Written by: Sam Minier
Follow him on Twitter: @sminier3
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|CHW — Jose Abreu||262||43||19||60||0||.317||.370||.617||0.987||.411||167||2.70|
|NYY — DJ LeMahieu||216||41||10||27||3||.364||.421||.590||1.011||.429||177||2.70|
|CLE — Jose Ramirez||254||45||17||46||10||.292||.386||.607||0.993||.415||163||2.75|
This year’s AL MVP race makes for riveting debate among baseball fans, much like every award race because of the abbreviated season. We have a third baseman, who has finished 3rd in MVP voting twice by doing everything at the plate to compensate for his below-average defense. A first baseman who hits for average hits for power, and drives in runs. A second baseman with a good glove, some power, and the best contact bat in the game. And finally, the best pitcher in baseball this season, who will be the AL Cy Young winner.
Jose Ramirez, Jose Abreu, DJ LeMahieu, and Shane Bieber were the top four American League players in 2020. Each of them play the game a little differently and each has been in this discussion in years past, with the exception being pitcher Shane Bieber, who is in the third season of his young career.
will achieve a 3rd top 5 MVP finish this season after producing offensively as well as anyone in baseball for the Indians. His 10 stolen bases were good for 3rd in the AL and he finished 2nd in XBH behind Abreu. Ramirez led the league in runs and slashed .292/.386/.607, which was good, but not quite as good as Jose Abreu’s line. Abreu ended up with 14 more hits, more extra-base hits, more home runs, and more runs batted in, so congratulations to Ramirez on another great season, but he falls short of being named MVP.
Abreu finished 4th in MVP Award voting in 2014 as a rookie after 10 seasons in Cuba, with almost the same numbers as this season. In 2014 Abreu slashed .317/.383/.581 compared to his 2020 line of .317/.370/.617. Shockingly, his wOBA and wRC+ were both the same in 2014 and 2020, finishing at .411 and 167 respectively.
Consistency has been a staple of his career, with top 20 MVP finishes in 5 of 7 seasons if we include 2020. Abreu’s average exit velocity was the highest of his career at 92.9mph, which was 10th in all of baseball and 5th in the American League. He was also 4th in the AL with a HardHit % of 53.3% and he led the AL in slugging.
The last finalist of the batters, DJ LeMahieu
LeMahieu hit .364 at the top of a banged-up Yankee lineup and scored 41 times. DJ leads these candidates in AVG, OBP, OPS, wRC+, and wOBA. Had LeMahieu not missed any time he certainly would’ve led in runs too. DJ also hit 10 home runs from the leadoff spot slugging only 27 points lower than the power-hitting Abreu. But just as important as all of that, LeMahieu only struck out 21 times compared to Abreu’s 59 K’s. During this short year, Abreu struck out about once per night, while LeMahieu struck out about twice per week.
Both Abreu and LeMahieu walked 18 times, but Abreu had a much bigger issue with the K. As the game evolves to a new era of shifts and no bunting, home runs and strikeouts become the focus. In 2016 Astros Manager Dusty Baker, then with the Washington Nationals, said, “During a strikeout, nothing can happen. You better be hitting a whole bunch of home runs to me. Then you can take strikeouts.”
Baseball has only continued to adopt this mentality with both strikeouts and home runs on the rise. Each of the past 10 seasons saw more total strikeouts than the year prior, and since 2016 the league home run total surpassed 6,000 twice after never doing so before. The analytics support assigning more value to a pitcher that can strike out hitters and keep the ball out of play. Conversely, batters that can avoid striking out are more valuable because they can put the ball in play more often, and potentially hit more home runs.
In 2000 Randy Johnson won the NL Cy Young and Tom Glavine finished second. Surprisingly, on balls in play opponents hit just .265 against Glavine compared to .326 against Johnson. The traditional belief was Glavine must have been more effective at creating weak contact and you would assume this also meant his ERA and WHIP were much lower. However, Johnson had a 2.64 ERA compared to Glavine’s 3.40 and Johnson had a 1.12 WHIP compared to Glavine’s 1.19.
So how could Johnson have a far better ERA, better WHIP, and win the Cy Young if hitters had a much higher batting average on balls in play against him? It is a pretty simple answer. Johnson struck out 347 hitters and Glavine struck out just 152.
If you take that information and think about how the batter should adjust their approach, it is clear that avoiding strikeouts will help your team find more success. Teams that strikeout less have won 63% of postseason series since 2000 according to The Wall Street Journal.
More Then Just an Offensive Award?
Pitchers have the most control over whether or not a batter can make contact. This is a tough pill to swallow for traditional fans, but the numbers do not lie. It also confirms my assertion that LeMahieu was a more valuable player to the Yankees than Abreu was to the White Sox, which is reflected in their wOBA and wRC+ stats. LeMahieu has the upper hand in both because he rarely struck out and almost always put the ball in play. Of the hitters he is the MVP but how does he stack up against an ace like Shane Bieber?
|CLE — Shane Bieber (8-1)||77.1||1.63||0.87||14.2||2.44||0.81||2.07||3.20|
Bieber was dominant this season. I discussed in depth some of the adjustments he made that led to his success in my Cy Young article. The young stud added a cutter with helped set up his slider and he mastered his curveball, making his 5-pitch repertoire devastating for offenses. We will briefly run through the numbers again, but the moral of the story is Bieber was virtually unhittable and struck out a ton of hitters.
