As September approaches, the Red Sox remain in playoff contention despite a rotation that was shaky for much of the season, a bullpen that’s struggled of late and a propensity for leaving the bases loaded more often than one would think possible.
One of the key reasons they’re still in the race is an outfielder named Markus Lynn “Mookie” Betts.
Mookie’s recent power surge has generated a lot of MVP buzz. It takes a combination of great numbers and a compelling narrative to earn a player baseball’s most coveted award and Betts has both in spades.
At press time, Mookie was batting .318 with 28 home runs, 19 stolen bases and some remarkable rightfield defense. Fangraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement has him at 6.1, just a hair behind Toronto’s Josh Donaldson and Houston’s Jose Altuve and less than a win behind the Angels’ Mike Trout. Baseball Reference’s version of the stat, which is even more impressed with his defense, has Mookie at 6.8, ahead of Donaldson, but almost a full win behind Trout’s 7.7.
Stats could be used to argue for several candidates. Altuve leads the league in batting average, Trout in on-base percentage, and David Ortiz in slugging percentage. Donaldson has as many homers as Betts and plays similarly great defense at a more demanding position- third base. Trout and Altuve are quality defenders and good baserunners as well.
As narratives go, Mookie’s may be the strongest, at least in August. Over the last 30 days, he’s hit .390 with 10 home runs and 30 runs batted in, including his second three-homer game of the year and two more bombs against the Orioles in what was probably the most important game the Red Sox have played so far this year. During Boston’s recent six-game winning streak, Betts drove in the go-ahead run in three of the six games and scored the game-winner in a fourth. As Mookie goes, so go the Sox, and they’re going in the direction of October baseball.
Trout has better numbers, but he isn’t doing anything he doesn’t do every season, and the Angels are mired in last place- the same spot they would occupy without him. By WAR, Trout has been the best player in the American League every season of his career, but he’s only won the MVP award once, in 2014, the weakest season of his career. That year, the Angels made the playoffs.
Donaldson has been fantastic, and the Blue Jays are in first place, but his candidacy suffers from a shortage of the high-stakes hits that won him last year’s MVP award. Voters need to be blown away to give the award to the same guy twice in a row and the Blue Jays leading the AL East is not the fresh and exciting narrative it was last year, when they surged ahead of the Yankees in August behind Donaldson’s nightly fireworks and never looked back.
Altuve probably represents Mookie’s strongest competition for the hardware. He’s another little guy- 5’6” to Mookie’s 5’9”- known more for speed than power, but surprising the league with an impressive home run count (20) in 2016. He’s first in the American League in hits and batting average, second in on-base and slugging and third in stolen bases. Altuve’s case, though, may be hindered by the Astros’ underperformance, as the heavy favorites to win the AL West haven’t found any traction and are all but eliminated in the division and are hovering at the fringe of the Wild Card race.
A lot can happen over the last five weeks of the season. Perhaps a candidate that hasn’t drawn our attention will build an even more compelling narrative. Making the playoffs is likely the key to Mookie Betts’ MVP chances. A few more clutch home runs against division rivals down the stretch wouldn’t hurt either.
Bryan O’Connor lives in Cumberland with his wife and two baseball-loving kids. For more baseball musings, follow him on Twitter @replevel.