Those of us in the press box started talking about the National League MVP race in July. Giancarlo Stanton was heating up, Bryce Harper looked like the 2015 version of himself and in Cincinnati, Joey Votto was reaching base at his usual eye-popping rate.
The Los Angeles Dodgers were also storming through the league, at that point, pushing one of their players — Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Justin Turner — into the discussion. Max Scherzer was striking people out at a career-best rate. Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen was seemingly throwing nine strikes for every ball and not bothering to allow a hit. Paul Goldschmidt was doing standard Paul Goldschmidt things in Arizona.
The ballot was full and intriguing. Old tropes about a player having to be on a winning team to win MVP were in the mix, questions about if a pitcher — and a closer, at that — could win were rekindled, fascination with the home run was rebooted.
Then, Harper was injured. Stanton became a supernova. The Dodgers were great as a team, but one player did not stand out. Scherzer was injured here and there. Goldschmidt was steady, but not spectacular. Meanwhile, Votto kept reaching base in a number of ways despite the misery in Cincinnati, which is why I voted for him as National League MVP. However, Stanton won, 302-300, in one of the closest votes in the history of the award.
One of the discussions we had in the press box centered on the value of a player on a winning team versus a losing one. It was put forth like this: When has a player on a losing team had a valuable at-bat during the season? If a player on a winning team has helped keep his team in the race — or leading it — isn’t he, and his time at the plate, more valuable?
This was part of the debate around Stanton versus Votto. The Marlins, at one point, made a push toward a wild-card spot before falling off. The Reds were putrid throughout the season. Their starting rotation, something Votto does not control, was abysmal. They had a 5.55 ERA. Worst in the National League. Every day Votto went to the park, he knew they were unlikely to win. Cincinnati went 68-94.
To me, that was a non-statistical argument for Votto, not against. Baseball is the ultimate grind. It’s hard enough to play daily for a good team — and Votto played all 162 games — let alone when there is little at stake beyond personal standing. Votto managed that mental game throughout the season to produce enough, in my view, for his second MVP award and first since 2010.
Votto is an advanced metrics darling because his lack of capitulation at the plate allows him to reach base over and over. He will walk — 134 times to lead the league this season — to such a point that he went 0-for-0 on Aug. 27 because he walked five times. He can also hit for power. His .578 slugging percentage was sixth in the league. Blend those things and it is easy to see why he led the league in OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage), OPS plus, which adjusts for a hitter’s ballpark, and delivered 7.5 WAR, which was just 0.1 behind Stanton among NL position players, according to Baseball Reference. Votto also led in adjusted batting runs, adjusted batting wins, offensive win percentage and weighted-runs created plus.
Votto was one of two players in the National League to play every game. He was also a Gold Glove finalist at first base, not a demanding defensive position, but one he manned well. And, he worked right to the end of the season. Votto had a 1.250 OPS in the final seven days. After the All-Star break, Votto reached base in an absurd 48.6 percent of his plate appearances while playing every game.
All of that was necessary to create a slight gap between him and Stanton, the Miami strongman who has a significant case anchored in his 59 home runs.
Stanton played 159 games. He was a Gold Glove finalist in right field, which gives him a leg up on Votto when considering defense. He hit 30 homers from July 1-Aug. 31. Stanton provided a .281 average and on-base percentage of .376. Both Baseball Reference and Fangraphs had him ahead of Votto in WAR, though he led the two different readings of the metric by an ever-so-slight margin. In August, while Stanton was binging, the Marlins moved to within six games of the second wild-card spot. A four-game losing streak to close the month jettisoned them back to non-contention.
In the same way the failure of teammates should not influence the view of Votto, Stanton should not be punished either. His robust July and August made much of that situation possible. Where he can be penalized is when looking at his September. He hit just .238. His OPS was .865. Votto’s worst month was July, when he had a .274 average yet still carried a .438 on-base percentage.
For this voter, Votto did so much, so often, for so long, he received a first-place vote. Watching Stanton track Roger Maris and put together an aesthetically and statistically pleasing season was a joy. It just wasn’t enough for first place this year. Barely.
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