While I’m happy to see the Milwaukee Brewers’ Ryan Braun join the ranks of Jewish baseball legends like Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg as an MVP winner, this year’s National League award undoubtedly belonged to Los Angeles Dodger Matt Kemp.
In support of Braun, ESPN’s Jim Caple argued that “the award is for the league’s Most Valuable Player, not its best or outstanding player.” Caple might as well have written the following: “I’m going to use a literalist definition of the word valuable, which no one should really care about, to justify voting for the player that every statistic, traditional or sabermetric, identifies as the second-best National Leaguer in 2011.”
Kemp was eight batting points away from winning the first Triple Crown since Carl Yazstremski in 1967 and one home-run away from becoming the fifth 40-40 player in MLB history. His FanGraphs WAR of 8.7 was nearly a full win higher than Braun’s 7.8. Baseball-Reference had the gap even wider—10.0 to 7.7.
Even when Caple focuses all his attention on the definition of a word, he applies the definition wrongly. No player in all of baseball had more value to his franchise and city than Kemp this year.
Quite simply, the Dodgers would have been putrid without him. Kemp’s 8.7 FanGraphs WAR indicates that they would have been an 88-89 loss team, but remember that the Dodgers were already on a 88-89-loss pace through August 1 with Kemp. Without his presence, there’s no way they would have turned it around like they did over the final two months. The Dodgers more likely would have been 8.7 wins worse than their 88-89 loss pace, putting them within striking distance of their first 100-loss season since 1905, back when they were known as the Brooklyn Superbas.
Combine that with the Frank McCourt ownership debacle, and you easily have the most miserable season in 128 years of club history. Kemp and Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw meant everything to a moribund franchise and downtrodden fan base in 2011.
On the other hand, the Brewers without Braun would have still been a playoff contender, just like they will be next year without Prince Fielder. There’s no question Braun put the Brewers over the hump from fringe contender to one of the National League’s elite, but his individual contribution doesn’t match up with Kemp’s.
Kemp and Braun were near-equals offensively, combining potent hitting (.419 wOBA for Kemp, .411 wOBA for Braun) and speed (40 stolen bases in 161 games for Kemp, 33 stolen bases in 150 games for Braun). But not only was Kemp slightly better in both offensive categories, he played better defense in a more difficult position, centerfield, than Braun did in leftfield. Four-tool corner-outfielders are easier to find than five-tool centerfielders, which explains Kemp’s higher WAR. Again, the numbers would seem to demonstrate Kemp’s value, though Caple doesn’t see it that way.
The main argument against Kemp was that he could not win the award after playing in no meaningful games. While the Dodgers were essentially out of playoff contention by July, does anyone seriously believe Kemp’s performance would have suffered in Milwaukee? If anything, batting ahead of Fielder at the tenth best hitter’s park in baseball (according to ESPN’s 2011 Park Factor, which ranked Dodger Stadium the 22nd best hitter’s park) would have boosted Kemp’s numbers even more.
Besides, should Kemp really be punished for having James Loney at first base instead of Fielder, Tony Gwynn, Jr. in the outfield instead of Corey Hart and Juan Uribe (a.ka. king of the towering infield fly) at second base instead of Rickie Weeks? Should he be punished for having McCourt as an owner instead of Mark Attanasio?
Any way you spin it, Matt Kemp deserved to be National League MVP. Luckily for Dodger fans, he has another eight years in our uniform to go after it.