NL MVP: the case for Ryan Braun

Ryan Braun has been the best player in the NL this year. (Jake Roth/US Presswire)

The best way to quiet your critics and prove your innocence in sports is to do it with your play.

Amid allegations of PED use that came about when tests came back positive in October of last year, Ryan Braun, the 2011 NL MVP, strongly denied any wrongdoings and said the truth will come out in the end. After winning his appeal of a 50-game suspension on a technicality in which it was proved that his urine sample was mishandled after it was collected – improper protocol followed as the sample was stored and kept in the refrigerator at the home of one of the administrators instead of going straight to the lab – MLB was furious, to say the least. Knowing that there were now loopholes in their efforts to rid the sport of cheats and open the door for others to file appeals and find ways to beat the system made them look like fools.

To a man, Braun is one of the most respected players in the sport and seemed to be fully supported by his peers through the process. Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins tweeted, “I really hope Braunie’s initial test is not upheld …” Even Matt Kemp, who was thought to have deserved the award by many, lent his support, both publicly and privately to Braun throughout the process.

To say Braun has been playing with a huge chip on his shoulder this season would be an understatement if there ever was one.

To make matters worse, Prince Fielder bolted for Detroit after spending his first seven seasons in Milwaukee. Gone were his 40 HR and 113 RBI average over his last five years. Also gone was Braun’s protection in the lineup. In one of the best acquisitions of the off season, the Brewers went out and signed Aramis Ramirez for three years/$36MM and the 34-year-old third baseman has been stellar offensively for the Brew Crew. Over 141 games, he is hitting .298 with 50 doubles, 25 home runs, 98 RBI and a .536 SLG. He has provided enough protection to force pitchers to throw to Braun instead of pitching around him all year.

Now, with all due respect to the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen and the Giants’ Buster Posey, Braun has just outplayed both of them this season. And when you factor in the pressure he has had to perform this year to further prove his innocence, the distance between them grows.

Posey’s second-half tear has earned him legitimate merit for the award. Over his 63 games since the All- Star break, he is hitting .383 with 20 doubles, 13 home runs, 55 RBI and a 1.094 OPS. His team is in first place by 10 games and has already clinched the NL West. He has taken the team on his shoulders ever since Melky Cabrera was suspended 50 games for PED use in mid-August.

McCutchen’s first-half play made him a legitimate contender for the award. Over his first 99 games, he hit .371 with 22 home runs, 66 RBI and a 1.059 OPS. The Pirates were 63-40 heading into August and in position to make the playoffs for the first time in 20 years. Since then, the Pirates have gone 16-34 and McCutchen has hit .268 with eight home runs, 27 RBI and a slash line of .360/.442/.802 over his last 49 games. As he struggled, so did his team.

Braun, meanwhile, has been steady and solid all season long. Here are his monthly splits for the year:

  • April       .294, 7 HR, 17 RBI, .994 OPS
  • May        .323, 7 HR, 19 RBI, 1.008 OPS
  • June        .319, 8 HR, 19 RBI, 1.008 OPS
  • July        .301, 6 HR, 15 RBI, .941 OPS
  • August        .312, 8 HR, 22 RBI, 1.009 OPS
  • September    .360, 4 HR, 16 RBI, .988 OPS

He currently ranks first in home runs, SLG, OPS and is tied for first in RBI. He is second in runs scored, fourth in OBP, fifth in batting average and tied for 10th in stolen bases. You can argue that he is having a better season this year than last.

Offensively, Braun’s numbers are better than the other two in almost every category:

Braun —  .319, 101 R, 40 HR, 108 RBI, 29 SB, .392/.600/.993

McCutchen —  .336, 104 R, 30 HR, 93 RBI, 19 SB, .407/.566/.972

Posey —  .332, 74 R, 23 HR, 98 RBI, 1 SB, .405/.541/.946

Of the eight counting stats above, Braun leads in five categories, McCutchen three and Posey none, showing that Braun has had the better season statistically. Of course, sabermetrics says otherwise, with McCutchen leading the three with an offensive WAR of 7.4. Posey is second with 6.6 and Braun third with 5.7. Therein lies the never ending battle between the two stats. Pick your poison, but I will always go with counting stats because they are in fact, fact. In the end, we really have no idea what a “replacement player” would do. We do know, however, that all three have been great hitters this year. Braun separates himself with the power numbers, as well as the speed totals.

Buster Posey’s second half tear has made him an MVP contender. (Mark J. Rebilas/US Presswire)

Defensively, it’s hard to determine who is the best. Both McCutchen and Posey play premium positions while Braun plays a position usually saved for the worst fielder on the team. However, Braun’s 1.1 defensive WAR is the best of the three with Posey second at -0.2 and McCutchen third at -0.6. Here we go again.

Of the 10 left fielders who have played at least 700 innings at the position this year in the NL, Braun ranks second in Range Factor per-nine-innings with 1.98. The Cubs’ Alfonso Soriano ranks first with a 2.06, so again, grain of salt here. Of the 12 center fielders who have played at least 700 innings this year in the NL, six have a higher RF/9 innings than McCutchen’s 2.50. Of the 11 catchers who have caught at least 700 innings this year in the NL, Posey‘s 8.58 RF/9 innings ranks second to the Phillies’ Carlos Ruiz‘ 9.69. However, his 30 percent caught stealing total ranks seventh out of the group.

In the end, defense doesn’t factor into the argument a whole lot when it comes to this award this year. All three are good defenders but not one separates himself like Mike Trout does in the AL when compared to Miguel Cabrera. If I had to rank them, I’d go Posey, McCutchen and then Braun based solely on the premium of their positions. Braun, however, has played his position as good as anyone in the league this year.

Taking everything into consideration, Braun has been the best player in the NL this year. He has proved his doubters wrong, and in the process, has established himself as one of the game’s best all-around players. He has been great since opening day and is playing his best down the stretch as he tries to get his team into the playoffs. Posey would be my second choice as his second half has been incredible and his team is in the playoffs. And while I don’t think team success should ultimately determine a player’s chances, it does help. And when a player like McCutchen struggles, and his team follows suit, it definitely doesn’t look good to the voters. I believe the race will be a close one as I expect some voters to punish Braun by looking the other way, but however the vote goes, the 2012 NL MVP is Ryan Braun.

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