MVP Watch!

Unlike the previous “watches,” our MVP Watch will not include one player from each team in the west. Instead we single out the seven players—three from the National League and four from the American—who have the talent, and who, with a good season under the right set of circumstances, can conceivably get enough votes to win the award. If someone from the west wins MVP, we contend in the strongest possible terms that it will be one of these seven, but they are not necessarily the best seven players out west. That’s the gist of this list, so let’s get to it.

NL West

Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles
The next test for Clayton Kershaw is sustained dominance. That is why he just got capital-P Paid and that is what fans of excellence on the mound, people like myself, desire most. His talent is so great and he is still so young that a career with just one season atop the pitching world would be beneath him, an utter disappointment, though not necessarily his fault. Injuries will always take some of them too soon, I’m afraid.

The good thing is he’s got a physique to wrestle boars. And Jonah Keri described his competitive drive as “off-the-charts, crazy intense.” If he is the kind of guy who slides into pudginess after a big payday, there’s been no sign of it thus far. So with mind and body dedicated to his craft, Kershaw should only get better. That means more ERAs below 2.00, more seasons of 200 innings, with 200 strikeouts, more shutouts, more of A.J. Ellis dropping 2 fingers (the sign, of course, for Public Enemy No. 1), at least one dual Cy Young-MVP year, and maybe even the development of a third deadly offspeed pitch. Imagine Kershaw (and his numbers) with a fading changeup. I believe he could will himself to master it, do you? Who on Earth could tell him not to try? From Keri’s article:

For Kershaw, the Dodgers started a pool. If you’ve ever watched a Kershaw start, there’s a good chance you’ve seen an image of him on the bench between innings, his arm wrapped, cap tugged low over his eyes, a thousand-yard glare beaming out of his eyes. [Catcher A.J.] Ellis and a few teammates issued a challenge: The first person to go over to Kershaw and ask him their hand-picked goofy question during one of those between-innings scenes would win the entire pot. For several games, no one had the guts to do it, so the bounty grew.

The Dodgers traveled to San Francisco, where relievers sit in the dugout instead of beyond the outfield wall or down the line, because of the configuration of AT&T Park’s bullpen. This, then, was the first time the Dodgers’ relief corps had heard of the Kershaw Bet. When Lindblom got wind of it, he figured he’d try it.

“He starts to make his way over to Kersh, and we’re all fired up because we think it’s going to happen,” Ellis recalled. “By this point the pot had grown to $500. All Lindblom needed to do was tap him on the arm and ask him if he thought the ending of Inception was real. At the last minute, he chickened out. After the game, Lindblom told Kersh about the bet — he had no idea before, since none of us had ever told him. He took one look at Lindblom and said, ‘You should be glad you didn’t do it … because I would have strangled you.’”

Kershaw rose to the top of the talent pool with speed and consistency, reaching the pinnacle in his sixth year. Although Tim Lincecum is a conspicuous example of someone who dominated even earlier in his career, he is after all The Freak, and the best comparison for Kershaw is actually Young Roger Clemens, the man they called The Rocket. No one has dominated the league the way Clemens did in the late ‘80s, not since then at least. Kershaw will be judged against that standard. Be prepared for him to succeed and succeed and succeed.

Buster Posey, San Francisco
I think, comparing him to Kershaw, Posey has a net disadvantage in the MVP race this season. (That’s why I’ve listed him second, and that’s how you should be reading this article; sorry I waited so long to mention.) However much his likelihood of getting one vote increases simply by virtue of being a position player is not as much as the decrease that comes with playing for a mediocre team. Pitching-wise, particularly in terms of depth, the Giants have nowhere near the talent of the Dodgers. The injury bug will have to pass over the Giants and, like the Angel of Death in Egypt, strike down only Dodgers—that’s the most realistic scenario for a Giants division championship, and even then there are a few big ifs.

The smallest if is Posey, and the Giants are shuttling him to first base every few days to make it even smaller. They have him signed until Mars is colonized, so they’re willing to trade some present-day defensive value for his longevity. Good business sense, bad for his awards chest. While he hits .300/.400/.500 (and he will do that at his best) with 20 dingers and fewer than 100 strikeouts, sportswriters, already an aged, traditional sort, will notice his playing time split between the grittiest and least gritty of positions. The confused old sots will see first basemen with lots more thump (cough keep reading), then they’ll see catchers with similar power and better defense (Yadier Molina), and they won’t know how on Earth to evaluate Posey. Don’t look for help from the younger, savvier crowd; they’ll see 25 games where Brandon Belt was benched in favor of a backup catcher. How could Posey make up for that?

All this to say that, unfortunately, Posey’s routine, extremely balanced brand of excellence is conspiring with his circumstances to make another MVP award hard to imagine. Giants fans, be consoled by with that beautiful flat swing.

Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona
If there some nuts out there who are still waiting for the other shoe to drop on Goldy, you can stop now. He is no flash-in-the-pan; absolutely nothing about his game is unsustainable. Here’s a guy who slugged .620 in 1387 minor league plate appearances, then got called up to the bigs and slugged .517 in the 1474 PA since. He is a behemoth (some would say Colossus)—quite possibly an omen of the end times. His strikeout rate has declined each season, he smacks line drives with consistency, he will steal you 15-odd bases, and his career BABIP is .340. He is what old timers dream Joey Votto could be. (Goldschmidt took a walk 99 times last year. Once you reach triple digits the old school starts to think less of your manhood. Why doesn’t this guy wanna HIT?)

On top of all that he won both the Gold Glove and the Fielding Bible last year. When those two have a consensus, argue against it at your own peril. However you want to discount defense at first base, it is one of the most active defensive positions, and it must be possible to provide value there by virtue of making plays others could not. Defensive snobbery blinds people to the unique skills required by each position (and I imagine it only takes place behind Goldschmidt’s back). Put a shortstop at first for the entire season and see if he can do this as well as the best first basemen:

Goldy scoop

One of these years, Goldschmidt will hit 45 home runs and lead the Diamondbacks to the playoffs. Arizona might not have the talent this year, but they have Goldschmidt until 2019.

AL West

Mike Trout stylin' and profilin'
Mike Trout, Los Angeles
Mike Trout leads the league in sentences that begin with “Since 1871.” Since 1871, there have been only 16 instances where a player 22 years old or younger put up at least 8.0 WAR in a season. Those 16 instances came thanks to 14 players, meaning two players did it twice—those would be Shoeless Joe Jackson and Mike Trout. Shoeless Joe accomplished this before World War I, in 1911 and 1912, his age-21 and -22 seasons; Trout did it in 2012 and 2013 and he will be 22 this season. Come October, Trout will be the only person to have three 8.0 WAR seasons by 22, and Shoeless Joe Jackson will have been, of all the players in the history of baseball, the last person Trout surpassed in this regard.

If you sorted those 16 exemplary seasons by WAR, you would see that both of Trout’s seasons rate better than all the others save for one: 1941 Ted Williams (age 22, 11.0 WAR). Something to aim for, then. If he beats that figure, there’s no way the writers deny him the award a third time. The question at this point is how many MVPs will the lad win before 30? If he starts this season he can get eight.

Robinson Cano, Seattle
This hard for a young guy like me to believe, but we’ve already had nine full seasons of Cano. Those years will go down as the first half of his career; the team change makes a natural break. Cano is good enough that already we can consider how his career will look compared to other great second basemen.

Cano’s first nine years can be split further into quarters for narrative purposes. From ages 22 to 25, his first four seasons, Cano was modestly above average at the plate. He averaged 16 home runs per year with a slash of .303/.335/.468. His lackluster walk rate was mitigated by his excellent contact, so unnatural for young players. (The graph below shows that batters cut down on strikeouts as they age. For perspective on Cano’s ability: as a 22-year-old rookie, he had a K% of 12.3 percent.) Only 2008 (his fourth season) could be considered a poor season offensively. Luck dragons be the culprit: that year Cano’s BABIP dipped to .283, and in every other season it’s been .316 or above, thanks to one of the prettiest, most technically sound swings in the game.

A power explosion in his fifth season, 2009, coinciding with another Yankees championship, signaled a new phase in Cano’s career. Look at Cano’s home run totals, starting with his rookie year: 14, 15, 19, 14, 25, 29, 28, 33, and 27. Moreover, his plate discipline improved qualitatively, so that in the five years since 2009 Cano has averaged 51 walks per 162 games, compared to just 29 before. These gains manifest themselves in a robust .314/.369/.530 slash line over the “second quarter” of Cano’s career. That .530 slugging percentage, by the way, is good for tenth in baseball, of players with at least 2000 plate appearances since 2009. His 142 home runs since 2009 is ninth in baseball, tied with David Ortiz. Rare power, indeed, and paired with the rare contact from before. Let’s not underestimate Cano’s extraordinary talents in those two principal aspects of hitting.

We should expect those talents to continue, declining only at a snail’s pace, for the next four or five years. Cano will be 31 this season, yet already his best seven years are on par with the best seven years of your average Hall of Fame Second Base Man. (I’ve sorted by the appropriate column in the link. Hover over the header row to learn more.) Those best seven years naturally include all five seasons since 2009, alongside two more from Cano’s first four years. In the near future Cano will doubtless come up with two years that surpass his modest success as a youth, vaulting him further up the all-time ladder of second basemen. More than that, simply by avoiding injury and holding to his recent level of production, he will remain an MVP candidate year-in and year-out. Should Seattle defy expectations to make the playoffs this season, newcomer Cano might get a new piece of hardware to start the second half of his career.

