First Pitch: Who is the Pirates’ MVP So Far?

As the playoff race heats up, there will be three big topics that Pittsburgh Pirates fans will be discussing over the final month.

1. Forget this amazing playoff race! Let’s focus on whether Russell Martin will return in the off-season.

2. My doctor said I can only watch public access TV because the Pirates’ bullpen does horrible things for my blood pressure.

3. (Insert Player Here) is the MVP.

That third one is what we’ll focus on today, mostly because I’ve written a lot on the other two. The MVP race is not an easy one to decide. There are three top candidates, led by the reigning NL MVP, Andrew McCutchen. The MVP vote always leads to about 15 definitions of the word “valuable”, which means that your pick is going to be determined by what you consider “valuable.” Here are the top three contenders, along with the arguments for and the arguments against each player’s MVP candidacy.

Andrew McCutchen

The Argument For: McCutchen is one of the best players in baseball. So naturally he’d be the best player on the team. In fact, he is the best player on the team, with a 5.0 WAR. Russell Martin is at 4.3 and Josh Harrison is at 3.6. This is about as straight forward as you can get.

The Argument Against: There are two problems here, although neither are issues with McCutchen. The first problem is the loose definition that surrounds the word “valuable.” Each year that leads to a “best player vs most valuable player” debate. Which means that in some cases, the guy who is the best on the team can somehow miss out on the most valuable, mostly due to arbitrary conditions used by the voter. If you’re wondering who is the most valuable, just ask yourself this: what would happen if that player went down for the season? There is no question that McCutchen would get the biggest reaction.

Josh Harrison

The Argument For: Harrison is having a great season. It’s totally unexpected, and he has come up big when the Pirates needed an injury replacement. His ability to play multiple positions has allowed him to step up when Travis Snider was struggling, when Pedro Alvarez was struggling, and when Neil Walker and Starling Marte went down with injuries. His solid play at every position has helped ease the pain of multiple injuries and struggles around the field.

The Argument Against: He’s not the best player on the team. He’s not even the second best. In fact, Harrison is closer to Starling Marte’s value than he is Russell Martin’s value, and he doesn’t come close to McCutchen. Harrison is having a good season as a Super Utility player. But this kind of rewards Harrison for providing unexpected value, and punishes Andrew McCutchen for living up to the expectations of being an MVP. This is one of the arbitrary cases I referred to above. Harrison is having a good season, and has been valuable for the Pirates. But because that’s a better story than “Andrew McCutchen is an MVP, just like we thought he would be”, then it artificially elevates Harrison’s value. It’s like going to a nice restaurant and looking forward to a great entree, and then they have a salad for the first course that you weren’t expecting big things from, but which turned out to be great. The entree was amazing, as expected (I’m envisioning steak, but that’s just me), but the big surprise was the salad, and it made the overall meal that much better. But in no way was the salad the best part of the meal. In fact, if the restaurant only had the salad, and didn’t have the steak, they probably wouldn’t even be in business.

Russell Martin

The Argument For: Martin doesn’t match McCutchen’s value for WAR, but he’s close. And if you consider the extra value he brings from blocking and pitch framing, and add that value to his WAR, then he passes McCutchen. Martin also brings value by elevating the pitching staff with those skills, and also doing great work with managing the pitching staff. He’s also providing all of this value in fewer games. If you look at WAR/150 games, Martin would be at 7.5 and McCutchen would be at 6.5. That doesn’t include the extra value from pitch framing. Martin won’t play that much, but this is just to illustrate the value he can bring despite less playing time.

The Argument Against: A lot of the defensive stats for catchers are either hard to quantify, or raise questions about how they’re quantified, due to being early in the process. For example, we don’t really know the value of Martin’s work with the pitching staff, or his value calling pitches. We’ve got a better idea of his value framing and blocking pitches, but that’s still in the early stages. I don’t want to say that the lack of playing time hurts him, because that would mean no catcher could ever be the MVP, and that shouldn’t be true.

Who is the MVP?

