The MVP award, contrary to popular belief, does NOT always go to the best player in the league, or even the most valuable. That explains how Ted Williams was somehow robbed of the AL MVP in 1941 (when he batted .406) and in 1942 (when he won the Triple Crown). That’s why the voting for the award is such a fascinating process: because it reveals what the voters THINK is most valuable.
In the National League, it seems a foregone conclusion that Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder (and onetime Rihanna beau) Matt Kemp will win the Most Valuable Player award. In fairness, Kemp led the majors in RBI (126), led the NL in home runs (39), and finished third in batting average with a .324 mark (11 points shy of a Triple Crown) while swiping 40 bases. He’s been one of the bright spots for a Dodgers squad that finished third in the NL West amid tabloid headlines about their owners — Frank and Jamie McCourt — going through a nasty divorce and putting the team’s future in doubt.
But his tremendous year has somewhat overshadowed a similarly dominant performance by Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers. Braun has had his best professional season in a year when the Brewers tossed all their chips into the center of the table. The Hebrew Hammer batted .332 (2nd in the NL), smashed 33 home runs and put up 111 RBI while stealing 33 bags of his own. There are a few things that make Braun’s season stand out as well, particularly his improved plate discipline.
Since his rookie year in 2007, Braun has consistently cut down his strikeout rate while boosting his walk rate. While this has led to lower slugging percentages, he’s never slugged less than .500, and it’s made him a more complete hitter. In his rookie year, Braun struck out in 22.8% of his plate appearances. That number has tumbled all the way down to 14.8% this year. Over a full 162-game season, that translates to 60 (SIXTY!) fewer strikeouts.
Kemp, meanwhile, has never figured out the strike zone; his season low for a strikeout rate is 20.8%. This season, he whiffed in 23.1% of his plate appearances, and that’s a serious problem with his MVP candidacy in my eyes. I have trouble thinking the most valuable player in the league strikes out in nearly one in four plate appearances.
Braun plays on a team with a lot of talent (Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Zack Greinke, Yovani Gallardo and Shaun Marcum are all tremendous players), so it’d be fair to penalize him somewhat for “Yankee syndrome” (too much surrounding talent). However, Kemp plays on a team with former MVP candidate Andre Ethier and Cy Young frontrunner Clayton Kershaw, so it’s not as though the Dodgers are entirely bereft of talent.
Kemp is a strong favorite for the award, and he’d be a fine winner. But it’s a pity that Ryan Braun’s phenomenal year would then go without an MVP award. Though the way the Brewers are playing, he may have his sights set on a World Series MVP trophy.