Surprise, surprise. DJ LeMahieu is one of three finalists for the American League Most Valuable Player award. The second baseman had a stellar 2020 campaign and is unquestionably deserving of consideration. Whether or not he’ll win it is another story. His competition, José Abreu and José Ramírez, are also worthy candidates. The winner will be announced on November 12th. Let’s compare the finalists statistically and examine if a narrative can make a difference.
By the numbers
Although LeMahieu is at the top in a number of offensive categories, he falls behind in the power department. The big home run and RBI totals for Abreu and Ramírez certainly could help make up the distance between LeMahieu’s league-leading batting average, at least if we’re considering this from a traditional perspective.
From an analytics standpoint, LeMahieu is still the top all-around hitter if you prefer wRC+ or OPS+. However, DRC+ is in favor of Cleveland’s third baseman.
If this were a WAR contest, which it is not, LeMahieu and Abreu are neck-and-neck. Meanwhile, Ramírez’s evaluation per versions at FanGraphs (fWAR), Baseball Reference (rWAR), and Baseball Prospectus (WARP), vary quite a bit. I suspect that FanGraphs’ version favors J-Ram’s defense a whole lot more than the others.
All of this is to say that there isn’t an obvious winner based on the numbers (I cherry-picked) alone. It would seem, unless you really prefer fWAR or DRC+, that LeMahieu and Abreu should be 1-2. But as you’ll see shortly, Ramírez has some other things in his favor that could make up ground.
|wRC+ (High Leverage)||61||127||178|
Although players can’t necessarily control what base-out situations they appear in, what those players do in big spots is still very important, especially in MVP voting. Above, it’s pretty clear that LeMahieu’s the laggard in win probability added (WPA), championship win probability added (cWPA), and a couple of situation wRC+ measures. By the way, keep in mind that these are all regular season numbers.
My presupposition was that Ramírez would sweep these categories, but instead, he split with Abreu. You’ll understand why I thought Ramírez had these in hand once you read the next section (or if you watched September baseball). As for LeMahieu, I am a little surprised that he fell so far behind his competition here. DJLM is pretty darn clutch in my mind, though the numbers don’t necessarily show that.
I unintentionally wrote about the MVP narrative when I previewed the Wild Card round last month. The relevant excerpts (skip for the TLDR):
Through September 7th, [Cleveland] was tied for first place in the division with the White Sox. By September 16th, they were six games out of first (behind Chicago) and holding on to one of the two Wild Card spots. Cleveland’s lineup tallied just 24 runs during an 8 game losing streak from the 8th to the 16th. That plummet wasn’t Ramírez’s fault, that’s for sure: the third baseman hit .348/.400/.652 during the skid. Everyone else let the team down.
Cleveland surged to finish the season in second place. They made up those six games by going 9-2 to end the year to tie Chicago, though Cleveland held the tiebreaker to claim second place. That run also included a four game sweep of the ChiSox. None other than Ramírez was right in the middle of that hot finish: he hit .436/.522/1.103 (316 wRC+) with 6 homers in the last 11 games to make his case for MVP. The rest of that team during that stretch? .203/.291/.314.
So yeah, you can talk about how great Cleveland’s pitching is all you want, but if it wasn’t for Ramírez, they are a Wild Card team at best right now. He couldn’t even get much help from Francisco Lindor (100 wRC+) or Carlos Santana (95 wRC+) this season.
In short: Ramírez was super clutch in September and had almost no help around him. Meanwhile, the White Sox and Yankees stumbled to the finish. The Yankees poor September wasn’t any fault of LeMahieu, who had a 183 wRC+ that month. Abreu was darn good in the final month too (165 wRC+).
Leaving out LeMahieu for a second, if we pit Abreu and Ramírez head-to-head, there’s a September series that stands out: Cleveland’s four game sweep of the White Sox from September 21st through the 24th. Ramírez tormented Chicago (.417/.588/1.167, 330 wRC+) whereas Abreu was quiet (.154/.294/.385, 85 wRC+). Cleveland was 28-24 and Chicago was 34-19 entering that series. Although both teams were playoff-bound, the postseason picture might have looked different had Chicago played better. Or, had Ramírez simply cooled off.
Now, back to DJLM. Maybe my memory is fuzzy, but I just don’t think he has the narrative behind him in the way Ramírez does. Yes, many Yankees were hurt throughout the season, but LeMahieu had Luke Voit, Gio Urshela, and Clint Frazier rack up big hits around him too. Ramírez had no such assistance. To me, that’s going to play as much of a factor as Ramírez’s incredible close to the regular season.
This is Yankees blog, but I’d be hard-pressed to vote for someone other than Ramírez here. He may not stack up against LeMahieu or Abreu in terms of regular season numbers, but it’s not like he’s far off. Hell, he’s ahead if you are an fWAR or DRC+ fan above all. Moreover, and what seals the deal for me, is the fact that the rest of Cleveland’s lineup was of no help. Ramírez was a beast in the final weeks of the season, just when he was needed most.