The fascinating AL MVP race of 2016

When the calendar turns to October each year it’s time to begin thinking, not just about football or playoff baseball, but about which two players will take home Major League Baseball’s most prestigious awards the AL and NL Most Valuable Player Awards.

While there are other honors awarded to players and managers in each league, the MVP award is the most important. For example, the Cy Young is the highest honor for a pitcher but the Cy Young Award winner can be the MVP as can the Rookie of the Year. In 2001 Ichiro Suzuki won both the AL ROY and AL MVP honors. Most recently left-hander Clayton Kershaw took home both the NL Cy Young and the NL MVP awards in 2014.

In most seasons the MVP is usually fairly obvious or the choice is a difficult one between just two players. In 2015, eventual winner the Toronto Blue Jays’ Josh Donaldson and Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, who is widely regarded the overall best player in the entire league, were neck and neck in the AL MVP race. While in the NL, Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals was voted the MVP unanimously by the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA).

This season is a bit different, especially in the American League where there is no clear top choice or choices. Regardless of whether there are many candidates or just one, there is always a debate of what MVP actually means. Are voters looking for the absolute best player in the league or the player that put up numbers that were a big part of what led his team to be a contender? Can the MVP be on a losing team?

The answer to that question has historically been “no,” especially over the last five years. When Trout came into the league in 2012 he was the best player in the game without question. That season he legitimately placed second in the MVP race. Miguel Cabrera had won the always elusive Triple Crown. A player wins the Triple Crown if he leads the league in home runs, batting average and hits.

AL MVP race
Jose Altuve & Mookie Betts. Getty Images.

Since then however, Trout has finished second in two of three seasons. He’s led the league in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in each of his five seasons, literally making him the most valuable player in the league – that is if he were on any other team. The Angels have only made the postseason once between 2012 and 2016. They recently finished the 2016 season with their worst record in this century.

In 2015 the award went to Donaldson who is an excellent player and who put up excellent numbers on a team that made it all the way to the American League Championship Series. He’s one of baseball’s best but is he best? Probably not. That honor still belongs to Mike Trout despite the fact he has won just one MVP trophy.

Given how subjective the award can be and there being no glaringly obvious choice, the baseball world has ended up with so many candidates there is no telling who will actually win. It’s a good bet that out of all of the following AL MVP candidates, Mike Trout will inevitably be voted in the top three, more than likely the top two.

So we already know that Mike Trout is an automatic candidate for the AL MVP so who are the others?

The reigning AL MVP, Donaldson had another amazing year at the hot corner with the Blue Jays. It wasn’t quite as good as last season although he did elevate some numbers like his on-base percentage, but last season, for instance, he lead the league in both runs score and RBI. Yet, when you add in the fact that he’s lead the Blue Jays into the postseason and now onto a 2-0 lead in the American League Division Series and it’s likely he’ll either win the award again or end up in the top three.

The Houston Astros’ second baseman Jose Altuve has made his case to be an MVP candidate, even if his team did not make the postseason this year. He is a wonder to behold playing baseball. At just 5’5”, Altuve has always been at the top of the league in base running, defense and he’s won two AL batting titles and led the league in hits the past three seasons.

This year, however, Altuve discovered his power, hitting 24 home runs, a number that is nine more than his career-high. When a player can hit 20 home runs a season, they are usually considered to be a good power hitter.

Even though the elite sluggers in baseball most often hit upwards of 40 homers in a season, 20 is pretty spectacular especially when you consider Altuve’s size. Altuve finished 10th in last year’s MVP voting, this year he should finish much higher, perhaps even winning the coveted award.

While Trout, Donaldson and Altuve are your likely top three finalists, there are other choices out there who will likely get some first place votes or even be an unexpected MVP in the American League.

Boston’s designated hitter David Ortiz, aka Big Papi to most of the world, announced his retirement prior to the 2016 season which was also his 40-year-old season. At 40 years old, with only two players older than him in all of baseball (exceptions are 42-year-old Ichiro and 43-year-old Bartolo Colon), Ortiz has batted .315/.401/.6.20 with 38 home runs. He also lead the league in 2016 in doubles (48), RBI (127), slugging percentage (.620) and on-base-plus-slugging percentage or OPS (1.021).

Designated hitters, unfortunately, are often either overlooked or looked down upon because they no longer play in the field. It is simply impossible to overlook Big Papi, for one thing, and for another he is 40 years old. What he did in this past season, the numbers he put up are simply spectacular and for many, it would be nice to see Papi going out on a high note.

AL MVP race
David Ortiz. Getty Images.

Oritz’s Red Sox teammate Mookie Betts is the fifth most likely candidate for MVP. Betts is still very young. At just 24 years old and having just finished his second full major league season, Betts led the league in total bases (359), made the all-star team and helped Ortiz lead the Red Sox to the AL Eastern Division Title and the postseason. Betts hit .318/.363/.534 with 31 homers and 113 RBI.

Other notable names include the Baltimore Orioles’ third baseman Manny Machado and closer Zach Britton. Britton posted the lowest ERA (0.54) by a pitcher with at least 50 innings pitched in MLB history over the course of the 2016 season.

Some say that he might win both the Cy Young Award and the MVP award. The last time a closer, who pitches just one inning a game, was both the AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner was the Oakland A’s Dennis Eckersley in 1992.

It’s possible for Britton to win both but unlikely. Most voters are weary of giving a starting pitcher both awards but to consider giving both awards to a relief pitcher is even more of a stretch for the voters.

Francisco Lindor of the Cleveland Indians had a stellar sophomore season and may have saved more than a few games with his glove and his bat while the AL Central Division Champions fought off (and are fighting through the postseason) major injuries to both their outfield and pitching staff.

Donaldson’s teammate in Toronto, outfielder Edwin Encarnacion, is another guy who had a great year and is leading his team through this year’s postseason. The awards cover only the regular season so postseason heroics are not included but Encarnacion is another name that should be in the top ten in the MVP voting this season.

There are a number of other players in the AL that have had great seasons and you never know when the BBWAA voters might make one of these or even any of the notable names mentioned here, a complete wild card surprise.

It will be a close race however it pans out, and one of the most fascinating MVP races in recent memory.

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