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Chase Headley has had an MVP-caliber season for the Padres, but it's been lost in all the other NL greatness.
The American League Most Valuable Player race is boring. If Miguel Cabrera wins the Triple Crown, it becomes a little more interesting, in the sense of wondering just how many voters will think that's enough for him to win. Mike Trout, Triple Crown or no, is a fantastic candidate. It's a race between two players, one of whom might or might not even be in it until game 162 is in the books.
The NL MVP discussion is fascinating. There's no shortage of candidates, and no single possibility is significantly stronger than the next in line. Andrew McCutchen, Ryan Braun, David Wright, Yadier Molina, and Buster Posey have been receiving most of the love, and it's been spread thin, given there are five of them. They all deserve the attention, too: Baseball Reference has all five in between six and seven wins above replacement, and while that isn't quite Troutian, it's still enough in most years to be MVP-worthy.
Wins above replacement, or WAR, is a useful yardstick for this sort of thing, but it's not the end-all, either. There are multiple versions of WAR, and they don't always tend to agree. You can construct completely different narratives on who is MVP-worthy and who is not by citing one WAR over another. That, if anything, makes this an even more fascinating discussion, because you can't point at one number and conclude that yes, so-and-so is the definitive MVP, because the hundredth decimal place said so.
This is all a roundabout way of getting to the point: in a wide-open MVP race, one of the National League's best players has been overlooked almost entirely. The Padres' Chase Headley has kept up with the excellent players mentioned above, but take a look around Google to see how often he's been mentioned in the discussion, and you find very little outside of references from San Diego publications, and a Facebook group with one like. Headley has hit .283/.371/.487, despite home games in a park designed to keep that from happening. He's a positive contributor at third base with the glove. He stacks up with his peers, too, without it being a stretch. Fangraphs' rates Headley ahead of Posey in their WAR metric, and he's sixth in the NL in wRC+ among qualifiers.
Baseball Reference and Baseball Prospectus aren't quite as in love, as they don't recognize Headley's defense as a positive. Even with that, though, Headley's bat rates well: he's sixth in the NL in OPS+, and sixth in True Average. That's a pretty consistent rating, and it puts him right with those mentioned above. Maybe he doesn't deserve to win when put up against McCutchen, Braun, or whoever your favorite is, but it's odd that he's alongside them in many different valuations, but the conversation ends before it reaches him.
Considering that Miguel Cabrera's candidacy in the AL rests at least partially on whether or not he leads the AL in RBI, it's odd that Headley isn't getting so much as a sympathy nod from the crowd that's into that sort of thing. Headley is second in the NL in RBI, and has led on a few occasions. At the moment, Braun's 110 RBI have the see-saw tilted towards him, but Headley's a lone run behind him. RBI are generally whatever -- you need opportunities to drive runners in, allowing some undeserving folks over the years to end up with more credit than they should. Headley, though, hasn't seen significantly more plate appearances with runners on than the man he's chasing. Buster Posey and David Wright actually flank Headley in opportunities, but Headley has driven in a higher percentage. The fifth-highest, in fact. And, Headley also leads the National League in Others Batted In, a stat Baseball Prospectus created that essentially says runs batted in minus home runs.
Should RBI be part of the discussion for MVP? It's a stretch to do so, even if you want to break it down into opportunities and the like. But this is more to point out that, even in a situation where an old favorite of many should be getting Headley some play for MVP, it's just not happening.
There are some clear reasons for this, and they aren't new ones. Headley plays in a park that doubles as a time machine, and the era it tends to reside in is bereft of offense. That situation is even worse when you're a left-handed hitter. Headley is a switch-hitter, not a pure lefty, but when roughly three-quarters of all innings are thrown by right-handed pitchers, that means that Headley mostly bears the burden of the lefty during home games. There's a reason he has hit .297/.388/.536 on the road, but just .269/.354/.437 at Petco. For what it's worth, the rest of the league managed just a .241/.312/.364 showing there.
Misunderstanding of just how severe the park effects of Petco are is likely the primary reason no one has paid attention to Headley. It's why Adrian Gonzalez, who hit .277/.407/.551 in 2009 while winning a Gold Glove and finishing fifth in wins above replacement, only finished in 12th in the MVP vote, receiving just seven percent and no first-place tallies. Headley, slugging under .500 on the year, and without even Gonzalez's modest reputation of the time, stands no chance.
Don't consider this all a plea to throw all of the first-place votes Chase Headley's way or anything. Just remember that, when the votes are counted, there's a good chance he doesn't rank where he belongs. It'll be obvious even in a game where things like this aren't quite as definitive as we'd like.