In the top of the second inning on Tuesday night, Charlie Blackmon stepped to the plate against the Giants’ Johnny Cueto. There were two runners on with two outs. The Milwaukee Brewers had won earlier in the day and the Rockies needed a win in order to maintain their lead for the second wild card. He promptly hit an 0-1 slider over the head of center fielder Denard Span’s head to plate two runs. The RBI double was Blackmon’s 200th hit of the season and drove in his 95th RBI.
Blackmon has put up some gaudy numbers this season for the Rockies, and he’s starting to get other people to notice. Last month, MLB Now’s Brian Kenny seemed to be making something of a contrarian case for Blackmon when he dug into his MVP case. Just last week, Craig Edwards of FanGraphs built a detailed case for Blackmon as the MVP. A couple of days ago, ESPN’s David Schoenfield barely gave the edge to Nolan Arenado for the team—and perhaps league—MVP.
So: is Charlie Blackmon the National League’s 2017 Most Valuable Player?
Charlie Blackmon, who turned 31-years-old on July 1, was never a top prospect; he made zero top 100 lists during his four plus years in the minors. His peak position as a PuRP was at no. 7 in the spring of 2011, but was down at 15th on his final list the following spring. He didn’t secure a full-time starter position until 2014, when he went 6-for-6 at the home opener and earned his first All-Star nomination. He finished the season at 99 wRC+, and many figured he’d be an average center fielder.
Since then, he’s done nothing but improve. He was reportedly being shopped around this offseason after a 2016 season in which he hit .324/.381/.552 for a 133 wRC+. Many thought he’d peaked as a hitter.
Charlie Blackmon, 2017
In case you were wondering, each of those represent career highs. He’s leading the National League—and, in the case of runs, hits, and triples, all of the major leagues—in every relevant counting stat except walks and stolen bases. Some of this can be explained by Coors Field, since it inflates offense across the board, but, as Craig Edwards pointed out, it shouldn’t take away from what he’s actually accomplished.
Blackmon is well on his way to having one of the best seasons from a leadoff hitter of all time, he’s setting team records on a regular basis, he already has one Player of the Month trophy, and he leads the National League in offensive WAR on Baseball-Reference.
Defense & Baserunning
The one thing that isn’t working directly in Blackmon’s favor is his defense. Among 58 players with 850 innings in the outfield, Charlie ranks 36th in Ultimate Zone Rating (0.1) and 44th in Defensive Runs Saved (-6). This dings his overall WAR totals, whereas if his defense was a greater net positive, it would help separate him out from his MVP competitors (which we’ll get to in a moment).
But as Brian Kenny pointed out on MLB Now, Rockies outfielders tend to get over-penalized by the defensive metrics upon which WAR figures are based because they have to cover the vast expanses of Coors Field. When it comes to WAR, Coors Field helps him at the plate, but hurts him in the outfield. These are by no means equal forces, but assuming Blackmon is at least an average center fielder, he should be rewarded more than his competition, none of whom play one of those demanding up-the-middle positions.
Of course, Blackmon is no longer the same baserunner he was when he stole 43 bases in 2015 (his 13 stolen bases are just 22nd in the league), but he contributes elsewhere. He’s above average at taking the extra base, for example. Whether it’s going first to third or second to home on a single, the major league average is 40 percent; Blackmon takes the extra base 45 percent of the time. He also has grounded into the third fewest double plays among qualified batters. Sure, hitting leadoff means he doesn’t have as much opportunity, but a six percent GIDP is half the league average. The sum total is a player who actively contributes on the bases.
Maybe he’s not “the whole package,” but Charlie Blackmon’s contributions on offense are so massive, merely average on defense and on the bases is all it takes to make him look outstanding. Now, how does he stack up to his fellow competitors?
This is the “Most Valuable Player” award, so it would behoove us to consider measures of overall value. Our own Ryan Freemyer is fond of tracking the leaderboards of the three primary WARs: FanGraphs (fWAR), Baseball-Reference (bWAR) and Baseball Prospectus (WARP). Because each WAR values things differently, summing the totals helps make a reasonable comparison between players.
National League MVP Candidates
You’ll notice a few things right away. First of all, Joey Votto is probably having the best season nobody is talking about. Were there not so many other deserving candidates, he would likely get some play as an MVP front-runner. But in a crowded ballot, he may very well finish outside of the top five.
You’ll also notice Giancarlo Stanton really is having an incredible year. Unfortunately for him, his team is having an equally non-incredible year. As valuable as WAR has indicated Stanton to be, he suffers from the same problem as Votto: how valuable is it if your team isn’t going anywhere? Like Branch Rickey reportedly said to Ralph Kiner, "We finished last with you, we can finish last without you." Both Stanton and Votto deserve recognition, but when other players are on your same level and they’re doing it in playoff chases, tie goes to the value that puts a team closer to this year’s World Series.
This is to Charlie’s advantage. When you look across all three major WAR calculations, he comes out well ahead of his fellow playoff-hunting candidates like Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rendon, even his beloved teammate, Nolan. Of course this makes sense; when you lead the league in so many offensive categories, you’re going to add a lot of value.
Craig Edwards was right when he said that Nolan Arenado is the best player on the Rockies. His combination of youth and talent make it hard to build any other case. But he was also right when he said that it doesn’t mean Nolan has had the best year. That distinction, of course, belongs to Charlie.
Charlie Blackmon’s stats are better than that of his main competitors, his WAR totals demonstrate he has been one of the most valuable players in the league, and he has the “playing for a playoff team” narrative on his side as well. Taken together, it leaves little doubt that Charlie Blackmon should be this year’s National League MVP.