In their 21 seasons of existence, the Arizona Diamondbacks have yet to have a player win the National League Most Valuable Player. They’ve had enormous success with the Cy Young Award because of a certain flame-throwing, Hall of Fame southpaw finishing out the twilight of his career in Arizona. However, none of their position players have been able to outshine their peers enough to earn the MVP.
Before the Paul Goldschmidt Era, Arizona had a player finish in the top 3 only twice, Matt Williams in 1999 and Luis Gonzalez in 2001, and an additional top 5 finish by Justin Upton in 2011. As you’re surely aware, all of those mentions came in seasons where the Arizona Diamondbacks made the postseason. That’s important because the “team must make the playoffs” argument was used against Paul Goldschmidt in his breakout 2013 season. It is occasionally used as criteria for the award when evaluating two players with equitable production in a season. The argument is that a player who did not lead his team to the playoffs can’t be more valuable than a player of roughly the same caliber of performance who did. That hurts Goldy because the Diamondbacks made the postseason only twice during his time here. I won’t pretend that it’s the only criteria that voters consider, hello 2001 Barry Bonds and 2017 Giancarlo Stanton, but it’s part of the conversation nonetheless.
Regardless, no man has come closer to the award for Arizona on so many occasions than Paul. He amassed two runner ups in 2013 and 2015, an 11th place mention in 2016, top 3 in 2017, and a 6th place finish in 2018. Was he more deserving than the eventual award winner in any of those seasons? Let’s take a look at all the seasons he finished in the top 10 in voting.
Paul had just finished his first full season with the D’backs when Kevin Towers approached him, at the perfect time, with a hefty contact for a still unproven player during Spring Training in 2013. It paid off for the team as a bargain immediately for it was the 2013 season where he emerged as a perennial MVP candidate. America’s first baseman led the Senior Circuit that season in home runs (36), runs batted in (125), OPS (.952), OPS+ (160), ISO (.249), total bases (332), and intentional walks (19). The last one is particularly my favorite because it shows the respect other teams has for Paul’s bat in only his second full season. He was named to his first All Star team that year and didn’t have one truly awful month that season.
His competition for the award in 2013, in terms of votes, came from Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter of the St. Louis Cardinals (the irony is agonizing). One important distinction between these four men is that the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates played postseason baseball while the Arizona Diamondbacks played golf in October. Fangraphs, Baseball Reference, and Baseball Prospectus were all in disagreement as to which player was the most valuable in terms of WAR.
The above table provides both clarity and uncertainty when discussing the 2013 NL MVP race. Carlos Gomez was drastically undervalued by voters while the opposite is true about Yadier Molina. They finished 9th and 3rd in the voting respectively. Guess what? Carlos Gomez and the Milwaukee Brewers didn’t make the playoffs in 2013. Gomez should have finished higher in voting, but inside the top 3 is where things get murky. There is much disagreement in value between the three metrics, and the margin between the final average is so close that it affords voters the freedom to define value in terms outside of WAR.
That’s where metrics which attempt to quantify value fall to the wayside and allow narrative to enter the discussion. What Goldschmidt meant to the Arizona Diamondbacks franchise is arguably equal to McCutchen’s value with the Pirates in 2013 during the peak of his career. Cutch is a quality person on and off the field in his own right. Pittsburgh had not made it to the postseason in two decades before Andrew carried them there in 2013. That is undeniable value to a franchise. This is likely what tipped the scale in McCutchen’s favor over Goldschmidt. By traditional statistics, Goldy was slightly more deserving than Cutch leading the NL in many categories, but WAR saw it as a closer race between the two. In need of a tiebreaker, the voters had an interesting narrative to latch onto with Andrew.
Another factor to consider was the Major League experience and name recognition between the two. There is no way that I can possibly prove this, but I would allege that familiarity played a factor. McCutchen was playing in his 5th MLB season at the time and had the benefit of incumbency. Goldschmidt was just beginning to make himself known to the national media. It’s possible the voters were so impressed by Goldy’s breakout they figured he’d secure the award easily within the next few seasons, while simultaneously rewarding Cutch for a career best season among an already impressive track record. That’s not intended to take anything away from Andrew and say that he wasn’t deserving, but it’s something to ponder.
