Ryan Braun won the National League's Most Valuable Player award on Tuesday. But a lot of sports fans think Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp was more deserving. Kemp did have a better year. He hit 39 home runs to Braun's 33. Kemp and Braun are both average defensive players. But Kemp plays center field, a demanding position usually manned by defensive specialists who can't hit a lick, not someone who hits .324 with power. Braun plays left field, a far easier position where offensive production is part of the job description. The reliable Kemp didn't miss a game all season. Braun missed a dozen with a bum leg, and played hurt for the better part of a month. Was Kemp robbed?
The reason Kemp lost was that his Dodgers were a middling team this year, finishing with an 82-79 record. Braun's Milwaukee Brewers won 96 games and nearly made it to the World Series. The 32 sportswriters who vote for the NL MVP – two from each NL team's city – have a well-known bias in favor of players from contending teams. In essence, Kemp was punished for the sin of having less talented teammates than Braun. How is this fair?
As it turns out, it's perfectly fair. Kemp had the better year, but Braun created more value – and remember, this is the Most Valuable Player award. To find out why, you need to think at the margin. That means thinking of how much value one more victory would create.
We can do that with the help of a statistic some pointy-headed number crunchers invented not too long ago. It's called Wins Above Replacement, or WAR. It tries to measure the difference between a major league player and a hypothetical replacement player brought up from the minors. With Matt Kemp in the lineup instead of his AAA replacement, the Dodgers won 10 extra games. Braun's WAR was 7.7.
Again, Kemp clearly had a better 2011. But at the margin, Braun was far more valuable. Without Kemp, the Dodgers would have won 72 games. With him, they won 82. That's not a big difference at the margin. It's nice to finish above .500, but there's no real difference between a 72-win season and an 82-win season. You miss the playoffs either way.
Braun took the Brewers from 88 wins to 96 wins. There is a world of difference between 88 wins and 96 wins. It's the difference between missing the playoffs and winning the division. Every single win that Braun created was absolutely crucial to the Brewers playing in the postseason instead of watching it from home.
So even though Braun created fewer wins, each of them was extremely valuable. That's why he's the MVP.
The MVP voters' longstanding bias against superior players on inferior teams can be maddening when a player has a year like Kemp had and doesn't win. But while I doubt any of the sportswriters have advanced degrees in economics, they seem to instinctively know the value of thinking at the margin.
Kemp did win a Silver Slugger award, given to the best offensive player at each position. That's not a bad consolation prize. Of course, Braun won one, too.
Still, I think Kemp can have the last laugh. Earlier this year, Braun signed a 10-year, $105 million contract extension. But Kemp just signed a new contract himself. Between now and 2019, Braun will earn $111.5 million in salary. Kemp will make $158 million. He may be understandably salty about not winning the MVP, but he has some bragging rights of his own.