Here's why deGrom is NL's Most Valuable Player

Mets' ace leads Brewers' Yelich in FanGraphs WAR, 8.3 to 6.1

September 21st, 2018

is probably going to win the National League Cy Young Award. Let's just accept it. We've moved past the discussion over whether his 8-9 record will prevent him from winning the award (it won't, correctly) and stepped right into it starting to seem like a foregone conclusion. That's in part because deGrom deserves it, and in part because voters place too much emphasis on late-season performance -- and chief competitors Max Scherzer and each have September ERA marks north of 5.00.

Instead, let's ask a far more interesting question: What if deGrom is actually the Most Valuable Player in the NL? Let's make the case.

It's not likely to happen, we admit, but deGrom has a much stronger argument than you might think. Here are the reasons you will hear not to vote for him ...

• Because he's a pitcher, and pitchers have their own award

• Because the Mets are not contending

• Because he has an 8-9 record

... and we have good reasons why none of that matters. First, let's explain why you should consider deGrom for the honor.

Reason No. 1: deGrom's lead in Wins Above Replacement is enormous

This entire argument is not going to be about Wins Above Replacement, we promise, but it's a good place to start, because this is exactly what it's supposed to do -- help compare value across different positions. As our glossary entry states, "WAR measures a player's value in all facets of the game by deciphering how many more wins he's worth than a replacement-level player at his same position." Well, yeah.

To simplify that, the idea is that it looks at hitting, running and fielding (for a position player), and a variety of inputs for a pitcher (like strikeouts, walks or runs prevented, depending on the version) and adjusts it for difficulty of position and park. It allows us to compare a good-hitting, good-fielding third baseman ( , 5.3 WAR) to a better-hitting, less defensively valuable first baseman ( , 5.2 WAR) and say that they've been basically equal in value this year. 

It's not perfect. It's not expected to be, and award balloting should not just be about "who has the most WAR." It is, however, one of the best tools we have at the moment. It should inform a voter's decision, but not make it for them.

With that in mind, we can look at FanGraphs for their leaderboard of combined WAR, which credits deGrom for his hitting and fielding work as well as pitching. 

9.2 -- , Angels

9.1 -- , Red Sox

8.3 -- deGrom, Mets

8.1 -- , Indians

7.5 -- Scherzer, Nationals

7.4 -- , Astros

7.2 -- , Indians

(A version of this same leaderboard using the slightly different "runs allowed" definition of WAR changes the numbers slightly, but not the order. It actually bumps deGrom up to 8.6. This includes his hitting and fielding value, as well. A third version of WAR, at Baseball Prospectus, has deGrom tied for fourth.)

In the world of Wins Above Replacement, 2 WAR is "league average," and 4 WAR is considered All-Star level, so you can see how strong these years are -- and that deGrom is squarely in the mix, essentially tied with Ramirez behind Trout and Betts.

That WAR leaderboard tells us something else, too. If you look at the top 15 names, 10 of them are in the American League. The AL has Trout and Betts, Lindor and Ramirez, Bregman and . It has J.D. Martinez, who doesn't rate highly in WAR because of a lack of defensive value, but who will be in the AL MVP Award discussion anyway as he chases the Triple Crown. The NL ... doesn't. That's going to be important.

deGrom is on that list because he's in that rarefied air of having an ERA below 2.00 while throwing 200 innings that's been done only 19 times in the past 50 seasons, most recently by in 2015. He's there because he's fourth among qualified starters in strikeout rate while having the 13th-lowest walk rate. deGrom is there because he deserves to be; at his projected rate, he'll have the highest pitching WAR since Randy Johnson's 9.0 in 2004.

But what about deGrom's competition?

Reason No. 2: There's no obviously great candidate in the NL

The NL has a ton of good candidates. You can make a strong case for or of the Brewers, or or of the Rockies, or of the Cubs, or Matt Carpenter of the Cardinals, or Scherzer of the Nationals, or Goldschmidt of the D-backs. There are a lot of good cases, but unlike the AL, there may not be a great case, in that it's something of a split field, with no one pulling apart from the crowd.

