Boston Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers ranks at the top of many categories but WAR isn’t one of them and that could cost him the MVP.
WAR, what is it good for? Quite a bit, actually. The all-encompassing statistic has its skeptics and certainly isn’t perfect but it’s the best metric we have for evaluating players. MVP voters have come around to agree with this notion over the last decade, which could be a problem for Boston Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers.
Devers is putting together an offensive resume worthy of MVP consideration. He leads the league with 167 hits, 46 doubles, and 101 RBI while ranking third with a .332 batting average and second with a .976 OPS.
It turns out that there are other aspects of baseball that matter beyond offense. Devers leads his position with 18 errors and rates a bit below average with -2 defensive runs saved. He’s also a poor base runner, getting caught stealing a league-high eight times while producing a dismal 50 percent success rate. Devers has made six other outs on the bases in addition to those caught stealing instances, placing him in the bottom 10 in the league. WAR frowns on these flaws.
It’s a testament to how great Devers has been at the plate that he’s tied for fifth in the league with 5.2 WAR despite his shortcomings in other areas of the game. Unfortunately, fifth place might not be good enough.
The league leader in WAR has won the MVP award in both leagues in each of the last three seasons. That includes Mookie Betts taking home the hardware last year with a 10.9 WAR, the highest produced by any position player since Barry Bonds (11.6) in 2002.
The last player to win an MVP in either league without leading in WAR was Josh Donaldson in 2015. He finished second with 8.5 WAR and helped vault the Blue Jays to the top of the division while Mike Trout (9.4 WAR) and the Angels missed the postseason.
Dustin Pedroia won the MVP in 2008 when he finished third in the league with 6.8 WAR. Mark Teixeira led the AL with 7.5 WAR but spent half the year in the NL, hindering his chances. Nick Markakis (7.1 WAR) played for a last-place Orioles team, knocking him out of consideration.
Miguel Cabrera won consecutive MVP awards from 2012-2013 despite finishing fourth in WAR both times. Those were unique circumstances though. Cabrera won the award the first time by capturing the Triple Crown, an achievement so rare that it apparently earned him bonus points in the minds of some voters.
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The result sparked a new school vs old school debate between those who credited Cabrera for a superficial achievement and the analytics crowd that favored Trout. Cabrera won the award again the following year when he nearly repeated the Triple Crown, winning another batting title while finishing second in home runs and RBI.
We have to go all the way back to 2007 to find an MVP winner who finished outside the top five in WAR. Jimmy Rollins (6.0 WAR) received the award in a season in which he finished only sixth in WAR, while league-leader Albert Pujols (8.5 WAR) bizarrely finished ninth on the ballot. Rollins wasn’t even the best player on his own team but he was the most popular player from a division winner while Pujols played for a sub-.500 Cardinals team.
That’s over a decade’s worth of data telling us that finishing among the top two in the league in WAR is essentially a requirement for an MVP unless there are unusual circumstances. Devers isn’t coming close to the Triple Crown, none of the other contenders switched leagues mid-season, and he isn’t playing for a division-winner so he can’t bank on those narratives stealing votes.
The MVP is Trout’s award to lose at this point. He enters the day with an 8.2 WAR, giving him a massive lead over the second-place Alex Bregman (6.2). The only factor holding Trout back is that his Angels are hopelessly out of the playoff hunt. If voters hold team success against Trout, Bregman could win by default since his Astros are a virtual lock to make the playoffs.
Oakland A’s teammates Matt Chapman (5.7) and Marcus Semien (5.3) round out the top four and their team is only 1.5 games out of a playoff spot. Both receive a significant WAR boost from their elite defense but it’s hard to see either getting serious consideration with their rather pedestrian offensive numbers.
Devers is having an excellent season but he’s not catching Trout in WAR and it would take an absolute monster finish to surpass Bregman. Recent history tells us that his chances of being named MVP are a longshot.