Homers, RBIs, WAR ... conscience? In MLB's difficult 2020 season, who is MVP material?

Tim Brown
·MLB columnist
·7 min read

At the end of a two-month season played behind a mask, at a responsible distance and between clouds of spittle, there arrives an opening to contemplate again the concept of value.

Baseball value. In 2020. The value of anything, really, in 2020, when a trip to the grocery store is a minor act of heroism, when working at that grocery store makes you the next Marvel superhero.

Therefore, in settling on the most valuable among them, you’d get to the players somewhere after the medical directors, clubhouse attendants, trainers, cleaning crew, security guards, bus drivers, flight attendants, grounds crew, spouses and children, coaching staff, umpires, housekeepers, room service runners, contact tracers, the lady who holds the replay phone and the dude who invented Zoom.

Then Fernando Tatis Jr. and Nelson Cruz.

(Also receiving votes.)

The numbers vs. the intangibles

They — the players, not the bus drivers — are among the leaders in one or the other WARs (as are Luis Robert, Manny Machado and Jose Abreu, and Anthony Rendon, Mookie Betts and Mike Yastrzemski, and this is like picking the winner of a corn-growing contest from a box of seeds). Tatis and Cruz bring the added benefit of being separated by 19 years, meaning that in some seasons you’d be able to fit a fully-formed major league baseball player between the two MVPs.

There are, however, two weeks of baseball left, or about a quarter of the season, so the list is incomplete and might yet — and probably will — include Mike Trout, Freddie Freeman, Trea Turner, Juan Soto, Michael Conforto, Trevor Story, Shane Bieber, Jacob deGrom, Yu Darvish, Trevor Bauer, Corey Seager and I’ll stop now. Really, it’s the middle of September and MVP candidates are everywhere. A week ago Trout jumped 73 OPS points in a single day, the sort of thing that’s typically doable in, like, May, when the MVP vote is 4 ½ months away but not September when it’s a ½ month away.

Minnesota Twins' Nelson Cruz celebrates his solo home run against the Kansas City Royals during the fourth inning of a baseball game Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)
Ageless Minnesota Twins slugger Nelson Cruz is having another surprising career year. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

In recent years, ballots would suggest the most difficult part of naming an MVP is choosing one’s favorite WAR. There’s more than one. And that’s fine. There is, of course, a reason for that, in that the best players always seem to have the best WARs, which probably is not a coincidence. If it were, they’d call that stat RBI or something.

Also, mostly, it seems, we’ve threaded out any variables that cannot be quantified, precisely because they cannot be quantified and now everything has to have a number next to it. When it’s between a super supportive and versatile teammate who does a thousand little things to help drive a team — physically and spiritually — to a division title or the guy who hits 45 home runs, dingers get the trophy. It’s cleaner that way, because value means production and not outs or, necessarily, wins or titles or vibes, especially not vibes, as we’ve decided production makes the vibes and not the other way around and what the hell’s a vibe anyway?

So, sure, pretty soon there’ll be a vote to determine the most productive hitters (or, perhaps, pitchers) in each league, and we’ll call them Most Valuable Players, and that’s fine. Somebody will have earned it. Somebody will have showed up for and endured a season that was at best weird and uncomfortable, at worst a little scary, and then posted the league’s best statistics, some of which people are able to calculate themselves.

It’s also like declaring the winner of a 100-yard dash after 37 yards. But that’s where the finish line is this summer, so all anyone can do is run toward that.

This is different though, isn’t it? Beyond the length of the season. Two months ago, hundreds of players across 30 teams left their families and entered into a world crammed into the pages of a protocol manual. They were going to play baseball and they were going to be paid. They also would be subject to constant testing, which probably isn’t so bad once you get used to it, and remains a constant reminder of what could happen. They would live every moment for the benefit — and viability — of the group, tromping from city to city in a pandemic, some watching their kids grow up on Zoom, some chancing pre-existing conditions, some falling ill, some emerging as leaders anyway.

At the end of that we’d be asked to name the best baseball player, the guy who straddled all that and still OPSed a thousand and popped a 3 WAR.

That’s OK. In very trying circumstances, somebody like Fernando Tatis Jr. became a breakout star, and Nelson Cruz kept going, and Freddie Freeman was quietly transcendent, and Mookie Betts took your breath away, and Mike Trout did not blink, and there were plenty of others. They performed.

Where else might there be value?

In the truly and wholly convicted, perhaps. In those who played the season, lived the season, believed that all the days could become something worthwhile, and then dragged a couple dozen guys along with them. In those who helped win baseball games, of course, and also in those who ensured those games would be played, as this season, unlike any other season, would not be played just because it was scheduled to be played.

This summer asked for more. The champion of this summer will have played the best baseball and, likely, committed itself to days upon days upon days of trials and routines and efforts that may or may not have amounted to even one more baseball game.

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 17: Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu (79) reacts to an infield single during the MLB game between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers on August 17, 2020 at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
MVP? In the pandemic-altered 2020 season, White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu has cases for both his production and his leadership (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Who is MVP material in 2020?

Ultimately, there were great players who put up the best numbers. There also were players who helped make those numbers possible. Some were the same guy.

So, I asked around. Take the numbers, I said, and then rub in the abstraction that is value to a group of men whose baseball seasons, whose very health, could have ended with one or two selfish choices.

I got Jose Abreu in Chicago. I got Dom Smith in New York.

I asked for a player whose conscience becomes the team’s conscience.

I got Matt Olson in Oakland, Cavan Biggio in Toronto and Luke Voit in New York.

I asked for the player whose absence makes it all wobble and rattle.

I got Shane Bieber in Cleveland and Tyler Glasnow in Tampa and J.T. Realmuto in Philadelphia.

I asked about the most difficult of times, and who stood up then.

I got Mike Yastrzemski in San Francisco, Jason Heyward in Chicago and Miguel Rojas in Miami.

I asked whose raised eyebrow played the hardest.

I got Clayton Kershaw in Los Angeles, Freddie Freeman in Atlanta, Nelson Cruz in Minnesota and Adam Wainwright in St. Louis.

I asked who led.

I got superstars and union player reps (Zack Britton in New York, Glasnow) and 25-year-olds (Biggio) and 40-year-olds (Cruz) and too-close-to-calls (Charlie Morton and Willy Adames with Glasnow in Tampa, Jake Diekman and Liam Hendriks with Olson in Oakland, Justin Turner with Kershaw in Los Angeles). I got guys who could be MVPs and guys who almost certainly could not be.

I did not get the medical directors, clubhouse attendants, trainers, cleaning crew, security guards, bus drivers, flight attendants, grounds crew, spouses and children, coaching staff, umpires, housekeepers, room service runners, contact tracers, lady who holds the replay phone and dude who invented Zoom.

I got the rest.

(Also receiving votes.)

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