The best MVPs of the 21st century: NL Edition

By Robert Banas

Welcome to playoff baseball 2019! The college kids of M-SABR are back in school, balls are flying out of stadiums faster than any other time in history—Justin Verlander may well have had the best season of all time if the balls weren’t juiced—and the dust, barely settled from the excitement of the September playoff chase, is being kicked up even more furiously as the remaining teams compete for a title. With the end of the regular season comes the playoffs, and soon after that come the awards. Before the winners of two very close—and exciting—MVP races are ultimately announced, why don’t we rank former MVPs since the start of this century first? I will rank MVPs from the NL, then the AL, and then combine them and compare both leagues since 2000. Note, I will only be comparing position player MVPs. Therefore, we won’t be seeing Justin Verlander’s 2011 AL MVP season on the AL list, nor will we see Clayton Kershaw’s 2014 campaign in the National League. This article will simply be the NL, with the AL coming next, and the combined list will arrive soon after.

Note~ all statistics used come from FanGraphs

The methodology behind this article and the MVP score

Since M-SABR is a sabermetric club, I will be using WAR, wRC+, wOBA, BsR, and DEF sabermetrics to be ranking these players. Here is a quick description of each statistic, taken from the FanGraphs glossary, if you aren’t familiar with them.

WAR-Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is an attempt by the sabermetric baseball community to summarize a player’s total contributions to their team in one statistic.”

WAR= (Batting Runs + Baserunning Runs + Fielding Runs + Positional Adjustment + League Adjustment + Replacement Runs) / (Runs Per Win)

wRC+

wOBA- “Weighted On-Base Average combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value. While batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage fall short in accuracy and scope, wOBA measures and captures offensive value more accurately and comprehensively.”

In short, not all hits are created equal.

DEF- Fielding Runs Above Average + positional adjustment (about 9-10 runs= 1 win for WAR- league average is 0)

BsR- This stat isessentially baserunning runs a player contributes above average, described as “the combination of Weighted Stolen Base Runs (wSB), Weighted Grounded into Double Play Runs (wGDP), and Ultimate Base Running (UBR)”

Methodology

Each player will be ranked using these stats, and their rank from each category will be added up to accumulate a raw score (the MVP score). For example, if a player had the best WAR, wRC+, wOBA, BsR, and DEF statistics (1st in every category), then their MVP score would be 5 (1+1+1+1+1). Hence, the player with the lowest score wins and has thus had the best MVP season since 2000 and is the GOAT of the 21st century. This ranking system, due to the addition of DEF and BsR, should hurt one-dimensional players like Justin Morneau and help 5-tool players like Mike Trout. This may be a fairly elementary way to rank these players, but it is a fun way to evaluate a player based on hitting, fielding, and baserunning. I’m basically trying to find the best 5-tool MVP player while still valuing hitting as the most important attribute of a player. Hitting is still the most weighted category, as I’ve included two hitting statistics (wRC+ for the hit tool and wOBA for the power tool) compared to just one apiece for defense (fielding and arm-strength) and baserunning (speed). WAR is also included, which accounts for a little bit of everything. For better results (possibly a new article in the future) the statistics should be weighted a little further. For example, in the NL, Buster Posey is ranked first in the DEF category at 38.7 with Jimmy Rollins coming in second at 10. That’s a difference of 28.7. If you take out Posey and add up every other MVP’s DEF score, you get -50.2! This shows how insane Posey was defensively, yet with my MVP score he only gets a slight advantage over Rollins. This shows that the MVP score is slightly flawed, but when compared to WAR rankings, it is still fairly accurate. Shall we get started?

#18 Ryan Howard 2006~ MVP Score: 73

  • WAR Rank: 18th 
  • wRC+: 13th 
  • wOBA: 9th
  • DEF: 18th 
  • BsR: 15th

The worst MVP since 2000 is Ryan Howard. This last place finish is pretty surprising, considering the man’s 58 home runs and 149 RBIs that year! However, when you realize he came in last place for WAR and DEF, this result becomes less shocking. A 15th place finish in BsR didn’t help his cause much either. His wOBA seems like it should be higher, but the guy basically either hit a home run or a single—leading him to finish in the middle of the pack for this category. Together, singles and homers combined for 86% of Howard’s hits in 2006! 54% of them were singles and 32% of his hits were moonshot home runs.

