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MVPlea: So, who was the 2020 Cardinals' Most Valuable Player?

MVPlea: So, who was the 2020 Cardinals' Most Valuable Player?

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Brewers Cardinals Baseball

St. Louis Cardinals' Paul Goldschmidt (46) is congratulated by teammates Adam Wainwright (50) and Dexter Fowler after hitting a grand slam during the third inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers Friday, Sept. 13, 2019, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

When all the ballots were in and votes counted, the national electorate had sent a clear message: During a season that saw them go in and out and then back into quarantine before ultimately reaching the postseason as the National League’s fifth season, the MVP for the 2020 Cardinals was daily presence Paul Goldschmidt.

The Cardinals’ first baseman received three votes for the NL MVP, as determined by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

He was the only Cardinal mentioned on any of the ballots.

It’s the fourth time in five seasons (see chart below) the club has had only one player receive votes. That speaks increasingly to how the Cardinals have built a team that is the sum of its parts, not hitched to a star.

Look no further than the team's hometown. Closer to the Cardinals' precinct, there’s cause for conversation.

Not one of the votes for Goldschmidt came from St. Louis.

Like every other city in the NL, the St. Louis Chapter of the BBWAA had two voters for the NL, Post-Dispatch colleague Rick Hummel and MLB.com’s Jenifer Langosch. Hummel has received national attention for his ballot that included a thoroughly modern typo. For the first time this season, the ballots included a drop-down menu to expedite the process. As Hummel has explained, he meant to vote for Washington shortstop Trea Turner on the 10th and final line of his ballot. By accident, Hummel instead scrolled to Cubs pitcher Ryan Tepera. The misplaced click did not substantively changed the outcome of the vote. Turner finished seventh in the voting, more than 80 points behind Atlanta’s Marcell Ozuna.

The righthander will forever have a line on his Baseball-Reference.com page and in NL Central lore as receiving MVP support in 2020.

That is more than all but one of the Cardinals can say – which is fascinating.

Who was the team MVP in this stress test of a season?

Goldschmidt finished top 20 in the league in on-base percentage (.417), OPS (.883), batting average (.304), Win Probability Added (1.19), Weighted Runs Created on a 100-point average scale (146), and in both calculations of WAR, FanGraphs.com (2.1) and Baseball-Reference.com (1.7). By fWAR, Goldschmidt stood out, same as he did in the BBWAA vote:

fWAR

• Paul Goldschmidt, 2.1

• Kolten Wong, 1.3

• Adam Wainwright, 1.0

• Harrison Bader, 1.0

• Tommy Edman, 0.8

• Brad Miller, 0.8

• Kwang Hyun Kim, 0.6

• Jack Flaherty, 0.6

• Giovanny Gallegos, 0.6

The cluster was closer when it came to bWAR, the metric factored by Baseball-Reference.com, and we can see why when we split it apart.

Pitching bWAR

• Kwang Hyun Kim, 0.9

• Austin Gomber, 0.7

• Dakota Hudson, 0.6

• Adam Wainwright, 0.5

• Tyler Webb, 0.4

Offense bWAR

• Paul Goldschmidt, 1.6

• Brad Miller, 0.8

• Harrison Bader, 0.7

• Kolten Wong, 0.5

• Tommy Edman, 0.2

Composite bWAR (with defense)

• Goldschmidt, 1.7

• Wong, 1.1

• Kim, 0.9

• Bader, 0.8

• Edman, 0.8

• Miller, 0.7

• Gomber, 0.7

The scatterplot of these metrics illustrate as much as anything the trick of determining an MVP for the 2020 Cardinals, and whether there was one at all, or whether the season and how it ended was more Cardinals by committee. All the transactions would suggest that.

The baseball card stats offer a similar referendum. Tyler O’Neill and Miller tied for the team lead with seven home runs. Edman had the team lead with 26 RBIs. Goldschmidt led in many of the rates – from OBP to OPS to OPS+ (142). And he was tops in Runs Created, of course, at 40. On the pitching side, Adam Wainwright was 5-3 in 10 starts with a 3.15 ERA over those 65 2/3 innings.

Every year, I sit down with a yellow pad of paper, an old ruler I used long ago to draw cartoons, and as many stats as possible. I put together what I’ve come to call the MVPagg chart – or MVP Aggregate. It helps me crystallize my thoughts and identify the candidates for MVP that I should consider for my ballots. I have sheets like this going back more than a decade. And this was by far the trickiest of them all, and that’s for two main reasons:

• Teams in the NL didn’t play all the teams in the NL.

• The sample size was so small for every player, smaller for some.

