Examining the 2016 National League MVP Candidates

Can Bryce Harper duplicate his stellar 2015 season and defend his crown, or will someone from a talented field dethrone him?

What will Bryce Harper do for an encore?

2015 saw a 22-year-old Harper take the anticipated leap from above-average baseball player to bonafide superstar, producing an MLB-best 9.5 fWAR, while having the best offensive season of the century by anyone not named Barry Bonds.

The Nationals outfielder slashed .330/.460/.649 with 42 home runs, en route to being named the youngest unanimous MVP in history.

Harper is rightly the favorite to win the award again but will have some stiff competition in the Senior Circuit.

For our purposes here, we’ll only look at position players because -- while Clayton Kershaw is certainly in the mix as well -- we’ll be talking pitchers in our NL Cy Young primer.

Steamer and ZiPS projections can be found at  FanGraphs, while PECOTA projections can be found at Baseball Prospectus (also keep in mind Steamer projects wRC+ while ZiPS uses OPS+).

Bryce Harper, OF, Washington Nationals

2016 Projection PA HR AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+ WAR
Steamer 620 34 0.301 0.412 0.564 0.976 164 6.6
ZiPS 579 34 0.311 0.431 0.592 1.023 176 6.9
PECOTA 604 29 0.280 0.374 0.51 0.884 ----- 5.1

The projection models, conservative by nature, do not anticipate Harper to hit quite the heights he reached in 2015, but Steamer and ZiPS still have him projected to be the most valuable player in the National League.

By taking a look at what went right last year, it is not hard to be bullish about the former top overall draft pick.

After posting a 46.7% groundball rate in 2013, his second big league season, Harper lowered this to 43.6% in 2014, and 38.5% last year, helping result in a drastic uptick in power. The increase in balls in the air, in conjunction with a 40.9% hard-hit ball rate that tied for second in the NL, produced a .319 isolated power rate, which led the Majors (hard-hit ball data via Baseball Info Solutions, via FanGraphs; hard-hit ball rate has a high correlation with ISO).

With his power numbers through the roof, Harper also changed his approach at the plate, leading to a 19.0% walk rate ( second in baseball) and, in turn, an MLB-best .460 on-base percentage.

From 2012 to 2014, Harper swung at 50.1% of all pitches, including 34.8% of the pitches outside of the strike zone, per FanGraphs. Both marks put him the top 50 among 223 qualified players.

Last season, Harper cut his overall swing rate down to 45.3% and his outside-the-zone swing rate to 28.0%, below the MLB averages of 47.4% and 31.3%, respectively.

Will Harper challenge the 10-WAR mark again? Probably not, but given his new approach at the plate, it is not difficult at all to foresee him repeat as the league’s best player.

Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates

2016 Projection PA HR AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+ WAR
Steamer 654 23 0.297 0.395 0.496 0.891 147 5.7
ZiPS 651 23 0.293 0.392 0.493 0.885 146 6.0
PECOTA 642 24 0.293 0.388 0.495 0.883 --- 4.0

Since coming into the league in 2009, Miguel Cabrera has been the only player in baseball more valuable than McCutchen, who has amassed 40.3 fWAR (0.5 wins behind Cabrera during this span).

He’s done so by providing elite offense (career 144 wRC+) at a premium position, and the computer models don’t foresee the 29-year-old slowing down.

McCutchen has a career .388 OBP, thanks to both a 12.1% career walk rate and .336 batting average on 3,118 career balls in play (so we have a large enough sample that we can chalk his BABIP up to factors beyond mere random variation).

The three major projection systems actually forecast him to either match or exceed his career OBP and again provide a slugging percentage north of .490 (his career slugging percentage is .496).

McCutchen has also played in at least 146 games every year since his rookie season, while reaching the 157-game plateau four times. It is damn near impossible to see him not delivering again in 2016.

Kris Bryant, 3B, Chicago Cubs

2016 Projection PA HR AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+ WAR
Steamer 632 31 0.273 0.360 0.507 0.867 137 5.6
ZiPS 658 29 0.263 0.362 0.485 0.847 130 5.7
PECOTA 600 31 0.264 0.357 0.505 0.862 --- 4.8

As I wrote last week, Bryant was not only last season’s top rookie but one of the best rookies ever, and it was not a fluke.

He struck out a ton (30.6% strikeout rate) but more than made up for it with his 11.8% walk rate and power (.213 ISO). In a season where the Royals earned praise for their old-school, high contact approach, Bryant’s success indicates there is still nothing wrong with mixing power and OBP.

Granted, his .378 BABIP is bound to regress, especially given his fly-ball heavy approach, so another season hitting over .270 is probably too much to ask.

It’s debatable how much this will matter though, as while ZiPS and PECOTA do forecast a dip in average, they don’t see it impacting his OBP or slugging percentage all that much, given projected upticks in walk rate and ISO.

Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Arizona Diamondbacks

2016 Projection PA HR AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+ WAR
Steamer 652 30 0.29 0.401 0.531 0.932 145 5.4
ZiPS 609 27 0.288 0.397 0.523 0.92 150 4.8
PECOTA 634 29 0.288 0.386 0.525 0.911 ---- 6.0

If there was any downside to Harper’s outstanding 2015, it was that it overshadowed Goldschmidt's excellent season.

The Diamondbacks' first basemen had a 7.4-fWAR season, slashing .321/.435/.570 (164 wRC+), hitting 33 home runs, stealing 21 bases and playing his usual strong defense. Since 2013, Goldschmidt is tied for second among first basemen in terms of Defensive Runs Saved and fifth in UZR.

While his game did not need much improvement, Goldschmidt provided it anyway last year, chasing the lowest rate of pitches out of the zone in his career, to set career highs in walk rate (17.0%) and on-base percentage (.435).

Buster Posey, C, San Francisco Giants

2016 Projection PA HR AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+ WAR
Steamer 558 17 0.306 0.373 0.473 0.846 138 5.4
ZiPS 606 18 0.305 0.368 0.462 0.83 133 6.3
PECOTA 596 19 0.299 0.365 0.468 0.833 --- 6.7

After you adjust for era and park, on a per-plate appearance basis, not a single catcher in MLB history has hit better than Posey.

A catcher who can hit is obviously one of the most valuable things in baseball, and the numbers back this up, as his 24.0 fWAR since 2012 are the fourth most in the game.

rWAR and fWAR may even undersell Posey though, as Baseball Prospectus’ WARP now better factors in things like control of the running game, blocking pitches and framing--factors we’ve always known were important but, until fairly recently, could not adequately quantify.

Posey was sixth in the majors in Framing Runs and tied for ninth in throwing runs, tying for fourth in overall fielding runs above average (+13.9), per BP.

He also put in over 300 innings of above average play at first base and had a fourth consecutive season with a wRC+ better than 135.

The 28-year-old also has four straight seasons with at least 595 plate appearances, and while catchers tend to break down quicker than other players, Posey has shown no signs of doing so yet.