#17 Giancarlo Stanton 2017~ MVP Score: 66

  • WAR Rank: 14th 
  • wRC+: 14th 
  • wOBA: 14th
  • DEF: 8th 
  • BsR: 16th

The next worst MVP from the NL since 2000 is Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton actually edged out Howard’s home run total by 1 home run, but the big power numbers only translated to a ranking of 14th for total wRC+ and wOBA. Even though Stanton is injury prone, as a Tigers fan, I still cannot sleep some nights knowing the Tigers could have had traded him for Nicholas Castellanos and Jacob Turner instead of seeing him suit up in the pinstripes he wears today.

#16 Jeff Kent 2000~ MVP Score: 59

  • WAR Rank: 13th 
  • wRC+: 15th 
  • wOBA: 11th
  • DEF: 6th 
  • BsR: 14th

The MVP of my birth year, Kent wasn’t very bad or great in every category, leading him to a poor finish of 16th place. This was undoubtedly the best season of Kent’s solid career, one in which he finished with 56 WAR. One has to wonder if his career high BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of .357 in 2000 had anything to do with this great, peak season.

#15 Jimmy Rollins 2007~ MVP Score: 56

  • WAR Rank: 17th 
  • wRC+: 18th 
  • wOBA: 18th
  • DEF: 2nd 
  • BsR: 1st

Coming in next on the list is the speedster Jimmy Rollins. Rollins had an outstanding season in 2007. He hit 30 dingers, stole 41 bases, smashed 38 doubles, and most impressively, even had 20 triples! It comes to no surprise that he finished #1 in the BsR rankings. A second-place finish in DEF also shot him up the list. Without this, he would have finished dead last due to his being at the bottom of both hitting categories (wRC+ and wOBA). Only his former MVP teammate Ryan Howard has a worse WAR.

#14 Ryan Braun 2011~ MVP Score: 56

  • WAR Rank: 15th 
  • wRC+: 9th 
  • wOBA: 12th
  • DEF: 16th 
  • BsR: 4th

Braun and Rollins technically tied with an MVP score of 56 each. However, since Rollins finished last in 2 categories (and second to last in WAR as well), I had to give the edge to Braun. Ryan had a solid all-around season with 33 homers, 33 steals, and a batting average of .332 (would have been cooler if it was .333). His DEF hurt him a lot in these rankings. If he sticks with the Brew Crew, Braun will still be retired as a legendary Brewers player one day.

#13 Joey Votto 2010~ MVP Score: 55

  • WAR Rank: 16th 
  • wRC+: 8th 
  • wOBA: 8th
  • DEF: 14th 
  • BsR: 9th

It’s really hard to dislike Joey Votto. He’s probably the only player that plays for an Ohio team that I’ve ever respected (Yes, this is a direct shot at you LeBron). Before 2019, the guy had only hit 9 pop outs since 2011. Anyone with a swing so level to produce only a little over one infield pop out per year deserves respect. The only knock on Votto is that he isn’t that great of a fielder. If he were an above average fielder, I believe he would have been up for MVP debates for many other seasons in his prime.

#12 Christian Yelich 2018~ MVP Score: 53

  • WAR Rank: 12th 
  • wRC+: 11th 
  • wOBA: 13th
  • DEF: 12th 
  • BsR: 5th

Yelich is currently probably my favorite player in baseball (everyone in M-SABR loves him too). With a pretty swing and a big smile, there is no doubt why he is a fan favorite in baseball. A 12th place finish on this list isn’t too shabby either. Even better, he might win back-to-back MVP awards if he can out-hit Cody Bellinger the rest of the season. Yelich hit 36 home runs in 147 games in 2018, and at the time of writing this article, through 97 games, he already has as many bombs. It will be fun to see where he ends up at the end of 2019, and to see if his 2019 season ranks higher than his 2018 campaign.

#11 Albert Pujols 2005~ MVP Score: 50

  • WAR Rank: 11th 
  • WRC+: 10th 
  • wOBA: 10th
  • DEF: 13th 
  • BsR: 6th

This is the first installment of Mr. Pujols on this list. The funny thing? His best ranking was in baserunning this year. He did have 16 SB (a career high) and he did lead the league in runs scored in 2005, so I guess it kinda makes sense. An overall very good year, Pujols won ESPY awards for best MLB player and best International athlete in his first MVP season. Like Miguel Cabrera, it is said to see that his career is being tarnished by his play in old age.

