It came as no big shock when Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs was named the 2016 National League MVP. And while many who follow the Colorado Rockies believe Nolan Arenado was robbed, Bryant was the correct choice.
Bryant was widely expected to win the MVP following a season in which he was the best player on the best team in baseball. Sure enough, he received 29 of 30 first place votes on his way to a landslide victory.
This result, while not surprising, did not sit well with many baseball fans on the western half of the country. After all, if Arenado beat out Kris Bryant for both the Silver Slugger and the Gold Glove, how could he possibly not be the better player? The issue lies in the wording: Bryant wasn’t named the National League’s “best” player, he was named it’s most valuable.
Even the Baseball Writers Association of America, the organization that votes on MLB’s postseason awards, admits that the criteria for MVP is subjective, saying the following on their website:
"“There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.”"
Even though the criteria clearly states that the player doesn’t have to be on a playoff team, there are still some voters who consider a losing record a deal-breaker. It’s no coincidence that the top three players for NL MVP voting each play for a team that won their division in 2016. It’s not exactly fair, but in a close race, overall team success is often going to be the tie-breaker.
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“But what about Mike Trout? He won the AL MVP on a team that lost more games than Colorado!” This sounds like a fair point on the surface, but the comparison breaks down upon further review.
First of all, Trout himself defies comparison. He’s not just the best player in baseball right now. There’s a strong case to be made that he’s already, at just 25 years old, one of the best players in MLB history. Trout has led the AL in WAR for each of the last five seasons, which makes him and Babe Ruth the only two players in history to accomplish that feat.
Trout was not only the best hitter in MLB this season, he was also an elite base-stealing threat while playing solid (if not slightly overrated) defense in center field. And still, nine of 30 voters felt Mookie Betts was more valuable, even though team record is the only definitive way that Betts was better than Trout in 2016.
You can make a case that Arenado is a better overall player than Bryant, but it’s not as clear-cut as Trout vs. Betts.
Arenado hit more home runs and drove in more runs than Bryant, but Bryant was better at getting on base and is more dangerous as a baserunner. Arenado is a superior defensive third baseman, but Bryant’s ability to man either corner outfield spot is a uniquely valuable asset.
A player on an inferior team can still win an individual award, but only if his resume clearly stands above the rest. Arenado is among the best players in all of baseball, but on a losing team it’s not enough to simply be among the best. You have to be the best.
All this being said, the biases of the MVP award could swing in Arenado’s favor in 2017. One of the more common MVP stories we’ve seen is “Best player on a team that dramatically improved.” In recent years, Ryan Braun, Buster Posey and Andrew McCutchen all won the NL MVP following this formula.
Arenado could put up the exact same numbers in 2017, but if the Rockies end the regular season with a trip to the playoffs, he’ll almost certainly finish higher in the standings, and possibly even win the award.
And ultimately, a player as competitive as Arenado likely cares more about winning games than awards. Earlier this week, Max Scherzer told the media after winning the NL Cy Young Award, “I’d trade it for what Lester and Hendricks have — that World Series ring.”
Those who remember an emotional Arenado screaming in the dugout after a rough start to a game in San Diego last season don’t doubt that he’d trade any individual accolades for a trip to the playoffs. The good news is, if things go right in 2017, he shouldn’t have to sacrifice either of them.