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Josh Donaldson: Most Valuable Player?

Josh Donaldson is not going to win the AL MVP. Where does he rank in the race, though?

Donaldson didn't play on Wednesday because he was distracted by a squirrel running by.
Donaldson didn't play on Wednesday because he was distracted by a squirrel running by.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Let's get this out of the way right off the bat: We all know that Josh Donaldson is not going to win the AL MVP award. It's just not going to happen. Miguel Cabrera is going to win because he's the best hitter on the planet, he's on a playoff team, and he's just a handful of homers away from winning his second straight Triple Crown. He's been the favorite since Opening Day, and nothing has changed.

The MVP race isn't an all-or-nothing situation, though. People still care who finishes in second, or in the top five, or who gets votes at all. What I'd like to know is where Josh Donaldson realistically fits into the conversation. Jeff Sullivan has already explored this topic on Fangraphs, as has Jon Heyman on CBS. Now it's my turn.

Let's begin by narrowing down the field to a reasonable "short list." Here are the AL hitters who rank in the top 10 for WAR on both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference; I'm not counting pitchers because there are no 2011 Verlander seasons going on this year which will garner serious support:

Player fWAR fWAR rank bWAR bWAR rank Avg WAR
Mike Trout 10.1 1st 9.1 1st 9.6
Josh Donaldson 7.7 2nd 8.1 2nd 7.9
Miguel Cabrera 7.6 3rd 7.1 4th 7.4
Robinson Cano 6.1 7th 7.7 3rd 6.9
Evan Longoria 6.6 4th 6.2 6th 6.4
Manny Machado 6.2 6th 6.6 5th 6.4
Chris Davis 6.5 5th 6.1 9th 6.3
Shane Victorino 5.6 9th 6.2 6th 5.9
Jacoby Ellsbury 5.8 8th 5.6 10th 5.7
Dustin Pedroia 5.2 10th 6.2 6th 5.7

The first thing to notice is that there are 10 players on this list, which means that both sites agree on the 10 best position players in the AL this year. They both have Joe Mauer in 11th and Adrian Beltre in 12th, as well. Folks who trash on the WAR stat for having two different calculations might want to take note of that phenomenon.

Now that we have our list, let's cut it down a bit. This year's most likely AL playoff teams:

Tampa Bay

Texas is still in the Wild Card race as well, but they don't have any players on this list, so there's no point in adding them here. Since MVP voters have shown that making the playoffs is almost a requirement for entering the conversation, we can safely dismiss Cano, Davis, and Machado. Cano will still get votes for being the best Yankee, and Davis will still receive votes for his 50-homer season, but neither are going to win. Trout is the only one on this list who plays for a losing team, but I'm going to exercise my writer's veto here and keep him in the conversation since both sites list him as far-and-away the best player in the AL -- hey, A-Rod won the award with the last-place Rangers in 2003.

Next, I am going to eliminate the three Boston players. Not only are they at the bottom of the WAR list, but they are almost indistinguishable value-wise and will therefore split any Boston-related votes between them. If one of them stood out above the rest, then perhaps he could gain some traction, but as it is, it's difficult to say which of them was even the most valuable player on his own team. No disrespect to that Boston trio, but they're out.

That leaves us with this list:


OK, I added Davis back on. 52 homers and a 1.000 OPS on a contending team, y'all. He's getting votes.

Let's take a look at a few traditional stats for each of these players, since those are the stats that the voters will be most interested in. I'm also including a purely subjective column based on whether or not the player is likely to be a Gold Glove finalist at his position.

Player Batting Line HR RBI Runs Gold Glove?
Trout .324/.431/.557 26 92 108 Maybe
Donaldson .305/.386/.507 24 92 88 Yes
Cabrera .345/.440/.637 44 137 103 No
Longoria .266/.342/.495 31 82 87 Yes
Davis .285/..368/.631 52 137 102 No

A quick word about each player:

Mike Trout

The most interesting thing about Trout's season is that both sites actually rate him as a negative defender this year. Last year, he led the world in WAR largely on the strength of his defense and baserunning. This year, it's all hitting (and a bit of baserunning). Fangraphs actually rates him as a better offensive player than Cabrera this year based on offensive WAR (thanks to his baserunning), although Cabrera still has him beat in wOBA. His steals are down, but his walks are way up and his strikeouts are down. As Grant Brisbee recently wrote, Trout has actually improved as a hitter this year, which is terrifying. He's going to win an MVP someday, but it won't be this year because his team was terrible around him.

