The Case for Manny Machado for American League MVP

This week, we’re running a series of posts laying out the case for the most compelling candidates for the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award. These posts are designed to make an affirmative argument for their subject and are not intended to serve as comprehensive looks at every candidate on their own. The authors tasked with writing these posts may not even believe their subject actually deserves to win, but they were brave enough to make the case anyway. The goal of these posts is to lay out the potential reasons for voters to consider a variety of candidates and to allow the readers to decide which argument is most persuasive.

Other cases: Jose Altuve for AL MVP / Mookie Betts for AL MVP / Mike Trout for AL MVP.

It’s fair to say that, at places like FanGraphs, we spend a lot of time trying to remove teammates from the equation, strip everything down to its basic parts and determine a player’s individual value without context. We ignore things like RBI and runs — metrics that are often based not on a player’s own talent level, but how good a player’s teammates are around him. While there are differing viewpoints on the BBWAA’s suggestion that “actual value” ought to be considered in MVP voting — and how that term should be defined — if we choose to look at the standings, at the playoff races, and the individual teams and players on those teams, Manny Machado has been the most important player in the American League and has provided more actual value to his team this season than any other player. That is his case for Most Valuable Player.

Machado currently has 34 home runs and .306/.358/.565 overall line, good for a 140 wRC+. The 24-year-old has played to his usual incredible standard on defense, and his 28 runs above average on offense — coupled with his 13 runs above average on defense — has led to a WAR above six on the season. While there are other players who provide more offensive or defensive value, literally no one in baseball provides that combination of the two: no single player currently stands within 15 runs on offense of Machado and five runs on defense. There is not a player who has provided double-digit defensive numbers with even half of the offensive runs above average as Machado. There are few concerns that Machado’s defensive numbers are the product of a small-sample mirage, either: he’s averaged about 18 runs above average per 150 games in his career. On offense, Machado is chasing history. The only players to play at least 25% of their games at shortstop and hit more than 40 home runs are Alex Rodriguez and Ernie Banks. Machado has a chance to join them.

Machado’s all-around play has been fantastic, but his consistency is a marvel. Aside from his four-game suspension for his role in the brawl with the Royals, Machado has started in every game but one this season after playing in 162 games last year. His wRC+ at home is 138 while on the road it is 141. Against left-handers, his wRC+ is 141 and against righties it is 139. He has more than 40 hits to each area of the field, with a 176 wRC+ to the pull side, a 181 wRC+ to center, and a 187 wRC+ to the opposite field. His wRC+ with the bases empty is 130 and with runners on base is 152. His clutch score is just above zero, meaning he hits just as well in clutch situations as he does at any other time — unlike Mike Trout (-0.50), Mookie Betts (-0.63), and Jose Altuve (-0.46). (Josh Donaldson is also around zero).

If you look at leaderboards, you see Mike Trout a fair bit ahead of the rest of the players in the American League, but you see the rest of the candidates in Josh Donaldson, Mookie Betts, Jose Altuve all within one win above replacement of each other. These players are all close enough where meaningful distinctions between the players solely based on WAR don’t really do any of the players justice. To make a choice, splitting hairs becomes necessary. Let’s take a look at the importance of each player to their team. The graph below shows the percentage of WAR each candidate takes up among his team’s position players.

Screenshot 2016-09-07 at 9.18.34 AM

Sure, Trout is first, but Machado is second and beats out the rest of the candidates. There are 57 position players in baseball who’ve produced a WAR above 3.0 this year, and Manny Machado is the only Oriole on that list. Chris Davis is right at 3.0, he’s the only other Orioles position player in the top 100 of position-player WAR. You might envision Machado, Davis, Mark Trumbo, and Adam Jones and think the Orioles offense is good. The team wRC+ is a decent 103, but without Machado, it’s an offense that is below average. You might think of Machado and J.J. Hardy and think the Orioles defense must be good. It’s not. They’re 24th in defensive runs above average and would be much closer to the bottom without Machado. Without Machado, the Brewers, Diamondbacks and Twins would have greater position-player WAR than the Orioles. Baltimore’s pitching doesn’t help matters. The Orioles do not have a single pitcher in the top 40 of pitcher WAR. The above graph moves even more in Machado’s favor when considering total team WAR.

Screenshot 2016-09-07 at 9.22.24 AM

Yes, Trout is still up there. We can try to massage some facts around Trout and mention that his BABIP is a bit too high and involves some good luck or that his walk rate might be inflated a bit due to the lack of decent hitters around him, but those don’t really bridge the gap in terms of on-field production. Nothing does, really. To argue on behalf of Machado over Trout, one has to also argue that consequences of a player’s plate appearances are important, as well. This is the graph for that argument:

chart (18)

You can view an interactive version of the graph above here. The Angels’ portion might jump out at you: it reveals that Mike Trout hasn’t taken a plate appearance that could meaningfully get his team closer to the playoffs in the three months. Don’t ignore the Orioles’ portion, either. Since the second week of the season, the Orioles have hovered between 25% and 75% in terms of playoff probability. The odds taken into account both the team’s wins to that point as well as their expected wins going forward based on team talent. Given their station in the middle, every single game the Orioles have played has been of utmost importance in getting the Orioles to the playoffs. The Blue Jays have been above 75% for more than a month and the Red Sox have spent most of their season there. The Astros have faded of late, and no team has spent more time in the middle 50% than the Baltimore Orioles, constantly fighting to stay in the race.

At the moment, the Baltimore Orioles are in the playoffs and while, for a time, a narrative developed around Zach Britton in his role as closer, the truth is, Manny Machado has held this team together and even given them a chance at a division title despite having to compete with more talented teams in Toronto and Boston all season. We sometimes use the concept of a “replacement player” in the abstract, as a theoretical. In the case of the Orioles, however, we know who Manny Machado is replacing. When J.J. Hardy went down with an injury earlier in the year, Machado actually moved up the defensive spectrum from third base to shortstop to ensure that the Orioles were not starting Paul Janish, a below-replacement-level player (-0.7 WAR/600 PA preseason projection). When Hardy returned and Machado moved back to third, he displaced Ryan Flaherty, a replacement-level player.

Manny Machado has been fantastic this season, putting up an unparalleled combination of offense and defense — and only Mike Trout has clearly provided a level of production superior to Machado’s this season. Among the remaining candidates, no player has been more important to his team than Manny Machado has been to the Orioles. Machado isn’t the proverbial straw breaking the camel’s back pushing the Orioles over the edge into the playoffs. He has been the camel, carrying the load for his team to a potential spot in the playoffs that would be impossible without him. He’s provided consistent all-around production while moving among difficult defensive positions. In the last month, he’s continued to produce, hitting 12 home runs with a 157 wRC+, playing stronger despite never getting a day off. Mike Trout has been the most productive player, yes. In terms of actual value, actual importance to his team, nobody has been more valuable this season in the American League than Manny Machado.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
6 years ago

The best argument against Mike Trout, MVP: He is actually hurting his team. Without him, imagine the draft position they would have! They might even have had a chance at the #1 pick in the draft. But selfish Trout just HAD to be the best player in baseball. Come on, Mike, be a team player here!

On a serious note, the percentage of team WAR graphs are awesome and a factor I hadn’t considered in “value” to the team. Great stuff!