With just over three weeks to go until the All-Star break in Major League Baseball, the awards race is going to start picking up steam as players finally have enough plate appearances and innings pitched to draw some conclusions.
But the race for the National League Most Valuable Player might be the most compelling in the entire sport right now. There are a handful of strong candidates, and a second group not far behind them, but one name who should be commanding attention is Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt.
Viewed as a platoon player on his way up through the minors because of his inability to hit right-handed pitching, Goldschmidt has transformed himself into a very good all-around hitter this season and his splits reflect that.
Going into Friday's games, Goldschmidt was hitting a robust .312/.400/.556 with 13 doubles and 11 home runs against righties. He is still hitting southpaws well, though not quite at the same level he is tattooing righties (.273/.329/.558, six homers, four doubles).
For the season, the Diamondbacks first baseman has put up a .301/.380/.556 line with 17 homers, 62 RBI, 17 doubles, six stolen bases, 80 hits and 47 runs. His slugging percentage ranks fourth in the league, while his on-base percentage is good enough for 13th. He's also in the top 20 in hits, doubles and walks.
Pretty impressive, right? It almost makes you wish that you were paying closer attention to an Arizona team that, while it was chastised in the offseason for the moves made by the front office, is leading the National League West and playing well.
But those are just the absolute baseline stats that anyone can look up. In order to make a definitive MVP case, a player has to measure up against his peers in various other categories. Goldschmidt is also at a slight disadvantage because he is a first baseman, where the defense doesn't matter as much and the offense has to be spectacular in order to be a superstar.
Fortunately, Goldschmidt, still just 25 years old and signed to a nice, team-friendly extension in the offseason, checks out very well in the deeper, more analytical stats that should be looked at.
Let's start with the simple one that everyone turns to when debating value added on the field: Wins Above Replacement (WAR).
Fangraphs' version of WAR has Goldschmidt at 2.7 so far, good enough for 13th in the National League. Not exactly the best stat in the world, but hardly enough to condemn him and take him out of the MVP conversation.
If you look at Baseball Reference's version, Goldschmidt fares better with a WAR of 3.4 that ranks seventh in the league among position players and 11th overall. Again, not the best number but still good enough to keep him in the conversation.
It is going deeper with a stat like Win Probability Added (WPA), which calculates how a player affects their team's win expectancy on a play-by-play basis, that reveals Goldschmidt as the best in the National League, by far.
He has also fared well in "clutch" situations, ranking third behind San Francisco's Brandon Belt and Cincinnati's Brandon Phillips in that category with a value of 0.97.
Among players with enough at-bats to qualify, Goldschmidt is fourth in wOBA, an accurate measure of all-around offensive value added, at .399 and fifth in the NL in Isolated Power, which measures a hitter's ability to get extra-base hits (.256). He does get a boost in wOBA from Fangraphs, which doesn't adjust for park effects and will inflate, at least to some degree, the number for someone who plays a majority of their games in a hitter-friendly park.
Since we don't exclude defense in our MVP balloting, it should be noted that Goldschmidt has made himself into a very good first baseman. After posting negative Ultimate Zone Rating totals in each of his first two seasons, albeit a truncated first year in 2011, he now boasts a 2.2 UZR and has saved nine runs with the glove.
Now those are the numbers that Goldschmidt has put up, but in order to make an argument for someone, you have to talk about what the other candidates offer.
Right now, especially in the National League, there are no shortage of contenders for the award. Some of them are obvious, like Yadier Molina, Joey Votto, Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright. Others deserve consideration but won't get it because their teams aren't very good, like Matt Harvey, David Wright, Carlos Gomez and Cliff Lee.
Among the position players, only Gonzalez, Tulowitzki and Gomez rank ahead of Goldschmidt in Isolated Power. Tulowitzki, Gonzalez, Votto and Molina rank ahead of him in wOBA.
Kershaw, Lee, Wainwright and Harvey all have a higher WAR than Goldscmidt, though they are all close enough—the gap between the four is just 0.9—that you can't definitively say one is substantially more valuable than the other at this point.
Defensively, only Gomez (17) has saved more runs than Goldschmidt. Gonzalez is tied with him at nine defensive runs saved.
Obviously Gomez's defensive value is greater than Goldschmidt's because he plays a more important position, so you have to give the Brewers star extra points for being so good in center field.
If you want to look at clutch situations, Goldschmidt is ahead of the pack in the National League. We mentioned his WPA of 3.33, but the No. 2 player in the league is Molina at 2.83. Kershaw is first among pitchers at 2.73.
That gap of .50 between Goldschmidt and Molina does significantly enhance his case for MVP, especially among voters who believe that the clutch gene is a real thing.
In the end, with such a cluttered field of MVP candidates, it is impossible at this point to single out any one player. But Goldschmidt has certainly done enough thus far to put himself in the conversation with those superstars.
It is a testament to the work that Goldschmidt has done during his time in the big leagues that we are talking about him now as not only an everyday player but among the best all-around stars in baseball.
If you want to debate the MVP, or anything else baseball, feel free to hit me up on Twitter with questions or comments.
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