AL MVP race gets more complicated
Altuve? Trout? Ramirez? Metrics shed light on how much players contribute
When he played for the Atlanta Braves, shortstop Andrelton Simmons wondered how Mike Trout could make a case in the MVP race against Miguel Cabrera, who outpaced him by significant margins in home runs and RBI on the way to winning the award in 2012 and ’13.
Then Simmons got traded to the Los Angeles Angels before the 2016 season and found out the whole scope of Trout’s abilities, which earned him MVP honors in 2014 and ’16.
“When you see him play every day, see all he does, how he helps the team defensively, running the bases, hitting, you understand why he’s won the MVP,” Simmons said of his teammate.
Indeed, the full array of contributions to team success has emerged as the gauge for MVP consideration as the development of advance metrics sheds light on other parts of the game besides hitting. No longer are the sluggers who merely pile up counting statistics like home runs and RBI always the top contenders.
A player like Simmons, for example, is building his candidacy at least as much with his glove as his bat. Though he has produced a modest 14 home runs and 64 RBI, the nonpareil fielder ranks second in the league among position players in baseball-reference’s version of wins above replacement (WAR) with 6.3, behind Jose Altuve’s 7.7.
Both of them are among the top six vote-getters in the latest USA TODAY Sports power rankings, along with Trout, the New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge, the Cleveland Indians’ Jose Ramirez and Altuve’s teammate with the Houston Astros, George Springer, in what’s looming as an intriguing race for American League MVP.
All are playing for playoff contenders, which enhances their chances, and all provide defensive value. There’s not a designated hitter in the group.
Altuve, who finished third in last year’s race behind Trout and Boston Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts, noted that they’re both superior all-around players who excel in the field and on the basepaths.
This year, when Altuve is leading the AL in batting average (.351) and steals (31) while ranking second in on-base plus slugging percentage at .976, he’s getting an impassioned endorsement from his manager, A.J. Hinch.
“Everything Altuve is about makes an MVP,” Hinch said. “His strength, his consistency, his dominance in a lot of aspects of the game. He really embodies what an MVP is. So I think our guy should win it. … His season has been second-to-none in the American League.”
Judge’s September awakening after a prolonged post-All-Star Game slumber has thrust him back into the competition as the AL leader in home runs (41) and OPS (.990).
And Trout, whom manager Mike Scioscia calls “an offensive machine,” is trying hard to make up for the 39 games he missed with a torn thumb ligament. His 1.108 OPS would lead all major leaguers if he had enough plate appearances to qualify.
But the player whose case really seems to be picking up steam is Ramirez, who leads the league in doubles and extra-base hits while splitting time between second and third base. As the Indians’ winning streak has grown into epic proportions, recognition of Ramirez’s value has increased.
“Ramirez is a complete player,” Altuve said. “He’s got a bunch of extra-base hits and has been very consistent. He’s really valuable because he can play second, third and even shortstop if needed. He’s an MVP-caliber player.”
Exactly what makes an MVP candidate remains amorphous, and the discussion is further clouded by the disparity in WAR calculation between baseball-reference and another premier statistical web site, Fangraphs.com. In the last one, Altuve still ranks first but is followed by Trout, Judge and Ramirez among position players before Simmons comes into the picture.
And there are questions about the worthiness of both calculations, especially in regards to their assessment of defensive performance. Even in the era of Statcast, precise statistics to gauge fielding prowess remain elusive, at least those available to the general public.
But baseball insiders agree the metrics have improved, boosting the case for Simmons, who’s tied for second in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved, and for other accomplished glove men.
“I think more and more teams are looking at the right balance to where defense has become a bigger part of it,” Oakland Athletics manager Bob Melvin said. “It’s really the two-way players now, the guys who can do it on both ends, who get talked about for the MVP.”
Astros second baseman Jose Altuve finished third in last year’s MVP voting.