Last year, Ryan Braun won the National League Most Valuable Player Award by batting .332 with 33 home runs and 111 RBI.
This season, Braun leads the NL with 40 home runs, a .596 slugging percentage and .983 OPS as of Sept. 21. His 105 RBI are tied for the league lead, and his .311 batting average ranks fifth among NL hitters.
Yet it doesn't appear likely that Braun will win the NL MVP award this year, despite putting up similar—possibly superior—numbers. The San Francisco Giants' Buster Posey and Pittsburgh Pirates' Andrew McCutchen will likely finish ahead of him in MVP voting despite his performance.
But even if Braun was clearly the best player in the NL this season, would MVP voters give him the award for the second consecutive season? Or would voters hold a grudge against him for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs last December, believing they were duped by a cheater?
Braun did successfully appeal his 50-game suspension for the positive PED test, and the penalty was overturned. An arbitrator ruled that Braun's drug sample was not handled properly before being delivered to a testing lab in Montreal and was thus compromised.
Though his PED suspension was overturned, there is still a sentiment among fans (and presumably MVP voters) that Braun was acquitted on a technicality. Resentful voters who feel that Braun got away with a positive test for excess testosterone might take this year's balloting as an opportunity to enact some form of punishment.
This would be terribly unfair.
Even if Braun's positive test and 50-game suspension had been upheld, the Baseball Writers' Association of America would not have stripped him of the MVP award (though many members were surely calling for that very action).
"I got the same question after Ken Caminiti came clean about his steroids usage, and whether we should give the 1996 MVP award instead to Mike Piazza," BBWAA secretary/treasurer Jack O'Connell, said at the time (via the L.A. Times). "The answer is no.
"The voters used the information they had at the time of the election. I don't see how we can change that."
O'Connell also cited Alex Rodriguez admitting he used PEDs when he won the 2003 AL MVP Award. He wasn't stripped of that award in light of his revelation.
A valid argument can be made for Braun not winning the NL MVP this year. Posey is putting up excellent numbers for a Giants team that will win the NL West while playing the most demanding defensive position in baseball. McCutchen is the only consistent offensive threat in the Pirates lineup. Would the Bucs be in playoff contention without him?
Yet Braun does have a strong case. Besides the numbers that he's produced, the Brewers are also in playoff contention thanks to an 14-4 record thus far through September. Milwaukee is currently 2.5 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals for the NL's second wild-card playoff spot with 13 games remaining in the regular season.
The Brewers won the NL Central last year with a record of 96-66, the second-best mark in the NL. That arguably gave Braun the edge over the Los Angeles Dodgers' Matt Kemp in NL MVP voting. So it only seems fair to hold the Brewers' record against Braun when considering his MVP candidacy this year.
Milwaukee was one of the most disappointing teams in MLB during the first five months of the season. On Aug. 19, the Brewers were 19 games out of first place in the NL Central, holding fourth place with a 54-66 record.
However, the Brewers' September surge has taken care of that argument.
Braun is playing for a postseason contender. More punitive voters might wait to see if Milwaukee actually qualifies for the playoffs before deciding if that should be a tipping point for Braun. But it can't be denied that the Brewers are in the playoff race late in the season because of his performance.
MVP voting is obviously subjective. Otherwise, the player with the best numbers or the best player on the best team would always get the award automatically. There would be no use for a ballot.
So if voters feel they have an opportunity to enact a punishment that wasn't handed down last year, there's nothing to stop them from doing so.
But to do so with Braun would be misguided and petty.
MVP voters should not penalize Braun for something that happened last year. The vote for this year's NL MVP Award is for what a player has done during the 2012 season. Braun has not tested positive for PEDs (and he's presumably been randomly tested, as all baseball players are), but he is putting up even better numbers than he did a year ago.
Fortunately for voters, Posey and/or McCutchen will probably let them off the hook this year.
We'll probably never know how perception affected Braun in MVP balloting, unless particular voters share their views. But if he finishes lower than third in balloting, we'll know that Braun never had a chance.
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