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Debunking the AL MVP Narratives

The baseball season still has two and a half months left of games to be played, but the bifurcation around the All Star Game often results in award discussions. The discussions tend to grow contentious when one player clearly stands out amongst the crop of candidates, but is passed over in lieu of a player with a more fitting narrative.

Right now, Jose Bautista is the most valuable player in the American League, not Adrian Gonzalez.

Bautista boasts a .334/.468/.702 line, and a gaudy .487 wOBA. He has launched 31 home runs in 84 games, and is on pace to hit right around 50 by the end of the season. He is walking in almost 20 percent of his plate appearances and has actually improved his strikeout rate. With average defense and plus-baserunning, it becomes difficult to point out any flaws in his game. Last year was clearly his breakout season, as he tallied 6.9 wins above replacement. In slightly over half of a season this year he has already produced 6.6 WAR, and very well may turn in one of the best seasons in the history of baseball.

Gonzalez is having a fantastic season, but one very clearly south of Bautista. The Red Sox first baseman has a higher batting average at .354, and a better fielding mark (albeit at an easier position), and that’s about it. His on-base percentage is 54 points lower. His .591 slugging percentage is 111 points lower. Put everything together and Gonzalez has a .429 wOBA, which would lead the league if not for the fact that Bautista’s mark is almost 60 points higher. Gonzalez is the best player in the American League outside of the Jose Bautista division, but there is a clear line of demarcation between he and Bautista.

Why are so many touting Gonzalez as the MVP of the first half? The arguments tend to boil down to the following areas: his quest for the batting title, the high RBI total, clutch performance, and the performance of the Red Sox as a team.

Only one of those is valid — the team performance — and an argument can be made that Bautista’s advantage on a singular player level is so vast that any disparity between the Red Sox and Blue Jays is negated.

Yes, Gonzalez has a league-leading 77 runs batted in. He also leads the league in batting average. Bautista has knocked in “only” 65 runs, but ranks second in batting average. However, if you’re reading this you likely know that batting average is immensely flawed. Sure, Gonzalez might have a 20-point advantage in hits/at-bats, but Bautista gets on base much more frequently. Further, RBI totals are a byproduct of team production. Gonzalez leads the league with 295 runners on base in front of him. Bautista ranks 15th with 235 runners. Give Bautista the same number of runners on in front of him and something tells me the RBI gap shrinks substantially.

Gonzalez has also been clutch. In high leverage situations he has a .419/.457/.710 line and a .474 wOBA. He also sports a .436 wOBA in medium leverage situations. He has performed better in those plate appearances than when the situations are less crucial. Bautista? He has a .598 wOBA in more high leverage plate appearances, and a .488 wOBA in situations of medium leverage. As great as Gonzalez has been in the tightest spots, Bautista has him bested by over 100 points of wOBA!

The batting average advantage is irrelevant because Bautista gets on base more and has done more in his trips to the dish. The difference in RBI can really be chalked up to opportunity. And clutch? Well, I don’t see how anyone could argue that Gonzalez has been clutchier than Bautista. What’s left is the performance of their respective teams. The Red Sox have a 55-35 record, the best in the American League, and second in baseball to the Phillies. The Blue Jays are 45-47, in fourth place, and a whole ten games out in the Wild Card race. The Red Sox are World Series contenders. The Blue Jays won’t come anywhere close to making the playoffs.

Is that the only reason Gonzalez is being touted as the potential MVP over Bautista? Because there cannot be a logical discussion of their performances that ends in Gonzalez being declared superior. No, numbers aren’t everything, and they don’t completely define impact, but the gap between Bautista and Gonzalez is big enough to the point that team performance should not matter all that much. There are certain situations in which an MVP can come from a .500ish team, and this is one of them.

The difference between he and Gonzalez right now, from a pure WAR standpoint, is about a league average player. Gonzalez + another valuable player = Bautista. A 2-WAR gap through 90 games is significant, and either matches or gets rid of the advantage Gonzalez gains from playing for a better team.

The second half could play out differently, but if both players sustain their current paces, either Bautista is the MVP, or the award itself needs to be redefined.