No one, that is, except deGrom. Let's look at the NL WAR leaders for hitters only, and right now we'll see Yelich (6.1 WAR) and Cain (5.4) at the top, well behind deGrom's 8.3, and that enormous gap is sort of the point. All of the names we mentioned are having strong years, but a six-win season is usually more "very good" than "great." In just the five seasons between 2013-17, 45 hitters had a six-win season -- and that doesn't even include pitchers. The NL has had at least one hitter put up a six-win season every full year dating back to 1927. This kind of year happens a lot.

Trout, for example, has had seasons of 9 WAR or more three times. had a 9-WAR season in 2015. Yelich is going to end up with something in the range of 6.3 WAR, and that's the real question: How often has the NL MVP Award gone to a player with a total that low?

"Not often," is the answer. In the 50 seasons preceding this year, the NL MVP Award went to a hitter 48 times. Yelich's 6.3 WAR mark would top only seven of them, including some of the most questionable award winners from decades gone by, like when Steve Garvey (3.8 WAR) somehow topped Mike Schmidt (9.4 WAR) in 1974. 

Again, that's not to discredit Yelich, who has been great, but his park-adjusted batting line is relatively similar to that of , a good player having a great year who is in no one's NL MVP Award discussion.

Yelich, Baez, Arenado or anyone noted above would be a perfectly fine choice. They're just not a no-doubter choice, like Harper in 2015, like Trout most years. That opens the door for deGrom. That makes this realistic. 

OK, so what about those reasons that would be held against deGrom? Let's briefly dissect and refute the common arguments against it.

Reason No. 3: "Because pitchers shouldn't win the MVP Award."

First of all, that's not the rule. "Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and designated hitters," says the instruction to voters on ballots.

Besides, pitchers still can and do win the award. did in 2014, as did in '11. So did another dozen other pitchers to win the MVP Award since the Cy Young Award was introduced in 1956, and 25 have done it all-time, so that holds little water.

"Pitchers get into one game every five days, while position players play every day," goes another, and that's true. It also misstates the impact that actually has. For example, has 691 plate appearances this year, the most in baseball. deGrom has faced 786 hitters while on the mound, and hit 68 more times as a batter. That's 854 total plate appearances impacted. That's 163 more than Turner. It's 249 more than Yelich. Even if you include Yelich's 239 putouts in the field, that draws them to about even. The "once every five days" argument doesn't hold weight.

Reason No. 4: "Because the MVP Award winner must come from a winning team."

While the Mets have had a nice second-half rebound -- they're 31-27 since the All-Star Game -- they're obviously not going to make the playoffs or reach .500. To some voters, that's a disqualification. It shouldn't be. We understand that deGrom isn't collecting wins because his teammates haven't done their jobs. Shouldn't we understand that's the same reason the Mets are in fourth place? Value can come from anywhere; the only thing deGrom could have done to make the playoffs this year was to have been traded to the Dodgers or Braves or Cubs. 

Either way, the ballot is clear on this point. "There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means," the instructions read. "It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team.

Reason No. 5: The MVP Award winner need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier."

It should be noted that only seven players from losing teams have won the MVP Award, but there are signs that voters are softening on this, because two of those winners -- Trout in 2016 and in '17 -- came in the past two seasons.

Reason No. 6: "Because a starting pitcher has never won the MVP Award without winning 20 games, and a pitcher has never won the MVP Award from a losing team."

Well, that's true. They're both true. But if we're going to be shattering tradition by assuming deGrom wins the NL Cy Young Award, why stop there?

Yelich or Baez will probably win, because they're non-pitchers having great years for contending teams. It doesn't have to be that way, though. deGrom has a strong case for baseball's most impressive award, if you care to hear it.