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MLB -- Why this AL race is the best MVP race ever

ESPN.com | Updated: 2018-09-14 10:00:42

Here's the hypothesis: The American League MVP race is arguably the greatest MVP race ever.

Here's the evidence: We already have six position players with a WAR of 7.0 or higher, plus a seventh candidate who is merely chasing a Triple Crown. To have so many players performing at such a high level is nearly unprecedented, which makes this MVP race so intriguing.

The narrative is even more interesting because the national consensus seems to favor Mookie Betts, the league leader in WAR, but when I was in Boston last weekend, the local take from the beat writers and Red Sox players is that it's not clear Betts is even the MVP of his own team.

David Price summed it up best when he described Betts as the MVP of the league, but J.D. Martinez as the MVP of the Red Sox. In other words, there's no denying Betts' all-around brilliance at the plate, in the field and on the bases, but if you go beyond WAR and give Martinez credit for making his teammates better -- oh, along with his monster production in the batter's box -- then he has been even more instrumental in leading Boston to its first 100-win season since 1946.

We all know the background behind Martinez's signing. In 2016, with David Ortiz leading the way, the Red Sox were an offensive powerhouse, leading the league with 878 runs and hitting 208 home runs. Betts hit .318/.363/.534. With Ortiz having retired in 2017, the Red Sox scored 785 runs and hit 168 home runs, even as home runs skyrocketed across the league. Betts hit .264/.344/.459. With Martinez signed to anchor the lineup, the Red Sox already have scored 786 runs and have hit 186 home runs. Betts is hitting .340/.433/.627.

The Red Sox rave not just about Martinez's presence, but laud him for being like another hitting coach on staff. He has helped Betts with his swing path. Price talked about how Martinez helps teammates during games, with their approach on how to face certain guys. I remember in spring training talking to Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire, a coach last season with the Diamondbacks when Martinez tore it up. He talked about how he has never seen somebody work so much at hitting as Martinez, with all the work he does behind the scenes.

Should Martinez get extra credit for all this? Maybe not. Maybe the MVP race is really just about the numbers put up between the lines -- and Mookie's numbers belong to him, not Martinez.

Meanwhile, the other major narrative seems to surround Alex Bregman, who is making a strong push down the stretch. In Houston's win on Wednesday, he reached 50 doubles and 100 RBIs, and became the first third basemen with 50 doubles and 30 home runs. With injuries at various points to Carlos Correa, George Springer and Jose Altuve -- and Correa and Springer well below their 2017 level of production -- Bregman has clearly been the key cog in the Houston lineup, missing just three games while hitting .296/.398/.556 and walking more than he strikes out.

He also has been lethal in crunch time. He leads the majors in OPS with runners in scoring position, hitting an insane .390/.480/.732 -- although Betts, Mike Trout (another of our MVP candidates) and Martinez rank 2-3-4 in the majors in that category. Bregman also is hitting .333/.440/.510 in high-leverage situations. Against the A's, the team the Astros are battling for the AL West title, he has hit .362/.470/.724 with 19 RBIs in 18 games. WAR doesn't factor in any of that stuff.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch has appreciated what Bregman has done up close. "These major awards at the end of the year really are about splitting hairs between elite performers," he said over the weekend in Boston. "Certainly, Alex has put himself right up there with anybody you want to name. His performance, his durability, playing on both sides of the ball ... you can't really say anything against other players when they're doing elite things, but our guy is making a strong case. He loves the big moment, loves it."

So it feels like a three-man race, but we shouldn't ignore Trout, who leads the AL in OPS while playing an up-the-middle position, unlike Betts, Martinez or Bregman. We shouldn't ignore Indians teammates Jose Ramirez (who slugged his 38th home run on Wednesday, his first since Aug. 17, but is already in the 30-homer, 30-stolen base club) and Francisco Lindor (who plays a great shortstop, leads the majors in runs and has cracked 34 home runs). And definitely don't ignore A's third baseman Matt Chapman, maybe the best defensive player in the majors this season and, oh by the way, he ranks second in the AL to Trout in OPS on the road.

