“Abandon the search for truth; settle for a good fantasy.” – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Those die-hards who eat, breathe and sleep the game of baseball can be broken down into several camps: you have your season-ticket-holding score-keepers; your glued-to-the-tube content gobblers; your jersey-wearing, tobacco chewing, former-high-school-catching beer-leaguer; your grandpa who tells stories of going to the Polo Grounds for half a nickel; your average Massachusetts resident. But over the last few years, the lines have been more broadly drawn. Now, baseball fans are divided into two separate camps: Screech and Slater. Now, we have the guy who thinks he knows the game because he’s watched every episode of Baseball Tonight versus the guy who was too busy figuring out the real answers to listen to the talking heads. It's dorks versus jocks on a grand scale. The only commonality between the divided is their love of baseball, and more specifically their love of fantasy baseball. And if nothing else, that love for the game of baseball breeds arguments. Lots of them. Every year.
To wit, last year’s AL MVP voting was perhaps the ultimate showdown between baseball’s advanced statistical believers and non-believers. For the non-believers, the first triple-crown winner in 45 years, Miguel Cabrera, was a virtual shoo-in after his Tigers rallied to top the AL Central. The Cabrera arguments, for the most part, were more about gut instinct, intangibles and the power of old statistics. Cabrera won the Triple Crown. Cabrera hit better down the stretch. Cabrera’s team made the playoffs. For the stat-heads comprising the advanced metric community, believing that Cabrera was the MVP meant all-out WAR. Their beloved hero, 2012 AL Rookie of the Year Mike Trout, was the overwhelming choice for MVP when considering Wins Above Replacement (Trout earned a WAR of 10.7 to Cabrera’s 6.9 on Baseball Reference, and 10.0 to 7.1 respectively using the FanGraphs model). Simply put, WAR — and some other advanced metrics — showed that whatever advantages Cabrera had in terms of power, batting average and timely hitting were undermined by Trout’s overwhelming advantages as a fielder, base runner and player who gets on base. In the end it wasn't close-- Cabrera swiped 22 of 28 first place votes in what many people later believed was as much a nod to his historical body of work as it was an acknowledgment based solely on his 2012 achievements.
In the fantasy baseball community, there was little doubt as to the 2012 rotisserie MVP. Putting aside the wide defensive gap existing between the two players, a gap that was borne out in their respective WAR, Cabrera was producing at a high level in four of the five standard rotisserie stat categories, while Trout was producing at a high level in all five. Trout's power production per at bat was essentially comparable to Cabrera's, though the latter played in 22 more games than the rookie phenom while enjoying the season-long luxury of hitting third in his lineup ahead of the dangerous Prince Fielder. Nevertheless, a leadoff hitter going for at least 30 HR and 40 SB could not be found anywhere else in a 2012 fantasy league.
The greatest pastime of those who love our national pastime is prognostication. In many respects, drafting a fantasy baseball team is prognosticating on a small scale, speculating on commodities who will either reward in a bull market, or crash and burn your whole portfolio. But is that fantasy stud the most valuable player in his league in terms of team success? As the example of 2012 illustrates, this is often not the case. Traditional baseball analysis still largely informs the MVP vote, while the fan who drafts a fantasy baseball team without the added ammunition of advanced statistics is generally ill-equipped to compete. With that being the case, I give you my picks for AL and NL MVP, as well as my fantasy MVPs for each league.
MVP- Evan Longoria- Tampa Bay Rays. Longoria has been an MVP-in-waiting since his call-up in 2007. What has eluded the talented Tampa third baseman is health, as he has failed to play over 135 games in all but two of his first five seasons. What I am banking on is Longoria’s combination of power, fielding prowess and timely hitting. Age and team also inform the selection. At 27 years old, he is finally entering that special period for a young talent where his physical gifts are in harmony with his baseball seasoning. I also have a strong feeling that the Rays will rise to the top of the declining AL East, guided by a precocious pitching staff anchored by ace David Price (contract year!?!?!), some savvy offseason plug-ins and the pending call-up of super prospect Wil Myers. As in 2012, the star of a division-winning squad will have a strong leg up on his competition when it comes time to count the MVP ballots.
Fantasy MVP- Robinson Cano- New York Yankees. I doubt that Robbie Cano was the first player taken in your draft, but there's certainly an argument to be made that he should have been. He is the most talented player at fantasy baseball's shallowest position. He will slug like a first baseman, and his plate coverage is comparable to all-time great contact hitters like Rod Carew and Paul Molitor. He is also entering his CONTRACT YEAR!?!?!, and there is no indication Cano won't rise to the challenge as have others before him. Although Dustin Pedroia figures to be a nice bounce-back candidate, Cano should be the hands-down, no-doubt-about-it, best producer at fantasy baseball's most difficult position to draft.
MVP- Andrew McCutchen- Pittsburgh Pirates. A dyed-in-the-wool five-tool player, McCutchen is a pick in the vein of the previously discussed Mr. Longoria. The potential talent is undeniable, and McCutchen's major-league seasoning is finally catching up to that talent. Last year McCutchen was a 7.2 WAR player, good for second in the NL behind eventual MVP winner Buster Posey. McCutchen's base stealing has gone down since 2010, but in its place comes improved power, as he has raised his slugging over 100 points from 2010 to 2012. Last year's NL hits leader, McCutchen remains an outstanding jack-of-all-trades hitter and a plus glove in the outfield. Last year he earned a trip to the All-Star game, a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger en route to finishing third in the MVP voting. This could be the year he finishes at the top.
Fantasy MVP- Stephen Strasburg- Washington Nationals. Power and presence. There is not a whole lot more to say about Mr. Strasburg. Improved command of his secondary pitches had some people projecting 300 strikeouts in 2013. Whether he hits that Koufaxian high note or not, Strasburg projects as a plus-plus in the quadruple-crown of rotisserie pitching categories. Increasing Strasburg's value even more is that he is likely to be a late-second-to-early-third-round steal in standard roto drafts. He looks to be the anchor to a fantasy champions staff in 2013.