Yoenis Cespedes, Oakland
Have you seen that training video? Or last year’s home run derby? Did you know his nickname, La Potencia, means The Power? You’d be forgiven if you thought The Potential instead—Cespedes oozes it. Now, in his third season, the 28-year-old Cespedes must convert that potential into something real and extraordinary. The Leap, if you will. That, at least, is what Midnight Baseball expects, what the Oakland A’s need, and what Cespedes himself plans to achieve.

It’s hard to find a quote from Cespedes because his English is weak, but Oakland hitting coach Chili Davis has been plenty forthcoming on his behalf. From a Jane Lee article on

“What does he plan on working on here? [Davis said] What type of year does he want to have? What’s his objective this year? I didn’t even have to ask him. He told me.”

This is Davis’ third camp with Cespedes, and never before had he heard the slugger freely open up about his goals. They include certain numbers, which were not divulged, but more importantly, a genuine desire to bring more focus to Cespedes’ game.

“Improved focus” is a spring training cliché as old as “best shape of his life” and “adding a new pitch,” but here, thanks to the unconventional reporting, I think we can take it seriously. If a player says something untrue about himself, that’s a calculated response to the media. If a coach says something untrue about a player, that’s slander. Why would Chili Davis go out of his way to lie about a conversation he and Cespedes had, a conversation Cespedes initiated?

So, we have a beefier Cespedes, now acclimated to major league pitching, entering his prime, with more focus on the mechanics of his swing and patience in the batter’s box, and, to top it all off, free of injury. Oakland has settled on him in left field, where he grades as an above-average defender. He will therefore provide value on offense and defense: good for his WAR, which is becoming increasingly important in narrowing down the field of MVP candidates. The A’s will be in the playoff picture to the end, and Cespedes can easily be the best position player on the team. Nothing about his circumstances will work against him in the official voting.

The only question is his offensive production. Even with a hand injury affecting him for part of the season, Cespedes slugged 26 home runs last year. That power salvaged his low-walk, low-OBP profile enough to make him a league-average hitter. His aggressive approach at the plate can work so long as he uses the whole field; otherwise, pitchers will exploit him away, and the weak contact he makes trying to pull every ball will drive his BABIP down. (This happened last year.) Improvements along these lines will also result in more opportunities to showcase his speed on the basepaths. A season of 30 home runs and 30 steals is not out of the realm of possibility. Indeed, for Cespedes, it is no great Leap.

Yu Darvish, Texas
Yu Darvish shows up at the bottom thanks to the aforementioned difficulty pitchers have winning MVP, but he might be the best pitcher in the American League. Like Cespedes, Darvish is a foreign star entering his third MLB season, so like Cespedes Darvish has already reached the age we consider a player’s prime. He will be 27 years old this season, the ace of the retooled Rangers and already the best strikeout man in baseball. Let’s look at that famous gif of all his pitches again:

No wonder Darvish had the most strikeouts in a season (277) since The Big Unit Randy Johnson fanned 290 in 2004.

A tweet from Baseball-Reference’s Play Index inspired this brief study. Since 2000, starting pitchers have racked up 200 strikeouts in a season exactly 135 times. Darvish has done it in both of his major league seasons. Of those 135 player-seasons, 25 resulted in more strikeouts thrown than baserunners allowed (where baserunners is defined as hits plus walks plus hits-by-pitch). Here are those 25 player-seasons:

Darvish in 2013 ranks eighth, behind Pedro Martinez, Johnson, Curt Schilling, and Johan Santana. It’s hard to come up with a statistical measure that suggests anyone is better than Clayton Kershaw right now, but you could make a case for Darvish (and Max Scherzer) with this table. Kershaw allowed 14 fewer baserunners than Darvish did; Darvish had a greater edge in strikeouts, 277 to 232. If you want a pitcher who relies on his defense as little as possible, Darvish is your man. (Here, 2013 Kershaw is the only pitcher besides 2000 Pedro to have an ERA below 2.00; I’ll stick with Kershaw.)

Darvish improved across the board from his first season to his second, except in home runs allowed. With everything else about his game improving, should we look to his home park as the culprit? The Ballpark in Arlington has long been recognized as a bandbox, but Darvish hasn’t shown any noticeable home/road splits. In fact he allowed 13 home runs at home and 13 away last year, and on a per-inning basis came out worse on the road. What gives? Hard to say with any certainty when Darvish has only 400 innings in the majors, so this is something Midnight Baseball will keep an eye on during the upcoming season.

Even if Darvish remains peculiarly prone to the longball, his status in the top tier of American League pitchers should be beyond debate. Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez, David Price, Darvish, and that’s it. We know how home run rate can fluctuate severely from one season to the next. All it takes is one season where the balls stay in the yard for Darvish to put up some seriously historic numbers. And if it turns out that 2012 and 2013 were aberrations and not the norm? Darvish won’t have to share a tier with anybody.

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