Revisiting the AL MVP Race

On August 2, I handicapped both leagues’ MVP and Cy Young races as I saw them at the time. As we enter the final weeks of the season, the AL Cy Young race has probably been decided, but the other races are getting tighter. This week, I’ll take a look at these four races one at a time, starting today with the AL MVP.

While both National League races are at least as closely contested, the AL MVP race seems to have been the most hotly debated, as several of the decades-old issues that divide award voters are at play. Three questions tend to drive this debate: (1)If the best player in the league plays for a team that’s been out of contention most of the season, is he the most valuable?; (2) Can a pitcher be the most valuable player in the league while playing in fewer than 40 of his team’s games?; and (3) Can we trust the metrics that tell us which players have been most valuable on the defensive side of the ball? Let’s answer these in the context of the candidacies of the six top contenders.

Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
In the first half of this season, Bautista was so much more productive than anyone else in baseball that he would have deserved the MVP even if his team was playing .400 ball. As the season has dragged on, Bautista’s numbers have dipped some, but that was practically inevitable, as even Ted Williams never hit .366/.532/.780 (Bautista’s April line) for a full season. What may be lost in Bautista’s fade is just how valuable he has been in the summer months. Since the All-Star break, he’s reached base in nearly 40 percent of his plate appearances (.398 OBP) and hit nine home runs, which still puts him on a 30-homer pace. His defense has slipped some, but he’s versatile (switched from RF to 3B and back), runs the bases well, and apparently hits like an All-Star even in a slump.

Of course, the argument against Bautista is that he’s done all his work far removed from the pressure of a pennant race. Some contend that this makes his contributions less valuable, and it’s reasonable to suggest that the eight wins that bring a team from 88 to 96 are more valuable than the wins that bring a team from 75 to 83. On the other hand, I have a hard time believing that Bautista would have been more valuable if his teammates were better. The only thing standing between Bautista and my hyopthetical MVP vote is the possibility that other players have been better.

Justin Verlander
The common line among Verlander supporters is that no one is more valuable than a guy whose team is average (61-54) without him and excellent (23-8) with him. As well as Verlander continues to pitch (2.44 ERA, 9.12 K/9), that narrative is fading as the Tigers’ continue to win with and without him. It’s hard to say Detroit wouldn’t be in the playoffs without Verlander when they now lead the division by 10 1/2 games.

Verlander is having an outstanding season and may win the pitching triple crown (he’s tied with Jered Weaver for the ERA lead at the moment [oddly enough, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay have the same 2.44 ERA]). I believe that pitchers can be just as valuable as position players and should be taken seriously as MVP candidates. That said, Verlander isn’t dominating quite as thoroughly as Bautista is on the offensive side. Verlander is sixth in the AL in Fielding Independent Pitching (2.95) and, for what it’s worth, has thrown seven fewer complete games than James Shields. Bautista, meanwhile, leads the major leagues in home runs, OBP, slugging, Win Probability Added, and basically every other meaningful offensive statistic.

Curtis Granderson, Yankees
Granderson has made a major push in the last few weeks, running away with the league lead in runs (127) and RBI (111). His 39 home runs are second only to Bautista, and only Bautista and David Ortiz can top Granderson’s .564 slugging percentage. Playing center field for the Yankees, who are pulling away from the pack in the AL East, makes him an attractive MVP candidate.

What hurts Granderson’s candidacy is that he doesn’t play center field particularly well. His negative 6.1 Ultimate Zone Rating costs him a few spots on the fWAR list (he’s currently fifth in the AL). While UZR has been challenged lately as a questionable accounting of a player’s abilities, Total Zone doesn’t like him much more (he’s at negative .3 wins there, which drops him to eighth in rWAR. I wouldn’t count Granderson out, but his winning the award would signify that voters either (a) don’t trust any defensive metrics or (b) just don’t care about defense.

Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
For those who do put stock in defensive numbers, Ellsbury seems to be the hottest candidate. He’s not only hitting .317/.376/.533 with 26 home runs and 36 stolen bases, but Ellsbury’s defense grades out spectacularly. His 14 UZR is tops among center fielders (contributing to his MLB-best 8.2 fWAR), while his .3 Total Zone still has him more than half a win better than Granderson (though rWAR prefers Bautista and Verlander).

Ellsbury has clutch hits in his favor as well, including back-to-back walkoff hits as the Red Sox were pulling away in August (remember that?). His 5.19 Win Probabilty Added trails only Bautista and Miguel Cabrera in the American League. Then again, if the best argument that Ellsbury is the MVP is that he’s on a winning team, shouldn’t we be a little concerned that Bautista has done more to improve his team’s chances of winning?

Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox
I have exited this bandwagon. As the Red Sox broke flaccidly from the gate, Pedroia struggled to overcome injuries and produce offensively. As the Red Sox demolished all comers for four solid months this summer, Pedroia put together a historic midsummer on both sides of the ball, thrusting himself to the forefront of the MVP argument by August. In September, as the Red Sox have struggled to avoid the biggest collapse in New England, since 1978, Pedroia has been right in the middle of the futility, hitting a hideous .156/.174/.267.

It’s been a great season for Pedroia, but he’s not the AL MVP.

Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox
If you’re looking for an MVP in the traditional mold, look no further than Gonzalez, who leads the AL in batting average (.339) and is second to Granderson in RBI (108). Gonzalez is also a good fielder (9.3 UZR). A deeper look, though, makes it hard to justify his MVP candidacy. He’s been outhit by one teammate (David Ortiz’s .415 wOBA tops Gonzalez’s .408), and outproduced by another (Ellsbury leads him in both versions of WAR, and Pedroia leads him in fWAR. Gonzalez is an awful baserunner and trails Ellsbury (another lefty playing in Fenway Park) in home runs. Great season, but not the best.

A few candidates have gone under the radar, either with great SABR numbers (Ian Kinsler, Alex Gordon, Ben Zobrist), or with great traditional numbers (Miguel Cabrera, Paul Konerko). Detroit’s Alex Avila is eighth in the league in wOBA as a catcher, yet has gotten very little press. It’s a very deep field with options that will appeal to every kind of voter. As of today, I’d line them up like this:

1. Bautista
2. Ellsbury
3. Granderson
4. Verlander
5. Alex Avila
6. Gonzalez
7. Pedroia
8. Miguel Cabrera
9. Ian Kinsler
10. CC Sabathia

It’s the WPA that puts Bautista over the top. That the best hitter in the league is also the most clutch would make Bautista a fairly obvious choice if so many voters and pundits didn’t feel compelled to judge Bautista based on his teammates’ success. Does it really make sense that Bautista is probably looking up at Ellsbury and Granderson, while if the Blue Jays played in the AL Central, where they would probably be jockeying with Detroit for a playoff spot, he would actually win the award?

A lot has changed in the six weeks since I last weighed in, and a lot can change in the season’s last two and a half weeks. For now, though, Jose Bautista is the most valuable player in the American League.

This entry was posted in Blue Jays, Postseason Awards, Red Sox, Tigers, Yankees. Bookmark the permalink.

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