We just discussed the importance of avoiding the strikeout for LeMahieu and that is what also makes Bieber so valuable. He struck out 14.2 batters per nine innings pitched. Bieber sat down ten or more hitters in 75% 0f his starts this season finishing with 122 K’s, which was on pace for roughly 330 strikeouts. Since 1960 a pitcher has amassed 330 strikeouts just eight times, according to Baseball-Almanac.com.
Although it is unusual for a pitcher to compete for the MVP, Bieber had an unusual season leading the league in ERA and FIP and leading all MLB players in aWAR. His xFIP was in a league of its own with a few guys finishing in the range between 2.46 and 3.00 compared to Bieber’s 2.04. He was dominant, he limited home runs, he struck out a ton of hitters, and he won a lot of games, which is why Shane Bieber is the 2020 AL MVP.
AL Winner: Shane Bieber
|ATL – Freddie Freeman||262||51||13||53||2||.341||.462||.640||1.102||.456||187||3.15|
|ATL – Marcel Ozuna||267||38||18||56||0||.338||.431||.636||1.067||.444||179||2.40|
|WSH – Juan Soto||196||39||13||37||6||.351||.490||.695||1.185||.478||200||2.25|
|SDP – Manny Machado||254||44||16||47||6||.304||.370||.580||0.950||.391||148||2.70|
|LAD – Mookie Betts||246||47||16||39||10||.292||.366||.562||0.928||.390||149||3.20|
|SDP – Fernando Tatis Jr.||257||50||17||45||11||.277||.366||.571||0.937||.392||149||2.70|
Selecting finalists for this award is tricky because a lot of guys had good years in the NL. Tatis Jr. had an explosive first half hitting 11 of his home runs in August and the young superstar entered September the favorite for MVP. However, Fernando’s .208/311/.403 slash line the rest of the way eliminated him from consideration, despite solid production overall.
Mookie Betts and Manny Machado
Mookie Betts had the best aWAR of the bunch because of his elite defense this season. His 11 defensive runs saved trailed only Nolan Arenado’s 15 in all of baseball. However, his offensive production was far below that of Ozuna, Freeman, and Soto. While Betts deserves an honorable mention, he is left off the podium here.
Manny Machado had a similar season to Betts and is the last of the honorable mentions. The third basemen slashed .304/.370/.580 slugging consistently all season and hitting .351 in the second half. He also finished T-7 in DRS with 7, just a few behind Mookie. Both guys were slightly ahead of Tatis Jr. but a tier below the other three sluggers.
Soto finishes 3rd in my evaluation. He had the best statistical season with an OBP of .490 he reached base safely almost half the time in 2020. Soto remarkably slugged .695 and posted a 200 in wRC+ and a .478 wOBA. Those are all league bests, but he missed 8 games at the beginning of the season because of COVID protocol, which ultimately cost him in this race.
He hit 13 home runs with 39 runs and 37 RBI’s, which are far below the numbers Freeman and Ozuna posted. Soto finishes 3rd above three guys who had big seasons and played almost every game because he was arguably the best hitter in baseball, but the 47 games played will not be enough in a 60-game season to win MVP.
Freddie Freeman and Marcell Ozuna
Ultimately, this is a pretty simple decision for the award. Freddie Freeman is the clear MVP this year in the National League. He led the NL in doubles with 23 and in runs with 51. Freeman was 3rd in both walks and hits. Freeman beat Ozuna in AVG/OBP/SLUG, wOBA, wRC+, and aWAR. While Ozuna was just a few batting average points from the triple crown, he was beat out in every metric by his teammate Freeman.
After four top finishes, this would be Freddie Freeman’s first Most Valuable Player award. He was the centerpiece of an Atlanta lineup that carried a weak rotation to an NL East championship. While Ozuna and others supplied large contributions, Freddie was the most reliable and productive player in both his lineup and the National League. Freeman was fortunate Soto did not play the entire season, because 10-13 more games for him, and this would be a different story.
NL Winner: Freddie Freeman
Glossary: definitions retrieved on fangraphs.com
aWAR: average of WAR from baseball reference and WAR from fangraphs.
wOBA: combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value.
wRC+: an improved version of Bill James’ Runs Created (RC) statistic, which attempted to quantify a player’s total offensive value and measure it by runs. measures how a player’s wRC compares with league average after controlling for park effects.
FIP: measures what a player’s ERA would look like over a given period of time if the pitcher were to have experienced league average results on balls in play and league average timing.
xFIP: It’s calculated in the same way as FIP, except it replaces a pitcher’s home run total with an estimate of how many home runs they should have allowed given the number of fly balls they surrendered while assuming a league average home run to fly ball percentage (between 9 and 10% depending on the year).