National League MVP

The NL MVP award is less a discussion of who was most valuable and more a discussion about what the award itself is about. One term has to be defined before we start: OPS. It's short for the combined total of On base average Plus Slugging percentage. Combining those two makes sense because the two basic facets of hitting are the ability to reach base (OBA) and the ability to move runners around the bases, reflected in slugging pct.

This race boils down to two men, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. If you're reading this I assume you know who they are. Hell, if you can read at all I would assume you know who they are. Never have two players captivated the country as these men did. Let's make the case for each of them.

 

Sosa: In an era in which 25% of the teams make the playoffs, the MVP should have managed to get his team into a race of some kind. Sosa most certainly did that, McGwire did not. Mac's stats were awesome, but so were Sammy's. Sosa drove in 158 runs, leading the majors, in the heat of a pennant race. He may have hit 4 fewer homers than Mac, but scored 4 more runs, drove in 11 more, and was the heart and soul of team which survived a terrific three-team race. Even if you concede the tangibles to McGwire, surely the intangibles must go to Sosa. His defense is more important, his speed, his grace under the twin pressures of the HR race and the pennant race make him the MVP.

McGwire: Mark McGwire had one of the most remarkable offensive seasons ever. 70, that's seven-oh, homers. An unimaginable number, to be sure. And he did it while walking 162 times. Not only is that an all-time NL record, but no player in history has ever hit 50 HR while walking 150 times. No one, not Mantle, not Ruth, no one. And Mac hit 70 while walking 162 times. Yes, he drove in 11 fewer runs than Sosa, but he drew 89 more walks than Sammy -- you can't drive in runs when they walk you that much. Sosa slugged .647, had an OBA of .377, for an OBA of 1.024. Very impressive year for him. McGwire had a slugging pct. of .750, an OBA of .470 -- both the best in the majors, not just the NL. This left him with a phenomenal OPS of 1.222. How big a difference is 198 points of OPS? McGwire is to Sosa as Sosa is to Ron Gant! It translates into 40 runs or so over the course of the season. Sosa's mediocre defense doesn't make up for that.

 

There are many who find the choice obvious. They are divided fairly equally between them, I'm guessing. Sabermetricians, those who analyze the stats to reach conclusions about these things find McGwire the obvious choice. Rob Neyer writes a column for espn.com and I consider him the best baseball writer in this medium. He came down strongly for McGwire in his column. I have been a student and practitioner of sabermetrics for twenty years, but I think I'm going to part company here.

There is a school of thought that the best player is automatically the most valuable player. If player A is better than player B, then even if B's team beat out A's team, B's team would have done even better if A was on it instead. It's hard to argue with that, especially when the statistical difference is so wide. But I believe that awards like this have to be put in context of the season. Yes, a team of nine Mark McGwires would clobber a team of nine Sammy Sosas, but those teams didn't exist. In the world that did exist, Sammy scored more runs and drove in more runs. And his team won seven more games and won the wild card race by one game. I'm confident Sosa is going to win this and I wish I could join the chorus of iconoclasts, almost all of whom know far more than the baseball writers who actually get to vote. Not this time, guys, catch you next year.

My ballot:

  1. Sammy Sosa
  2. Mark McGwire
  3. Barry Bonds -- 1.047 OPS, 37 HR, 130 walks, 28 steals, 120 runs, 122 RBI, and a Gold Glove; one of the all-time greats just keeps rolling
  4. Andres Gallaraga -- repeat after me: "it wasn't just the ballpark, it wasn't just the ballpark" -- he tailed off a bit, but they broke open the race when he was hot, .992 OPS, 44HR, 121 RBI
  5. Mike Piazza -- carried the Mets on his back; catchers with .960 OPS are spectacularly valuable, 111 RBI, 32 HR
  6. Greg Vaughn -- at the All-Star break he was the MVP, like Gallaraga, was a horse when they needed him; still ended up with 119 RBI, 112 runs, and 50 HR, in a ballpark where no one hit, this may actually be a little low, but he only hit .272 and his OPS was .960, not spectacular for an outfielder
  7. Moises Alou -- separating the Houston Three is hard, as Jeff Bagwell's numbers are remarkable similar to Manny's and Craig Biggio's are comparable when you allow for his position; .981 OPS in the Astrodome is nice work, drove in 124, hit 38 HR, and might've been higher if he hadn't stopped in September, which meant nothing to the 'Stros, since they had already clinched
  8. Trevor Hoffman -- relief pitchers can mean an immense amount when it comes to winning and losing…53 saves in 54 tries, a 1.48 ERA, opponents hit .165 against him…Hell's Bells may not have rung in the post-season, but they were a key part of the Padres winning
  9. Jeff Kent -- yes he only played 137 games, yes he made 20 errors in them, and yes he batted behind Bonds, which is a great help to your RBI total, but he drove in 128 runs in those 137 games, scored 94, hit 37 doubles and 31 HR…his OPS was .914, actually 8 points higher than Craig Biggio's
  10. Chipper Jones -- the cream of the thirdbasemen…what about Vinnie Castilla you say? Chipper had a .951 OPS, exactly the same as Vinnie's and his ballpark isn't the farce that Castilla's is…scored 123, drove in 107, 34 HR, 16 SB…doesn't get enough credit, so I'll give him some

Also noteworthy: Vladimir Guerrero -- .960 OPS, .324, 37 doubles, 38 HR, 108 runs, 109 RBI…it's not his fault; John Olerud -- Mr. Consistency….998 OPS, remarkable for someone with only 22 HR; Jeff Bagwell -- no one in Houston seemed to think he was that valuable, but had the same OPS as Alou (.981), scored 124 runs and drove in 109, hit 34 HR; Craig Biggio -- secondbasemen with 51 doubles, 50 steals, 20 homers, and a .403 on-base average are doing all they can to score a ton of runs…the question is, why did he only score 123?


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