1) I am a huge Dodger fan and Matt Kemp fan. I also happen to believe that, objectively speaking, Matt Kemp is the National League’s Most Valuable Player this year.
2) I also happen to REALLY like Ryan Braun, and I am happy about the Brewers’ great season (other than Nyjer Morgan, who I think is a worthless piece of garbage and a disgrace to the game of baseball).
That said, I think it is pretty clear that by pretty much every measure, Kemp is having a slightly better season than Braun. Baseball Reference has Kemp at 9.6 Wins Above Replacement and Braun at 7.2. (Braun is second among offensive players, although both Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee sneak in just barely — and statistically insignificantly — ahead of him.) FanGraphs has Kemp’s WAR at 8.3 and Braun’s at 6.9, a slightly smaller gap but still a 20% lead. (On FanGraphs, both Lee and Kershaw are a tiny bit behind Braun, but Roy Halladay is at 8.0.)
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that WAR is a perfect stat. No intellectually honest believer in stats would tell you that any one particular stat is the end-all-be-all (although I think most creative, passionate sabermetricians probably dream of creating the perfect stat). But the two versions of WAR are very useful stats as a starting point. When Kemp leads handily in both WARs and in OPS and in OPS+ and in Defensive WAR and in a ton of other stats, we can safely say that Kemp has played slightly better than Braun this year.
That brings us to the people whose main argument is that Braun’s slightly-inferior play was more valuable than Kemp’s because he led his team to the playoffs. I’m not going to totally deconstruct that ridiculous argument, because that has been done by smarter people than me (most notably Keith Law, whose Twitter account becomes a “teach dummies about value” tutorial once a week or so). I’ll just make two points. No elaboration, because they’re just simple facts.
1) Value means how much something is worth. A $100 bill is worth $100 and can buy $100 worth of goods and services, regardless of how much other money the holder has. Its value is $100.
2) Without Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, the 2011 Dodgers are historically bad. If KeMVP and ClaYton played for the Astros this year, the Dodgers are finishing up a 105-loss season and the Astros are limping to the end of a middle-of-the-NL-Central season. If you judge everything by whether or not the team makes the playoffs — and seriously, if you do that, you better not have ever uttered a disparaging word about George Steinbrenner doing the same thing, hypocrite — then those results don’t matter. But there’s got to be some value in keeping fans interested in a bad team, in managing to draw nearly three million fans during a season of ownership turmoil, unofficial fan boycotts, and a lousy on-field product.
But the main point I want to make here has to do with this argument, which I’ve heard a lot recently with regards to both Ryan Braun and Justin Verlander: “If the [team] didn’t have [the player], they wouldn’t be in the playoffs, but they are, so he is most valuable.”
This argument is ridiculous. You can’t ignore the supporting casts that the Tigers and Brewers put around Verlander and Braun. I’ll focus on Braun right now, because he’s the one I’m thinking about. As of today, the Brewers are six games ahead of the Cardinals in the NL Central. His bWAR is 7.2 and his fWAR is 6.9, so if the Brewers had a replacement player playing in left field, they would be somewhere around a game behind the Cardinals. But a replacement player means any old decent minor leaguer. What if they replaced him with an inferior, but solid, Major League left fielder? There’s some margin for error in the numbers and some disagreement between bWAR and fWAR, so let’s just look at left fielders who have a WAR of 2.5 or higher in both versions. That list tells us that the following left fielders could stepped in and helped lead the Brewers to the NL Central title:
Yes, Ryan Braun is having a great year, an MVP-type year. The bottom line, though, is that Matt Kemp is having a better year, and when you remove all the hokey subjective garbage about “how to define value,” the guy having the best season is the Most Valuable Player.