How will the AL MVP race evolve from here?

You may disagree with me, but right now I see the American League’s 2018 Most Valuable Player award to have three clear top contenders: Mike Trout of the Angels (because of course), Mookie Betts of the Red Sox, and Jose Ramirez of the Indians. Right now (through Sunday’s games) they have fWARs of 7.6, 7.8, and 7.7, respectively. Only one other player in either league is above 5.2 (Francisco Lindor at 6.7). What’s that you say? Lindor deserves to be in the conversation? Well, he is surging a bit. Okay, you’ve convinced me. Let’s call this a four-horse race, including Lindor.

In this article we’ll attempt to determine how the MVP race will proceed from now through the end of the season. Before we get into that, though, let’s take a closer look at where the race is right now, by looking at some numbers other than fWAR, because of course there’s more to it all than just WAR.

Let’s start with some baserunning numbers. (I’m going to use a consistent order in these lists, and the reasons for my choice of order will become apparent later.) BsR here is an overall baserunning metric that considers not just stealing but also ability to take an extra base, avoid making outs when taking an extra base, and similar evaluations.

Baserunning of AL MVP candidates
Player SB rank CS BsR rank
Mookie Betts 23 8 (t) 3 5.3 9
Mike Trout 21 11 (t) 1 5.5 8
Jose Ramirez 27 4 (t) 5 7.1 2
Francisco Lindor 19 14 (t) 6 1.2 60

They all steal a lot of bases, and except for Lindor, they all rank pretty highly on overall baserunning. In fact, Betts, Trout, and Ramirez are all pretty much elite baserunners.

How about defense?

Defense of AL MVP candidates
Player Fielding rank Adjustment Defense rank
Betts 8.9 6; 1st of 22 RF -3.9 4.9 32; 1st of 22 RF
Trout 1.1 67; 11th of 24 CF -0.1 1.1 67; 12th of 24 CF
Ramirez 6.2 19; 3rd of 20 3B 1.3 7.4 19; 3rd(t) of 20 3B
Lindor 8.7 7; 3rd of 25 SS 5.1 13.8 4; 3rd of 25 SS

“Fielding” in this chart is UZR, the stat Fangraphs uses for determining number of defensive runs saved when compared to other players at the same position. To compare players at different positions, an “Adjustment” is applied based on the position played, and the number of games played there. This gives the overall number for Defense. I personally feel that these adjustments are too extreme in many cases, such as favoring shortstops too much, and punishing corner outfielders too much.
Lindor really shines here, adjustment or no adjustment. While Betts and Ramirez have good numbers for their positions, Betts seems to be punished for playing right field; he’s on his way to his third consecutive gold glove at the position, and yet he still ranks only 32nd overall in “Defense” despite being 6th overall in UZR, and tops at his position. Trout looks quite average on defense, despite having made a focus on improving it this spring; it’s the one area that doesn’t really add to his value (though it doesn’t subtract, either).

And now offense:

 

Offense of AL MVP candidates
Player AVG rnk OBP rnk SLG rnk wOBA rnk wRC+ rnk
Betts 0.350 1 0.438 2 0.668 2 0.458 1 192 1
Trout 0.309 7 0.459 1 0.624 4 0.445 2 190 2
Ramirez 0.298 21 0.409 4 0.624 3 0.427 4 172 4
Lindor 0.292 30 0.372 22 0.561 11 0.393 11 149 9

It’s pretty clear that Betts, Trout, and Ramirez are (with J.D. Martinez) among the top 4 hitters in the game. When you break it down by hit type, Betts hits singles, doubles, and triples with greater frequency than the others; they hit home runs at a similar rate, with Ramirez ahead of the others; Ramirez and Betts have very low strikeout totals; Ramirez walks a lot, but Trout has an extremely high walk rate. When park factors are taken into account as with wRC+, Trout pulls to nearly even with Betts.

To sum up, Betts, Trout, and Ramirez are best-in-the-game hitters, while Lindor is next-tier, and still better than most teams’ best hitter.

Overall, Betts and Ramirez excel at everything; Trout excels at everything but defense; and Lindor excels at everthing but baserunning, at which he’s still above-average.

