Making the Case for Morneau
Two years ago, I wrote about how the MVP is a joke, because it’s come down to nothing but a debate over what the criteria for the award should be.
Justin Morneau won the American League MVP that year, and I had no problem with that. But, I just felt that the award should go to the Most Valuable Player, with no disqualification because so-and-so’s a pitcher and they have their own award, and no inconsistency where sometimes it simply goes to the player with the best numbers, without any consideration for how truly valuable he was.
The title of this article, however, refers to Justin Morneau’s 2008 MVP candidacy. I’ve been talking about this for a little while, but I’m more convinced now than I’ve ever been that Morneau is, hands-down, the American League’s Most Valuable Player. Let’s take a look at my main arguments for this.
First, I’m a major proponent of the MVP coming from a playoff contender. There are some circumstances where I might consider making an exception, but none of those apply this year. So, I’ll start with the fact that Morneau is leading the AL in RBI with 128, and the only two players who are even close to him, Josh Hamilton and Miguel Cabrera, play for teams that are no closer than 14 1/2 games out of playoff contention. Hamilton has considerably cooled off in the season’s second half, and while Cabrera has turned it on since the all-star break (68 RBI in 59 games), so has Morneau (60 RBI in 60 games), who has done it while his team is in the thick of a pennant race. The next highest total by any player on a team within 10 games of sniffing the playoffs is Kevin Youkilis’ 107, 21 fewer than Morneau’s total.
Let’s take a closer look at the Morneau-Youkilis comparison. Obviously, having teammates who reach base is a very important factor in a player’s RBI total. The Twins, as a team, are 5th in the American League with a .341 OBP, while the Red Sox lead the league in that category at .359. Taking this a step further, the three players who have most commonly batted in the 1-2-3 positions in the Twins order, in front of Morneau, are Carlos Gomez (.296 OBP), Alexi Casilla (.341) and Joe Mauer (.417). The weighted average of these numbers, based on the number of plate appearances for each in the 1-2-3 spots, calculates to .359. This exercise is a little more difficult with Youkilis, because he’s moved around in the Red Sox order, batting quite frequently in the 6th, 4th and 2nd spots. But, considering the players who occupy the positions in the Twins’ order charged with the greatest responsibility for reaching base are no better than the whole of the Red Sox lineup, this supports my point that Morneau is producing big-time RBI numbers surrounded by a mediocre supporting cast.
While we’re still on the subject of supporting cast, the hitters who have provided protection in the lineup for Morneau are no more impressive. Michael Cuddyer, the most common batter in the 5th spot in the order for Minnesota, has a slugging percentage of .369 and an OPS of .699, significantly below the league averages of .420 and .756, respectively. Jason Kubel, he of the second most at-bats in the spot behind Morneau, has slugged a solid .463 with a .802 OPS. Still, it’s safe to say that the hybrid of these two players is an average American League hitter, hardly the type that is needed to ensure that opposing teams need to pitch to an offensive threat such as Morneau. The fact that Morneau leads the AL in intentional walks, with 16, supports the idea that he can’t possibly be seeing as many good pitches as other players with stronger lineup protection behind them, particularly those on loaded offensive teams.
Runs batted in, it is frequently argued, can be an overrated statistic, as a player’s ability to drive in runs depends considerably on his teammates’ ability to get on base. However, these numbers show that Morneau’s RBI total is truly relevant, mainly because he’s racked up more than impressive numbers while at a slight disadvantage to players on more balanced offensive teams. But, obviously, I’m not making the case for Morneau based on just one statistical category. He’s scored 94 runs, and his simplistic runs produced (HR + R – HR) total of 199 is tops in the league. He’s also hitting .308 (10th in AL), with 46 2B (5th), a .380 OBP (10th) and a .514 slugging percentage (11th).
Some have argued that Morneau’s OPS (.900) is not impressive enough in comparison to some of the other AL MVP candidates. I suppose this argument went out the window when Carlos Quentin got injured and Dustin Pedroia (.868) became the candidate du jour. However, when looking at some of the truer SABRmetric categories–those that don’t depend on the performance of teammates, and those that include park and league adjustments–the argument for Morneau’s candidacy is further reinforced.
The two SABRmetric statistics that paint the best picture are Adjusted OPS+, on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, adjusted to account for park and league factors; and Adjusted Batting Runs, a measure that applies a specific value to the outcome of each offensive at bat, and translates this into the number of runs the player’s production, adjusted for park factor, would contribute above or below that of a league average player. Morneau, just 9th in the league in straight OPS, is 5th in Adjusted OPS+, with only players from non-contenders (Milton Bradley, Alex Rodriguez, Aubrey Huff) and the injured Carlos Quentin of the White Sox ahead of him.
