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Looking into Austin Riley’s MVP case

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Austin Riley has been generating a bunch of attention of late in MVP discussions. Lets take a closer look.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Baltimore Orioles Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

If you watched any Braves game the last few months, you’ve probably seen two things happen, Austin Riley doing something awesome and a Braves broadcaster calling him by his new nickname: MVP Candidate Austin Riley. The nickname has become so prevalent that it’s actually started a discourse about how viable a possibility this is. Can Austin Riley win the NL MVP?

Now something you need to understand about baseball, and really all sports, is there are two distinct levels of discourse, local and national. Local beat writers, local reporters, local sports talk radio and even local broadcasters operate from a zoomed-in perspective. They usually cover one team in one town and because of it, rarely have to widen their gaze to effectively do their job. And most of the time, that works fine.

But MVP of the league is not a zoomed-in topic. By definition, it is a national conversation that requires a much broader understanding of what’s happening in other cities and on other teams. This is why we have national reporters and national broadcaster. For the most part, they stay zoomed-out, which in theory, should help fans keep things like this in proper perspective. And on a national level, Austin Riley is getting almost zero attention as an MVP candidate.

But the national discourse isn’t the be all, end all either. National guys can get caught up in narratives just like their local brethren and since when live in age where getting people to click on what you write is often times more important than the accuracy of what you write, the current discourse can’t be the end of this conversation. It’s too volatile. Too subjective.

Instead, we need go to the other end of the spectrum: the objective. Forget opinions, forget narratives. Objectively, can Austin Riley win the MVP?

The simple answer is yes, he can. Absolutely he can.

The more complicated question, is how likely is it?

For that, it’s always best to start in Vegas. Even if you don’t gamble, Vegas is the king of objectivity. They don’t care about local narratives or national page views, they just care about getting your money and the best way to do that is be right most of the time. For Riley, the good news is he’s at least on the board. Vegas Insider has him 7th on their board at +3500, or 35/1 odds, to win the MVP. The bad news is, he’s dead last on the board and +3500 aren’t what you’d call good odds.

It is important to note, these odds move daily. In 2 weeks, Vegas might see Riley as twice as likely to win as he is now, or he might off the board completely. But as we sit here on August 30th, they seem him as in the conversation, but on the very edge of it. Possible, but far, far away from probable.

Statistically, it’s not hard to see how they arrived at that conclusion. Over the last five years or so, the MVP award as become much more aligned with WAR leaderboards than ever before. As the baseball world at large has become more accepting of the idea that WAR (either fWAR or bWAR) is the best overall metric we have for measuring players, it’s become at the very least the foundation of their vote. In the NL, Riley currently sits at 19th among all national players in fWAR and 14th among all qualified players. So that by itself is not a terribly strong case.

But there are writers who vote on the award who still use WAR as the foundation for their vote, but only the offensive aspects of it, as advanced defensive metrics have been universally adopted at a much slower rate. This is where the news gets considerably better for the Braves third-baseman, as most of his negative value comes from his defense. Among qualified players in the NL, Riley ranks 7th in the league in wRC+ and 8th in the league in wOBA. You can see where Riley’s case begins to take shape. If you remove guys who aren’t likely to win because their teams aren’t very good, another criteria several voters insist on, then Riley gets even closer to the top.

There are also still voters who use some of the traditional “triple-crown’ stats and “triple-slash” stats to shape their vote. That is AVG-HR-RBI and AVG/OBP/SLG. In the the triple-crown stats, Riley ranks 5th in average, 4th in HR, and 7th in RBI and in the triple-slash stats, he ranks 5th in average, 9th in on-base percentage, and 6th in slugging percentage. Clearly, Riley will benefit from voters who value offense over everything else, and be hurt by the ones include defensive metrics into their evaluations.

Still, even if offense is all you care about, Riley isn’t the favorite. Guys like Bryce Harper, Fernando Tatis Jr, and Max Muncy are just having better years. Harper, for instance, ranks 1st wRC+, 1st in wOBA, and 2nd in fWAR all why trying to carry a mediocre roster to the playoffs. That’s a tough case to beat.

If you put all the criteria that’s normally used together, you get a list that looks something like:

  1. Bryce Harper
  2. Fernando Tatis Jr
  3. Max Muncy
  4. Trea Turner
  5. Freddie Freeman
  6. Joey Votto
  7. Nick Castellanos
  8. Austin Riley

Or something close to that. Guys like Juan Soto and Bryan Reynolds get hurt by playing on terrible teams. All the players on the list play for winning teams, are having terrific years offensively, and have the accompanying WAR to keep them in the conversation. And this is essentially what the Vegas list look like, with some variation depending on which sportsbook you’re looking at. Riley is in the conversation, but just barely.

This is where I land. The Braves’ broadcast isn’t wrong. Riley is objectively an MVP candidate. He will absolutely get votes. But he’s no where close to the favorite and if I’m filling out my ballot today, Harper is winning and I don’t know even know if Riley makes my top 5.

Still, his case is not hopeless. It’s only August 30th. Many guys have won this award in September and many more have lost it. Those Vegas odds update daily. WAR leaderboards update daily. Narratives change daily. For certain, Riley needs a monster September. And a few guys ahead of him having mediocre Septembers wouldn’t hurt. But he just had monster August and this is clearly the best baseball he’s ever played. If he does it again in September, there’s a chance we’re all are going wish we bet on him at 35/1.