As of this post, we have about a month left in the regular season. Besides the Braves chances at winning the NL East, many things are still very much up in the air. The Angels and Athletics are locked in a fearsome division race. The Yankees may have a legitimate shot at chasing down the arguably-lucky Orioles. The Cardinals are bearing down on the Brewers, with the Pirates not an impossible distance behind. And the Tigers may show that multiple MVP and Cy Young winners just won’t cut it if you don’t have any defense or relief pitching to back it up. As these division races start coming to a close, we’ve reached a not wholly inappropriate time to begin talking about who the MVP candidates in each league are. Before we begin, let’s start with a few ground rules.
WAR! What is it good for? MVP debates, apparently.
This post is meant to be about who the author believes deserves to win the MVP in the American League. The BBWAA has its own set of arbitrary requirements for who should win the MVP based on silly things like being on a winning team and having a bunch of #grit, or something like that. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to men who rise and sleep under the blanket of the very #content and #analysis I provide, and then question the manner in which I provide it. As such, I’m not going to get into why these things are mostly irrelevant in determining who the most valuable player was. I will say, though, that if it comes down to two guys being an absolute tie, I may use their team’s standing or how they’ve performed in high leverage situations to break said tie. Anyway, let’s get down to business. Note, we’re going to talk a lot about WAR, as it’s currently the best way to group players by value. However, as you’ll see in the ensuing debates (especially when we get to the NL) I don’t believe the numbers should be taken as Gospel, and if your MVP list is just a WAR leaderboard, I’m just going to assume you’re an idiot with a fancy tool that you don’t know how to use. Anyway, back to business.
I’m starting with the American League, because I currently find the National League to be a much more interesting debate. Let’s start with a list of ten viable candidates, then begin whittling the list down until we can declare a winner. We’re going to start with Mike Trout, Felix Hernandez, Josh Donaldson, Corey Kluber, Alex Gordon, Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, Adrian Beltre, Michael Brantley, and Jose Abreu. Kluber is the easiest to eliminate, as he is bested by fellow pitcher Felix Hernandez in innings pitched, ERA, and FIP. You could argue he makes up ground in various areas, but when you’re down in those three areas and in the same league, I don’t think you really have much of a case. Seager is the next I’m going to knock off. He and Cano are extremely close, with only 0.3 wins separating them in bWAR (Baseball Reference’s version of Wins Above Replacement), and 0.1 wins separating them in fWAR (Fangraph’s version). Cano has had the better bat- with a higher average, on base percentage, and roughly equal slugging- while being more valuable on the bases (10 stolen bases for Cano versus 5 for Seager), but has not been as valuable with the glove. The thing is, though, the numbers see Cano as being an average defensive second baseman, despite him being known for being slightly above average. Seager, meanwhile, has been of roughly equal defensive value as Josh Donaldson, who is considered the best defensive third baseman not named Manny Machado. Seager may legitimately be performing that well this year, but the extremely high defensive numbers for him versus the pedestrian numbers for Cano have me leaning Robinson, considering they’re on the same team and are considered approximately equal in both versions of WAR. When you’ve got two guys who are essentially dead even, give it to the guy with the more normal defensive numbers. While we’re at it, let’s also go ahead and cut Cano. He’s managed to continue to provide a ton of value at the plate despite his relative lack of power by getting on base at a career clip, but he just doesn’t have the all-around numbers as other candidates. He’s worthy of consideration, but he’s going to have to make a strong push here at the end if he wants to make up that last bit of ground.
Jose Abreu is another easy knock-out. He’s been ferocious at the plate- having already slugged 33 dingers while batting for a healthy .308 average- but he’s considered to be very weak on defense. He’s not in the top 10 for either site’s version of WAR, and was mainly thrown in by me just to give mention to how incredible he’s been at hitting as a rookie. Unless you’re a modern-day Ted Williams at the plate, offense alone shouldn’t win you an MVP, regardless of what the BBWAA guys say. Brantley is also getting tossed out at this juncture, as he’s also been less than stellar on defense, and though he is hitting well, he’s not hitting well enough to make up the ground between him and the other players.
