WAR makes case for Ellsbury as MVP

September, 28, 2011
With the regular season having wound down, many of the year-end individual awards are no closer to being unanimous than they were several months ago. In the National League, we have Roy Halladay vs. Clayton Kershaw for the NL Cy Young and Matt Kemp vs. Ryan Braun for the NL MVP -- nearly indistinguishable races that are coming down to the wire.

A month ago, it looked the AL MVP race would end in much the same fashion, as a close finish. But in in fact it is already over and has been for bit: Jacoby Ellsbury of the Boston Red Sox should be the American League Most Valuable Player.

Saying that in and of itself may not be particularly controversial; he’s been in the race for essentially the entire second half and may very well win the actual vote. But saying he’s the MVP isn’t nearly enough. Ellsbury’s 2011 season is not only the most valuable season anyone has produced this season, it’s also one of the most valuable individual player seasons in recent history. How is that the case? Let’s take a look.

WAR -- What is it Good For? Comparing

If you look at a player’s season in 1956 and a player’s season in 1999, it would be difficult to gauge who had the better season just by looking at raw stats. Those numbers don’t give you a sense of the run environment of the time, the player’s position, and a number of other factors. But Wins Above Replacement takes into account a wide variety of things that a visual scan of a stat line cannot. Ellsbury has contributed 9.7 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) entering start of play on Wednesday. That is clearly the most in baseball this season (see chart at right).

Not only does Ellsbury’s 9.7 mark edge both the NL leader (Kemp) and AL runner-up (Bautista) by an additional 14 percent, but it starts to border on historic grounds. Ellsbury is the first player to approach a 10.0 WAR mark since Alex Rodriguez in 2007 and one of an elite few to hit these heights in the last decade:

However, what is even more remarkable given the fact that we’re talking about the AL MVP is how well Ellsbury’s season ranks among AL counterparts over a much larger span:

In other words, as measured by Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Ellsbury’s season is the 9th-best in the American League among position players in the last 42 seasons. He is edged only by three Hall of Famers (Ripken, Henderson and Yount) and two deserving candidates (Griffey, Rodriguez).

If you break it down more specifically, looking at center fielders across both the AL and the NL, you find that Ellsbury is exceeded by only inner-circle level Hall of Famers (and one soon-to-be):

That’s right -- Ellsbury has posted a season that officially ranks with the best of Willie Mays and Ken Griffey, Jr.

Better Than an Entire Team?

If you can believe it, Ellsbury outproduced several entire teams (position players) by Wins Above Replacement this season, which should perhaps be no surprise given the lineups the Seattle Mariners and Minnesota Twins trotted out this season:

Historical Perspective

1. Jacoby Ellsbury’s mark is greater than the winners of each of the last three AL MVP awards (Josh Hamilton, Joe Mauer, Dustin Pedroia) and each of the last six NL MVPs (Joey Votto, Albert Pujols, Pujols, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Pujols).

2. Albert Pujols, likely the greatest player of his generation, has posted exactly one season in his entire career that grades out better than Ellsbury’s 2011 season. That was his 2003 season, in which he hit .359/.439/.667 with 43 HR, 124 RBIs, 51 doubles and his only 200+ hit season.

3. Here is an extensive, but not comprehensive, list of former MVPs and current and future Hall of Fame players who have never posted a season (as measured by WAR) as good as the one Ellsbury just produced (highest single-season WAR mark in parentheses): George Brett (9.5), Manny Ramirez (7.5), Jim Thome (7.9), Roberto Alomar (7.4), Vladimir Guerrero (7.6), Ichiro Suzuki (7.2), Wade Boggs (9.4), Frank Thomas (7.5), Don Mattingly (7.7), Ivan Rodriguez (6.9) and Derek Jeter (7.5).

4. In terms of Red Sox historical accomplishments, Ellsbury’s season is the greatest by a Boston position player since Carl Yastrzemski posted a 10.5 WAR (.301/.426/.495) in 1968.

5. Jacoby Ellsbury produced 9.7 WAR this season. Vernon Wells, Alfonso Soriano, Joe Mauer, Carlos Zambrano, Ichiro Suzuki, Barry Zito, Carl Crawford and John Lackey combined to produce 6.0 WAR. Ellsbury was paid $2.4 million this season. Those 8 players combined to make just over $146 million this season.

Different Measurements of Value

When voting for the MVP award, some people like to assign greater emphasis to games played late in the season. While they don’t mean any more in the standings, there are certainly more eyes watching. While Ellsbury’s season-long production alone merits the MVP award by a significant amount, his production down the stretch this season simply adds to the case. While the Red Sox have been flailing as a team, Ellsbury has been doing all he can to save the sinking ship:

Or, perhaps rather than simply overall performance or performance down the stretch, Most Valuable Player means the player who produces at an elite level and who does so at a tremendous monetary value to the team. Among legitimate MVP candidates, Ellsbury’s production-per-dollar is the best there is:

Regardless of the angle from which you choose to view the MVP award, it seems clear that Ellsbury is the American League MVP in 2011 if you use this metric.

While his traditional stats might not be the sort of gaudy numbers we’re used to seeing in the historically great seasons from the likes of Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez, Ellsbury’s season is indeed one of historically great production. Keep in mind, the AL average line this season is .258/.323/.408; the average AL line in 2000 was .276/.349/.443 -- a gap of 18 points in batting average and 61 points of OPS. In 2011, the AL center fielder average is .260/.318/.411; in 2000, it was .279/.341/.445 -- a gap of 19 points in batting average and 57 points of OPS. Regardless, while Adrian Gonzalez’s acquisition has been helpful for the Red Sox, Jose Bautista has put up massive numbers, Miguel Cabrera has spurred the Tigers to their best baseball of the season and Justin Verlander has produced a strong pitching season and should take home the AL Cy Young, none of them compare to Ellsbury in 2011. And, in recent baseball history, few have.



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