McCutchen is still the MVP in my mind. If McCutchen went down, people would panic. If Harrison went down, it would be a big loss with the way he is playing, but I don’t think it would signal the same doom and gloom that McCutchen’s loss would bring. Martin is the only guy who comes close to McCutchen. In fact, you could make a strong argument that Martin is the MVP if you’re a big believer in the value a catcher can bring with his defense. There’s still another month left in the season, which could drastically change things. To wrap this up by taking the easy way out, I’ll just say that it’s great for the Pirates’ playoff chances to have three players who are playing so well.

Links and Notes

**The 2014 Prospect Guide is on sale in the Pirates Prospects store. The paperback version has dropped to $14.99 plus shipping. We currently only have one case of books remaining, and the offer is only valid while the books are in stock. There is also an eBook version available for $9.99. The 2013 Prospect Guide is on clearance for $1.

**Prospect Watch: Andrew Lambo Hits Sixth Homer in Last Seven Games

**Elias Diaz Emerging as a Top Catching Prospect in the Pirates System

**Josh Bell Discusses His Move to First Base and His Knee Injury

**Morning Report: Former First Baseman Turns His Season Around on the Mound

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • Dom DiDominic

    Locke: "Russ [Martin] was on top of his game again today. I know I throw it, but I feel like he does most of the work."— David Manel (@DavidManel) August 27, 2014

    Locke summing up some of Martin’s value.

  • Scott Kliesen

    Thankfully, this is a legitimate debate. I say thankfully, because when one considers the Pirates have the reigning NL MVP, and he is having a similar year statistically, it’s quite a statement they have two others who are on par with Cutch.

    I love the steak and salad analogy, and I believe it’s right on the money. Harrison is easily the most improved player on team, but he’s not more valuable than Cutch or Russ.

    I give the nod to Cutch by the slimmest of margins. His presence in the middle of the lineup is the engine which drives the offensive production of this team. He is the most consistent player on the team and is the unquestioned “Super Star” on and off the field.

    I shudder to think where this team would be without Cutch.

    • emjayinTN

      SK: Agree – ‘Cutch, Russell Martin, Josh Harrison, but let’s not forget Neil Walker has had an excellent year especially when you discount for an injury that a player cannot avoid such as an emergency appendectomy, or Marte with concussion-like symptoms from getting hit. And, how many game winning HR’s in one week from our staff at 1B – is there some sort of record we should be shooting for? And, not MVP stuff, but the contributions of Jeff Locke and Vance Worley when our Rotation was decimated, is a good reason why we are still in the mix going down the stretch . . .Watson and Melancon have also stepped up. And, again in 2014, Ray Searage and Clint Hurdle have worked overtime keeping our pitching staff together and moving in the right direction. If we can go down the stretch with Liriano, Cole, and Charlie Morton throwing like we know he is capable, this team is as strong as any fighting for the NL Central or a WC slot.

  • R Edwards

    Clearly, McCutchen is still the Pirates best player – and his absence for a 2-3 week stretch really hurt. But, I have to say, I think Harrison is their MVP this year.

    • Newmie

      I can’t remember if it was on the radio or the TV broadcast, but one of the guys mentioned they were told that most players would be done for the year with the injury Cutch has. You can see he is in pain. The morning guy on The Fan said that Cutch and Martin would most likely be out of the lineup for very obvious reasons. They were both in there when they both had legitimate reasons to sit. That is how you lead a team. Cutch will receive more votes on the team, but the last two years coincide with Martin’s arrival. I’ll ride the fence and say co-MVP. Take either out of the lineup and this would not be a .500 team. Please sign Martin. Now

  • Lee Young

    Personally, I don’t care….I am just happy we have all 3!!!

  • Lee Young

    Prediction: some team (it only takes one) will blow us out of the water on Russell. But, I hope we at least have the good sense to QO him and at least get a draft pick out of it.

