I feel like we’re having the 2012 Trout/Cabrera silly MVP discussion all over again. Generally framed as a debate of personal preference, “do you prefer the offensive juggernaut or the all-around player?” was bandied about ad nauseam in 2012. I write “ad nauseam” because the point that was missed in 2012, is that the “all-around” player, was in fact, a better offensive player than the one everyone cast as the one-dimensional offensive juggernaut.
People who preferred Cabrera in 2012 claimed to prefer the impactful big bat. In actuality, Trout’s bat was bigger and more impactful. I was very confused by the logic then, and I’m very confused by that same logic today. Put a pin in that, we’ll come back to it…
Let’s talk about the value of 1st basemen, as we can’t discuss which players are most valuable without being clear about this: A 1st baseman’s job on the field is to catch throws from his teammates and pick up ground balls – that’s it. That’s not to say it’s easy – surely no one reading this can do it – but as far as major league players go, about 90% of them are able to do that job. I.e., playing 1st base provides next to no value for your team because almost anyone on the roster can do it (even great defensive 1st basemen are like great 3 point shooting centers in the NBA – nice to have, but…). The only way to provide a lot of value – enough to be considered for MVP – as a 1st baseman is to be a monster in the batter’s box.
To be clear, in order to be very valuable, a 1st baseman needs to be a monster in the box – not a good hitter, not even a very good hitter – a monster. Consider that in 2020, among 27 1st basemen with at least 150 PA, 20 of them were better than league average hitters (going by OPS+). 13 of the 27 – almost half – were 20% better or more than league average. Basically, if you’re a 1st baseman that wants to be in the MVP discussion, you need to be prime Cabrera or Albert Pujols.
So let’s take a look at Abreu’s offense in 2020: Abreu posted an OPS+ of 166 which was 4th in the American League behind D.J. LeMahieu (177), Nelson Cruz (169) and Trout (168). (I’m using OPS+ for simplicity’s sake – if you want to use Fangraph’s or Baseball Prospectus’ numbers, they say essentially the same thing.)
So D.J. was a better offensive player than Abreu was last season. When we weight OBP and SLG accordingly, factor in run scoring environments, and park factors (as OPS+ does), D.J. helped the Yankees more with his performance in the box – that is to say, provided more value – than Abreu did for the White Sox. No positional context, defense, base-running, or “all-around value” discussion needed.
But if you’re not convinced, let’s add some positional context:
Since integration, 1st baseman have reached 166 OPS+ or better 60 times over a full season (only needing to do it over 60 games as Abreu did makes it much easier obviously), and three National League 1st basemen did it last season. Great season? Abso-friggin-lutely – but not that rare.
Since integration, here are the 2nd basemen who have reached 177 OPS+ in a season: Joe Morgan and D.J.
That’s it. Even when you include every 2nd basemen with only 215 PA or more, which would include other shortened seasons, Joe Morgan is the only 2nd baseman to have a better offensive season than D.J. had in 2020.
Ah…but you want to talk overall production and value because Abreu played in more games. I hear you. “Rate stats don’t provide value, results and production does. Abreu playing in 10 more games and getting 56 more PA shouldn’t be held against him – the games DJ missed were games he wasn’t providing value to his team. Abreu was helping the White Sox while DJ was on the IL.”
A 100% fair and accurate point. So let’s look at overall value produced, regardless of games played or PA:
WAR: DJ 2.8, Abreu 2.8.
Reminder: WAR is a cumulative stat, like RBI, HR, hits, etc., not a rate stat like batting average, OPS, OBP, etc. – the more games you play, the more you can add to your WAR. So despite playing in fewer games, DJ produced just as much as Abreu.
Let’s review: D.J. performed better with his glove and as a base-runner than Abreu did, and D.J. was better than Abreu at the one skill that Abreu uses to provide value.
Same production, better performance – period.
Anyone who’s followed me or read my stuff before knows I’m a Yankee fan, but I’m further from a “homer” than any Yankee fan you’ll meet. I get so much vitriol from Yankee fans you’d think I had a Red Sox tattoo or something similar.
So I say this as someone coming from that perspective: This is the worst MVP decision since 2017 (which was a robbery before we knew the “winner” was cheating).
Did I miss something? Let me know.
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