The power of one
Small sample sizes, obviously, but look at this:
Bryce Harper, March 30-April 16: .315/.487/.778
Hit eight homers in 17 games, scored 17 runs, drove in 17 runs.
Team record: 8-9
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Bryce Harper, April 17-July 6: .189/.332/.402
Dreadful, 79 strikeouts in 68 games, poor defense, roughly replacement-level play.
Team record: 36-33
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Bryce Harper, July 7-Aug. 21: .328/.420/.604
He's back, crushing the ball, playing Bryce Harper baseball. In 36 games, 10 doubles, 9 homers, four stolen bases without being caught, back to being a premier player.
Team record: 17-20
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The MVP talk is rolling around again in baseball, and it's worth once again asking the question: Just how much can one player do? Bill James often brings up a single game that Kansas City's George Brett had in the 1985 playoffs against Toronto. The Blue Jays won the first two games of that series and seemed ready to cruise to their first-ever World Series.
"Climb on my back," Brett famously told his teammates before Game 3.
He wasn't kidding. In the first inning, Brett homered. It was a solo homer because Willie Wilson was caught stealing before he hit it.
In the third inning, he made a dazzling defensive play, throwing out Damaso Garcia at the plate from foul ground and off his back foot.
Brett didn't come up again until the fourth -- he led off the inning with a double. He went to third on a fly ball by Hal McRae. He scored on a fly ball by Frank White.
In the sixth, Brett homered again, this time with Wilson on base.
And in the eighth, he hit a grounder that barely got through the infield for a single, went to second on a bunt and scored on Steve Balboni's pop-up single -- it's unclear where the Blue Jays' centerfielder Lloyd Moseby was playing on that one, because it seems in retrospect like he hit it pretty high.
In all, Brett went four-for-four with two homers, a double, a brilliant defensive play -- it's all but impossible to imagine a player doing more in the biggest moments.
And the Royals STILL almost lost that game. The Blue Jays had a 5-2 lead in the fifth and they left the bases loaded that inning. If even one more thing had gone the Blue Jays’ way, the Royals would have lost, even with George Brett having one of the greatest games in postseason baseball history.
I think that we’re doing a better job of embracing the limitations of one player in major league baseball. No matter how great a hitter you are, you still only get to the plate in turn; you’re one of nine. No matter how great a fielder you are, you can't field balls that aren't hit into your sphere of influence.
Managers spend a great deal of time trying to devise strategies to put their best players in position to impact the game. This is why we talk so much about lineups -- you want to get Mike Trout or Jose Ramirez or Mookie Betts or Paul Goldschmidt to the plate as many times as possible with runners on base. This is why we talk so much about defensive shifting -- what's the point of having a brilliant defender like Andrelton Simmons or Francisco Lindor or Nolan Arenado if we know that the hitter is likely to hit the ball somewhere else?
But they can only do so much. "Baseball's a team game," Derek Jeter says. "But when you're hitting, it's one-on-one." That's exactly it. No other sport offers such a fascinating blend of team and individual. No other sport allows a single player to make so much of a difference ... and at the same time so little of a difference.
So ... that MVP talk. We all know that since the dawn of the MVP award, there has been an argument about that word "valuable." What does it mean? Is it quantifiably different from another word like "dominant" or "formidable" or "effective" or "important" or "accomplished?"
This argument fades. Sure, there are still those who will aggressively fight for the sanctity of the V in MVP, but you now have to go back a little bit to find those odd MVP choices where the best player was snubbed for the so-called "valuable" player. Here are some of the odder MVP choices from 1996 through 2007.
MVP: Jimmy Rollins, 6.1 WAR
Best player: Albert Pujols, 8.7 WAR
Reason: Phillies won the division. Cardinals finished a disappointing 78-84. I will also add that there was probably some Pujols fatigue by this point; it happens to every transcendent player. There were years that voters did not give the MVP to Michael Jordan simply because they were sick of giving the award to Michael Jordan.
MVP: Ryan Howard, 5.2 WAR
Best player: Albert Pujols, 8.5 WAR
Reason: This one will go down as among the most baffling choices ever. The Phillies had a slightly better record (by two games), but the Cardinals won their division (and, later, the World Series). Howard did hit 58 home runs and the Phillies stayed in contention all year, which was a bit of a surprise. All the while the Cardinals seemed a disappointment, particularly at the end of the season. But even at the time this seemed pretty whacked.
MVP: Vlad Guerrero, 5.6 WAR
Best player: Ichiro, 9.2 WAR
Reason: Ichiro's Mariners were dreadful (99 losses) and so he didn't get a single first-place MVP vote. Guerrero had a fantastic few games in September when the Angels ended up winning the division.
MVP: Miguel Tejada, 5.6 WAR
Best player: Alex Rodriguez, 8.8 WAR
Reason: Tejada's A's won 103 games and the division. A-Rod's Rangers lost 90 games and finished in last place.
MVP: Jason Giambi, 7.8 WAR
Best player: A-Rod, 10.4 WAR
Reason: This one's trickier, It seems that Giambi got the nod over A-Rod in large part because voters simply discounted the defensive difference between a fantastic shortstop and a subpar first baseman. ... I should add here that in 2000 and 1999, the best overall player in the American League was Pedro Martinez, but the pitcher vs. player issue is outside our scope in this discussion.
MVP: Juan Gonzalez, 4.9 WAR
Best player: A-Rod, 8.5 WAR
Reason: Wow, A-Rod got ripped off a lot. The Rangers won. The Mariners did not. Also, MVP voters used to love RBIs.
MVP: Juan Gonzalez, 3.8 WAR
Best player: Ken Griffey, 9.7 WAR
Reason: Rangers beat Mariners by 4.5 games. That's it. That's the only possible reason I could see for them choosing Juan Gone over Griffey. Well, there's also the "split-vote" possibility, because A-Rod actually got more MVP support than Griffey that year.
This sort of thing generally doesn't happen now. The best player -- or someone you could certainly argue persuasively was the best player -- wins the MVP every year. And I think that's in large part because most people have come to understand that there's only so much one player can do. Mike Trout's Angels lose year after year not because of some flaw or imperfection in Mike Trout's amazing game. They lose year after year because they're not good enough. The pitching isn't good enough. The offense isn't good enough. The defense isn't good enough. He can't make the Angels win by himself, no matter how good he is. And he's all-time good.
The Bryce Harper stuff at the top ... I just thought that was interesting. Harper has had a wild season, he's been great, he's been terrible, he's been great again. No effect. The Nationals were actually slightly better during his terrible phase.
There's a famous exchange between Branch Rickey and Ralph Kiner -- Rickey wanted to cut Kiner's salary after the 1952 season even though Kiner led the league in homers for the seventh straight time. When Kiner brought up this point, Rickey said:
"We finished last with you, we can finish last without you."
That's a funny line, much repeated, but I imagine the same is mostly true for first-place teams too. Make no mistake, great players have a huge impact on their teams -- but even the greatest players can't make a bad team good.