- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 7, 2017

Next to the Cincinnati Reds in the standings is baseball’s equivalent of a Scarlet Letter. A large “E” has taken the place of a numeral, representing that the woeful Reds, 18 games under. 500 and 15 1/2 out of first place coming into Thursday, have been eliminated from the playoffs. The math caught up to them after reality had. Cincinnati has been out of it for some time.

The Reds’ poor record is anchored in bad pitching. They have the worst ERA in baseball. Their starters are the worst in the league. Their bullpen is in the middle of the pack. Those issues present a conundrum around Joey Votto.

Cincinnati’s first baseman started Wednesday with the best OPS in the National League. He is reaching base a staggering 45 percent of the time, has hit for power, played often and is sixth in the number of pitches thrown to him this season. The damage he is doing to opposing pitchers is the crux of his case for National League MVP. But, can he win it while on a last-place team? Should the bad pitching staff jeopardize his chance at an individual award? Should the lack of talent around him water down his 34 home runs? This year’s MVP vote will again reboot those questions, what those three letters mean and if players should be judged by those sitting in the dugout next to them.

A better understanding of statistics has blossomed in the last decade. When Felix Hernandez won the American League Cy Young Award in 2010, it was viewed as a massive step forward for the at-times crusty members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (which the author here belongs to). Hernandez was 13-12 when pitching for an abominable edition of the Seattle Mariners which lost 101 games. His record was ignored. Instead, his 2.27 ERA, large workload and low WHIP were embraced.

However, in the last decade, there is a clear trend among MVP winners that shows a preference for the award recipient to be on a playoff team. Of the 20 winners the last 10 years, just three played for teams that did not make the playoffs.

Mike Trout of the Anaheim Angels won in the AL last season despite his team’s 74-88 record. They were bad, but not last in their division.

Two years ago, Bryce Harper survived being choked by a teammate to win in the National League. Harper was the youngest unanimous MVP in league history. The Nationals finished with 83 wins and in second place in the National League East.

In 2008, Albert Pujols won in the NL. His 86-win St. Louis Cardinals team finished four games out of the Wild Card.

None of those outliers was in last place when receiving the largest regular-season award. In fact, 14 of the last 20 winners played for teams that won their division.

Despite that trend in voting, a sampling of current players and two managers who were players doesn’t indicate that team record would be a large influence if they were able to vote. For instance, Washington Nationals catcher Matt Wieters would use team record more as a last-ditch divider.

“I think if all things are equal, I would pick the player off the winning team,” Wieters said. “If the player on the losing team is a step ahead of the player on the winning team, I’d probably go for the best player. But, if they’re equal it can be the tie-breaker.”

This may come into play in the National League this season. Votto, Harper, Paul Goldschmidt and Giancarlo Stanton are among those who have arguments for the award. Harper’s recent knee injury may have derailed his chances. The Nationals’ right fielder played catch on the field Tuesday for the first time since hyperextending and bruising his left knee, plus straining his calf three-plus weeks ago.

Harper and Goldschmidt, who was also recently injured, are on teams that appear to be going to the playoffs. The Miami Marlins and Stanton are seven games out of the NL Wild Card. Their chances for the postseason are slim, but Stanton has hit 53 home runs. So, how will that influence the vote? If Marlins manager Don Mattingly had a say, he would ignore team record.

“In general, it seems like an individual award for what they’re doing because if you go by just who’s on a winning team, guy that’s on the winning team probably has better players around him, has more opportunities,” Mattingly said. “There’s probably a lot of valuable guys on that team. I feel like it should just be what the guy does because we can’t put into categories he’s only doing it for a winning team, just doesn’t seem fair to that guy.

“Maybe they should change the name to best player.”

The overall question for Nationals manager Dusty Baker about the MVP award is this:

“What that player means to his team and is he far and above best player in the league that year?”

That’s is increasingly difficult to define in the National League this season should team wins count in the assessment. Where would Cincinnati be without Votto? Would the better teams still be playoff-bound if their best player was removed? Since Harper was hurt, the Nationals’ offense has dropped into a funk. What would an entire season of that look like?

The outcome of the vote will be intriguing enough that it may signal another realignment in thinking, just like Hernandez did in 2010.

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