The National League has a number of strong Most Valuable Player candidates. Bryce Harper is viewed as the front-runner, while Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rizzo and Nolan Arenado have the numbers to merit serious consideration.
But what about Yoenis Cespedes?
He’s one of the top five position players in baseball this year, according to the FanGraphs.com Wins Above Replacement rankings. He’s been the majors’ most impactful trade deadline acquisition, amassing a 1.027 OPS with 13 home runs in 34 games with the New York Mets.
For those who consider team success, he checks that box, too: When Cespedes played his first game for the Mets on Aug. 1, the team trailed the Washington Nationals by two games in the NL East. Now, the Mets have a seemingly airtight six-game lead.
The flaw in Cespedes’ credentials? The first 102 games of his season came in the American League as a member of the Detroit Tigers.
In the still-subjective universe of MVP candidate consideration, midseason interleague trades are a special brand of chaos. Cespedes has played such a substantial role in the Mets’ season that he certainly belongs in the conversation, but it’s fair to ask how relevant AL performance should be to an NL award.
I happen to think Cespedes shouldn’t be penalized for opening 2015 in the AL. If, by the end of the season, he’s judged to be the most valuable among those players who finished the year in the NL, then he should win the award — especially because he performed so brilliantly for the Mets during the defining stretch of their season.
When filling out MVP ballots in the past, I’ve considered the context of individual teams and leagues. I tend to think of the MVP as the player whose outstanding performance had the greatest impact on the division races. One could argue that — despite spending only two regular-season months with the Mets — Cespedes is the player most responsible for flipping the NL East race between early August and now.
If history is any guide, though, Cespedes will be named on ballots but won’t win. According to STATS LLC, only five players have finished among the top 10 in MVP balloting after beginning their season in the opposite league:
● Manny Ramirez, 2008: fourth in NL with Dodgers
● CC Sabathia, 2008: sixth in NL with Brewers
● Rick Sutcliffe, 1984: fourth in NL with Cubs
● Sal Maglie, 1956: second in NL with Dodgers
● Hank Borowy, 1945: sixth in NL with Cubs
However, Sutcliffe won the 1984 NL Cy Young Award despite making his first 15 starts with the Cleveland Indians — for whom he managed only a 5.15 ERA. But he flourished with the Cubs, going 16-1 with a 2.69 ERA in 20 starts. That was good enough for the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.
So perhaps the 1984 National League writers were ahead of their time — and Cespedes will be a more viable NL MVP candidate than most of us believe.