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Nolan Arenado should be this year’s National League MVP

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No other candidate has the same combination of offense, defense, and narrative.

Last week, Craig Edwards of FanGraphs wrote a detailed and fascinating article about how Charlie Blackmon is a perfectly legitimate, not-at-all Coors created MVP candidate. In it he mentioned that Nolan Arenado is clearly the Rockies’ best player, but that doesn’t mean he’s had the best year. With all due respect, I humbly disagree. Charlie Blackmon has the better offensive numbers, sure, but holistically speaking, it would be difficult to top Nolan Arenado’s 2017 season. And he deserves the Most Valuable Player award for it.

Offense

Since his debut in 2013, Nolan Arenado has been on a steady upward trajectory as an offensive player. This year he has continued that trend by setting career highs in triples (7), average (.309), on-base percentage (.372), slugging percentage (.587), wOBA (.396), wRC+ (130), as well as both Fangraphs WAR (5.4) and Baseball-Reference WAR (6.7). He’s also on pace to set career highs in hits, doubles, runs batted in, and walks. That places him in the top ten of every offensive category in the National League (with the exception of walks and OBP). He also happens to lead the NL in FanGraph’s Clutch score, so he’s also performing in the big moments.

Not only has Nolan bested his past self in each of these categories, he’s also bested the best version of his present self. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection system releases not only the median projection, the projection everyone typically sees in the BP Annual, but they also calculate and publish percentiles.

Nolan Arenado and the PECTOA Projections

PCT PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO AVG OBP SLG TAv WARP
PCT PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO AVG OBP SLG TAv WARP
2017 Actual 634 93 174 42 7 34 125 56 101 .309 .372 .587 .317 6.5
Median Projection 583 75 154 36 3 29 92 38 87 .288 .334 .528 .277 4.4
90th percentile 627 89 182 43 3 34 108 45 88 .320 .368 .587 .305 6.7
Stats through September 17, 2017 Baseball Prospectus

Look closely at the 90th percentile. In all the simulations they ran, the top 10 percent of the best performances met or exceeded that 90th percentile. Nolan has already exceeded that in this present reality.

In a season where most of the rest of the offense has been struggling, Nolan’s superlative contributions have helped keep the Rockies going and their postseason hopes alive. All of that implies great value. But if his offense was the only thing Nolan was great at, it wouldn’t be enough to overcome his competition in a crowded MVP race. Of course, Nolan offers so much more than that.

Defense

Over the course of his career, Arenado has established a reputation as one of the best defenders in the game, with some already willing to name him one of the best of all time. If it weren’t for the fact that Rockies fans spend half the game watching other third basemen field, Nolan’s excellence would become almost commonplace. How many times have we seen Nolan do something like this:

Or this?

And the numbers back it up, too. He currently has a career high fielding percentage (.977) and is on pace to set a career-low in errors. He has already matched last season’s 20 DRS, placing him fourth overall in baseball, tops in the National League. Finally, his 7.6 Ultimate Zone Rating is his highest since his astronomical 20.7 in his 2013 rookie season. Any way you slice it, Nolan has been, once again, one of the best defenders in baseball.

Narrative

Remember this?

Nolan Arenado is the best player on a Rockies team that was 21 games over .500 in June. Of course, the team has fallen off that pace but is still 14 games over .500 and a hold on the final National League playoff spot entering play Tuesday. Imagine where they would be without Nolan? This gets to the “valuable” part of the discussion.

Call it the Jimmy Rollins effect. In 2007, the Philadelphia Phillies overcame a huge September deficit to unseat the New York Mets for the NL East title. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins was the best player on that team and widely considered the catalyst, the leader the team needed. He rode this narrative to the 2007 MVP award, even though he wasn’t even in the Top 5 in FanGraphs or Baseball-Reference WAR. Don’t underestimate the power of the narrative.

There are several other candidates who have put up excellent numbers and have the playoff team narrative on their side—Anthony Rendon of the Nationals, Corey Seager of the Dodgers, and Paul Goldschmidt of the Diamondbacks. But considering the cast of stars around Rendon and Seager, and the relative (and, frankly, almost criminal) anonymity of Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado gets a boost in the narrative. Oh, and he did have that whole “Walk Off Three Run Homer To Complete The Cycle And Now He’s Bleeding From The Head” thing.

And, c’mon, who doesn’t like this guy?

We seem to have our top 5 MVP candidates mostly locked up, and they all just so happen to represent four playoff teams (sorry, but unless Giancarlo Stanton hits ten home runs in the next week to eclipse 60, he’s on the outside looking in). Among this group, nobody has the combination of offense, defense, and narrative like Nolan Arenado does.