Here's that WAR leaderboard, via Baseball-Reference.com:

Betts: 9.8
Trout: 9.0
Chapman: 8.0
Ramirez: 7.5
Lindor: 7.1
Bregman: 7.0
Andrelton Simmons: 5.8
Martinez: 5.7

Bregman, by the way, leads the AL in win probability added, which factors in offensive production based on the score and inning in the game. He has loved the big moment. (Martinez is second and Betts is third.)

Anyway, back to that original premise. Only four leagues have ever had seven position players reach 7.0 WAR in a single season:

2011 American League (8)
Jacoby Ellsbury: 8.3
Jose Bautista: 8.3
Dustin Pedroia: 8.0
Miguel Cabrera: 7.6
Ben Zobrist: 7.6
Alex Gordon: 7.3
Evan Longoria: 7.2
Ian Kinsler: 7.0

Similar to Betts and Chapman this season, five of those players had huge defensive ratings, with Pedroia, Zobrist, Gordon, Longoria and Kinsler each being credited with at least 17 defensive runs saved. This group wasn't the offensive force that our 2018 group is, however. Only Bautista, Cabrera and Ellsbury ranked in the top 10 in the AL in OPS. Our 2018 guys rank 1-2-3-4-5-6-9.

The MVP went to Justin Verlander, who received 13 of 28 first-place votes to beat out Ellsbury and Bautista.

2004 National League (7)
Barry Bonds: 10.6
Adrian Beltre: 9.6
Scott Rolen: 9.2
Albert Pujols: 8.5
Todd Helton: 8.3
J.D. Drew: 8.3
Jim Edmonds: 7.2

OK, these guys were impressive. I mean, Bonds had a .612 OBP! He slugged .812. Those are Little League numbers. That was Beltre's monster 48-homer season with the Dodgers. Pujols, Edmonds and Rolen were Cardinals teammates, and each posted an OPS over 1.000. Somehow they got swept in the World Series.

Because of Bonds' surreal season, the MVP vote wasn't close. He received 24 first-place votes, Beltre six, and Pujols and Rolen one each.

1998 National League (7)
Barry Bonds: 8.1
John Olerud: 7.6
Mark McGwire: 7.5
Vladimir Guerrero: 7.4
Andruw Jones: 7.1
Chipper Jones: 7.1
Brian Jordan: 7.0

Bonds hit .303/.438/.609 with 37 home runs, 122 RBIs, 120 runs and 28 steals -- and nobody noticed because McGwire and Sammy Sosa waged a home run war. Bonds would finish eighth in the MVP voting. Sosa, who is credited with 6.5 WAR, beat out McGwire by collecting 30 of 32 first-place votes. The Cubs made the playoffs and the Cardinals didn't, which was the decisive factor.

1996 National League (7)
Barry Bonds: 9.7
Bernard Gilkey: 8.1
Ellis Burks: 7.9
Ken Caminiti: 7.6
Jeff Bagwell: 7.5
Barry Larkin: 7.2
Lance Johnson: 7.2

Yeah, Bonds again. He hit .308/.461/.615 with 42 home runs, 40 steals and 129 RBIs -- and finished fifth in the MVP voting. You have to love the insane numbers of this era. Gilkey? Yeah, he hit .317 with 30 home runs for the Mets in his one huge season and was credited with 23 runs saved in the field. He finished 14th in the MVP voting. The unanimous MVP was Caminiti, who hit 40 home runs -- by the way, 17 major leaguers hit at least 40 homers in 1996, the most ever -- and led the Padres to a division title.

So, that's what I mean when I suggest this is maybe the greatest MVP race ever. We could end up with six 8-WAR players, matching the 2004 NL total. Even if the vote doesn't end up close -- Betts would have my vote and I predict that he'll win -- it has been an incredible season for superstar-level performances.

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