#10 Andrew McCutchen 2013~ MVP Score: 50

  • WAR Rank: 9th 
  • wRC+: 16th 
  • wOBA: 17th
  • DEF: 5th 
  • BsR: 3rd

Welcome to the top 10! Cutch tied 2005 Pujols with an MVP score of 50. However, since Pujols is featured two more times on this list in the near future, we will give the edge to Andrew. Similar to Jimmy Rollins, the best categories of McCutchen’s 2013 MVP campaign came from speed and fielding. Stealing 27 bases helped his ranking leading to a third-place finish in BsR. According to wRC+, Cutch was a 37% better hitter than Rollins 156-119), but this only cut Andrew 2 points of his MVP score. If you added 37 to Cutch’s WRC+ (156+37=193), he would have finished 6th in wRC+ ranking. This again shows how these statistics should be weighted into a formula (this is basically what WAR does). McCutchen’s bad wOBA ranking comes from the fact that about two out of 3 of his hits were singles.

#9 Buster Posey 2012~ MVP Score: 49

  • WAR Rank: 4th 
  • wRC+: 12th 
  • wOBA: 15th
  • DEF: 1st 
  • BsR: 17th

Not going to lie, Buster Posey kind of got screwed in these rankings. He had the biggest difference in rank by MVP score and WAR rank at 5 spots (4th in WAR, 9th in MVP score). Frankly, BsR killed him. He finished second last in this category dropping him far down the list. Expecting a catcher to be an outstanding baserunner is kind of an unfair task. They basically have no knees, so the bad BsR makes sense. The reason Posey’s WAR rank is much higher than this MVP score rank is because of defense. His DEF rank is #1 by far. As mentioned in the beginning, Posey ranked first in the DEF category at 38.7 with Jimmy Rollins coming in second at 10—a difference of 28.7 runs saved. He saved so many runs with elite DEF that he is the only player on this list that accumulated a higher WAR than Barry Bonds in an MVP season.

#8 Kris Bryant 2016~ MVP Score: 48

  • WAR Rank: 10th 
  • wRC+: 17th 
  • wOBA: 16th
  • DEF: 3rd 
  • BsR: 2nd

If you compare the rankings, Kris Bryant and Andrew McCutchen’s MVP seasons are extremely similar, with regards to the MVP score. However, the bare statistics are kind of different. Bryant mashed 39 dingers compared to Cutch’s 21 and still had a lower sRC+. McCutchen stole 27 bases compared to Bryant’s 8, and Bryant still had a better BsR statistic. These numbers show that sabermetrics show a very different ball game compared to people who analyze baseball by the simple eye test and triple crown stats.

#7 Albert Pujols 2009~ MVP Score: 47

  • WAR Rank: 8th 
  • wRC+: 7th 
  • wOBA: 7th
  • DEF: 7th 
  • BsR: 18th

In 2005, BsR was Pujols’ top ranking. In 2009? He had the worst BsR of all MVPs, even though he stole the same number of bases as he did in 2005 (16). He provided a net 13.7 more runs in 2005 than he did in 2009. Aside from that, Pujols was above average in every other category. He hit 47 homers this year, which was a career high, and had the second most RBIs of his career with 135.

#6 Albert Pujols 2008~ MVP Score: 39

  • WAR Rank: 7th  
  • wRC+: 6th 
  • wOBA: 6th
  • DEF: 9th 
  • BsR: 11th

The last Pujols MVP season. But was it truly his best? Based on WAR compared to his other MVP years, yes, it was. However, if Barry Bonds and his definitely not steroid-inflated stats (and head) didn’t exist, we would be arguing that Pujols’ 2003 season was clearly his best as Pujols would likely win a 4th MVP award that year. His DEF was worse in 2003 and wRC+ was the same, but his WAR wOBA and BsR in 2003 were even better than this awesome 2008 campaign. In the end, it doesn’t really matter as he will still be a legendary HOF player.

#5 Bryce Harper 2015~ MVP Score: 38

  • WAR Rank: 6th 
  • wRC+: 5th 
  • wOBA: 5th
  • DEF: 15th 
  • BsR: 7th

Bryce Harper had the second-best MVP campaign for a player in the the NL since 2000 next to Barry Bonds. Wait, what? According to the MVP score, yes he did. According to WAR, this award would go to Buster Posey. Digging into the numbers, wRC+ specifically, Harper was 97% better than a league average hitter in 2015. Clearly impressive. He also had an outstanding wOBA (.461) due to the fact that he hit 42 bombs and walked 19% of the time! Both of the wOBA and wRC+ statistics were ranked second only to Bonds’ juiced seasons. Even though he only stole 6 bases in 2015, he also ranked above average in BsR coming in at 7th. If Bryce was a good defender, and ranked 3rd or higher in DEF, he would have had the GOAT season since 2000 according to the MVP score.