Juan Soto offers the best example of the later. The Washington Nationals’ superstar outfielder had a bonkers slash line and led the NL with .351/.490/.695 batting and a 1.185 OPS. However, he did that in 196 plate appearances. Marcell Ozuna had 267 plate appearances. Is what he did – flirting with the Triple Crown – more impressive because he sustained it over the equivalent of 17 more games? There were examples like that all over the ballot, and that was before you started including pitchers like Trevor Bauer and Yu Darvish. They have appeared in only a sixth of the team’s games, but they also had far more plate appearances against batters than batters had on their own. The unusual nature of the shortened schedule and abbreviated season led me to abandon most of the “compiling” or “playing time” stats that would usually guide my hand. I try to avoid voting for the player who had two exceptional months but didn’t play for two others when there is a candidate who had sustained performance and played the entirety of the season for his team.

The first issue is still difficult to dissect.

The Cy Young Award winners came out of the Central Silo and both were deserving, but they are also a chicken-egg conundrum. Did the pitching in the NL and AL central constrained the offenses, or did the offenses contribute to the success of these pitchers? There is definitely an argument to be had that the NL Central wheezed offensively, and that the lineups did not perform to expectations, trends, career norms, or any of it. Give the pitchers credit. But don’t dismiss the lack of votes for NL Central hitters, and maybe that should give us pause and think more highly of San Diego pitcher Dinelson Lamet and the season he had out amongst the sturdy redwoods of the NL West and AL West.

What has guided my vote in the past is the idea that “valuable” means “influential” and trying to map how influential a player was on his team’s success is the goal. Statistics are a major factor in that, and advanced metrics are key. Reporting is part of that, too, and that was limited this season because of the Zoom exchanges, all of which with the Cardinals were recorded so few of which could be candid about candidates.

Although imperfect by itself like so many, a stat I look toward for a clue on “influence” is Win Probability Added. It attempts to measure the “influence” a player had in his team’s chances of winning that game. In Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, there were four moments that swung the win expectancy of the game by at least 37 percent. The most dramatic of them all, of course, was David Freese’s two-run triple in the ninth that shifted the WPA of the game for the Cardinals by a plus-54 percent.

If you saw that game, you probably have a visceral sense of how WPA works.

This season, if you rank the Cardinals by WPA+, that is the win probability they added before including the win probability they subtracted, another picture of the team emerges:

• Wainwright, 5.0

• Goldschmidt, 4.1

• B. Miller, 3.9

• Edman, 3.8

• Kim, 3.6

• O’Neill, 3.3

• Wong, 3.2

• Flaherty, 2.6

From the NL-sized pool, the winner of the MVP vote, Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman, had the highest overall total WPA (3.17), and there at third was Mookie Betts (2.46) and second was San Francisco’s Mike Yastrzemski (3.10), and teammates Fernando Tatis Jr. (1.47) and Manny Machado (0.74) were down ballot, if you will. Goldschmidt ranked 16th in the NL, among hitters. But looking at those numbers got me thinking about the Cardinal that had the most influence on their return from quarantine, on their stamina, on the roster’s survival as it was thinned by doubleheaders and constant transactions and a healthy spackling of rookies. I kept returning to the idea of WPA – not just in the game, but for games to come, and that led me to consider as the Cardinals’ MVP the pitcher who led them out of quarantine, who shouldered innings he was going to win or lose and went out there and won, and provided stability where there otherwise would not have been.

If I had submitted an MVP ballot this year, it would have had some non-traditional wrinkles to go with the non-traditional season and looked like this:

1. Freddie Freeman, ATL

2. Mookie Betts, LAD

3. Fernando Tatis Jr., SD

4. Juan Soto, WSH

5. Marcell Ozuna, ATL

6. Manny Machado, SD

7. Yu Darvish, CHC

8. Trevor Bauer, CIN

9. Mike Yastrzemski, SF

10. Adam Wainwright, STL

I feel like I could have defended that ballot.

So, who would you put as Cardinals’ MVP?

***

MVP finishes for Cardinals since their last winner:

2020 – Paul Goldschmidt (15)

2019 – Jack Flaherty (13), Goldschmidt (20), Kolten Wong (20)

2018 – Matt Carpenter (19)

2017 – Tommy Pham (11)

2016 – Yadier Molina (23)

2015 – Carpenter (12), Jason Heyward (15), Trevor Rosenthal (17)

2014 – Adam Wainwright (8), Matt Holliday (14), Jhonny Peralta (14)

2013 – Molina (3)*, Carpenter (4), Allen Craig (8), Wainwright (20), Holliday (23)

2012 – Molina (4), Holliday (11), Craig (19), Carlos Beltran (26)

2011 – Albert Pujols (5), Lance Berkman (7), Molina (21)

2010 – Pujols (2), Holliday (12), Wainwright (17)

2009 – Pujols wins MVP unanimously (all 32 first-place votes)

* Molina received two first-place votes. Both of them came from St. Louis, including one from me. (My defense on MLB Network gave the family one of the favorite photobombs -- as my 7-year-old son wandered behind me to get a view of the camera.) Goldschmidt finished second behind the winner Andrew McCutchen, who received 28 of the available 30 first-place votes.

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