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.
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.
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.
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.