Beltre and Donaldson are the next on my list. Donaldson’s value is driven by his outstanding defense, but Ultimate Zone Rating hasn’t seen his defense as being nearly as stellar as Defensive Runs Saved has. It takes his absurd DRS numbers to push him to the very top of the pile, and when you have two reputable defensive statistics in conflict, assume the player’s true value is somewhere in between. If we make that assumption, he falls just shy of the edge in our discussion. As for Adrian, I hope history will be kind enough on Beltre to one day grant him entrance into the hall of fame, as he’s been one of the premier third basemen during his time in the majors. He’s having another great year at the ripe age of 35, hitting for a high average, drawing a decent number of walks, and hitting a not-insignificant number of home runs in the process. He continues to flash some great leather every night, with incredible hands and instincts, although a slowing first step. He’s admittedly one of my favorite players, but I can’t help but find the three guys left on our list to be more deserving.
Those three final guys are Mike Trout, Felix Hernandez, and Alex Gordon. The best player in the game, the best pitcher in baseball not named Clayton Kershaw, and… some other guy. Some of y’all are probably pretty shocked to see Gordon’s name up there. Some of y’all may not be surprised if you saw Jeff Passan and Dave Cameron’s silly slap fight on The Twitter recently. Alex is currently tied with Trout for the highest fWAR among position players, and his incredible value is being driven by his absurd defensive numbers, which Jeff tries to claim are a load of crap. I find this position to be unfounded, as who’s to say what the upper end of defensive value is, and who’s to say a solid defender can’t have one year where he’s elite? If we believe Chris Davis can randomly have a year at the plate where he’s one of the top 3 hitters in the game, who’s to say Gordon can’t have a year in the field where he does the same? Anyways, regardless of the defensive numbers you prefer, Alex is having an outstanding year. Not quite 2013 Simba good, but not as far off as you’d think. Digging deeper into the numbers, we see that he’s getting roughly equal value out of his arm and his range. His arm is a known weapon- being worth nearly 10 runs by itself each of the last three years- but his outstanding range numbers seem to be a new development. Using Inside Edge’s fielding data, we see that he’s made twice as many unlikely plays this year as he did last year, while also converting 95.7% of likely plays, compared to a career rate of 86.3% on those plays. When you see a guy who randomly is getting to more unlikely balls and converting a lot more likely plays, you can all but guarantee it’s unsustainable. Think of these plays as being web-gem category plays, which we all should recognize are extremely difficult to reproduce year after year. But the question we’re dealing with doesn’t care whether or not it’s sustainable, we’re strictly wondering whether or not the numbers are an accurate representation of what’s actually happened on the field. That’s a more difficult question to answer, and one that will put most readers to sleep, so let’s circumvent it by comparing him to the other position player we have left: Mike Trout.
Mike Trout in 2014 has continued to do the typical Mike Trout things, albeit not quite as well as we’ve become accustomed to. If the season ended today, there will have been only 15 players in the history of baseball to have a higher 3 year peak in fWAR. Of the guys on that list, only a couple guys named Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez are not already in the hall of fame. Did I mention that this is how Trout has started his career? This may not even be his prime! But I digress, we’re just concerned with 2014. As we’ve mentioned, Trout and Gordon are tied in fWAR, so we need to start getting into some tie-breaker games. First off, Trout has had by far the better bat. The Millville Meteor stands alone at the top of the offensive value leaderboards, with the next closest guy being a whopping 8 runs behind him in total offensive value. Trout told all of baseball his game plan at the beginning of the year, saying that he was going to try to be more aggressive in the zone and try to hit for more power. Looking at the numbers, he’s currently striking out at a career rate, while simultaneously rocking a career high ISO (a measure of a player’s power). He literally told all of baseball what he was going to do, and now he’s doing it. You may remember that he did this last year, too, saying at the beginning of the year that he was going to be more patient before proceeding to lead the league in walks. He’s an offensive freak, and it’s time we recognize that our good friend Miguel Cabrera has been dethroned as the best hitter in baseball. Gordon, on the other hand, is having just a good offensive year. He’s limiting strike outs, drawing a little more than an average number of walks, making solid contact on balls in play, and tossing in 15 long-balls on top of it. All of this adds up to a 126 wRC+, good for 20th in the league. Good, but not great. So we have one guy with most of his value coming from doing what he’s been doing for the last three years now at the plate, and one guy with most of his value coming from a career year in the field. This already has me leaning toward Trout before we even put the final nail in the coffin. That final nail is Trout’s strangely low defensive value this season. Trout is having the worst defensive year of his career thanks to a career low in his range value. I think this has to be believed to a fairly large extent, as he’s also stealing less bags and taking an extra base less often than he ever has, leading us to believe that something is keeping him from running as fast as he has in previous seasons. Trout’s hamstring was barking at him earlier in the season, and I can’t help but believe this is what’s preventing him from flashing the ridiculous speed that we’ve come to expect from him. But as we said in the Cano/Seager debate, when you have two guys with roughly equal all-around value, give the advantage to the guy with the better bat and more normal defensive numbers. This leaves us with just Trout and Hernandez.