#4 Barry Bonds 2004~ MVP Score: 32

  • WAR Rank: 3rd 
  • wRC+: 3rd 
  • wOBA: 3rd
  • DEF: 11th 
  • BsR: 12th

Say what you want about the steroid usage, but Barry Bonds may well be the best hitter of all time. Here is a mind-blowing stat about Bonds in 2004: he reached base safely 376 times this year… in 373 at bats. This gave him an on-base percentage of .609, which when coupled with his prodigious slugging percentage (wonder how he got that) gave him an astounding 1.422 OPS… I would bet my house that there will never be another season or player that can accomplish an offensive feat like this.

#3 Barry Bonds 2001~ MVP Score: 31

  • WAR Rank: 2nd 
  • wRC+: 2nd 
  • wOBA: 2nd
  • DEF: 17th 
  • BsR: 8th

I know what you’re thinking. “THIS LIST IS TRASH! BONDS HIT 73 HOME RUNS IN 2001! IT’S THE GREATEST SEASON OF ALL TIME!” I’d probably have to agree with you on that one (kinda). There is no doubt we will never see another season like this one. The only reason that this season isn’t number one is because of Bonds’ defense this season. He ranked second to last in the defensive rankings for the MVP’s which hurt his score substantially. As you can see, even though Bonds was 135% better than an average hitter in 2001, he still had the second-best WAR coming in at 12.5.

#2 Barry Bonds 2003~ MVP Score: 27

  • WAR Rank: 5th 
  • wRC+: 4th 
  • wOBA: 4th
  • DEF: 4th 
  • BsR: 10th

Now this one is truly a surprise. Bonds didn’t even break 100 RBIs in 2003 (only had 90). He didn’t even come close to the 73 home runs he mashed back in 2001 (45). The thing that bolstered Bonds’ MVP score the most in 2003 was his DEF ranking. Bonds’ DEF ranking went from 17th in 2001 to 4th in 2003. Those 13 points deducted from his MVP score sure went a long way. Although this was another great season for Bonds, it surely wasn’t his best.

#1 Barry Bonds 2002~ MVP Score: 26

  • WAR Rank: 1st 
  • wRC+: 1st 
  • wOBA: 1st
  • DEF: 10th 
  • BsR: 13th

Coming in at #1 for the best NL MVPs since 2000 is, you guessed it, Don Kelly.

Wait, that’s not right. I meant Barry Bonds. Specifically, Barry Bonds in 2002. Although his 2001 season is hyped up because of the dinger record, his 2002 season was even better. This legendary season ranked him first in wRC+ (244), wOBA (.544 along with a .582 OBP), and most importantly, WAR (12.7). The man had a 32.4% walk percentage and 7.7% strikeout percentage. He basically walked 4 times more than he struck out. Seasons like this are why Bonds’ 162.8 bWAR is ranked #1 all-time for hitters (fun fact, if you add Babe Ruth’s WAR to his hitting WAR, he’s the #1). If the whole steroid incident never occurred, people would actually be debating things like whether Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds were better. Even if Bonds did use steroids, he should still be a Hall of Famer. Steroids or not, being able to hit the ball even close to how Bonds did should be recognized.

Conclusion

Thanks for taking the time to read my article! I know may not the best or most accurate way to judge players, but this was a fun experiment and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. The AL list should be coming shortly, with the combined list finishing up this series. To finish, here are the MVP score rankings compared to WAR rankings. Only 4/18 were matched correctly, but many were one or a few rankings off.

MVP Score Ranking                                       WAR ranking

Bonds 2002 Bonds 2002
bonds2003 bonds2001
bonds2001 bonds2004
bonds2004 posey2012
bryce2015 bonds2003
Pujols2008 bryce2015
Pujols2009 Pujols2008
bryant2016 Pujols2009
posey2012 cutch2013
cutch2013 bryant2016
Pujols2005 Pujols2005
yelich2018 yelich2018
votto2010 kent2000
braun2011 stanton2017
rollins2007 braun2011
kent2000 votto2010
stanton2017 rollins2007
howard2006 howard2006

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