Boston Red Sox: David Ortiz, Mookie Betts battle for MVP honors

Aug 20, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz (34) celebrates with right fielder Mookie Betts (50) during the fifth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 20, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz (34) celebrates with right fielder Mookie Betts (50) during the fifth inning against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports /

The Boston Red Sox have a pair of worthy candidates in the MVP race, but who deserves it more – David Oritz or Mookie Betts?

The 2016 regular season is in the books, wrapping up the portfolio’s that the league’s best players will use to state their case for the Most Valuable Player award. One thing that we can all agree on is that the trophy will go to a member of the Boston Red Sox.

What, you were expecting another option from a Red Sox oriented website?

The competition in the American League will be fierce, with a pair of Red Sox teammates factoring heavily in the mix. The only question is, who gets more votes – David Ortiz or Mookie Betts?

Let’s start with the elder statesman of the team. What the 40-year old Ortiz has done this year has been uncanny, setting a new standard for both players his age and those capping off the final seasons of their careers. No player in history has ever retired after a season even remotely like the one Ortiz just produced. It’s unfathomable that anyone that can still hit at this level would walk away from the game, but Ortiz will simply because he otherwise may no longer be able to walk at all by the end of another grueling season.

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The numbers Oritz put up this season aren’t merely impressive by the standards of a player his age, they are among the best in the league. Forget his age, he led all American League hitters in doubles (48), slugging (.620), OPS (1.021) and extra-base hits (87). He tied for the league lead with 127 RBI, finished third with a .401 OBP, sixth with a .315 batting average and tied for eighth with 38 home runs. Name almost any offensive category and you’ll likely find Big Papi’s name at or near the top of the list.

It would be difficult for anyone to compete with that resume, yet somehow Betts does. He can’t quite match the power numbers Ortiz produced, but he comes close in most offensive categories and even manages to edge him in a few.

Betts finished second in the batting title race with a .318 average. His 31 homers easily set a career-high and put him inside the top-20 in the league, while finishing fourth in RBI – an incredible feat considering he spent the bulk of the season hitting in the lead-off spot. He tied for second in the league with 122 runs scored, third with 42 doubles and fourth with 78 extra-base hits.

If we were to look only at the damage done at the plate then Ortiz would be our winner, but the decision is closer than you might expect. When factoring in the other ways that Betts can impact a game, the 23-year old leaps ahead of his veteran teammate.

Not only was Betts among the most productive hitters in the league, he’s also a Gold Glove caliber outfielder. One who spent half his games covering right field at Fenway Park, which is notoriously complicated due to its unique dimensions. Betts led all major league outfielders with 32 Defensive Runs Saved – not just at his own position, but all outfielders. He also leads the AL among outfielders with 16 Total Zone Fielding Runs Above Average.

This isn’t meant to spark a debate about whether or not a designated hitter should be considered as an MVP contender. If Ortiz played the bulk of the season at first base while producing below-average defensive metrics, would that strengthen his case simply because he fielded a position? Of course not. A DH absolutely can win the MVP, but given their one-dimensional contributions they would need to significantly distance themselves from the competition with their bat. If the race came down to Ortiz and another slugger that fields a position at a level deemed to be average or worse (say, home run leader Mark Trumbo, for example) then Big Papi would run away with the award.

However, that’s not the case this season and we can’t pretend that factors like defense and base running don’t matter. A five-tool player like Betts provides tremendous value in a number of ways that Ortiz doesn’t contribute much at all, negating the relatively narrow gap in offensive production.

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Wins Above Replacement attempts to value players based on a combination of their offensive, defensive and base running contributions. While it’s not meant to be a be-all-end-all to determine the MVP debate, it does provide us with a useful starting point. Betts is second in the league with a 9.6 WAR, nearly doubling Ortiz’s 5.1 WAR. That’s a striking difference, no matter how impressive it is that Ortiz ranked as high as 17th in the league without the benefit of defensive metrics to boost his value.

Mike Trout is widely considered to be the best player in baseball, in part due to his ability to contribute in every aspect of the game. It’s no surprise then to learn that he’s led the league in WAR in each of the last five seasons. He led the majors in four out of the five, finishing second to Bryce Harper last year. Trout is always in the MVP conversation, but I can’t bring myself to put him ahead of Betts this year given that his Los Angeles Angels finished with a losing record and haven’t been playing meaningful games in months.

Betts will face competition from Jose Altuve, the batting title winner from a Houston Astros team that was at least in the playoff hunt. Hindering his case is that the Astros dropped 7 of their last 10 games to drop out of the Wild Card race and Altuve hit a mere .269 with a .689 OPS in September. Voters like a strong finish, so while Betts and Ortiz both put up solid numbers in the final month of the season, Altuve faded down the stretch.

Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson will get strong consideration after winning the award last season. His offensive numbers were similar to Betts and he brings a solid glove to the hot corner, even if statistically this year wasn’t his best in the field. While Donaldson’s 7.4 WAR was good for fourth in the league, there remains a significant gap between he and Betts. Had the Jays won the division then that may have been enough to make up the difference, but with the Red Sox clinching the AL East there simply isn’t enough in Donaldson’s favor to place him ahead of Betts.

The MVP doesn’t necessarily have to come from a division winner, but it’s certainly another feather in the cap for both Betts and Ortiz. The race may very well come down to these two candidates, with the biggest concern being that many ballots may split the vote between them, hindering each of their chances to finish first.

The final chapter of Ortiz’s career has been remarkable, but we can’t let sentiment cloud our judgement. As great as he has been, the all-around contribution of Betts makes him the more valuable player.

Next: Banged up Indians rotation gives Red Sox an edge

Winning his first MVP in the final season of his career makes for a great story, but the real storybook ending for Ortiz would be winning another World Series.