The AL MVP is going to be Miguel Cabrera, barring some kind of historic upset that would seemingly require a late season felony conviction of some sort, and even then, he might still win the award anyway. The outcome of the NL MVP race isn’t quite as clear, but it will very likely come down to Clayton Kershaw, Yadier Molina, or Andrew McCutchen. These are the players who are going to receive recognition for their efforts in contributing to a team’s success, and rightfully so; they’re all having fantastic seasons and are worthy candidates.
But, baseball is not basketball, and the impact any one player can have on a team’s final record pales in comparison to the sum of his teammates; just ask Mike Trout how realistic it is for even the game’s very best performer to “carry” his team to the postseason without assistance. The reality is that good teams are made up of numerous contributors. So, today, let’s talk about some of the guys who deserve recognition on MVP ballots, even if they aren’t going to occupy one of the few spots.
Russell Martin, C, Pittsburgh
While McCutchen is the star and pitchers like A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano get the spotlight, Martin might be the biggest factor in the Pirates success this year. Signed for a relative pittance — $17 million over two years — after the Yankees decided they didn’t want him back, Martin has been a revelation in Pittsburgh.
The bat is more solid than spectacular, but a 109 wRC+ from an everyday catcher is well above average for the position, and unlike many other good hitting catchers, he doesn’t get a break from the toll of catching by spending time at first base or designated hitter; in fact, Martin ranks 7th in the majors in innings behind the plate, which is where his value really comes through.
Martin leads the majors in runners gunned down stealing, with 33 baserunner kills to his credit in just 76 attempts, a spectacular 44% caught stealing rate, and it’s not the Pirates pitchers doing a great job of holding runners; Pirates catchers not named Russell Martin have allowed 37 stolen bases on 43 attempts, a 14% caught stealing rate that is in line with the awful performance the Pirates had as a team last year before bringing Martin in over the winter.
And that’s just the running game. As Jared Cross wrote earlier this week, catchers can have a significant impact on the called strike zone by the way they receive the ball, and while that piece focused on Yadier Molina and Jonathan Lucroy, Martin also excels at this skill, coming out at +19 runs according to Cross’ evaluation.
Martin currently ranks 12th in the NL in FanGraphs version of WAR even though framing runs are not yet included in the calculation. If you give him any bump at all for his contributions to turning balls into strikes, he easily flies into the top 10, and if you give him the full 19 runs that Cross estimated, then he’d actually end up #2, behind only McCutchen.
And when you look at the Pirates staff — with cast-offs like Burnett, Liriano, Mark Melancon, and Jason Grilli — taking starring roles for the best run prevention unit in baseball, it’s hard to not notice that Martin is the common link between all of them. His arrival has transformed the Pirates defense, and that is the unit that is carrying them to the postseason. He won’t get many MVP votes, but he deserves recognition for being one of the primary catalysts on the best story of the year.
Yunel Escobar, SS, Tampa Bay
Escobar’s back story is as much about his conflict with teammates and team personnel as it is about his performance, which hasn’t exactly been consistent either. The Braves tired of him in 2010, shipping him to Toronto simply because they didn’t want to be around him anymore, and the Blue Jays shipped him to the Marlins in the Mega Deal of the Winter in part because he performed terribly last season. The Marlins had no interest in keeping him, however, and only took him to offset some of the salary they were forcing the Blue Jays to take on in Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle, so Miami dumped him on the Rays before he ever suited up for them.
Acquiring Escobar for a fringe prospect has turned out to be one of the primary reasons the Rays are in line to take a wild card spot, as he has returned to prior excellent form on the field and has apparently fit right into the Rays unusual clubhouse atmosphere as well. With a 104 wRC+ and terrific defense, Escobar leads all American League shortstops in WAR, and his presence has allowed Ben Zobrist to shift back over to his more natural positions, strengthening the team’s defense across the board.
And Maddon is a fan of Escobar’s personality, even if others haven’t been before. A month ago, Maddon told MLB.com:
“It’s entertainment, man, and this guy entertains,” Maddon said. “You watch before the game how he energizes the dugout before everyone takes the field. He’s always up. He’s upbeat. He brings a lot of positive energy to us.”
The players say they like him. The manager likes him. There is no evidence of dissent in the Rays clubhouse, and of course, Escobar is performing on the field. While his reputation might not ever completely dissolve, Escobar’s 2013 season is showing that in baseball, one organization’s trash can absolutely be another team’s treasure.
Chris Johnson, 3B, Atlanta
It’s always going to be referred to as the Justin Upton trade, as the Braves traded away Martin Prado and a group of prospects to land Arizona’s talented young right fielder over the winter, but the second piece that came east in that trade — third baseman Chris Johnson — has been just as important as the guy who they made the trade to get. Consider their performances side by side:
Johnson: .330/.366/.466, .361 wOBA, 131 wRC+
Upton: .262/.354/.469, .358 wOBA, 129 wRC+
By WAR, Upton leads +2.7 to +2.6, which is a tie, for all intents and purposes. Johnson isn’t a very good defensive third baseman, and there’s no way he’s going to keep hitting .330 in the future, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s been an excellent offensive player for the Braves in 2013, and is one of the primary reasons that their offense has been so good even with prolonged slumps from the Upton brothers and Jason Heyward landing on the disabled list. Johnson is hardly the most recognizable player on the roster, but his contributions shouldn’t go unnoticed.
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