AL MVP race gets more com­pli­cated

Al­tuve? Trout? Ramirez? Met­rics shed light on how much play­ers con­trib­ute

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS - Jorge L. Ortiz @jorgelor­tiz USA TO­DAY Sports Ortiz re­ported from Oak­land.

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.”

Maybe.

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.”

TROY TAORMINA, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Astros sec­ond base­man Jose Al­tuve fin­ished third in last year’s MVP vot­ing.

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