Boston Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez currently leads the American League with 121 runs batted in. He sits just one home run off the league lead, with 40, and ranks second in the AL in batting average, at .331. With a torrid final 19 days, the Triple Crown could be won for just the 15th time since the turn of the 20th century.
And even if he does, Martinez would not deserve to win the American League’s Most Valuable Player award. In fact, he probably shouldn’t even crack the top three.
To understand why Martinez could put up such astronomical numbers yet still fall short of MVP honors, a brief trip through history is in order.
In 2012, Miguel Cabrera did something that no baseball player had done in 45 years: He won the Triple Crown.
The huzzahs came rolling in from every corner of the baseball world. By leading the American League in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in, Cabrera joined all-time greats like Carl Yastrzemski, Frank Robinson, Mickey Mantle, and Ted Williams in the annals of baseball immortality. By statistical standards established decades ago, Cabrera wasn’t merely the best player in the AL that year; this was one of the best seasons ever produced, by any player.
By modern standards, however, it was not. Though Cabrera did rake that year, that was all he did. As an everyday third baseman, he was a statue, rating well below average and 26th overall at his position. As a baserunner, he was glacial, costing his team more runs on the basepaths than all but four other AL players.
Meanwhile, Mike Trout established himself that year as the best player in baseball, and one of the best five-tool players the game had ever seen. Trout was a defensive wizard and human highlight film, saving 21 more runs than the average major-league centre-fielder that year, the second-best mark in all of baseball. He was an absolute terror on the basepaths, swiping 49 bags in 54 attempts, going first to third, second to home, and first to home far more a typical baserunner would, putting constant pressure on opposing defences.
And while Cabrera beat him in batting average, home runs, and RBIs, something curious happened: Tally up each and every one of both players’ offensive contributions, then adjust for home ballpark effects, and it was Trout, not Cabrera, who had a very slightly better season, on a per-at-bat basis. Tally everything up, and it was Trout, not Cabrera, who deserved to win the AL MVP award in 2012…even though Cabrera ended up winning it in a landslide.
We can draw two lessons from the great Trout-Cabrera race of 2012. The first is that when evaluating baseball players, offense isn’t all that matters. Players who can help their teams not only with the bat in their hands but also in the field and on the bases produce more overall value. They’re also compensated as such.
Players like Mike Moustakas, Logan Morrison, and Yonder Alonso all got underwhelming contracts last season, despite posting gaudy offensive numbers in 2017. Though part of that financial shortfall can be pegged to everything from the third-base market being overloaded last winter to the latter two players having short track records of success, the bottom line is that offence — particularly when measured by overly simplistic yardsticks like home runs and RBIs — doesn’t carry the same weight in teams’ minds as it used to.
Even Martinez himself, the undisputed best offensive player on the market last winter, had to wait until the eve of spring training to get paid. Sure, part of that was due to multiple big-revenue teams trying to curb payroll, and yes, Martinez still fetched $110 million when all was said and done. But compare Martinez’s contract to that of sluggers like Giancarlo Stanton, Chris Davis, and Prince Fielder, and it’s easy to see how teams value players differently than they did in the very recent past.
The second conclusion is that do-it-all players — think Willie Mays or Ken Griffey Jr. in the past, or Trout now — are as valuable as they are spectacular. Let’s compare Martinez’s 2018 output to that of some other prominent AL players with more diverse skill sets:
That’s a lot of alphabet soup, right? Let’s walk through what those acronyms above mean.
wRC+ is short for Weighted Runs Created Plus. We know that home runs aren’t the only positive outcome a hitter can have at the plate. Singles and doubles and triples and walks and other events are also good. We also know that hitting at Fenway Park is not the same as hitting at Angel Stadium, with some parks augmenting offensive results more than others. wRC+ adjusts for those different run-scoring environments; a score of 100 is league average, 110 is 10% better than average, 120 is 20% better than average, and so on. Recalibrate offence that way, and Martinez ranks just third among these four MVP candidates at the plate.
DRS refers to Defensive Runs Saved, as measured by Baseball Info Solutions. Though DRS doesn’t offer too many hard-and-fast rules, here’s what we can say: A score of zero represents a player who’s league average at his position, +10 is very good, and +20 or better represents elite, Gold Glove-level defense. Mookie Betts has led all major-league right-fielders both this season and in each of the previous two seasons. By contrast, Martinez almost never plays the field, and thus offers no defensive value. If anything, a player like Betts (or Trout, or Jose Ramirez) should get double credit for their defensive contributions as compared to a player like Martinez — first in being very good at catching balls, and second for the mere act of manning relatively challenging defensive positions every day.
BsR refers to Baserunning Runs. A score of zero is exactly league average, +5 is very good, and +10 is elite. Here we can see that Betts and Trout have been excellent baserunners this season, like Ramirez has been a world-beater, not only swiping 32 bases in 38 tries but also taking the extra base with great frequency once he gets on. Conversely, Martinez rates as one of the league’s worst baserunners, being both a non-threat to steal and also someone who rarely takes the extra base, or even pressures defences into thinking he might.
WAR, as even a casual baseball fan could probably tell you at this point, stands for Wins Above Replacement. The concept of WAR irks some baseball fans, because you can’t count WAR on your fingers the way you can home runs or RBIs, nor even do so via simple math, the way you can with batting average. But by this point you’ve probably realized something important when it comes to quantifying a baseball player’s value to his team: You really don’t need WAR to work it out. We know that Martinez lags behind most other AL players in defensive and baserunning value. We also know that even if you focus only on offence, once you get past homers and RBIs as the be-all, end-all measures of success, Martinez can’t even claim supremacy in the one area for which he’s paid all that money to produce.
In short, while Martinez has done everything the Red Sox have asked of him, he would need to be so much better than every other player at the plate to be the worthy MVP. His numbers would need to be transcendental; even leading the league in batting average, homers, and RBIs wouldn’t be enough.
If you’re a Red Sox fan, the best news is this: Your team not only employs a guy who’s got a shot at the Triple Crown. It also trots out the player whose overall contributions — fielding, running, and hitting — make him the best and most valuable performer in the league this year. When you’ve got both J.D. Martinez and Mookie Betts on your squad, you’re probably going to do pretty well.