MVP chants showered Christian Yelich in the bottom of the 6th inning Monday night at Miller Park as he stood on third base after completing his second cycle in just under three weeks against the Cincinnati Reds.
The chants are pretty commonplace for any contending team’s best player this time of year, but in the case of Yelich, it’s deserved.
The NL MVP race is still wide open with less than two weeks to play, and really, Yelich should be considered a - if not the - leading candidate. At the very least, he’s a better candidate for the award than the leading contender on the Brewers’ rivals to the south.
Cubs fans have been touting Javier Baez as an MVP candidate for weeks, and let’s be clear here, he’s having a very good year. But if you were to put Baez’s numbers next to Yelich’s, it’s fairly clear who has the better resume -- at least as of now.
If you’re the old school type and want to go by counting stats, Baez has 32 home runs and an NL-leading 105 RBI to his name. That’s more than Yelich’s 31 and 93, but Baez has also played in 12 more games than Yelich and has had more opportunities to drive runners in: Baez has hit with a total of 413 runners on base, while Yelich has only seen 351 runners on for his at-bats.
Considering Yelich did miss a little bit of time at the beginning of the year and has seen more off-days as part of the Brewers’ largely effective outfield shuffle, it might be better to look at rate stats instead. Baez is hitting .294/.328/.566 this year, totaling an OPS of .893. Yelich, meanwhile, is hitting .318/.385/.570, chasing a batting title and - after hitting a double, triple and home run last night - now leads the National League with his .955 OPS as well as leading the NL in slugging percentage.
Considering we’re well beyond the era of using counting stats and batting average to decide MVP awards, though, what about some of the more advanced numbers?
Well, that’s where Yelich’s case over Baez becomes even more compelling.
Baez has a wOBA of .371, which is very good for a middle infielder. But Yelich’s wOBA is .405.
Baez has a wRC+ of 133, meaning he’s been 33% better than league average offensively. Yelich has a wRC+ of 154, meaning he’s been 54% better than league average.
Never mistaken for a disciplined hitter, Baez has a K% of 25.1% and a BB% of just 4.2%. Yelich has struck out in 21.3% of his plate appearances and walked in 9% of them.
Baez does hit the ball hard when he makes contact, though, putting up a hard-hit rate of 36.4%. Yelich’s hard-hit rate is at 47.8%.
Cubs fans will tell you Baez routinely comes up big when it matters the most. He has a 2.54 WPA this year. Yelich has a 4.06 WPA.
You get the picture with the offensive stats. But hey, MVP should be all-encompassing if you’re looking for the total value of a player, right? What about defense and baserunning?
Baez has a fWAR of 5.1 and bWAR of 5.8. Yelich has a fWAR of 6.0 and bWAR of 5.7 -- virtually even in the latter and ahead in the former.
There’s no denying Baez is an exciting (or aggravating, depending on your perspective) baserunner. The Brewers famously threw over to first multiple times when he wasn’t even taking a lead during their last series in Chicago, after all. He’s stolen 21 bases in 30 tries -- a 70% success rate -- and is 3.8 baserunning runs above average.
But Yelich has stolen nearly as many bases at a higher rate -- 19 in 23 attempts, or 82.6% -- and while his baserunning technique may be underrated by many, it isn’t by the metrics. Fangraphs has Yelich at 5.1 baserunning runs above average. Simply put, Yelich costs his team fewer outs and is worth more runs on the basepaths.
Admittedly, the one area where Baez does have an edge over Yelich is with the glove, although it may be closer than one might expect. Yelich has a UZR/150 of -5.5 in left field, -19.4 in center field (albeit in a very limited 96.2 innings -- likely because the Brewers know it’s not his best position), and +11.0 in right field. Baez, meanwhile, has a UZR/150 of +1.2 at second base, -12.7 at third, and +1.4 at shortstop.
In terms of Defensive Runs Saved, Yelich is at +1 overall (-1 in left, -1 in center, +3 in right), while Baez is at +9 (+5 at second, +2 at third, +2 at shortstop). How much you want to weigh single-season defensive metrics likely depends on which side of this debate you’re likely to support. Even if you argue the metrics don’t do Baez’s defensive gifts justice, the question is whether that’s enough to make a clear difference in overall value and overcome the slew of superior offensive numbers Yelich is putting up.
Of course, there are other voting factors in play — these are far from the only two candidates who could stake a compelling claim to the award, and there’s a chance Yelich has a teammate in Lorenzo Cain who could eat into his share of Top-3 MVP votes (although Baez has no shortage of star power sharing the lineup with him, too). If it was a head-to-head race, though — or if someone is trying to break a tie between the two — at this point the nod should go to Christian Yelich.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs