I've written that Ryan Braun may be putting together one of the best offensive seasons in Brewers history, and that he's a much better MVP candidate than Prince Fielder. I still believe both of these to be true, but here's the thing -- I don't think Braun should be the National League MVP this year.
This is not a knock on Braun. He's had an incredible year. The problem with hopping on the "Braun for MVP" bandwagon is that Matt Kemp is having an even more incredible season.
Through Thursday, Braun is hitting .330/.393/.584. Kemp is hitting .326/.403/.582. Braun has homered 31 times, driven in 104 and stolen 31 bases. Kemp has homered 36 times, driven in 118, and stolen 40 bases -- Braun's a stretch for a 35/35 season, while Kemp has a chance at 40/40 with a big final week.
Digging deeper, Kemp far outpaces Braun when it comes to both the Baseball-Reference version of Wins Above Replacement (9.6 to 7.2) and the FanGraphs version (8.2 to 6.9). This is mostly due to defense -- Kemp plays the tougher defensive position in centerfield, and while he isn't much better than average there, he's been much better than Braun has been at a much easier position. It's hard to measure the impact a player has on defense – especially when you're only talking about one season's worth of opportunities – but it's something that needs to be taken into consideration when trying to figure out a player's all-around value.
The last time a player posted a Baseball-Reference WAR higher than 9.0 and didn't win the NL MVP was 2004. Coincidentally, it was also a Dodger -- Adrian Beltre finished second to Barry Bonds, despite cracking the 10.0 WAR mark (Bonds posted a WAR of 12.4 that year). Nobody is going to catch Kemp this year, and the fact that he's either very close to or ahead of Braun in virtually every statistical category seems to make him the superior candidate.
Of course, there are other factors that some voters take into consideration. If you want to vote for who's been better down the stretch, that nod may also go to Kemp. Braun's been good in September as the Brewers have tried to put away the Central division, hitting .313/.329/.542. Kemp's been a monster as the Dodgers have tried to stay above .500, hitting .368/.456/.658. He hasn't had a hitless game since September 15, and is 15-for-25 with 3 home runs and 4 doubles over the past six games.
Braun will get plenty of support for being a part of a winning team that's headed to the postseason, but it's important to take into consideration the quality of teammates here. The Brewers have enough pieces (Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks pre-injury, Corey Hart, the pitching staff) that they'd still be a winning team without Braun. Kemp has been the only true power threat in the Los Angeles lineup this year while being surrounded with the likes of Aaron Miles, Tony Gwynn, Jamey Carroll, and Andre Ethier on a bum knee. Yes, the Dodgers are a .500 team with Kemp, but they'd be a last-place team without him. That's valuable, isn't it?
Having another MVP come out of Milwaukee would be something cool for Brewers fans to brag about, but it doesn't seem like it would be a selection without its critics. Not winning the award would be a tough break for Braun, who's having a career year and is perhaps finally emerging on the national stage, but it just so happens that there is a pair of great candidates this year. Either player would be a solid MVP choice, but right now it looks like Kemp would be the better one.