Posey, Beltran, and Braun are all among the leaders in NL offensive categories. (Image: Scott Rovak/USA TODAY Sports via US PRESSWIRE)

Can Ryan Braun Win the 2012 NL MVP Award?

In early February,  the Brewers were beginning to face the possibility of losing reigning MVP Ryan Braun for the first fifty games of the

Ryan Braun is putting up MVP numbers again in 2012. (Image: Benny Sieu-US PRESSWIRE)

season.

Coming off their first division title as a member of the National League, there was a vague image of a season a mere two months away without the mashing duo of Prince Fielder and Braun that led them to the pennant just a season before. The season would be depleted before it even began. Imagine Christmas without Santa, his reindeer, and a crushed holiday spirit–that scenario was impending as the bad news was poured down upon the team.

Six months after Braun was acquitted (or, to Brewers fans, vindicated), the season may be depleted, but that is no fault of Braun’s. Though his appeal of a fifty game suspension was successful, it wasn’t to say he still wasn’t under immense scrutiny and pressure from media, fans, and colleagues in the game.

He’d hear boo’s in every ballpark not named Miller Park all year. Some would say he got off “on a technicality”. Coming off an MVP season, if his numbers dropped the cheating talk and claims would return.

The critics–well, those with half a capacity for reasoning, at least–have been silenced by Braun’s post-MVP campaign.

This season, he leads the National League in home runs (33) and ranks second in RBI (83), second in OPS (.974), fourth in runs scored (79). A season after joining the 30-30 club with homers and steals, Braun is the only player in the National League to even steal 20 bases and hit 15 home runs this season. His 58 extra base hits rank second in the league, only behind teammate and doubles machine Aramis Ramirez‘s 58.

ZiPS projects Braun to finish .305/.379/.581 with 180 hits, 42 homers, 110 RBI, 104 runs, and 26 stolen bases. His innate ability to produce in the clutch hasn’t faded either: Braun has seven tying or go-ahead homers in the sixth inning or later.

The numbers are there for Braun as a front-runner for the 2012 MVP award. In the end, however, what may cost him a second consecutive award is the dilemma that has been the Brewers bullpen this year.

For the longest time, one of the unwritten rules surrounding the MVP award is that it should go to a great player on a good team. This came to Braun’s benefit last season as a member of the 96-win, NLCS-reaching Brewers when he beat out Matt Kemp of the 82-win Dodgers who posted similar numbers.

Braun’s 6.0 WAR ranks only 0.3 points behind Pittsburgh‘s Andrew McCutchen for tops in the league, yet McCutchen seems to be the heavy favorite for the award in part because of the Pirates status as Wild Card contenders. ‘Cutch leads the batting title race by an unslim margin of 25 points over Buster Posey (I’m taking the suspended Melky Cabrera and his .347 average out of the picture for fairness’ sake), has 24 home runs, 76 RBI, 14 stolen bases, and an NL-leading 86 runs.

However, only 0.5 games up of the Dodgers and 1.5 ahead of the Cardinals, the Pirates are no sure lock to reach the Playoffs. If the young team scuffles over the final month of the season, will McCutchen still go primarily uncontested for the MVP award?  This is surely no knock on the 25-year-old superstar center fielder; it’s that there are more players that deserve MVP consideration.

David Wright is hitting .320 with a 6.1 WAR, Buster Posey is raking .327 with 19 homers and 77 RBI, Matt Holliday is batting .301 with 81 RBI, and the .320-hitting Carlos Gonzalez is on his way to another 20-20 season. But none of those players present the all-around case for MVP that Ryan Braun does.

With the top teams in the NL, Washington and Cincinnati, both lacking an MVP candidate (sorry, Joey Votto‘s health), there lingers a possibility of (gasp!) the MVP actually going to a player on a non-MVP team. Of course, this isn’t banking on the notion that Pittsburgh will struggle over September, but the numbers do point for McCutchen to regress (for starters, his .403 BABIP is completely insane).

Braun has proven his value for the sixth season in his career. He has faced the scrutiny this season so well to the point where he isn’t even being talked about, which may actually be a good thing. And, hey, if fans and writers can’t come to grips with the numbers that Ryan Braun is putting up post-Fed Ex Gate, then it’s simply a shame. The numbers speak for themselves.

H8ers gonna H8, right?

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