I am typically hesitant to throw pitchers into the top of the MVP debate, as they rarely lead the league in WAR, and when a position player and a pitcher are roughly equal in WAR, I always give the advantage to the guy taking the field every day. This year, however, we simply cannot ignore the outstanding season King Felix is having. He’s averaging over 7 innings per start, striking out 9.6 guys per 9 innings, and only walking one or two guys per game. He’s getting groundballs at a higher rate than he ever has since ’07, which is leading to a career low in home runs. The changeup this year has been absolutely devastating, as evidenced by this .gif of Desmond Jennings striking out:
All of this is leading to career lows in both ERA and FIP, which are currently at 2.07 and 2.23, respectively. Since we love the WARs around here, Hernandez is tied with Trout in bWAR and has a 0.3 win advantage over him in fWAR. If we use just raw RA9-WAR, which calculates a pitcher’s value using just runs allowed (bWAR does basically the same thing, but it has adjustments for team defense built-in) Felix’s lead grows to 0.8 wins. Given that a win in 2014 is equal to roughly 9.2 runs, we’d have to make a case that Trout makes up 7 runs in value between his fWAR and Felix’s RA9-WAR. I don’t think that’s exceedingly difficult, and I’m going to quickly walk you through why. fWAR is a better indicator of pitcher performance than RA9-WAR, as RA9-WAR inherently includes contributions by a team’s defense. Nearly 60% of the balls hit against Felix have been on the ground, headed toward the superb Mariner infield defense. The only infield position of the Mariners that isn’t headed by a great defender is first base, where Logan Morrison and Justin Smoak have simply been around average. Because of all this, we’ve got to give some credit for Felix’s numbers to those guys. If we adjust the numbers accordingly, we end up with bWAR, which as we mentioned sees Felix as being tied with Trout. If we just ignore the defense altogether, we end up with fWAR, which sees Felix as having less than a 3 run advantage in value. 3 runs. That is all that’s separating a player who takes the field every single day and one who plays only 7 innings of every fifth game. If that’s not a tie, I’m not sure what is. In order to settle this, we’re going to have to go to *GASP* contextual statistics!
Yes, that’s right, we’re gonna take a look at which of these players have been more “clutch” to decide a victor. Now, normally, I’d advise you to not pay much attention to context dependent statistics, as they’re almost completely noise and are mostly useless in determining player value. But we’re splitting hairs here, so let’s loosen the tie and have a little fun. In 2014, Mike Trout has been the third most clutch player in the American League. I’m not even going to pretend I did any research into why that is, but I do know that he’s had some beautiful walk off home runs this year. Meanwhile, Felix has been the 5th most un-clutch pitcher in the American League! I don’t even know if that’s the right terminology, and I don’t have the slightest clue as to why this appears to be the case for him, but the numbers are what they are, and Trout has been more clutch than King Felix. We’ve got two players of roughly equal value, one of which is an un-clutch pitcher, and the other is a super-clutch position player. Advantage? Mike Trout: the deserving MVP three years running.