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Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche and an interesting MVP debate

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At the end of Nationals manager Davey Johnson’s post-game meeting with reporters Monday night, he offered a plug for his first baseman unprovoked. Asked about the candidacy of left-hander Gio Gonzalez for the Cy Young award, and then on the potency of what has become one of the league’s most ferocious offenses, Johnson had another honor on his mind.

“We’ve also got my cleanup hitter in there, Adam LaRoche,” Johnson said. “He takes a lot of heat off everybody and he’s having an unbelievable year. He should be in the MVP consideration.”

LaRoche is having a phenomenal year. He’s most likely going to break the 30-home run mark (he’s at 29 right now), he’s hitting .270, has as many doubles as he has home runs and is closing in on a 100-RBI season. And for a large portion of the season, LaRoche helped carry the Nationals’ offense when it was missing some of its most integral parts.

But the MVP debate is an interesting one.

There are plenty of candidates this year, as there often are, and it’s always difficult to quantify and compare the players, particularly given all the variables. Buster Posey, Ryan Braun, Andrew McCutchen, Yadier Molina — those are just a few of the names that are firmly in the discussion.

And LaRoche, more likely than not, will get at least a few votes (if not more) on the 10-player ballot when they’re cast sometime in the next few weeks.

But if the discussion is to be centered on the Nationals and who their representative in the conversation should be, LaRoche should have company in shortstop Ian Desmond. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman could make his own case, too, though both players would be hindered by the time missed (Desmond) or spent without much effect (Zimmerman) due to injury. 

When it comes to an MVP debate, though, position has to be taken into account as well. Zimmerman has the misfortune of playing at a stacked one, the same one as David Wright, Chase Headley, Aramis Ramirez and David Freese. And while Zimmerman’s season thus far (.286/.352/.477, 21 HR, 84 RBI) is an excellent one, he’s up against stiff competition at his position alone.

But that’s where perhaps just how valuable Desmond’s season has been comes into focus.

There is just one other National League shortstop who has broken the 20-homer mark this season (Hanley Ramirez) and not one comes within .060 points of Desmond’s .515 slugging percentage. What he’s done as a power hitter this season is far and away better than that of most at his position.

Perhaps there’s no better example of how Desmond’s power has come on this season than in his opposite-field home run totals. Entering this season, Desmond had hit just one opposite field home run in his entire MLB career. He’s hit five this season, all since late June.

Maybe it’s luck, as Desmond said it was Monday night after his 22nd home run of the season and No. 5 to the opposite field. But it may also be simply his maturation as a hitter.

“I’m a better hitter period this year than I have been in the past,” Desmond said, asked about his improvements as a slugger. “I think I figured some things out with the help of Davey and just kind of trying to move forward, take steps in the right direction and become the player I think I can be.

“I work hard in the offseason. I put a lot of time in and I don’t think there’s a cap on my ability and my heart. I think God’s blessed me with some pretty good tools and I just try to go out there and play the game as hard as I can to help the team win. Whatever happens as far as individual stats is pretty irrelevant but I feel like the work I put in is equal enough to the numbers I’ve put up this year.”

LaRoche and Desmond have made their abilities defensively known quite well but while LaRoche is favored by the traditional offensive statistics — home runs, RBI, etc. — the advance stats seem to favor someone like Desmond more. It’s a flawed statistic, to be sure, but according to fangraphs.com, Desmond’s Wins Above Replacement (4.5) is 1.4 points higher than LaRoche’s (3.1) this season. Zimmerman checks in just behind Desmond at 4.4. (WAR attempts to quantify how many wins a particular player is worth above the average replacement)

Chances are, the NL MVP will not come from the Washington Nationals, though they should have a few garnering votes.

That’s fine with them, they say, because their team is not setup this season in a manner in which one player has carried the brunt of the load throughout. Even the conversation of team MVP isn’t a clear-cut, slam dunk answer. 

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About the Author
Amanda Comak

Amanda Comak

Amanda Comak covers the Washington Nationals and comes to The Washington Times from the Cape Cod Times and after stints with MLB.com and the Amsterdam (N.Y.) Recorder. A Massachusetts native and 2008 graduate of Boston University, Amanda can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com and you can follow her on Twitter @acomak.

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