Who deserved to win the 2013 NL MVP?
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As fate would have it, McCutchen and Goldschmidt’s quest for an MVP award were intertwined again in 2014. Both men were on track for equally impressive encore seasons, but a beanball battle between the Pirates and Diamondbacks in the second half arguably hurt both men’s chances. It started when Ernesto Frieri fractured Goldschmidt’s left hand with an inside fastball on August 1st cutting his season short. Kirk Gibson, Arizona’s manager at the time and known to adhere to the “unwritten rules” of baseball, saw to it that the opposing dugout’s best player had his just desserts in retaliation. McCutchen was drilled in the back later on in the series, and had to miss two weeks of the season as a result. He still finished the year third in voting, but it’s possible he could have repeated as the MVP without the injury.
Goldy returned fully healthy in 2015 as a man possessed and produced the best season of his career to date. He posted an absurd 199 OPS+ in the first half of the season, and only had one month below 165. His intentional walk rate skyrocketed to 29 and he led the National League in that category for the second time in his career. Paul earned Player of the Week honors in May and was named to the All Star team for a third consecutive year.
He topped his 2013 by a healthy margin, but the only problem was that he was also competing with the buzzsaw that was Bryce Harper in 2015. No need for a WAR table here because Harper’s 2015 season was statistically better than Goldy’s in nearly every regard. What differs from 2013 is that neither man played for a team that made the playoffs, and both teams were only separated by 4 games in the final standings. In fact, you have to go all the way down to the 4th and 5th place finishers, Anthony Rizzo and McCutchen, to find players that did make the postseason. There was not a playoff team discussion this time around. Unlike the also rans of 2013, there was no confusion outside of the top 3. Rizzo and McCutchen had inferior seasons in comparison to Goldschmidt and Harper.
It’s truly a shame because it was an MVP caliber season from Goldy. Surely, he deserved to win the award, but Harper had the better season any way you spin it. As we’ve seen since that season, Goldy has been far more consistent over his career than Harper which demonstrates how unfortunate it was for him to miss out on the award in 2015. Harper hasn’t posted a season above 4.7 bWAR since then, yet Goldschmidt has not been worth below that mark in the same timeframe. Interesting how the contract situations have played out for the two men over their careers, but that’s a discussion for another time.
2016 was a lost season for the Arizona Diamondbacks as a whole, and Goldy’s production took a bit of a step back from his lofty standards as well. The D’backs were one of the worst teams in the league. That and the combination of Goldy’s regression saw him fall outside of the top 10 in voting for only the second time in 4 seasons (remember his 2014 was cut short by injury). Even a career high 32 stolen bases, unheard of for modern day first baseman of his size, didn’t help his case.
Expectations for the team were tempered in 2017 by most critics as a new regime took over the front office. However, there was no reason to expect that Goldschmidt would produce significantly less than he had in the past. Not only was he as excellent in 2017 as he had been over his career to that point, he also led the D’backs to their first playoff appearance since his rookie season in 2011. It wasn’t the best season of his career, but he was in the MVP conversation all season, and for the first time in his career (he wasn’t MVP quality in 2011) his team not being in the playoffs could not be used against him. Paul won another Gold Glove and Silver Slugger, the third time in his career he took home both of those honors in the same season, and made his fifth consecutive All Star appearance.
There were a few aspects that hurt his case when voters made their selection for the award. The first was that Goldy had a horrendous collapse in September. It was the single worst month of performance in his career at the time as he tallied a 50 OPS+. He actually had to miss time towards then end of the season with an ailing elbow injury. Whether that was the cause of the poor performance at the plate is unknown, and he’d surely tell us it wasn’t the problem. From Opening Day on April 2nd to August 31st, he had a triple slash of .319/.428/.607 with 33 home runs, 4th in the National League. His 159 wRC+ in that same timeframe was also 4th in the NL behind Giancarlo Stanton, Joey Votto, and Bryce Harper respectively. If a player is trying to build a case as to why he should be an MVP, falling off a cliff in the last month of the season does not aid that endeavor.