Morneau looks even better when Adjusted Batting Runs is used. He trails only Milton Bradley and Alex Rodriguez there. Bradley, despite ranking first in both of these categories, not only plays for a sub-.500 Texas Rangers team, but just hasn’t produced enough actual runs to warrant consideration (75 runs, 74 RBI). Rodriguez has had a good year, although he’s been booed almost incessantly in New York based on the perception that he hasn’t come through in the clutch this year. Regardless of whether or not that’s fair, he just hasn’t done enough for an underachieving Yankees team to be a candidate for MVP.
Check out baseball-reference.com’s 2008 American League Expanded Leaderboards to take a look at the statistics I’ve referred to here. For a better explanation of what these statistics mean, see their Batting Stats Glossary.
Since I previously referred to my personal preference of giving the award only to players on teams in contention for the playoffs, I should take a look at the other leading candidates from each of these teams. I’m really only considering five teams here: the Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Angels. The Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees are the only other teams above .500, and while both teams were considered playoff contenders at times this season, the Blue Jays, given their late push for the postseason that has come up short, would be the only of those two for whom I’d consider a candidate. However, that candidate would have to be pretty exceptional, and while Roy Halladay has had an excellent year, I don’t think it’s been good enough to warrant serious consideration. The Yankees were major underachievers, so I would find it hard to justify any player on that team being considered most valuable.
So, that leaves the five contenders, one of which–the Twins or White Sox—will be left out of postseason action. But, that doesn’t matter, as a team remaining in the race until the last half of September is a championship contender. During the stretch run, they’re simply playing for the right to advance to the next round. While I believe strongly that the MVP should come from a playoff contender, if that player’s team falls just short, that doesn’t detract from his value in leading his team’s pursuit of the playoffs, and making their games meaningful to the end of the season. Let’s look at the candidates from each of the remaining playoff contenders.
Tampa Bay is one of those teams from which it would be difficult to choose who has been their most valuable player, let alone the league’s. Many have suggested that it’s Evan Longoria, but he’s just returned from missing an entire month, doesn’t have enough at-bats to qualify for the lead in any of the average categories, and doesn’t lead the team in any significant cumulative categories. James Shields is their most valuable pitcher, but he’s hardly an MVP candidate.
For Chicago, Carlos Quentin was once considered the league’s leading candidate for this award, but he’s out for the final month of the season. That’s reason enough to eliminate him from consideration, especially for a team that is still fighting for a playoff spot. Jermaine Dye has had a very good season as well, but he’s still overshadowed by Quentin on his own team. The pitching staff has been solid, but there are no exceptional performers there.
The Los Angeles Angels have the best record in the American League, and have had the easiest road to the playoffs, clinching the division title earlier than any AL West team in history. Their most valuable player would have to be Francisco Rodriguez, but, despite breaking the all-time single season saves record, his season is statistically inferior to several other AL closers, including Joe Nathan, Mariano Rivera, Joakim Soria and Jonathan Papelbon.
Among Morneau’s own teammates, Joe Mauer has had a very good year (.330, 9 HR, 79 RBI), and may be on the verge of winning his second AL batting title in three years, but his season pales in comparison to Morneau’s. Joe Nathan has also been impressive, but a closer would have to be truly exceptional to earn my MVP vote, and Nathan comes up short of that distinction.
That leaves the Red Sox, and I saved them for last for a reason. They have who I consider to be the two most compelling candidates other than Morneau. The Boston media and fans have been trumpeting the candidacy of Dustin Pedroia of late, but it was just a month or so ago that their man was Kevin Youkilis. Personally, I still think Youkilis is a stronger candidate, although it’s hard to ignore the post-all-star break numbers of Pedroia. I’ve already made the case for Morneau over Youkilis, though, and Morneau’s second-half production compares favorably to Pedroia’s. But, most importantly, the fact that the Red Sox have two strong candidates further supports my point that Morneau is easily more valuable to his team than either of those players, especially considering J.D. Drew was quite possibly their first-half MVP. The fact that these players are surrounded by the intimidating presences of David Ortiz and, for four months of the season, Manny Ramirez, is further proof that there couldn’t possibly be an MVP candidate from this lineup. If you disagree, ask yourself these questions: could the Red Sox survive a month without Dustin Pedroia? Conversely, what would the Twins lineup be like without Justin Morneau?
With that, I rest my case that there is not a shadow of a doubt that Justin Morneau is clearly the Most Valuable Player in the American League. I welcome anyone to share their opinion with me on this subject.