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Breaking Down the AL MVP Race Candidates

The “most valuable player” award is always a fickle assessment. Taking each word at it’s literal meaning, the award should simply be handed to the player with the highest WAR, right? That’s value, as we are able to best quantify it today. But we – fans, experts, voters, even players – like nuance. We love our statistics, don’t get me wrong, but to simplify the award down to such a defineable yet mysterious statistic would upset the “baseball purists.” Which brings us to this year’s American League MVP race.

Simply based on WAR, this award will be Trout’s going away – and it may end up that way. But there is a legitimate case to be made for six other candidates to win the AL MVP, in what might be the most competitive MVP race in the last decade:

  1. Jose Altuve: 91 Runs 20 HR 85 RBI 26 SB .356/.417/.563 .980 OPS 7.3 WAR

The case for Altuve: For starters, his batting average is nearly 40 points higher than anyone in the American League. He’s leading baseball in hits for the third consecutive season and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is an absurd 1.137:1. But none of that is new for one of the best contact hitters in baseball. What is new this season from Altuve – and what has catapulted him to the legitimate favorite for MVP – is power. He has already surpassed his career high in homeruns, extra-base hits, RBI, WAR, and is on pace to shatter his career-highs in OPS and Slugging. Nevermind the fact that he’s generating his power with just 5’6”, 165-pound stature to work with, Altuve is putting slugger-like figures while still maintaining the contact numbers that have defined his career to date.

The case against Altuve: If the season ended today, Altuve and the Astros would not make the playoffs. And while, in a sport that can’t be dominated by a single player it may be unfair to judge his candidacy based on team success, that may offer a tie-breaker in this razor-thin race. Otherwise, good luck finding a weakness here.

2. Mookie Betts: 100 runs 29 HR 94 RBI 21 SB .320/.359/.561 .920 OPS 7.5 WAR
The case for Betts: He’s a world-class, professional-caliber bowler, at just 5’9” can dunk a basketball, and is inarguably the best outfield dancer in the MLB. Oh and he’s pretty good at baseball, too.

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Betts had long been projected as a 10-15 HR/season guy throughout the minors, which, with his speed, contact, and defensive versatility is an all-star. But similarly to Altuve, Betts has experienced an unforeseen power renaissance this season that has cemented him among the best players in baseball. The numbers speak for themselves, especially for having been in the leadoff spot for the majority of the season. But what may separate Betts’ gaudy offensive statistics from the other equally gaudy numbers on this list is his defense and baserunning. Other than Machado, Betts’ 1.8 defensive WAR ranks highest on this list. Expect Betts, 23, to be in this conversation for the next decade.

The case against Betts: He hits in the best lineup in baseball, which allows him to see more pitches to hit than most guys on this list. In addition, For a leadoff guy with a lot of speed, he doesn’t walk as much as you’d like – evident in his .359 OBP. While, again, not his fault that Dustin Pedroia exists, Altuve, Donaldson, Machado, and Trout play more “valuable” positions.

3.Mike Trout: 97 runs 24 HR 82 RBI 21 SB .311/.432/.548 .981 OPS 8.2 WAR
The case for Trout: In 15 years, we’re going to look back on the career Mike Trout had and wonder how he didn’t win 8-10 MVP awards. He is the single best player in the baseball, on par or exceeding the best season of his career, and might not win because his general manager isn’t very good at his job?

The case against Trout: He plays on one of the worst teams in baseball, and while that says absolutely nothing about Trout’s value, it will hurt him in the eyes of “old school writers.” Here’s to hoping he gets traded at some point? He is susceptible to a case of voter fatigue here, as well.

4. Josh Donaldson: 102 runs 30 HR 87 RBI .290/.403/.557 .960 OPS 6.3 WAR

The case for Donaldson: Brett Lawrie, Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin, and Franklin Barretto. That’s the group Oakland got in return for the guy who just might become the the back-to-back AL MVP. Donaldson took his breakout 2015 MVP season, and has arguably exceeded it in 2016. He’s reaching base at a much higher clip, while striking out less – he has more walks (84) than he had all last season (73). In a normal year, especially with the Blue Jays currently leading the competitive AL East, Donaldson would be a runaway winner.

The case against Donaldson: His stats are maybe a *hair* behind the others. Like, barely. And his WAR is substantially lower than most of the other contenders. And he can’t dance.

5. Manny Machado: 90 runs 31 HR 81 RBI .306/.358/.563 .922 OPS 6.1 WAR
The case for Machado: He’s – arguably – the most complete player on this list. He’s played two of the most valuable positions on the diamond at an elite level (2.0 defensive WAR), hits for power, hits for average, runs well, and plays the game with a calmness and ease that conjures images of prime Alex Rodriguez. He’s probably the sexy pick, and that should not be discounted in a race that is voted on based largely on the “eye test.”

The case against Machado: The redundancy of saying “you have to pick one” is getting old, but this probably isn’t his year to win it, solely based on the historic years of the others. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to expect multiple MVPs in the future from Machado, potentially in another uniform, but he’s just a tick below the elite candidates.

 

6. David Ortiz: 62 runs 30 HR 100 RBI .319/.408.629 1.037 OPS 4.2 WAR
The case for Ortiz: It was seven years ago that Red Sox fans began to eulogize Ortiz and his heroic career, as it seemed inevitable that the slumping slugger had lost it. It’s 2016 and Ortiz is retiring on his terms thanks to a career revilatilization, and an utterly dominant season at age 40. He is having the best offensive season of any player in baseball and the best year of his career, as he is helping lead the Red Sox’ offensive juggernaut toward a potential playoff spot. It’s hard to discount the narrative of the retiring fan-favorite in a major market winning the MVP in his final season. Is he the logical pick? Probably not. But he is the sentimental one.

The case against Ortiz: He doesn’t play defense or run. And while that shouldn’t take away from the phenomenal season Ortiz is having at the plate, it certainly handicaps his MVP candidacy, in the same way it does to Britton. I’m not necessarily a WAR guy but in this case I think that statistics tells the story. There is no explanation for valuing a guy who plays only half the game over guys who play the entire game.

7. Zach Britton: 52 IP 0.69 ERA 0.827 WHIP 61 K 16 BB 651 ERA+ 3.2 WAR
The case for Britton: He is so so so so good at his job, and might be the biggest reason the Orioles – and their horrible starting pitching – currently hold a wild card spot. His 0.69 ERA is preposterous given the division he plays in, and his 651 ERA+ is easily the most mind-numbing statistic of the 2016 season. ERA+ measures ERA, but takes into account the ballpark he plays in, with league average being 100. The best single-season ERA+ Mariano Rivera ever had was 316. So, sure he’s a closer who has played in just 52 innings all year. But if any closer has ever deserved MVP consideration, Britton is the one.

The case against Britton: I am among those who believe this award should never go to a reliever, simply based on usage. The position players on this list have played in 20+ times more innings than Britton, and impact each and every game in a bigger way. Taking nothing away from the dominant year Britton is having, he simply is less valuable than the others.

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