    • stickyweb

      Lee, I am 98% certain they’ll QO him and I’ll be furious if they don’t. I agreed with the decision to not QO AJ, and won’t open that can of worms here, but with Russ, it’s literally a no lose situation. The best case may actually be him accepting the QO, which I put at less than 1% chance. The Bucs get him for one year at about $15 mil and Elias has a year to develop at AAA and hopefully in the Burgh ffrom July on. Next best case is the loss of a draft pick scares a couple teams off and he signs long term with the Bucs, which probably has about 10-15% chance of happening. Really the only way is if he likes his experience in Pittsburgh enough and realizes an extra $10 mil or so in LA or CHI only covers the higher cost of living. TEX with no income tax and reasonable cost of living may be our nemesis here. That brings us to the 85-90% chance he signs somewhere else, and the Bucs get the next Connor Joe out of the deal. Or hopefully someone a little more exciting.

      • piraddict

        Your scenario is probably what will happen Sticky. But I am hopeful that the Pirates will dig deep, sign Russ to a long term contract, and then trade him after two years, for what should still be valuable return.

        • stickyweb

          Oh that’s definitely what I’m rooting for. That the Johnson, AJ and Loney deals all fell through for karmic reasons and there’s enough $$ to actually sign Russ. I didn’t even consider the possibility of trading him, but hopefully that allows NH to go a 4th year (which I think the market will offer) and pray he gets 2 good years out of it and he’s able to trade him. Even marginal prospects at that point would be worth just getting rid of his big contract as his enters his mid 30s.

      • emjayinTN

        Who is Conner Joe – is that the 2014 model of Sidd Finch? Is there some sort of investigation going on regarding the scouting information on this kid? Last I looked, Bryan Morris was having an excellent year since being traded. I know we were trying to get more bonus money, but there were some solid players drafted after this phantom, and we still ended up paying him slot money if I am not mistaken – a total bust! A relative of someone in the org?

        • stickyweb

          B-Ref doesn’t have a single stat on his page!!! Except his middle name is Kok-Wy, so insert your own joke here. I remember hearing he got hurt, but I thought he played a few games at some point. Guess not.

    • gregenstein

      At least if they QO him, they can say they did everything they could.

      I could very easily see him back in Chavez Ravine. Just too easy of a match…the new Yankee-esqe team in off season spending signing the best available catcher for money nobody else would dare spend. Just seems far too likely, draft pick be damned.

  • piraddict

    This is Cutch’s team. He knows that and I think that’s why he is playing through pain. The Pirates didn’t do well when either Cutch or Russ was out. But to properly evaluate who is more valuable to a team you have to also consider who they are replaced with. In Cutch’s case that’s Marte, in Russ’s case it’s Stewart. In my mind the drop off is greater from Russ to Stewart than from Cutch to Marte. So even though Cutch is the better player, the MVP nod goes to Martin. Jay Hay is valuable because of his high motor and 100% effort, which makes him a fan favorite and a great example for his teammates. Since JH’s replacement at 3B is either Alvarez, Barmes or Morel (all close to abysmal choices for different reasons) I think that the ultimate choice tor Pirate’s MVP has to be Jay Hay, even though he is the least productive of the three candidates. Odd reasoning I know, but you have to consider context. It’s great to be able to watch all three of them!

  • bucsws2014

    Record in starts:
    Cutch: 62-55 .530
    Josh: 49-41 .544
    Russ: 47-37 .560

    CERA is pretty useless when comparing catchers on different teams, but it’s somewhat useful here – same park, same pitchers (OK, Tony had to catch Wandy’s starts, but still).

    Russ: 3.61
    Chris: 3.97
    Tony: 4.01

    That said, I’m still going Cutch as he’s played 117 games vs. Russ’s 84. But if Russ had gone 100 games with the same relative numbers, he’d be my choice.

  • smurph

    Andrew McCutchen.

    • freddylang

      A lot of Pirates are having great seasons but Cutch is the MVP. I think any player on the team would say that also.

  • John Lease

    WAR evidently means the end of independent thought. Since it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, why can there be any debate? It’s Martin, and the evidence you need is seeing how the team did without him.