This is going to be one of those years when so much attention is paid to one awards race (the American League MVP, of course), we kind of forget there are other things going on. It’s too bad, because I think the National League race is a lot more interesting. The AL race is one we’ve been through before, almost every year lately -- sabermetrics guys vs. old-school guys, narrative vs. analytics, etc., etc. Kind of boring, really.
The NL, on the other hand? Up for grabs. The metrics all disagree over who’s on top, while agreeing on the same general group of guys in the running. Based on the more basic stats, Ryan Braun would be a shoo-in for his second straight, except, well, you know. You have to figure at this point that it’ll come down to Braun or Buster Posey, but if you’re like me and don’t care about RBI or the performance of the player’s team, you’ve also got to consider Andrew McCutchen, David Wright, Yadier Molina, and Jason Heyward, and you could certainly make room for a couple more (Chase Headley, perhaps?) as well.
With every bone in my contrarian, so-totally-tired-of-the-PED-witch-hunt body, I want to back Braun for it. It’s pretty amazing that, for all intents and purposes, he’s doing exactly what he did last year. A few more homers, a few fewer singles, but it’s uncanny.
I can’t do that, though, because I don’t think Braun’s been the most valuable player in the league this year. I think Gerald Dempsey “Buster” Posey has.
That’s the same Buster Posey about whom I got in a lot of trouble two years ago (and it’s a different site now than it was then, so the comments aren’t there, but you’ll have to take my word for it: there was trouble) for daring to suggest that Jason Heyward, not Posey, was the rookie of the year, and was the more special player. I still believe that, by the way -- I think there’s a good chance that, ten years from now, the idea that Heyward (still in the middle of his unbelievable prime at 32) could once have been considered to be on equal footing with Posey (winding down a borderline-Hall-of-Fame career at 35). For 2012, though, I think Posey is the guy.
Here’s a comprehensive (by my standards) look at what I see as the top four candidates, through Monday:
* Average of the three leading metrics -- UZR, DRS and FRAA for defense, fWAR, rWAR and WARP for “WAR.”
By this method, they all come out within a few runs of each other. I give the edge to Posey for basically one reason: defense.
I don’t believe anyone has figured out how to properly account for catcher defense yet. The catcher UZR equivalent that goes into fWAR, for instance, tracks (or attempts to track) only caught stealing success and ability to block pitches. There’s more to it than that. Matt Klaassen has attempted to show a much larger picture, and in that, Posey comes out as one of the better catchers in the league. Klaassen’s data is nearly two months old (he’ll be posting the final update sometime soon), and if you just extrapolate Buster’s 4.2 runs over the 45% of the season that remained to be played as of the last update, that gives Posey +6.1 runs above average as catcher. Now, all metrics agree that Posey’s play at first base has cost the Giants a run or two, so knock his total defensive contribution down to +4.1. That’s still a net change of 8 runs in Posey’s favor, or nearly one full win, putting him around 7.5 and atop the leaderboard above. If you’re like me, you might also doubt whether Braun has really improved from laughingstock to solidly above average in the field over the last two years or so, and adjust him downward a bit accordingly.
I also can’t shake the feeling that the various WAR systems aren’t entirely fair to catchers. They are given the biggest positional adjustment...but then the really good-hitting catchers, like Posey and Joe Mauer, give some of that back by being good enough that their teams DH them or put them at first base when they need a rest from catching. I don’t doubt that that’s more or less correct, from a pure run-value perspective -- I’m just not sure it’s appropriate to hold those outings against them in things like the MVP voting. They’re also going to put up a lower WAR simply because -- even if they do play first base now and then -- they can’t possibly play every single day. I’m not nearly as convinced that this should be a factor (the reason we tend to be down on relief pitchers is that they don’t have the opportunity to impact the game all that much -- isn’t this the same thing?), but it’s a thing I’ve been grappling with: I just can’t shake the feeling that we’re not quite capturing the full value of a really elite catcher like Posey.
So that’s where I stand right now. It’s close enough that a lot of things could happen to change my mind, and frankly, I could change my mind on a whim -- I could probably just as easily write a piece touting the case for Andrew McCutchen, who I’ve barely mentioned here at all. But I think catchers get a bum rap, I suspect Posey’s been better than WAR thinks, and for now, I’m firmly in (well...I’m in, anyway) the #MVPosey camp.