My question is, how will this three-horse race – uh, I mean four-horse race – proceed from here? Will one of these four players emerge and separate himself from the others by the end of the season? Will those who have been saying that the others have a long way to go to catch up with Trout’s excellence eat their words?

A lot of MVP voters will look at total WAR on the season as their primary metric for judging overall value on the season. I think it makes more sense (for players who have played at least most of the season) to look at the rate at which the top players have accumulated WAR, but I’m not an MVP voter, so we’ll try to predict overall WAR by two means.

1) Assume all players continue accumulating WAR at the same rate per game that they have been on average thus far this season, multiplying that by the expected number of games each will play, and come up with a projected WAR that way. (For elite players like these, we can treat WAR as a cumulative statistic; we can’t do that for replacement-level players whose WARs fluctuate between negative and positive values, therefore behaving like a rate statistic.)

2) Look at how each player has historically trended over the last two months of the season, and adjust the estimate upward or downward accordingly.

So, the first way. Here are the fWAR’s per 100 games and per 500 plate appearances, for each player thus far this year:

Pace of 2018 fWAR accumulation
Player WAR per 100 G rank WAR per 500 PA
Betts 7.8 1 8.5
Trout 7.0 2 7.9
Ramirez 6.7 3 7.6
Lindor 5.8 4 6.2

Betts is showing some separation here, due to having played fewer games than the others. Let’s see if that separation carries over into projected WAR. We’ll predict the playoff-bound Indians and Red Sox, with somewhat comfortable leads in their division races, will rest their stars 4 games each the rest of the way, in preparation for the playoffs. Trout is currently injured and appears destined to return on Friday. After that, the Angels, whose playoff hopes have already faded pretty far, will likely give Trout rest to avoid further injury in games that don’t matter this September. So I’ll project him for 8 games off. This leads to the following projections:

Projected 2018 fWAR leaders at current pace
Name Team G remaining G proj WAR proj
Mookie Betts 42 38 10.8
Mike Trout 45 41 10.5
Jose Ramirez 43 35 10.0
Francisco Lindor 45 41 9.1

But what if they don’t continue at the rates they’ve been at? Let’s look at some history.
Well I have some nice plots for you, but they’re not quite finished. For now, I’ll just show you an average of their last 3 complete years (or 2 years in the case of Jose Ramirez) of wRC+, broken out by month, in a table:

Name Mar/Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sept/Oct
Mookie Betts 96 120 125 113 130 141
Mike Trout 178 172 181 186 166 166
Jose Ramirez 126 117 134 120 119 185
Francisco Lindor Not completed yet

The trend here appears to be that Trout’s offensive production drops off in August and September, his worst two months of the year; Betts’ production climbs through August and into September, his best two months of the year; and Ramirez’s climbs in September, his best month of the year. It’s hard to rely on this happening in any particular year, though. Each year, when you look at them individually, seems to follow its own unique pattern for each of these three players. However, it is a common thing for a player to be a habitually strong finisher, or a habitually poor finisher, so anticipating a downturn for Trout and upturns for Ramirez and Betts is probably as sound as anything else we could project. Especially given that Trout will be coming off an injury later this week, and will have little to play for in September.

Given that there’s only about a quarter of the season to go, the changes in trajectory won’t have a huge impact, so I’ll project modest 0.2 and 0.3 adjustments.

Name fWAR proj
Mookie Betts 11.0
Mike Trout 10.2
Jose Ramirez 10.2
Francisco Lindor 8.8 to 9.4

So there you go. If we base things on fWAR, I’m projecting Mookie Betts will be this year’s fWAR leader. Of course I had to make some rather exact guesses to get this number, and real life has way more variability than is contained in the numbers I used, so consider these numbers to represent a most-likely outcome, but not a likely outcome. Still, there’s enough of a gap between Betts and the others that I would say it’s likely that he finishes the season as the fWAR leader.

Whether that earns him the MVP is another question. There are many who still claim that Betts and Ramirez haven’t yet reached Trout’s level of excellence, despite the evidence right in front of us. There are others who ignore baserunning and defense, and put achievement of the triple crown above all other offensive achievement. If J.D. Martinez even comes close to winning the triple crown, which he’s currently close to, then he may steal a lot of votes from these more deserving players, despite adding no value on defense or on the bases.

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