Jonathan Lucroy deserves the NL MVP. I’ll try to make this short, but first I’ll need to discuss the factors I consider important for MVP candidacy.
WAR is a good starting point, but does not give the full picture of a player’s performance in a given year. It does a great job at combining a hitter’s contributions (hitting, baserunning, defense) across the same units (runs and wins) to allow us to compare players who impact the game and add value in different ways, as well as adjusting for park and league factors, etc. I also like talking about players in terms of how many wins they add, and the notion of comparing players to replacement level (readily available talent, in theory) as opposed to average has a lot of merit. That said, there are still things that go uncaptured in WAR (in some cases, as with context/sequencing, this is by design) that make it incomplete when evaluating a player’s MVP candidacy.
For starters, WAR is context-neutral. In my opinion, context matters. Others may disagree, and do every time I bring this up, even though I’m saying precisely what others have acknowledged, which is that context is relevant for a backward-looking evaluation of value added to a team. Take two guys of equal “true talent” levels; if the first guy happens to get more opportunities in high-leverage situations, and/or happens to cluster more of his offensive production in said situations, he’s adding more value than the second guy, if the second guy comes up in the proportionally expected number of high-leverage situations and performs no differently in those situations than low-leverage situations. Do I project them to repeat their same trends the next year? No. But I’m pretty firm in my take that the first guy added more value over the season in question.
Furthermore, WAR does not capture all elements of a player’s contribution. The most glaring omission at the current time is pitch framing. Whether or not you believe pitch framing should be a part of the game (which I don’t — use a computer to call a consistent zone already!), it is part of the game, it does have value, and teams do appear to factor it into their evaluation of players.
Let’s look at the top NL position players, starting out with WAR:
Lucroy’s got some ground to make up in the WAR department.
Taking some context into account though, he was significantly more clutch than the other candidates — in fact, the only other player with a positive Clutch score is Posey. The two catchers were the only ones who turned in better performances in higher-leverage situations. It should be noted that other hitters (Stanton and McCutchen) put up a higher WPA, but this is expected for players whose value comes almost entirely from hitting (WPA measures hitting almost exclusively). Posey and Lucroy added more value (created more runs) than their WAR represents due to sequencing; all the other candidates added less value.
Using Baseball Prospectus’s numbers, Lucroy added 23.3 runs through framing and blocking (almost entirely from framing; in fact his blocking was just slightly negative). Posey added 13.7. If we make a back-of-the-envelope calculation of 9.1 Runs Per Win in the NL this year, those come out to 2.6 Wins for Lucroy and 1.5 Wins for Posey.
Add it all up
Taking both context and pitch framing into account easily vaults Lucroy past the other contenders. I don’t claim to have a perfect method of converting “Clutch” to the same units as WAR (Runs or Wins); one could use something like, the difference between “expected” WPA given a player’s Batting (based on league-wide correlation between Batting and WPA), and then look at their actual WPA, and add the difference to their WAR. Such a system would give both Lucroy and Posey a bump of 1-1.5 Wins, while penalizing Rendon and Gomez pretty heavily.
Likewise for pitch framing, I’m not comfortable giving the catcher 100% credit for runs saved via framing (which by extension means removing the associated WAR from the pitcher), but based on my subjective opinion from watching good framers and bad framers and the skills they possess, I’m certainly comfortable giving at least half the value to the catcher, probably more. So again, we’re talking another 1-2 Wins for Lucroy. By my count, that puts him at upwards of 8-9 Wins, with the rest of the field not coming close. Posey also sets himself apart from the non-catchers by virtue of both framing and clutching, but not enough to catch Lucroy.
It’s important to call out that using framing isn’t always going to mean a catcher will inevitably win the MVP. There are plenty of years that the best catcher is not particularly close to the best position players in terms of WAR. In 2013, Yadier Molina was 2.7 WAR behind MVP McCutchen, a gap too large for pitch framing to cover. In 2012, Posey had the highest WAR even without framing. In 2011, Molina had the highest WAR among catchers at 4.4, a full 4.0 behind Matt Kemp (who didn’t win the MVP…). The same is true in the AL. Using pitch framing doesn’t mean the MVP is suddenly going to start vaulting catchers over 10+ WAR guys like 2012-13 Mike Trout (we’ll leave that to other position players…). It just happens that this year, we have two NL catchers who both happen to have exhibited clutch hitting (and who are good hitters in their own right), and who add significant value with their ability to receive the ball in such a way as to convince the umpire to call a strike more often than average.
That other guy
I’m not the type to say pitchers can’t win the MVP, and won’t resort to the “they only play every 5 days!” argument. Clayton Kershaw has been dominant. And, if you’re the type, it can be argued he led his team to win their division, while Lucroy’s headed home in September. Bottom line for me though: Lucroy added more value to his team, using the units of Wins. He’s a no-brainer for MVP.
All that said, Lucroy has absolutely no chance of winning the MVP. The rationale in this post is in no way the mindset of the voters and he doesn’t stand a chance.