As Adam LaRoche circled the bases last night, his career-best 33rd homer and 100th RBI of the season having just landed in the Nationals’ bullpen, two fans from the Nationals Park tried to start a chant: “M-V-P! M-V-P!”
The simple reality is, the Nationals are the rare team that wins close to 100 games and does not have a bonafide MVP contender. They thrived with a balanced lineup that had legitimate power in most every spot, an elite pitching staff and the most productive bench in the majors.
No shame in that. There’s also no reason to manufacture an MVP candidate. The Nationals had four players whose excellent seasons could land them on the back end of a few ballots, but none who will threaten to win the award.
The type of team the Nationals had this year lends itself to a fun debate: Who is the Nationals’ most valuable position player? LaRoche seems to be the popular choice, but you could make a good case for Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper as well. In fact, that’s what we’ll do below.
We’re going to leave out wins above replacement in detailing each player’s case, so as not to turn the entire exercise into debate about the merits of WAR. But the two most-used versions of WAR show what a tough choice it is.
Entering Tuesday night, the FanGraphs version of WAR ranked the candidates like this:
1. Desmond (5.1)
2. Harper (4.8)
3. Zimmerman (4.4)
4. LaRoche (3.4)
Danny Espinosa actually beat out LaRoche with 3.9 WAR. The Baseball-Reference ranked the four candidates like this.
1. Harper (4.9)
2. LaRoche (3.7)
3. Zimmerman (3.4)
4. Desmond (3.2)
What’s that say? Well, it probably says Harper hasn’t gotten enough consideration as the Nationals’ best player, period. It wouldn’t be an injustice if he landed on the back end of a few MVP ballots. Mostly, it says naming a Nationals MVP is a close call — Desmond ranks first among the four candidates in one and last in another.
In alphabetical order, here’s how they stack up:
Ian Desmond: 25 homers, 73 RBI, 72 runs, 21 steals, .291/.334/.512 — .846
He may have missed four weeks with an oblique injury, but his offensive value over his positional peers more than makes up that difference. He leads the Nationals in slugging while playing a premium defensive position. An .846 OPS out of a shortstop is light-years ahead of the norm for that position. Desmond may have missed time, but he was always consistent. While Harper, Zimmerman and LaRoche all endured brutal slumps, Desmond didn’t post a month-long OPS lower than .799 other than April.
Bryce Harper: 22 homers, 59 RBI, 97 runs, 17 steals, .270/.340/.477 — .817
Like Desmond, Harper annihilated the ball while playing high-level defense at a premium position. He missed one month in Class AAA, but when he got called up, his energy and ability sustained and stabilized the Nationals as they dealt with myriad injuries. His statistics can’t do his base running or throwing arm justice, and both changed games. In June, he was quite obviously their best player. He may have slumped badly out of the all-star break, but in the maelstrom of a pennant race he dominated. Harper has 10 homers and a 1.106 OPS since Aug. 29.
Adam LaRoche: 33 homers, 100 RBI, 75 runs, 1 steal, .271/.343/.510 — .853
LaRoche was the Nationals most productive offensive force. Period. He’s hit eight more homers than any other teammate. While the Nationals endured constant injury, LaRoche was a rock. He played 154 games — nine more than Zimmerman, 16 more than Harper and 25 more than Desmond. First basemen are typically expected to toss up 30 and 100 with about an .850 OPS, but this is a down year for first baseman. In the National League, LaRoche ranks first in homers and third in OPS among first basemen. He is a defensive wizard, and it is difficult to quantify what his ability to scoop low throws meant to the Nationals’ infield, especially Zimmerman.
Ryan Zimmerman: 24 homers, 94 RBI, 92 runs, five steals, .282/.345/.473 — .818
His mega-slump from May to late June shows in his totals. But once Zimmerman received a cortisone shot and got healthy, no one made a bigger impact as the Nationals took control of the National League East and grabbed the best record in the majors. Since June 24, Zimmerman has hit .321/.382/.577 with 21 homers in 88 games, during which the Nationals went 55-34. His throwing motion can look awkward, but he still makes plays almost no other third basemen can.
My vote would go to Desmond on the basis of positional scarcity, strong defense and the fact that, when he played, he never really slumped. Behind him, I think LaRoche just barely edges out Harper, with Zimmerman fourth. Who you got?
FROM THE POST
The Nationals beat the Phillies, 4-2, even with a depleted lineup to move one win away from clinching the best record in the NL.
Davey Johnson found a different way to win a division title, and now he could become part of a select group.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
THE PLAYOFF PICTURE
Nats’ magic number to clinch the top seed: 1*
*The Nationals are tied with the Reds for the best record in the National League (97-64), but since the Nationals beat the Reds in the season series (5-2), they’d hold the top seed in the event of a tie.
Current NL matchups
Nationals vs. Braves/Cardinals*
Reds vs. Giants
*The Braves have clinched a wild-card berth and home-field advantage in the play-in game. The Cardinals clinched the second wild card when the Dodgers lost last night and will face the Braves on Friday in Atlanta.