The Boston Red Sox dominated baseball this year. They won a league best 108 games in the regular season, went 11-3 in the playoffs and won the World Series easily, beating the two next-best teams to get there.
A team of five 2018 All-Stars, the Red Sox were led by ace pitcher Chris Sale, fan favorite Mookie Betts and newly-acquired slugger J.D. Martinez, the latter two seemingly favorites for Most Valuable Player throughout the year. In a team as dominant as Boston, it made sense that the two leading players would also be the top candidates for MVP.
However, after the season, Major League Baseball announced the names of the three MVP finalists in each league, with Mike Trout, Jose Ramirez and Mookie Betts tabbed for the American League. To the surprise of many fans, J.D. Martinez was not even included as a finalist.
For a long time, the most important statistics those within the baseball community used when evaluating a hitter was batting average (BA). The most basic of stats, BA simply tells the percentage of the time a batter gets a hit versus the number of times they come to the plate. When we talk about legend Ted Williams, we first recall his historic .406 batting average season.
Recently, however, new stats have been brought to the forefront, becoming more important to many fans, analysts and teams than batting average. On base percentage takes walks into account for a truer measure of how often a player gets on base, and slugging percentage includes extra base hits, measuring the average number of bases acquired per plate appearance. On base plus slugging, a sum of the two stats, has become the most consulted number when discussing a hitter.
In the modern era, defensive metrics have seen an overhaul as well, and the archaic fielding percentage has been replaced by defensive runs saved, or ultimate zone rating. These stats use new technology to measure the number and kinds of plays certain fielders make compared to their peers and can then calculate the number of defensive runs saved to which this equates.
And, in what could be the most complete measure, a player’s wins above replacement (WAR) takes all of these numbers into account using a formula few understand to determine for how many wins a player is actually responsible.
J.D. Martinez finished the year with a .330 BA, .402 OBP and a 1.031 OPS, not to mention 43 home runs and a whopping 130 runs batted in. He was without a doubt the most feared hitter in baseball this year. However, while he ranks in the top three for every stat mentioned there, he is only ranked seventh among American League players in WAR. Why is this? Because J.D. Martinez was predominantly a designated hitter (DH) this year, meaning he did not play the field.
The status of the DH has turned into a heated topic in recent years, with Edgar Martinez and David Ortiz—the two most successful DHs of all time—becoming Hall of Fame eligible. Many fans (and Hall voters) believe that since a DH can only ever contribute offensively, they are inherently less valuable than position players, not to mention that while the rest of their team is out on the field playing defense, a DH can stay in the heated or air-conditioned clubhouse, taking batting practice and preparing for their next at bat.
Not only is a DH a one-trick pony, they also have an advantage over everyone else doing that trick.
That being said, the achievements of these players cannot be ignored, and if they compile numbers impressive enough to be in the Hall of Fame, shouldn’t they be? There are many hitters in the Hall of Fame who were not great fielders. Ted Williams was actually negative in defensive runs saved over his career, and one cannot imagine that Babe Ruth was the greatest outfielder. The great Derek Jeter, of all people, has a career -13.6 defensive WAR. Defense was not considered when voters admitted these players, because the offensive numbers were there. Just because the Mariners and Red Sox decided to use Edgar Martinez and Ortiz’s talent in what they perceived as the best way, does not mean that the players should be punished for it. Both DHs were the face of their respective franchise, and Ortiz brought three titles to Boston.
J.D. Martinez was also not exclusively a DH in 2018. He played 52 games in the outfield and, while not an amazing outfielder, he was far from a defensive liability. During
the World Series games played at Dodger Stadium (where, being a National League park, there is no DH) the Red Sox never hesitated to start J.D. in the field, suggesting we can attribute the club’s decision to make him a DH more to strength of the other Red Sox outfielders—two of whom won Gold Gloves—than to Martinez’s defensive shortcomings.
The MLB must define more specifically what they look for in an MVP. Is it just the numbers or WAR, or is it something else?
Mike Trout may have been more valuable to his struggling Angels than J.D. was to his talented Sox. But by that logic, the MVP would always come from a losing team. Jose Ramirez did not even crack the top three in any major statistical category.
J.D. led the best team in baseball over the crest they couldn’t clear in 2017, all while being the most feared player in the game. Does that not make him the MVP?