J.D. Martinez-Mookie Betts Battle Proves Triple Crown Shouldn't Clinch MLB MVP

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterSeptember 21, 2018

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 16: J.D. Martinez #28 and Mookie Betts #50 of the Boston Red Sox react during All-Star Workout Day at Nationals Park Monday, July 16, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

J.D. Martinez has a real shot at leading the American League in batting average, home runs and runs batted in. If he does, he'll have secured the 18th Triple Crown season in Major League Baseball history and only the second in the last 50 years.

However, he shouldn't and probably won't be named the AL's Most Valuable Player.

It's not because Martinez has disappointing numbers by Triple Crown standards. The Boston Red Sox slugger is batting .331 with 41 homers and 125 RBI. Those are decidedly excellent figures which rank second, second and first among AL hitters.

Nonetheless, there don't seem to be many fierce advocates for Martinez's MVP candidacy. This is true even among the Fenway Park faithful, who reserve chants of "MVP! MVP!" for Mookie Betts.

Sentiment probably has something to do with that. Whereas Martinez is a hired gun in his first season with the Red Sox, Betts has been in the organization since 2011 and a star with the big club since 2014.

Then there are the numbers. Betts' .339 average makes him the one guy ahead of Martinez in the batting title race. And while he's not Martinez's equal in homers (30) or RBI (77), he has a significant edge in wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference:

  • Betts: 10.0 WAR
  • Martinez: 6.1 WAR

Because this is the year 2018, most people who clicked on this article must have figured that this tidbit was inevitable. Likewise, many people probably don't need to be convinced of WAR's validity in this case.

Although WAR isn't perfect—The Ringer's Rany Jazayerli wrote a must-read article on that—it's the best stat we have for getting a measure of a player's total value. For position players, this means not only offense but baserunning and defense as well.

To each of these ends, Betts and Martinez simply aren't peers.

Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

Beyond leading Martinez in batting average, Betts also has him beat in on-base percentage (.432 to .400), OPS (1.057 to 1.029) and OPS+ (179 to 174).

There's no contest in the baserunning or defense departments. Betts has 28 stolen bases to Martinez's five, and he's one of the AL's most valuable overall baserunners. He's also second among AL outfielders with 21 defensive runs saved.

Because Baseball Writers' Association of America voters aren't given a "clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means," MVP debates don't stop at the WAR rankings. Hence why there are also cases for Mike Trout, Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, Alex Bregman, Khris Davis and Matt Chapman in addition to Betts and Martinez.

And yet, both WAR and the Vegas odds point to Betts as the man to beat.

Perhaps things would be different if there were an outcry for BBWAA members to subscribe to logic that Martinez must be named the MVP if he earns the Triple Crown. But if it even exists, such an outcry is difficult to hear.

Which brings us to the other inevitable part of this article: My, how things have changed since 2012.

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

The AL MVP battle between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout six years ago had the same basic setup as this year's Martinez vs. Betts battle, but it inspired completely different arguments.

Cabrera was the guy chasing the Triple Crown who succeeded with a .330 average, 44 homers and 139 RBI. Trout, meanwhile, was a sabermetrician's platonic ideal of a baseball player. He slashed .326/.399/.564 with 30 homers, 49 steals, 19 DRS and 10.5 WAR to Cabrera's 7.1.

Cabrera winning the AL MVP in a landslide, however, was reflective of the logic of the day. Although his backers also brought up the Detroit Tigers' playoff berth, the Triple Crown was the main draw.

"I think [Cabrera and Trout are] both fantastic players, tremendous players, both of them," Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost told reporters that October, "but if Cabrera wins the Triple Crown, he has to be the MVP, absolutely."

Mind you, the notion that a Triple Crown must equal an MVP wasn't historically accurate. That didn't work for Chuck Klein in 1933. Nor for Lou Gehrig in 1934. Nor for Ted Williams in 1942 or 1947.

Still, that didn't stop HISTORY from assuming an all-caps role in the matter. This was the Triple Crown, after all. Its roots as the ultimate measure of hitting excellence went deep. To boot, Cabrera was the first to wear it since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. 

In the face of all this, Trout's supporters tried to push that he'd actually been a better hitter than Cabrera (true), as well as more clutch (also true) and generally more of an impactful player (see above). Coupled with how his Los Angeles Angels actually won more games than Cabrera's Tigers, his MVP case should have been hard to deny.

However, making those claims required pointing to statistics that hadn't yet broken into the mainstream. Writers and fans reacted accordingly. WAR, especially, was either dismissed as "obscure" or mocked via repurposed Edwin Starr lyrics.

But if nothing else, the Cabrera vs. Trout debate broke down the wall that stood between new-school statistics and the mainstream. And rather than being forced back out, their role in the argument has only increased in the ensuing years.

WAR, in particular, is now referenced on baseball cards and in TV broadcasts. Heck, it even appears on stadium scoreboards. Those same scoreboards are also bound to reference all manner of Statcast data, which has completely revolutionized (read: "geek-ified") how baseball is discussed over the last four years.

In an environment such as this, Martinez simply can't be granted the same kind of treatment that Cabrera got back in 2012. To do so would be to engage in blatantly out-of-touch behavior.

This is not to suggest that Martinez has no shot at winning the AL MVP. His numbers are damn impressive, and MLB.com's Mike Lupica and The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal have (rightly) opined that his transcendent effect on the Red Sox lineup can't be ignored. 

Regardless, 2018 will succeed in doing something that should have been done back in 2012: It will render the Triple Crown from a supreme achievement to a mere oddity.

   

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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