Saturday, August 22, 2015

Yoenis Cespedes vs. Bryce Harper: Who's the Real MVP?

(Photos by Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY Sports, Jonathan Newton/Washington Post)

Bryce Harper has been the leader on the field for the Washington Nationals throughout the entire 2015 season.  He has been among the league leaders in almost every major offensive category and has put the team on his back when injuries have disabled several of his teammates.  Meanwhile, Yoenis Cespedes has only been a member of the Mets for three weeks, having spent the first two-thirds of the season playing for the underachieving Detroit Tigers.

Harper's full-season numbers dwarf the numbers put up by Cespedes in his limited time with the Mets.  So why do I think Cespedes could take a whole bunch of MVP votes away from Harper?  Former Met Mookie Wilson has a lot to do with it.  Allow me to explain.

Mookie Wilson played 12 seasons in the major leagues.  Although he had a solid career, no one would ever confuse him for a league MVP candidate.  However, after the Mets traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays at the trade deadline in 1989, he unexpectedly became one.

Toronto, which had a losing record at the time of the trade, posted an American League-best 37-20 mark after the trade, with Wilson setting the table for a recharged Blue Jays team.  Wilson started 54 games for Toronto in 1989, with the Blue Jays winning 36 of those contests.  The center fielder, who was batting .205 with the Mets before he was jettisoned to Toronto, went on to hit .298 for his new team, scoring 32 runs and stealing 12 bases during the season's final two months.

On August 14, with the Blue Jays still under .500, Wilson embarked upon one of the hottest stretches of his career and helped push Toronto past all of its division rivals.  During a six-week period, Wilson batted .349, reaching base a whopping 64 times in 37 contests.  The rejuvenated speedster scored 26 runs and went a perfect 11-for-11 in stolen base attempts.  More importantly, he helped his team post a 26-11 record during his baseball renaissance.

When the 1989 American League MVP results were announced, Wilson surprisingly earned support from a voter, despite having played four months in the National League.  The MVP vote for Wilson tied him with Chili Davis and Mark McGwire for 25th place.  Davis earned his vote by leading the California Angels to a 91-win season - just two victories shy of the team's then-franchise record - while McGwire blasted 33 home runs and helped the Oakland Athletics win the World Series.

For as little time as Wilson spent with the Blue Jays in 1989, he provided the spark that helped his team win a division title, and he was recognized for his efforts with MVP consideration.  He was the true definition of the most valuable player on a team that had underachieved until he got there and needed his best performance to rise to the top of the division.

That brings us back to the Bryce Harper/Yoenis Cespedes conversation.  Through Friday night's games, Harper has a .330/.457/.642 slash line.  He leads the league in home runs (31), WAR (7.6), on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS.  Harper is also second in the league in batting average, runs scored (85) and total bases (251).  Based on those numbers, Harper should be a leading candidate for the league's most valuable player.  But how valuable can a player be when his team has more losses than wins?

The Washington Nationals enter Saturday's action with a 60-61 record, five games behind the New York Mets in the NL East and several light years out of the wild card race.  The Nats have played horribly over the last 38 games, going 14-24 since July 6.  On that day, Harper was batting .347 with a .722 slugging percentage.  Since then, he's gone from superhuman to just slightly better than average, batting .295 with a .485 slugging percentage in those 38 games.  More importantly, Harper stopped driving in runs, racking up just 14 RBI in the 38 affairs.  And when he's driven in those runs, they've occurred mostly when the game was out of reach.  In fact, you have to go back to July 29 to find the last time Harper drove in a run in a game won by the Nationals.  That was two days before the Mets acquired Cespedes from the Tigers.

Since Cespedes became a Met, the team has gone 13-6 to overtake Harper's Nationals in the NL East.  Cespedes has played in 18 of those games, batting .316 and producing a .582 slugging percentage.  The 29-year-old Cespedes also has six doubles and five home runs during that 18-game stretch, while driving in 15 runs - or one more than Harper has driven in over his last 38 games.

Clearly, Harper's spark has faded in Washington.  At the same time, Cespedes has been the straw that has stirred the division-leading drink for the Mets.  The Cardinals, Pirates, Cubs and Dodgers would all qualify for the postseason if the regular season ended today.  But neither of those teams has a player that is putting up obvious MVP-caliber numbers.  And perhaps the best of all the players on those four teams is a pitcher (Zack Greinke) who only plays one out of every five games.  Here are the top everyday players on each of those four teams and their numbers:

  • STL: Matt Carpenter (.264/.364/.465, 29 doubles, 18 HR, 63 RBI, 69 runs, 2.9 WAR)
  • PIT: Andrew McCutchen (.295/.396/.505, 29 doubles, 18 HR, 78 RBI, 69 runs, 3.8 WAR)
  • CHI: Anthony Rizzo (.292/.402/.537, 30 doubles, 24 HR, 74 RBI, 68 runs, 5.7 WAR)
  • LA: Adrian Gonzalez (.287/.361/.514, 27 doubles, 24 HR, 73 RBI, 65 runs, 3.7 WAR)

They all look pretty much the same, with no one approaching the numbers being put up by Bryce Harper.  So if the voters went by the numbers alone, Harper would be the clear-cut favorite for the league's most valuable player.  But once again, is he really that valuable if his team loses more than half of its games when he's in the lineup?

Mookie Wilson didn't win the AL MVP Award in 1989.  Similarly, Yoenis Cespedes is not going to take home the NL MVP Award in 2015.  But history shows that players who switch leagues and only play two months for their new teams can become invaluable contributors that help their clubs reach success levels they hadn't approached before the mid-season trades were made to acquire these players.  That is why Mookie Wilson received MVP consideration with the Blue Jays in 1989 and that's also why Yoenis Cespedes is going to garner the same attention with voters in 2015.

Bryce Harper may end the season as the best player in the National League.  But the best player isn't always the most valuable player.  Yoenis Cespedes has changed the dynamic on the Mets since he arrived three weeks ago.  Opposing teams have to prepare differently when facing the Mets now than they used to, simply because of the presence of Cespedes in the lineup.  Harper has not contributed to Nationals victories as much as a person with his offensive statistics should.  Cespedes has been a game-changer and a potential season-changer for the Mets.

Harper may still take home the hardware at the end of the season, but Cespedes is without question the player who saved the Mets season.  And that is what a true most valuable player should be.

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