The AL MVP Battle Could Come Down to Philosophyon September 22, 2020 at 3:15 pm

The AL MVP Battle Could Come Down to Philosophy

With less than a week to go in the regular season, writers will soon vote on end-of-season awards, and the shortened season makes for some very tight races. That’s certainly true for American League MVP. Through play on Sunday, here’s the WAR Leaderboard for American League position players:

That’s a fine list of players, to be sure, but it doesn’t include one of the top players by AL WAR at the moment. Shane Bieber has made 11 starts and pitched 72.1 innings good for a 2.13 FIP, 1.74 FIP, and 2.9 WAR. He’s struck out 41% of batters, given up three runs in three starts, two runs in two starts, one run in one start, and no runs in five starts. He pitched at least six innings in every start but one, when he threw five frames against the Brewers on September 6, striking out 10 against one walk, giving up a single run. Given Bieber’s runs’ allowed, there is no real difference between his FanGraphs’ WAR and his mark at Baseball-Reference. He also leads the league in xwOBA over at Baseball Savant.

When assessing the National League MVP race, I found it helpful to break the season down into smaller chunks and see how the race had evolved over time. We’ll do the same thing here, but we’ll use wider swaths of the season and more than double the potential candidates. We’ll look at the top seven players from above and break the season that has been played so far down into thirds, with 20-day segments. First, here are the first 20 days of the season, with a familiar face atop the list:

While Mike Trout wasn’t the AL WAR leader for position players at this point in time (Kyle Lewis was), of the players who remained in the MVP mix, he ended up on top for this stretch. DJ LeMahieu and Brandon Lowe started off very strongly with the bat, while Jose Ramirez and Anthony Rendon had a more balanced approach to providing value. Tim Anderson missed 10 games with a groin strain while Jose Abreu opened the season with a fairly average stretch. Shane Bieber put up 0.9 WAR during this period. Here’s how those players finished August:

Now, we see the pair of White Sox heating up, with Abreu putting up some monster numbers and Anderson hitting incredibly well, too. Rendon was also heating up, and Ramirez was still chugging along, providing value in every aspect of the game. Trout, meanwhile, only played at an average All-Star level instead of like Mike Trout, while LeMahieu missed a bunch of time with a left thumb sprain. Bieber put up 1.5 WAR with a 0.86 FIP as well as a 0.72 ERA. Now, for the September numbers:

Ramirez’s balanced attack kept him in the race, but his bat has been great over the last three weeks. LeMahieu has recovered from his injury. Trout has played like Trout. Abreu and Anderson continue their surge. Rendon has been very good, while Lowe has played like an All-Star. Bieber, in part due to making only three starts during this period, put up a very good 0.6 WAR, though not quite as good as the rest of his season.

Bieber is likely to get just one more start this season (tomorrow’s), to make his case for MVP. If he pitches well, he’s likely to end the season as the AL WAR leader. That might be enough for many voters to put him atop the ballot for MVP, but many will still lean toward a position player. While each player’s WAR differs — in some cases by a lot, with Ramirez nearly a full win ahead of Lowe and LeMahieu — going past WAR and looking at a few more numbers probably makes sense. First, let’s take a quick look at Statcast’s xwOBA to see how luck on batted balls might have played a role. If we were replace wOBA with xwOBA, the WAR might look roughly like this:

The estimates are just rough projections before last night’s games, but we see two Angels atop the list. Whether it is the ballpark or spray angle or just luck, it certainly looks like Ramirez and LeMahieu have benefited while the Angels have suffered a bit. This isn’t a be-all, end-all, but it is a helpful tool. On defense, we have the bat-first Abreu losing a few runs due to playing first base, but those cuts still put him right in the middle of the conversation. The rest all play defensive positions that tend to add value, and the defensive metrics put them all within six runs of each other, with the biggest difference spanning Rendon (+3) and Trout’s (-3) numbers with Ramirez, Lowe, Anderson, and LeMahieu all within three runs of each other.

Absent an incredible final week that eliminates any doubts about who the MVP ought to be, there are a bunch of philosophical choices that voters will have to make. How much does it matter that Anderson and LeMahieu missed time? If we look at the White Sox candidates, Anderson has been the better player when he’s played, but Abreu has 20% more playing time and that’s tough to ignore. LeMahieu’s case is similar to Anderson’s given the time missed from injury.

If you want to know how the results on the field turned into wins, Lowe is at the top of the heap with 2.35 Win Probability Added. If you ascribe to best player on the best team for MVP philosophy, that’s Brandon Lowe, too. How much one should weigh WPA is up for considerable debate. For one thing, it is somewhat random and generally doesn’t translate from year to year beyond a player’s standard hitting numbers. For another, it is a context driven stat made possible by your teammates. It isn’t RBI, but having teammates getting on in front of you matters, as does having a pitching staff that keeps you in games and a group of position players who don’t blow out the opposition so that plate appearances matter more. If we don’t hold Trout and Rendon being on a bad team against them (we shouldn’t), we probably shouldn’t provide too much extra attention to a stat like WPA.

There’s a decent possibility that the two best players in the AL this year are playing on a 24-31 Angels team, which some will opt to hold against them. It doesn’t take much to convince me that Mike Trout is having the best season of any player in the AL, and his track record indicates that his performance this season isn’t some small-sample fluke. Should that matter in a 60-game season when it doesn’t as much over 162 games? I wouldn’t fault anyone for voting for Trout because they know this performance is real. He also might not be having the best season on his team. Meanwhile, the White Sox are a great story — Anderson’s emergence over the last few seasons has been incredible, while Abreu is having a great year after turning in two average campaigns before this one. Does Anderson’s trajectory and potential future put him ahead of Abreu’s great couple of months? After last night’s games, Ramirez is the AL WAR leader and would be a deserving winner. It wouldn’t necessarily be a copout to avoid the discussion entirely and just go with Bieber, though some reserve the MVP for pitchers in a truly difference-making season.

The season’s been a sprint and as I noted yesterday when discussing the National League, 60 games makes it harder to differentiate between players. That’s going to make it simultaneously easier and harder to argue that the voters got it wrong. It’s harder because there probably isn’t a wrong choice, but easier because there are a bunch of deserving players.

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