KANSAS CITY – Every time Alex Gordon steps to the plate at Kauffman Stadium these days, fans chant, “M-V-P, M-V-P,” which is fascinating on so many levels. Let's start with the most basic of those.
At the moment, Alex Gordon is hitting .281 with 16 home runs and 59 RBIs. Nothing at all about that looks MVPish. He is not in the American League Top 10 in any offensive category, save hit by pitch. On this Royals team he does not lead the team in batting average, he’s tied with Omar Infante (yeah, Omar Infante) in RBIs, and he has just one more home run than Mike Moustakas, who spent time in the minor leagues this year.
Still, people chant “M-V-P." And they SHOULD chant M-V-P. Why? Well, I think it really comes down to three reasons:
1. The Royals are having their best season in a generation and what fun is that if you don't have an MVP candidate?
2. Nobody else on the team is even a remotely viable MVP candidate, save one unusual case.
3. WAR. We’ll get to WAR in a minute … let’s start with more traditional numbers. Look around baseball these days. Sean brings up a potentially fascinating statistic: There’s a chance this will be the first full season in baseball history without either a 40-home run hitter or a 20-game winner.
Think about that for a second: First time ever. Now, it might not turn out – Nelson Cruz, Chris Carter, Jose Abreu and Giancarlo Stanton all have a shot at 40 homers, and Clayton Kershaw among others might win 20 games. But the fact this is even a possibility as we enter September speaks to how dramatically the game has changed. The numbers that used to define baseball are disappearing on us. There are no more .350 hitters. Twenty game winners are almost extinct. And now, with the dramatic drop in power across baseball, home runs are becoming rare events. The home run rate across baseball is lower than at any point since before the 1994 strike. Kansas City, in particular, is going to have to hustle just to get to 100 home runs as a team.
With those sorts of numbers down all over baseball, we need to look a little deeper to find our MVP candidates. There are players – Abreu, Trout, Stanton and Victor Martinez – who are putting up what you would call traditional MVP type numbers. They’re all hitting in the general range of .300, are on pace for 30-plus homers and 100 plus RBIs. But those are the only four, as of right now, who are good bets to get there, which is crazy.
In 2001, there were TWENTY EIGHT players who hit .at least 290, 30, 100.
In 2006, there were 15 of those players.
In 2011, there were nine of those players.
Last year, there were three.
This year, I’m guessing there will be four – so the very idea of MVP numbers is changing on us. This is one reason why I think Gordon is getting the MVP chant. In another year, his .281, 16, 59 through August would look utterly pedestrian. In a season like this, those numbers are more valuable than you might thing..
And ... the Royals have to chant M-V-P for SOMEBODY. When a team potentially breaks through for the first time, there's just a powerful need to believe that one great player led the way. This has long been true in MVP voting. Zoilo Versalles famously won the award in 1965 with ordinary numbers because the Twins won the pennant more or less out of nowhere. When the Angels reached the postseason for the first time in team history in 1979, Don Baylor won the MVP award as a DH with the 10th best slugging percentage in the league. When the Atlanta Braves went from worst to first in 1991, Terry Pendleton won the award with somewhat drab MVP numbers. The same was true for Jimmy Rollins in 2007, when his Phillies made the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.*
*In all four of those cases, a teammate -- Tony Oliva in 1965, Bobby Grich in 1979, Tom Glavine in 1991 and Chase Utley in 2007 – almost certainly had better years than the MVP. Just kind of interesting.
This is one of the absurdities of the MVP award – baseball teams do not win because of one player. This is why I have become a pretty strict literalist when it comes to MVP voting – the MVP to me is the best player. Period. I no longer care at all how his team did -- not for that individual award. Mike Trout was the best player in baseball the last two years and the Angels were irrelevant. This year, he’s the best player in baseball and the Angels are winning. He should be (and should have been) the MVP all three years.
Still, he Royals are winning, and so they must have someone to shout MVP for, and there really isn’t anyone else, certainly not in the lineup. Gordon has created 17 more runs than anyone else on the team because he leads the team in doubles, homers, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. It should be said his slugging percentage is a somewhat plain looking .455. It is still 40 points higher than anybody else in the lineup.
I mentioned one other player who could (and I suspect will) get some MVP consideration -- that's reliever Wade Davis. There’s precedents for relievers having absurd statistical seasons getting a lot of MVP love (and, in the case of Jim Konstanty, Willie Hernandez and Dennis Eckersley, actually getting the away). Davis is having an absurd statistical season. He went 38 straight appearances without giving up an extra base-hit, which is truly absurd. He has not given up a run since June. The trouble with Davis is that he will probably throw just 70 innings this year, which just isn't much and (I suspect) willl prevent people from giving him the award. That said, I’m wagering he gets some real MVP consideration, especially if he keeps pitching like this through September. On the sabermetric side, he does lead all relievers in baseball with 3.2 WAR.
Anyway Davis doesn't pitch enough to get all the M-V-P chants, so the focus is on Gordon even if his basic offensive numbers inspire yawns.
That’s where Wins Above Replacement come in.
Gordon’ is second in the major leagues in Fangraphs WAR – that would be AHEAD of Giancarlo Stanton. He’s fourth in the American League in Baseball Reference WAR. How is this possible? Well, he plays spectacular defense in left field (and it really is special defense). He’s also an excellent base runner. We’ve already pointed out that his offensive numbers, in context, are better than they look. When you add it all up WAR style – you get a legitimate MVP candidate.
Or do you? This, to me, becomes a more and more interesting question. I’m working on a piece now about the statistical revolution in baseball, and among the statistical people I’m speaking with there seems to be a growing concern that we as a so called “advanced-statistics community” are beginning to make many of the same leaps of faith and broad generalizations that doomed the old statistics. I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but it’s fair to say there’s a growing sense among some that WAR is becoming the advanced version of RBIs or batting average or pitcher wins – that is to say that people, to quote Vin Scully, are using WAR the way a drunk using a lamppost, for support and not illumination. Heck, I might be the Foster Brooks of WAR.
So, I’m not sure of the answer on that one. I’m a huge Alex Gordon fan and have been for some time. I really do believe he has been one of the most underrated players in baseball because he does a lot of things well. I think he SHOULD be an MVP candidate. That said, is his defense in left field SO GOOD that it makes up for the 25 or so more runs that Jose Abreu and Victor Martinez are creating offensively? Can you even BE that good in left field to make up such a gap?
WAR says yes. I want to believe it’s true. So I believe WAR.
That’s definitely support and not illumination.
Anyway, Gordon is the Royals best every day player, and if the Royals continue this miracle he will get a lot of MVP support. I don't think he will win, but there's a month yet to go -- and he's in the conversation. He will hear a lot of M-V-P chants. And that's fantastic because an M-V-P chant at Kauffman Stadium in late August sounds to me a lot like Springsteen live.