Let’s talk AL MVP.
No, not that MVP battle. I am talking about the next tier, the down ballot candidates. I realize that most people probably don’t care about the also-rans in an MVP race, but I actually do care because I like seeing guys recognized for their big seasons even if they weren’t quite the best. There is no financial benefit (that I’m aware of) and no one but the encyclopedic fans with incredible memories will remember the 7th-place finisher in a given year, but I’m sure it is special for the player to be given consideration for such a prestigious award.
Top 5 or top 10 finishes in the MVP do get thrown around when it comes to Hall of Fame discussion, too, so it is important that the “right” guys get their due. I put right in quotes obviously because there is no single right answer. For one, fans really only care that the writers get the winner right. After that, most couldn’t care less. There were 22 players who got votes in the American League last year and 23 for the National League so the ballot runs deep. For this series, I am pointing out guys I want to see in that upper range, say top 5-7.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll profile some of my favorite down ballot candidates in each league. In the American League, these guys are fighting for third place and beyond. I can’t envision any scenario where Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera aren’t first and second in some order.
Let’s start out west:
Yoenis Cespedes (OAK, OF) – How great has he been this year? In just about any other year he is a walkaway Rookie of the Year, but he picked the Year of Trout for his debut. Not only did he deliver the power and speed that was expected from him based on his elite athleticism (23 HR; 16 SB), but he also hit .291 with a .353 on-base percentage, both higher than anticipated by a significant margin. He was expected to be among the freest swingers, but his 19% strikeout rate was 31st in the AL among those with 500+ plate appearances. Adam Dunn paced the league at 34%, easily taking the MLB title, too. Cespedes was nowhere near the 25%-30% range that made up the rest of the top 10.
When you talk about value, there is a desire to get the heart of how a singular player impacted his team. Now that is difficult to quantify, but the methods in place look kindly upon Cespedes. First off, the A’s were 80-47 when he was in the lineup (an incredible .630 win percentage) and just 12-21 (.364) when he was sidelined. Obviously crediting one of 25 as the sole reason for those splits in record is a bit outlandish on par with pitchers and quarterbacks getting far too much credit for wins and taking too large a hit for losses. It does at least begin to show how important he is to that team, though.
If you lean more into the sabermetric sect, you might be interested to know that he has a 3.81 Win Probability Added (defined here) in his 127 games. That is good for 7th in the American League (for the record, Trout had a massive lead at 5.61 and he has played just 10 more games than Cespedes). These two have squished a lot of WPA into smaller sample sets than the others in the top 10. On that definition page, it defines a 3.0 or better as great which coincidentally covers the entire top 10 in the AL as Adam Jones rounds it out at 3.04, just ahead of 11th place Billy Butler’s 2.85 mark.
Fangraphs also has a Clutch statistic (defined here) in which Cespedes also grades out nicely with a 0.75 mark (where 0.5 is above average and 1.0 is great). He actually kills Trout here who is at -0.53 which is below average by their scale. Of those top seven in WPA, Cespedes is the 3rd-most clutch by that statistic. Looking at his statistics in various states of leverage (defined by Baseball-Reference here), his quality clutch rating isn’t a huge surprise as he does his best work in High Leverage situations with a .349/.432/.651 line including six home runs, 28 RBIs, and six stolen bases in 74 plate appearances. He also has eight walks against 11 strikeouts. The strikeout tick upward to 49, but he also fares quite well in Medium Leverage situations with a .327/.388/.567 line with 10 homers, 34 RBIs, and seven stolen bases in 240 plate appearances. He has a meager .682 OPS and .230 batting average in Low Leverage situations across 216 plate appearances.
He wasn’t the top WAR guys on the A’s thanks in large part to Josh Reddick’s incredible defense (though he was hardly a slouch with the bat), but I do think Cespedes was easily their best offensive player overall (combinations of Chris Carter, Brandon Moss and Johnny Gomes were better in various stats like OPS, OPS+, wRC+, and wOBA, but none of them played close to as much as Cespedes) while being a capable defender in centerfield (a premium position) and leftfield. He essentially split his time down the middle between the two positions when looking at the innings. He is older than most rookies (26), but he still exceeded expectations in his first year as a major leaguer and he is a major reason why the A’s are now playoff bound.