Clayton Kershaw, who missed April with a teres major strain behind his left shoulder, but with the exception of a fluky disaster start against the Diamondbacks on May 17, flat-out dominated the National League after returning to action on May 6. Kershaw led all of baseball in ERA, ERA+, WHIP, K/9, complete games, wins, winning percentage (.875), fielding independent pitching (1.81), quality start percentage (89 percent) and Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement (8.0 to Trout’s 7.9).

Check out this breakdown of Kershaw’s 27 starts: 

6 IP, 3 R or less: 24

7+ IP, 3 R or less: 22

8+ IP, 3 R or less: 15

8+ IP, 1 or 0 R: 11 

Beginning with his start immediately following his disaster in Phoenix, Kershaw posted a 1.43 ERA over his final 23 outings, going 19-2 in those games while the Dodgers went 21-2. All of that was astonishing and made Kershaw an easy, unanimous choice for the NL Cy Young award, but was it enough to make him the first pitcher to win the NL MVP since Bob Gibson in 1968?

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The trickiest part of this discussion is that Kershaw missed April. Had he stayed healthy all season and finished with similar rate stats, he’d be an obvious choice for MVP, but the fact that he fell just shy of 200 innings on the year and made just 27 starts complicates things. One could point to the fact that Kershaw faced 749 batters, involving him in 111 more plate appearances than Stanton, but that ignores Stanton’s impact on the bases and in the field. Kershaw is an outstanding fielder as well, but he handled just 41 chances this year to Stanton’s 332, and that doesn’t count the roughly 255 times that Stanton was on base with an opportunity to make additional contributions. Yes, Kershaw also gets opportunities to hit and run the bases, but those are best ignored and total a mere 74 plate appearances and 17 times on base (not counting fielder's choices).

Of course, that sort of accounting ignores the far larger impact a starting pitcher has on the outcome of a typical game than even a third-place hitter and all-around star like Stanton. That’s what the wins-above-replacement stats attempt to help with, though I’m loathe to break this down to a simple WAR championship. Besides which, the three major WAR stats don’t necessarily agree. Baseball-Reference (8.0 to 6.5) and FanGraphs (7.2 to 6.1) have Kershaw out front, but Baseball Prospectus’ WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) has Stanton leading, 8.2 to 6.1.

Who will win: Kershaw
Who should win: Stanton

Why Stanton?

Three main reasons:

1. Stanton's all-around contributions were greater.

2. He played a longer season than Kershaw. Stanton played every single game until a pitch to the face robbed him of the final 17, while Kershaw’s disabled list stay lasted just more than a month.

3. Stanton -- and McCutchen for that matter -- played his home games in pitcher-friendly ballparks in a pitcher-friendly season, making his performance more impressive in context than it already appeared.

Honestly, if I wrote this preview three different times there’s a good chance I’d come up with three different answers. I had McCutchen on top in my final Awards Watch of the regular season, and could just as easily have gone with Kershaw above here. Leaving out team context and narrative -- both of which should be irrelevant in an individual award like this one -- these three players are so tightly bunched that a sound statistical argument could be made for any of them. In attempting to be as objective and context-independent as possible (with the exception of run-scoring environments), I landed on Stanton.