Ellsbury’s MVP Candidacy: Not That Uncommon

When we think of the prototypical Most Valuable Player, we think of a burly first baseman who slugs forty homers. But that’s not always the case, not in terms of sabremetric thinking, and not for the Baseball Writers Association of America either. Jacoby Ellsbury as MVP candidate isn’t a figment of the interwebs’ imagination — there are several players who won that have a similar profile as Ellsbury.

The first comp that comes to mind is Jimmy Rollins’ 2007 season. In ’07, Rollins put up some gawdy counting statistics as the Phillies’ leadoff hitter — 30 homers, 38 doubles, 20 triples and 41 steals. He was able to put a lot of them up in part because he stayed healthy all season, logging 778 plate appearances, a figure he didn’t top before ’07 and likely never will again. Overall, he had a .378 wOBA.

Ellsbury’s 2011 numbers, in a down offensive season, either compare favorably to or trump those of Rollins. Along with Rollins, Ellsbury has become one of just 10 players with at least 25 homers, 40 doubles and 35 steals in a single season. Oddly, Ellsbury only has four triples, which would represent a full-season low — he rattled 10 triples into Fenway’s nooks and crannies in 2009, and seven the year before. But overall, Ellsbury has Rollins beat — his .397 wOBA and 8.2 WAR easily surpass Rollins’ totals.

They also trump the numbers his teammate Dustin Pedroia put up in his 2008 MVP season. That season, Pedroia lasered his way to a .382 wOBA, led the American League with 54 doubles and tied Ichiro Suzuki for the league-lead with 213 hits. And while second base is noted as a tougher position on the defensive spectrum than is center field, and Pedroia did win a Gold Glove that season, his ’08 season can’t match Ellsbury at the dish. Pedroia hit .326/.376/.493. That is an incredibly similar line to Barry Larkin’s triple-slash output in 1995, when he hit .319/.394/.492. Ellsbury is essentially hitting the same as both of those guys, but with a turbo shot of power — .317/.376/.533. Larkin’s ’95 does have a slight edge over Ellsbury in wOBA — .405 to Ellsbury’s aforementioned .397.

Looking at the triple-slash numbers, an MVP campaign that gets a little closer to Ellsbury is Robin Yount in 1989. That season, Yount hit .318/.384/.511, nearly identical to Ellsbury. That year, Yount hit 21 taters, 46 tater tots (or doubles) and swiped 19 bags, so he didn’t quite have Ellsbury’s speed, but he was efficient, as he was only caught three times. Yount’s ’89 is also a good comparison in that by this point in his career, he had moved off of shortstop and was manning center field for the Brew Crew. Yount never won any plaudits for his fielding in center though, and Total Zone actually has him at -14 that season, which was his tied for his second-worst year in center. Contrast that to Ellsbury, who Total Zone has at +5 this season, and is tops among center fielders in UZR, and third in DRS.

There are other MVP seasons that are kind-of-sort-of similar to Ellsbury — Willie McGee hit for less homers, a higher average and swiped more bags in 1985, but he was a center fielder and his .398 wOBA is just about identical to Ellsbury. Dale Murphy’s 1982 HR and SB totals are nearly the inverse of Ellsbury’s, and Murphy played a fair amount of left field that season, but his .281/.378/.507 line wasn’t that far off, nor was his .389 wOBA.

For comparison’s sake, let’s take a look at how other up-the-middle MVPs in the past 30 years compare with Ellsbury in terms of wRC+. Since wRC+ is park and league adjusted, it makes comparisons across years a little smoother:

Player Season wRC+
Robin Yount 1982 167
Willie McGee 1985 157
Cal Ripken 1991 156
Alex Rodriguez 2003 153
Robin Yount 1989 152
Jacoby Ellsbury 2011 149
Barry Larkin 1995 146
Dale Murphy 1982 145
Cal Ripken 1983 143
Dustin Pedroia 2008 131
Miguel Tejada 2002 130
Jimmy Rollins 2007 123

All MVP seasons, and Ellsbury ranks smack dab in the middle. In the interest of completeness, I should point out that the BBWAA doesn’t alway recognize the unique blend of power and speed, like 1986, when Rickey Henderson hit 28 homers, stole 87 bases, finished seventh in baseball with 6.9 WAR, was on a Yankees team that finished second and won 90 games…and got zero MVP votes. But for every snub, there is a Pedroia or a Yount or a McGee that did win.

Ellsbury also isn’t suffering from a lack of hype, which never hurts. In his excellent column earlier this afternoon, Ken Rosenthal deemed him one of his elite eight. But at the end of the day, whether voters focus on the simple or the sabremetric, the point is that we’ve seen a season like Ellsbury’s 2011 season take home the MVP before. Don’t be surprised if it happens again.



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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.


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M.R.
Guest
M.R.

Full disclosure: bitter mets fan alert.

If the Mets blow two fewer games in 2007, Rollins isn’t an MVP. David Wright probably is.

DD
Guest
DD

Or more deservedly, Matt Holliday.

wat
Guest
wat

The fuck did Holliday deserve it more than Wright?

a
Guest
a

wright: 9 WAR, holliday 7.7.

I understand there’s some error bars with WAR, but come on.

jim
Guest
jim

2007 mets vs 2007 rockies. WAR is not the whole story

joser
Guest
joser

Which is just the billionth argument for why team standing shouldn’t factor into an individual award like MVP.

TylerTheCreator
Guest
TylerTheCreator

Shouldn’t factor? I dunno about that. It should be a tiebreaker of sorts, it’s just overvalued by most voters.

Brad Johnson
Member

Definitely would have been Holliday without that Mets meltdown.

a
Guest
a

Uhh, wright was a 9 win player that year. How does he not win it?

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