There was no tabulation error by Baseball Writers' Association of America secretary/treasurer Jack O'Connell -- Bryce Harper was unanimously named the Most Valuable Player in the National League on Thursday.
It was pretty much a foregone conclusion for two reasons:
1. Harper, the Washington Nationals' 23-year-old outfielder, was really good at playing baseball this past season.
It goes without saying that the first point should matter. As for the second, it's completely irrelevant. In fact, it's preposterous that anyone would consider it.
In this enlightened and evolved era of advanced metrics, whether a player's team reaches the postseason should have zero effect on his MVP odds. While the actual language on the ballot kind of supports this, it kind of doesn't:
"The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier."
While I'm not fluent in subtext, I feel like I'm at the very least conversational. And I'm pretty sure that the subtext of the above stipulation is, "If you want to go all rogue and vote for some poor schmo whose team didn't make the postseason, by all means be our guest. But we, the establishment, would still really prefer that you didn't."
That the disclaimer even appears on the ballot is progress. Over the past few years, as the analytics movement has become more the mainstream, it feels like the baseball community as a whole has slowly but surely been drifting toward the conclusion that MVP does not stand for Most Valuable PlayoffGuy. But the fact that here in 2015, folks are still citing the failures of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Cincinnati Reds in support of Harper's MVP case ... well, that suggests that we still have a ways to go.
Anyone who watched the Nationals with any degree of regularity this past season could tell you that Harper deserved the MVP. They could tell you that, thanks to a rare blend of patience and power, he was easily the NL's most dangerous hitter. That because pretty much every blue-chip player in the Washington lineup got injured at one point or another, he was literally a one-man wrecking crew. That in his first full season as a right fielder, his bazooka arm made opposing runners think once about taking an extra base (they didn't think twice because they didn't need to -- once was enough for them to know it was a bad idea). That on the basepaths, he was a helmet-flying, red-and-white blur of speed and aggression that regularly conjured up images of Charlie Hustle himself.
As for anyone who didn't watch the Nationals regularly, well ... they should also be able to tell you that Harper deserved the MVP. For that, we have WAR to thank.
I don't claim to be a WAR expert. What I do know is that it stands for wins above replacement. I know that it attempts to assign a value to each and every MLB player by comparing their performances to that of a replacement-level big leaguer. I sure as heck can't tell you the formula for deriving WAR, but I can tell you that agents and general managers lean on it in the negotiating room and that, as far as analytics are concerned, it's the closest thing there is to a catch-all, every-phase-of-the-game, kitchen-sink number.
This year, Harper posted a WAR of 9.9. That means that he alone was worth nearly 10 wins to the Nationals. If that doesn't sound like a lot, consider that the next closest position player in the NL was Paul Goldschmidt, whose 8.8 WAR was over a full win less. For comparison's sake, last season, the NL's top two WAR leaders were separated by one-10th of a win.
Still not impressed? Then chew on this: Harper's 9.9 WAR was the highest by an NL position player since Barry Bonds posted a 10.6 in 2004. For those that consider any Bonds number tarnished, then Harper's 2015 WAR effectively becomes the highest by an NL position player since Joe Morgan notched an 11.0 in 1975. That's what's commonly referred to in history circles as "a really long time ago."
The reason I know all this? Because Baseball-Reference.com told me so. Yep, it's all right there under the "Player Value" tab. The operative word there is "value." In other words, according to Baseball-Reference, WAR is one of the most accurate measures of a player's overall value. And call me crazy, but I'm pretty sure that's the general idea of the award known as Most Valuable Player -- to decide which player provided the most value to his team.
Is WAR perfect? Nope. Occasionally, we get a head-scratcher, like in 2008 when Nick Markakis led the AL with a 7.4 WAR yet didn't receive a single vote on anyone's MVP ballot. Not even a 10th-place vote. But that was more a function of the evolution -- or lack thereof -- of MVP voters than an indictment of the efficacy of WAR. Seven years ago, when analytics was still widely considered freak science, you could lead the league in WAR and still be forgotten on ballots. Today, that would never happen.
Today, if you had a season like the one Markakis had in '08, you'd be in the MVP conversation. In fact, Jason Heyward had that kind of season this year. Solid stats across the board, but no single figure that jumps out. Humble power numbers, got on base a ton, stole some bags, played Gold Glove caliber defense in the outfield. Add it all up and, according to Baseball-Reference, you get a WAR of 6.5, good enough to crack the NL's top five.
Although Heyward didn't make it as one of the three finalists for the NL MVP, you can bet that with WAR rankings and MVP balloting continuing to converge with each passing season, he was just barely on the outside looking in. And if he had made it -- as a finalist, that is -- you can be sure that we would've been subjected to at least a sampling of the same tired logic that's been put forth for decades. Namely, that because Heyward's St. Louis Cardinals made it to the playoffs (and won 100 games), he was more valuable to his team than Harper was to the Nationals.
That would've been just plain wrong. Because WAR doesn't lie. And WAR tells us that nobody in the National League meant more to their team than Harper. And it wasn't even close.