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The case for Christian Yelich to repeat as National League MVP

Yelich deserves a second consecutive award.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The Major League Baseball season is over. The World Series champion Washington Nationals are the team that escaped Milwaukee’s clutches with an improbable 8th inning comeback during the National League Wild Card game. Now baseball’s attention turns to award season, and the big ones are yet to be decided. The nominees for Cy Young, Manager of the Year, Rookie of the Year, and MVP for each league have been announced, and it is no surprise that Christian Yelich was named one of the finalists for National League MVP.

This honor is quite possibly the most contested of the awards in 2019. Cody Bellinger and Anthony Rendon join Yelich as finalists for the award. Each of the players is deserving of the award, but as the Highlander said, “there can be only one.” Each player has a very compelling case, but when you look at the evidence, it is clear that Christian Yelich is most deserving. I will act as Mr. Yelich’s advocate and demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt why the 2018 MVP should claim the award again in 2019.

Now for the evidence!

Exhibit A: WAR — Bellinger’s Crutch

As Jeff Passan once wrote, “WAR, the all-encompassing number that is supposed to allow us to compare ballplayers across generations, remains a great-in-theory idea whose kinks warrant if not a full reconsideration then at the very least a healthy dose of skepticism.” In the case of WAR, Christian Yelich fares well. In terms of Fangraphs WAR, he and Cody Bellinger are tied with 7.8 fWAR.

Baseball Reference is kinder to Bellinger than Yelich though. In fact, Bellinger’s bWAR is higher than any other player in baseball — including Mike Trout and Alex Bregman — at 9.0. According to Baseball Reference, Christian Yelich is ninth in WAR across MLB at 7.1 bWAR. Rendon does not even make the top 10. Players ahead of Yelich and Rendon include Mike Minor, Lance Lynn, and Marcus Seimen.

In one measure, Bellinger and Yelich are practically tied in WAR. In the other, Bellinger has a sizable lead, and is considered the best in baseball. The disconnect between the two is primarily one of defense. Baseball Reference uses Defensive Runs Saved as their defensive component, while Fangraphs calculates using Ultimate Zone Rating (B-Ref also does not include catcher framing at this time, while Fangraphs does). Defensive value is more difficult to measure and statistics used to measure as measures are still being refined. The value placed on Defensive Runs Saved, for example, has supposedly begun to include video review to provide a better measure. Unfortunately, sabermetricians are in the infancy of this endeavor.

Do not get me wrong, Cody Bellinger is a better and more versatile defender than Christian Yelich. However, does Bellinger save more runs via his defense than Yelich creates via his offense and base running, which Yelich is superior at doing than Bellinger? Baseball Reference thinks so, and Fangraphs suggests that it at least does enough to make the two pretty even. But WAR is, for the most part, context neutral, and that is its greatest flaw as an all-encompassing measure.

As Bill James has said, “The bedrock assumption upon which all sabermetrics is founded is that the importance of each statistical accomplishment depends upon its connection to wins and losses.” As Bill James wrote in his 2017 MVP advocacy for Jose Altuve over Aaron Judge, “Aaron Judge was nowhere near as valuable as Jose Altuve. Why? Because he didn’t do nearly as much to win games for his team as Altuve did. It is NOT close. The belief that it is close is fueled by bad statistical analysis—not as bad as the 1974 statistical analysis, I grant, but flawed nonetheless. It is based essentially on a misleading statistic, which is WAR...I am not saying that WAR is a bad statistic or a useless statistic, but it is not a perfect statistic, and in this particular case it is just dead wrong. It is dead wrong because the creators of that statistic have severed the connection between performance statistics and wins, thus undermining their analysis.”

And they continue to undermine their analysis for the same reasons. That is ultimately the argument I will make moving forward. While WAR is a statistical reference point for us to utilize to help make informed decisions, it is not the only reference point. Any reasonable person with an understanding of how to use analysis would agree. While WAR helps us assess, relying on it as the “crutch” of player analysis is lazy. We should dig deeper, because when we do, we attain context. That context paints a more vivid and nuanced picture — Christian Yelich should be the image that you see holding the banner of MVP in the National League for 2019.

Exhibit B: Offense, Offense, Offense

Christian Yelich was the best hitter in the National League, while also being one of the best base runners in the game (something neither Bellinger nor Rendon can claim). The offensive component of the game is the component most accurately measured. When we look at the slash lines (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage/on-base plus slugging) of the three major candidates for the MVP award, Yelich is the best.

Christian Yelich: .329/.429/.671/1.100

Cody Bellinger: .305/.406/.629/1.035

Anthony Rendon: .319/.412/.598/1.010

Exhibit C: Clutch when it Counts

Yelich’s ability in clutch situations is what sets him apart. Let’s take a look how these three great players measure up in 2019:

  • 2 outs with RISP: Yelich (.273/.467/.659/1.126), Bellinger (.241/.397/.407/.804), Rendon (.362/.519/.793/1.313)
  • Late and close: Yelich (.443/.547/.829/1.375), Bellinger (.260/.368/.521/.888) Rendon (.328/.430/.612/1.042)
  • High leverage: Yelich (.384/.460/.791/1.251), Bellinger (.314/.397/.637/1.034), Rendon (.402/.453/.815/1.268)
  • Innings 7-9: Yelich (.405/.513/.786/1.299), Bellinger (.325/.421/.687/1.108), Rendon (.331/.454/.641/1.095)
  • Against power pitchers: Yelich (.367/.469/.717/1.185), Bellinger (.297/.394/.534/.928), Rendon (.349/.451/.697/1.148)

While Rendon rivals Yelich in being clutch (which is why he would be my runner up for the MVP if I had a vote), in 2019 he was not quite as clutch as Yelich in late situations with the game on the line.

We now have the most compelling reason (in my humble opinion) why Christian Yelich is the MVP of the National League in 2019. Anybody would like to have Bellinger or Rendon up in an important momemt, but there are few in the history of baseball that you would rather have up at the plate in clutch situations than Christian Yelich in 2019.

Exhibit D: The Bellinger Fade

Based solely on his numbers from April, Bellinger seemed liked a good bet to take home the award this year. But if we look closer as his numbers throughout the season, we see that his OPS actually dropped in every single month from the start of the season to the conclusion. He was obviously still a highly productive player by the end of the year, but is he really deserving of MVP?

Mar/Apr || .431/.508/.890/1.397

May || .319/.413/.585/.998

June || .272/.391/.576/.967

July || .265/.386/.566/.952

Aug || .235/.336/.582/.918

Sept || .280/.379/.512/.891)

pre-All-Star Break || .336/.432/.692/1.124

post-All-Star Break || .263/.371/.546/.917

Cody Bellinger, Anthony Rendon, and Christian Yelich are all worthy of the National League MVP. Christian Yelich is just the most worthy. While Bellinger is the better defender, it is the contention of this writer that his defensive prowess does not supersede Yelich’s superior value on offense. This becomes most evident when one looks at clutch based metrics as well as Bellinger’s inability to maintain his hot start as the season progressed. Anthony Rendon did much to close the gap between him and the two other candidates, but likely not enough to pull ahead of either one. With all of that in mind, those with a vote should strongly consider casting their ballots for the best and most valuable player in the National League — Christian Yelich.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference and Fangraphs