Making the Case for Anthony Rizzo as NL MVP

Who’s going to win the NL MVP? That’s a clown question, bro. I feel pretty confident in saying that Bryce Harper and his uber-trendy coiffure will be taking home the hardware at season’s end, but that doesn’t mean I’m not willing to argue in favor of Anthony Rizzo.

Thus far in the discourse on the topic, the main point in Rizzo’s favor seems to be his team’s overall performance. Harper’s Nats have a winning record, but they’ve really faded down the stretch while Rizzo is leading a young group of overachievers into the postseason. Never mind that Harper has essentially been forced to carry his team all by himself, the fact remains that Washington has faltered under his leadership (that’s the narrative, anyway).

Make no mistake, Bryce Harper has put together the best season in recent memory and has done so at a pretty tender age. It’s easy to forget because this is already his 4th season in the majors, but Harper won’t turn 23 until the day after Kris Bryant — a fellow Las Vegan and 9 months Harper’s senior — and the Cubs have moved to the NLCS. In any case, his stats are pretty good.

So, yeah, that’s decent. Thing is, that stuff really just solidifies Harper as the NL’s most outstanding player and what we’re talking about here is the most valuable player. In terms of the award’s history, those terms are often interchangeable, but the advent of advanced metrics give us a bit more insight into what a player’s real value to his team is. At it’s most pure definition, the award in question should go to the player who has meant to most to his team in terms of wins, who has perhaps been the best in those clutch situations that decide outcomes.

While Harper may have the best overall stats, I’d argue that Anthony Rizzo’s contribution has actually been more important, relatively speaking. Before you go shouting me down as a homer, though, take a look at what I’ve got to say. You might find yourself nodding along with my inevitably convincing points.

I don’t suppose my first set of stats will meet with a great deal of acceptance from those of you who, like myself, have heartily embraced sabremetrics. That’s because I’m looking at clutch stats, those numbers accumulated in high-leverage situations. The concept of “clutch” (and that’s a really nice piece of work by Neil Weinberg of FanGraphs) has become somewhat controversial, but I’m looking at it in this case because I’m not trying to perform some sort of predictive analysis. Rather than make a statement about who Rizzo is and what he will be, I’m simply looking at what he has been this year.

What Rizzo has been in 2015 is the best hitter in the NL in what FanGraphs deems high-leverage spots. His 206 wRC+ in those situations puts him at the top of the league, 106% better than the average hitter when it comes to creating runs. Joey Votto is second with 204, tied with a Nationals player. Yes, Yunel Escobar is right there near the top. Bryce Harper? His 115 wRC+ is solid, but it’s all the way down at 32nd in the NL.

Moving on wOBA, or weighted on-base average, which is used to “measure a hitter’s overall offensive value, based on the relative values of each distinct offensive event.” The garden-variety version of this stat just looks at how often a player reaches base, while wOBA gives weight to exactly how he reaches. By this measure, Rizzo again sits atop the NL, tied with Votto at .475. Once again, Bryce Harper’s paltry .340 has him at 32nd. Just for poops and chuckles, I looked at OPS too; Rizzo’s 1.174 sits 2nd behind Votto’s 1.176, while Harper’s .821 is…31st. I bet you thought it’d be 32nd, huh?

Okay, so that stuff is perhaps a bit too obscurely esoteric, not to mention inconsequential (Rizzo’s sample is only 67 AB’s, Votto’s 70, and Harper’s 57), to be any measure of real merit in an argument. Still, if we’re looking at what a player has done in the specific situations upon which a game’s result hinges, well, this gives us some answers. To that end, I wanted to look at win probability added (WPA) to get more of a big-picture view. I mean, if we’re talking about the most valuable player in the lead, would it not figure that we’d want to see who has had the greatest impact on the likelihood that his team will win?

Again, I turn to FanGraphs to provide a bit of context:

Win Probability Added (WPA) captures the change in Win Expectancy from one plate appearance to the next and credits or debits the player based on how much their action increased their team’s odds of winning. Most sabermetric statistics are context neutral — they do not consider the situation of a particular event or how some plays are more crucial to a win than others. While wOBA rates all home runs as equal, we know intuitively that a home run in the third inning of a blowout is less important to that win than a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of a close game. WPA captures this difference.

For this portion of the exercise, I’ve removed the leverage context and am looking at the stats from the whole season. Wouldn’t you know it, Anthony Rizzo comes up #1 again with a total of 6.73, narrowly beating out the 6.52 of Joey Votto. As you might imagine, Bryce Harper is significantly higher than the 30’s; in fact, his 5.45 is 4th in the NL. Who’s third? Why, that’d be Kris Bryant with a 5.99 mark.

I understand that this argument will fall mainly on deaf ears. Heck, I’ve a set of noise-cancelling headphones of my own on when it comes to pretty much every non-Harper claim. We’ve got nearly a month left in the season, so both stats and opinions still have time to change, but I’m thinking we’ll see Rizzo finish no higher than 2nd and probably more like 3rd. I suppose it’s possible the Cubs’ leader makes it close if Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew McCutchen vulture some of Harper’s votes. Votto deserves a good deal of run too, but the Reds’ God-awful play may have all but eliminated him from consideration.

If, however, we’re getting literal with the MVP and really look at the player who has had the most direct impact on his team’s wins, Rizzo’s case is strong to quite strong. Harper’s going to win, but the gap isn’t nearly as wide as even I had thought prior to starting this post.

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