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Analyzing DJ LeMahieu’s chances to win AL MVP

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Jose Abreu and Jose Ramirez provide stiff competition.

American League Division Series Game 3: New York Yankees v. Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Major League Baseball announced on Monday night that DJ LeMahieu was a finalist for the 2020 AL MVP award, and it’s well-deserved. In many aspects, LeMahieu was even better in 2020 than he was in his incredible 2019 season, when he finished fourth in the voting. Now with the chance to add some serious hardware to his trophy shelf, LeMahieu’s stock continues to rise ahead of his free agency.

LeMahieu is opposed by two other supremely worthy candidates for the award in Jose Abreu of the White Sox and Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez. They also had outstanding seasons, and each outperformed LeMahieu in one specific aspect. Is that one advantage enough to earn votes, or will LeMahieu’s balance and overall statistical dominance pay off?

I already explained a few weeks ago why LeMahieu was the Yankees’ team MVP this year, and his league MVP case is largely similar. The highlights:

In an MLB season marked by adversity, uncertainty and inconsistency, it should come as no surprise that LeMahieu was as rock-steady as ever. LeMahieu won the batting title, hitting an incredible .364 while notching 71 hits in 50 games. He also showed off his power again, finishing second on the team in doubles and home runs with 10 each. His overall offensive contributions resulted in an outstanding .364/.421/.590 triple slash, 1.011 OPS, 177 OPS+ and 2.5 WAR.

LeMahieu also showed his value on defense by playing three infield positions adequately, and the team just wasn’t the same without him. During a 10-day stretch on the injured list with a sprained thumb, the team went just 2-7.

While that shows the impact he has on the team, it also brings up another potential detractor to his case – LeMahieu did miss some time this year. He still played in 50 of a possible 60 games, which is equivalent to 135 games out of a full 162. Mike Trout just won MVP last year with 134 games played, and while 50 is obviously not equivalent to 134, it’s proportional in the shortened season. LeMahieu was so good in those 50 games he played in that it shouldn’t dock him too much.

Problem is, Abreu and Ramirez were iron men. Abreu didn’t miss a game, while Ramirez only missed two. They also seriously performed when on the field. Abreu had an incredible 60 RBI in 60 games, thanks to 19 home runs. He also was an above-average defensive first baseman by OAA and DRS, which restores some of the value in MVP voting that is lost by being a first baseman, a less grueling position to field and historically one of great hitters. Meanwhile, Ramirez hit for more power than LeMahieu, while still getting on base at an elite .394 clip. He drove in 46 runs and posted the highest WAR of the candidates.

Here’s how the nominees compare across the board, per FanGraphs:

Abreu has the lead in HR and RBI, Ramirez was solid across the board and has the all-important WAR lead, while LeMahieu has the most hits, the best triple slash, and the best wRC+. It promises to be a close race, and I see it coming down to LeMahieu and Abreu. The more analytics-inclined voters may go LeMahieu, while old-school HR and RBI-based voters will probably choose Abreu. That said, there’s a lot of baseball people who love LeMahieu’s contact ability and defensive versatility, so who knows. If you took any of these players off their teams, all teams would stand to lose 2-4 games.

If I was a voter, I objectively see LeMahieu as having the best overall season of the candidates. Statistically, he was the top hitter of the three, while playing three positions in the field and even dealing with a minor injury is worthy of the vote. The field is stacked, but the conditions may be right for the Yankees’ first MVP since Alex Rodriguez in 2007.