The National League MVP Debate is Not a Clown Question, Bro

With baseball entering the second half of the season this week, I’m going to take a look at the debate over who should be the MVP in the senior circuit.  The debate has mainly become about two players: Nationals OF Bryce Harper and Diamondbacks 1B Paul Goldschmidt. Harper is a slightly better power hitter than Goldschmidt, but Goldschmidt is a better base-stealer and hitter for average. The debate over this topic has been a very interesting one, but everyone, and I mean everyone has Harper winning the award by a wide margin.  Among them is Grantland baseball writer Jonah Keri:

When we checked in on Harper at the season’s quarter-way mark, he was both the runaway winner for NL MVP and in the midst of a historic season unmatched by any 22-year-old not named Ted Williams.

His second quarter has been punctuated by a couple of health scares. The first was downright terrifying, as Harper’s knee buckled when he tried to make a throw during a June 18 game against the Rays. That injury proved to be nothing more than a left hamstring strain, and Harper returned to the lineup two days later. Then, a week after that, Harper sat out three straight games — this time with a right hamstring strain — and returned on June 28.

Despite the two hamstring-induced starts and stops, the prognosis on Harper’s health remains positive, and he’s been an absolute monster when he’s been in the lineup. In the 56 plate appearances since that initial strain, he’s hit three homers and six doubles and posted a .340/.446/.660 line. With apologies to Paul Goldschmidt, Todd Frazier, and everyone else, this one isn’t particularly close: Harper has been the clear first-half NL MVP, and it’s his award to lose as we move forward.

I’ll tell you how I got to thinking about this debate.  I was talking to a friend of mine about it, and he said that Harper was the unquestioned MVP.  (His name is Danny Blomster, he’s a sabermetric genius, and you can check out his blog here.)  Anyhow, I championed the argument for Goldschmidt, beings that he is on a worse team and, while he hits in a better lineup than Harper, hits for a starting rotation whose best pitcher this season has been Robbie Ray.  My friend pulled out some sabermetric stats that supported the case for Harper, like his slugging percentage, OPS, and others.  So I looked at Goldschmidt and Harper, side-by-side, sabermetrically.  Here’s what I found.

Harper has a slightly higher on-base percentage (.471) than Goldschmidt (.466). If you take into account a stat called wOBA (weighted on-base average), Harper really begins to separate himself, as his wOBA is .490 to Goldy’s .452.  However, wOBA does not take into account intentional walks and stolen bases, and this is important. Goldschmidt has nineteen intentional walks to The Chosen One’s eight; the former’s total is tops in baseball.  Pitchers do not want to pitch to him, and that is why he has been intentionally walked so much.  Goldschmidt also has sixteen stolen bases to The Phenom’s four; he is trying to create runs for his team.

Many are voting for Harper based on his all around game.  That and the fact that he, you know, murders baseballs:

For most baseball fans, watching Bryce Harper play baseball is more aesthetically pleasing than watching Paul Goldschmidt play.  Fair enough; you get more home runs, and therefore more entertainment, out of watching Harper play.

However, another crucial advantage Goldschmidt has over Harper is in BABIP (Batting average on Balls in Play).  Goldschmidt’s .402 easily eclipses Harper’s .377.  For context, the average BABIP in the majors is .297, which means that the MVP candidates are really, really good. What does this mean?  It means Goldschmidt is a better pure hitter than Harper.  Luck does not play a role here, as Goldschmidt’s BABIP has been higher than Harper’s every year since 2012, Harper’s first in the league.  The sample size is plenty large enough.

Another interesting area of the debate is the K% (strikeout rate) and BB% (walk rate) of each player.  Goldschimdt wins here, but only slightly.  His K% is 19%, which is fractionally better than Harper’s 19.9 K%.  Both of those are actually around the league average of 20.1%, so both players are middle-of-the-road is this statistic.  Harper wins in BB% (19% to Goldschmidt’s 18.2%), but neither stat distinguishes one player as being better than the other.

Then there is the area of the game that can’t (or can) be quantified: coming up clutch.  As former Miami and NFL wide receiver Santana Moss once eloquently stated, “Big time players make big time plays in big time games.”

It’s no different in baseball.  With the presence of advanced stats in all sports, many have begun debunking the notion of “clutch”. However, whether you like it or not, it exists, as Russell Carleton of Fox’s “Just a Bit Outside” wrote last August:

Let’€™s clear a few things up. Clutch is not a result of having superior moral character, notwithstanding the plot of every sports movie. It is also not a guarantee that a hitter will always come through. My contention is a much more reserved one. Clutch is likely some combination of ability to deal with pressure combined with some particular change in approach, whether conscious or unconscious, that results in slight variations from what we might otherwise expect. For some, that change makes a hitter better and in some it makes him worse.

These analyses may not completely prove that clutch ability exists, but they do lay what I hope is a foundation for how we might continue the search. “€œClutch”€ is a way of saying that the situation matters because players are human. What we have here is an indicator that has reasonable (if not great) consistency across years, and it explains differences between players in how leverage affects them. More searching might find something with more consistency. Even then, year-to-year consistency is not the only way to establish that a measure is reflective of a player’€™s true talent level. Using a more tracking-based approach might help. Players can and do change, even within a season. There’€™s no reason clutch needs to be an enduring trait, rather than a state we can detect with some reliability. The rest is simply showing that the factor, whatever it is, can explain some of the differences between players’€™ performances in different leverage situations.

Clutch is actually a stat.  It is not one that can be sutained over time or predicted in the future, but it does well to describe a player’s past performance.  According to the Fangraphs.com version of the stat, Goldschmidt’s clutch rating in 2015 is 0.7, which, according to the site, is “above average”.  Meanwhile, Harper’s clutch rating is -1.41, and that is considered “poor”.  These numbers are not presented in the spirit that they will not change, but they have been telling through the first half of the season.  For context, the top two clutch hitters of all time, according to Fangraphs, are Tony Gwynn and Pete Rose; one of these players is in the Hall of Fame, and the other should be.  The third most statistically clutch hitter ever?  Scott Fletcher, a .262 career hitting middle infielder who played for six different teams over a 16-year career.  Clutch is not perfect, but it could be that stat that thinks that Jhonny Peralta is a better defensive shortstop than Andrelton Simmons.

Goldschmidt can also be considered a clutch player without statistical assistance, as SBNation Diamondbacks blog AZ Snake Pit writes:

It seems like every time the Diamondbacks need a little something extra, or a clutch hit, he’s there to deliver. The list of pitchers he’s traumatized is too long for this article, but even Tim Lincecum in his prime was no match.

And that ultimately is why Paul Goldschmidt is so weird: most of the time he’s not doing anything, maybe just hitting into a routine out or just hanging out at first base, but then he turns it on when it matters and BAM. Diamondbacks win. There is literally not comp for this type of player, because there is literally no other player that has ever done this, especially in baseball.

Isn’t it weird that a player would have a lot of mundane moments punctuated by moments of pure exhilaration? I’ve literally never seen that, have you???

Goldschmidt wins this category.  By a lot.  While clutch can be a volatile statistic, it does well to describe his performance this season, especially in comparison to Harper.  While clutch has its ups and downs, it does well here: it describes Goldschmidt as more of a clutch hitter than Harper.

Okay, so we’re now finished with the sabermatics sabermetrics of this debate.

Anyway, this discussion, as you can already tell, is extremely complicated.  Harper’s team has done better this season, record-wise (three games up on the Mets in the woeful NL East) , but it’s hard to argue that the Diamondbacks would be where they are right now (42-42) without Goldschmidt.  While Harper’s slugging percentage, OPS, and on-base percentage are better than Goldschmidt’s, I’m giving Goldschmidt the advantage.  The advantage for all of the above listed reasons, as well as a very simple one: the acronym MVP stands for “Most Valuable Player”.  If the award was for “Most Outstanding Player”, Harper would be the clear-cut winner.  But Goldschmidt has been more valuable for his team this season, and the stats demonstrate that.

Goldschmidt has the edge here.

All stats courtesy of fangraphs.com

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