By: Anthony Del Fiacco
When it comes to MVP voting, conventional wisdom advises you hold two biases: one towards players whose teams make the postseason, and another towards every-day position players.
It is not difficult to see the reasoning behind these biases, nor is it difficult to see how they relate. The goal in all sports is to win the championship, and you have to make the playoffs first to do that. So, when deciding who the “most valuable player” is among the league’s best performers, special attention will be given to the ones whose efforts made the biggest difference between their team playing into October and their team getting an early start to its winter.
As flawed as it is to judge an individual performer based on their team’s success, in baseball—which consists of a series of individual plays, and wherein overall team performance is additive—you can still make a sound argument that a single player can carry his team. This leads us to the bias towards batters in MVP voting. In theory, a pitcher who plays 30+ games per year cannot impact his team’s season the way a starter in one of the other eight positions can in 120+ games played.
So here’s a question: where would every-day players who are traded midseason, and who then help their new teams punch their playoff tickets, fit into this MVP discussion? Fans of the New York Mets, and outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, would have you believe that answer is “on the final ballot.” But for those who know their history, the answer is “they don’t.” No midseason acquisition has ever been named league MVP. Manny Ramirez and Shannon Stewart, two recent examples of position players who galvanized their new teams into October (Ramirez for the Dodgers in 2008, Stewart for the Twins in ’03), both finished fourth in their respective races.
There’s no denying the splash Cespedes has made through his first month and a half in Queens. Since his Mets debut on August 1, the Cuba native has raked the ball to the tune of a .308/.353/.680 slash line, with 16 home runs and 41 RBIs in 40 games. The Mets have rocketed up the NL East standings in that same span, from one game behind first-place Washington on Cespedes’ first day, to 9.5 games above the Nationals as of Monday night. A cursory look at the standings, and Cespedes’ stats, would have you believe the 29 year-old slugger deserves at least some consideration for the Senior Circuit’s premier individual award. That the leading MVP candidate for most of the season, Bryce Harper, plays for those aforementioned, floundering Nationals might even strengthen your argument.
Well, you’re wrong on both accounts. Bryce Harper is still the only correct choice for MVP, and it’s not even close. Furthermore, the same argument the Cespedes camp tries to make for his case—that he carried his team into contention—not only applies to Harper, but it’s more apt in the Washington slugger’s case.
While Cespedes has been clutch for New York, people seem to forget he hasn’t been the only Met hammering the ball since the trade deadline. The past six weeks in Flushing Meadows have also seen major offensive contributions from Travis d’Arnaud (.303/.387/.588, 8 HR, 19 RBI, 169 wRC+), Daniel Murphy (.271/.302/.447, 6 HR, 33 RBI, 100 wRC+), Wilmer Flores (.291/.325/.462, 6 HR, 21 RBI, 117 wRC+), and…well, everybody. The Mets have led all teams in runs (287), homers (81), and slugging percentage (.492) since July 25. And although Cespedes has already accumulated a 2.3 WAR (Baseball Reference) in his brief stint in New York, that amount is only what separates the Mets from their current place to a still-commanding 6.5-game division lead.
What Bryce Harper has accomplished in a full season with Washington, meanwhile, has not only meant more to his team: it has been downright historic. Forget his ridiculous .333/.464/.652 slash line and 37 home runs. (Those stats respectively rank 2nd, 1st, 1st, and 5th in the majors.) Harper’s 199 OPS+, an offensive stat that adjusts for park and era, is the highest mark anyone has achieved since Barry Bonds’ mammoth 2004 season. That Harper has reached that total in only his age-22 season, while playing home games in a pitcher’s park, is a testament to how groundbreaking his 2015 campaign has been.
Yes, Washington has almost zero chance (0.3% per Baseball Prospectus) of making the playoffs. If you hold that first bias towards players on October-bound teams, this is what probably tempts you to consider Cespedes. But no one who has followed the Nationals’ injury-riddled, disappointing season would think to blame Harper for it. Take away his majors-leading 8.7 WAR (per FanGraphs), and the Nats suddenly go from an above-.500 team struggling to stay alive to a hopeless also-ran.
Yoenis Cespedes was a terrific pickup for the Mets, probably the best made by any team this calendar year. And because the New York media is the New York media, he is sure to receive a sizeable amount of votes. But even in a full season’s work with the Mets, the chances he would replicate what Harper has put out since April are slim to none.