The second issue, if it can even be considered one at all, was a midseason acquisition joining the same team, J.D. Martinez. Just Dingers second half of the season was so overwhelmingly obscene that he himself garnered votes in the NL MVP race despite only playing half the season in that league. It raised the question in the MVP conversation, what player was more valuable to the D’backs and their chase for the playoffs in 2017? Would they have made the playoffs without J.D. for the second half of the season? They were good enough prior to his acquisition, but surely his 1.107 OPS and 29 home runs in 62 games helped matters. Who then was more valuable to the 2017 D’backs? Goldy or Martinez? The answer to the question is irrelevant because the sheer fact that it was discussed cast doubt on Goldschmidt’s own case. Of course Goldy was more valuable to the team, he’d been there since the beginning, but it was still brought up among those who had votes.
Ultimately, the award went to a player whose team missed the playoffs altogether, Giancarlo Stanton. The second place finisher, Joey Votto, also did not play for a playoff contender. In this season, Goldy probably finished higher than he should have because he was on a playoff team. Votto and Stanton were more valuable in terms of WAR, as were others, and traditional stats. In fact, there was discussion that their value was greater because of how awful their already terrible teams would have been without them. It also didn’t help that Giancarlo belted 59 home runs that season, the most since Barry Bonds’ 73 in 2001.
Why you would pick Paul Goldschmidt: From the outset of the season, Goldschmidt has been at the heart of the Diamondbacks’ surprising drive to the playoffs, compiling big numbers in the good ol’-fashioned categories -- 117 runs, 120 RBIs, 36 homers, and even 18 stolen bases. He is well-regarded as a defender, as a baserunner and as a team leader.
Why you wouldn’t pick Goldschmidt: His 2017 performance does not rate nearly as well as those of others in advanced metrics. He’s seventh in wRC+, 10th in WAR. His performance has declined in the second half, perhaps because of a lingering elbow ailment. - Buster Olney, October 2nd, 2017
2018 marked only the 3rd time in 6 seasons that Goldy missed the top 3 in NL MVP voting. The season for him was the inverse of his 2017 in the sense that his poor finish from that season carried over into a slow beginning in 2018. Some began to wonder if we had seen the best of his playing days pass him by. Fortunately, he put those concerns to rest in a hurry. He followed up a career worst 47 OPS+ in May with one of his best stretches ever from June through the second week of September. Much to our dismay his strong performance was not enough to stave off an end of the season collapse for the Diamondbacks. The team was either tied or within a half game of first place for the National League West at the beginning of each calendar month including September, but ultimately finished 9 games back of the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the end, the slow start and overall team collapse was too much for Paul to overcome in his MVP consideration. He finished roughly where he deserved to based on his performance.
In my opinion, Paul Goldschmidt’s best opportunity to win the National League Most Valuable Player was 2013. As I’ve hopefully shown above, the argument that a given player’s team did not make the playoffs is questionable at best. History shows that it is not the final deciding criteria. I feel that Goldy had a legitimate case against Cutch that season. Paul’s 2013 was an impressive breakout considering he led the league in many important categories in only his second full year, and he was a former 8th round pick for crying out loud. Ultimately, McCutchen’s narrative with the Pittsburgh Pirates that season swung the pendulum in his favor.
What is undeniable is how consistent Paul has been from 2013 to 2018, and not many players in the league can rival his production in that timeframe. In those 6 seasons, he leads the National League, and is third in MLB, in bWAR (36.3) and fWAR (32.9). That’s including an injury shortened 2014. Not bad for a guy who was considered an afterthought in the 2009 MLB Amateur Draft. It’s a shame that MVP awards aren’t considered on a multi-year basis. Oh well, there’s always room for that discussion in Hall of Fame voting. More on that topic to come...