Josh Donaldson

He's been an excellent hitter and defender, but he hasn't been the best hitter at his position (Cabrera) or the best defender (Machado and maybe Longoria). He's clearly the best player on the second-best team in the league, though, and folks are starting to learn who he is.

Miguel Cabrera

That average. Those ribbies. He's put up another monster year, but he's been one of the three worst defenders in the AL according to Defensive Runs Saved (Jed Lowrie has been the worst, d'oh!), and he's been the absolute worst in the league according to UZR. That has to count for something.

Evan Longoria

He was my preseason pick for AL MVP, which is something that I spent about 60 seconds thinking about at the time. He's putting up another good-but-not-eye-popping season, as his average and OBP are a bit low and he doesn't drive in a lot of runs in Tampa's lineup. He's still a world-class defender, although Manny Machado is a lock to win the Gold Glove (Machado is ranked first among all AL defenders at any position in DRS, UZR, and Web Gems, and it's not even close). As usual, he is easily the best player on a Rays team which just won't stop winning.

Chris Davis

52 homers. 1.000 OPS. And the Orioles are good again after being horrifically bad for about 15 years. He deserves consideration. He does not deserve to win, or even make the top three. He's also the only first baseman on this list, and he rates as a below-average defender there in every way.

The rest of this debate comes down to your own subjective feelings on what makes an MVP. Do you have to be on a playoff team? Is it enough just to be on a contending team? Does your team's performance matter at all? Is offense more important than defense? Is defense a consideration at all? What about baserunning?

Here are my thoughts on the matter. Making the playoffs should not be a requirement, but it is a useful tiebreaker -- if there are two roughly equal players, but one of them is on a playoff team and the other is not, then I'm ok with picking the player on the better team (this is why I wasn't that upset when Ryan Braun won over Matt Kemp in 2011). Furthermore, as you can probably guess, I firmly believe that defense should be considered because it is a huge part of a player's value. A run saved is every bit as good as a run driven in, and it is foolish not to factor in that part of the game. In the end, I want to know which players provided the highest overall value. I also assign a small amount of value to a player who was far-and-away the best on his team, although that's more like another tiebreaker in my eyes.

With all of that said, here is what my theoretical MVP ballot would look like:

1. Trout -- He's the best all-around player in the world. End of story.
2. Donaldson -- He's not on Cabrera's level offensively and he's a tick below Longoria defensively, but he's the second-best all-around player on this list. He's good at everything, and great at a couple of things. The A's aren't in first place without him.
3. Cabrera -- He needs every ounce of his mighty bat to make up for his atrocious defense. I can't overlook the fact that he might be the worst defender in the entire league. He's cost his team a lot of runs that way. Interesting question: If Cabrera were merely an average first baseman instead of the worst third baseman, would he rank better on my ballot? And should he receive extra credit for making that switch so that Detroit could add Prince Fielder to their lineup? Perhaps.
4. Davis -- He nearly carried the Orioles to a second straight playoff berth, and those offensive numbers are just a tick below Cabrera's.
5. Longoria -- Someone has to be at the end of the list. The sad part is that he should win both tiebreakers over Davis, since Davis' team didn't make the playoffs and Longoria doesn't have any teammates as good as Machado, and yet I still picked Davis over him. I'm such a hypocrite.

...And here's how I think the voting will play out:

1. Cabrera -- Dingers and ribbies.
2. Davis -- Dingers and ribbies.
3. Donaldson -- First-place team.
4. Trout -- They have to notice him, right?
5. Cano -- Yankees.
6. Longoria -- Rays.
7-10. -- The Boston Trio and Machado, in no particular order
11-12 -- Jason Kipnis and Adrian Beltre, in no particular order

Who do you think will win the MVP this year? Who should win? Will the voters continue to evolve toward looking at more than just dingers and ribbies? How much will Trout's sub-.500 team hurt his standing in the voting? Let's get this debate started early so that we don't spend an entire week arguing over the 25th spot on the postseason roster!