We've come to the point with the Cleveland Indians where it's hard to argue their best player is anyone other than Francisco Lindor.
As smooth as Michael Brantley at his best is, or as cool as Jason Kipnis, or as rock solid as Corey Kluber has been, Lindor's ability to exceed expectations is repeatedly blasting each any every box of expectation people try to place him in. I personally stated on a podcast about two years ago that I didn't think he could ever win a Most Valuable Player award, simply because his type of player had a harder time. I think it's time to amend that.
In fairness to my own previous ignorance, MVP is generally not an award that ends up in the hands of a "very good at it all" kind of player like Lindor. Mike Trout is that, but he’s gotten it because he's excellent at everything, not just very good. If you look back to 2000, the American League MVP has gone to a corner infielder outfielder ten times, a pitcher once, two shortstops, a catcher that hit like a first baseman, and Mike Trout. This isn't to say any of these guys were defensive slouches — Alex Rodriguez won it three times and was a fantastic defensive third baseman for two of them, same with Josh Donaldson. But Miguel Cabrera twice, Josh Hamilton, Jason Giambi and Justin Morneau all were MVP for their bat. Flashy stats, and generally dominating at the plate are the quickest path to winning the award, or have been historically.
The good news for Lindor is that the voting block that picks MVP is increasingly friendly to his type of impact. While there are years where the voters will lean more traditionally depending on random chance, each season that passes new BBWAA members come on that are analytically bent, and older writers also give in to the changing of the tides. So there's a chance.
As for what he'd have to do to win, that gets a little tricky. He would still have to have at least very good offensive numbers. Defensively he's golden, just behind Andrelton Simmons in terms of best glove in the majors. You could even convince yourself he'll get better. Simmons's best defensive season, at least according to FanGraphs, was his age 23 season, which Lindor won't see until 2018. Lindor is athletic as they come, but there's little things that can make you better as you gain more veterancy. From positioning to simply seeing more balls and getting more of a hang of the Indians pitchers so he knows what they’re likely to throw, all these little puzzle pieces can help him improve. Athleticism peaks early, and it helps drive his glove. But baseball wisdom is forever.
But we need to talk about offense. Lindor has already outstripped expectations people had for him, racking up a .301/.356/.454 slash line since coming up in 2015. If he holds that line for the foreseeable future along with his flashy and fundamentally sound defense, he’ll be a superstar for years to come. But for an MVP he's going to have to be better than just that. He needs to do something special.
The good news is, he's still so young, and has some room to grow, one would think. It's not a perfect match, but looking to another young infielder who broke out as a slugger leads us to Manny Machado. Granted, Machado's bat was always supposed to be great, and he's got size on Lindor that suggests more power. It’s the same reason people are so excited about Carlos Correa long-term. Between his age 20 and 21 seasons, Machado hit a combined .282/.317/.432 before exploding with a .286/.359/.502 line with 35 dingers when he was 22. That's why he's an MVP candidate for the Baltimore Orioles — the offense. His defense isn't as strong as Lindor (though, still spectacular as he's demonstrated in the WBC), but the bat became something special.
It's not right to expect that out of Lindor. At the same time though, he's plainly got power. In case you missed it, he did this in the WBC this month. Literally out of the stadium. He hit another one that night, too. He's already demonstrated more power than expected in his young career, along with a steadily improving eye (walk rate climbed more than two points from the previous season to 8.2 percent in 2016) and he's striking out less. His power output did drop some, leading to his 112 wRC+ when a year prior it was 162, but that could also be his version of a sophomore slump as he learns the league. If that's the case, good things could be in the offing.
A better offensive example of who to map Lindor over might actually be Dustin Pedroia, who won an MVP back in 2008. Like Lindor, Pedroia is a tiny man of the infield. He won an MVP on the back of an absurd number of doubles, beating the hell out of the Green Monster, secret power, and a soft field that year. Lindor has already displayed surprising power, both with his 15 home runs last year and blasting one to the Pacific, and he’s got the Mini Monster to attack in Progressive Field. He just has to contend with the existence of Mike Trout, and to a lesser extent, Mookie Betts. Voter fatigue can take care of Trout, and if the Boston Red Sox get bad for a year when Lindor is spectacular, then everything aligns.
It's hard to judge what an MVP season would look like for Lindor. If he keeps his same sort of offensive profile though, something akin to what Pedroia did would make sense. Pedrioa’s MVP season was .326/.376/.498 with 52 doubles and he led the league in hits. Lindor had 182 hits last year along with 30 doubles. It would take some luck, one of those neat high-BABIP seasons players run into now and again where everything just happens to fall for them. There is one other pathway though.
We've heard of late about a sort of "fly ball revolution" in baseball. A shift in how batters attack the ball has helped JD Martinez and Josh Donaldson flourish, among others, and could be a culprit in the burst in home runs we saw last year. As JD Martinez so lightly put it, from the FanGraphs post earlier this month:
“People talk to me and I tell them straight up. I don’t bullshit,” Martinez said. “In the cage, I talk about it all the time. I’m not trying to hit a fucking line drive or a freaking ground ball. I’m trying to hit the ball in the air. I feel like the ball in the air is my strength and has a chance to go anywhere in the park. So why am I trying to hit a ground ball? That’s what I believe in.”
In general, ground balls have a higher BABIP than fly balls by a few points because they can squirt through the infield, but it's hard to do any real damage with them. They turn into singles. That's no fun. By getting loft on the ball, you get more of a chance to hit doubles, triples, and home runs. The wOBA (weighted on-base average, a number that acts as a better measure of offensive production, and part of calculating wRC+) on grounders is about .220. On fly balls it's .335.
Lindor has hit about half his batted balls on the ground in his career. The thinking here is, if Lindor could flip his GB/FB ratio and maintain the above average exit velocity he's shown (league average is about 89 mph, he sits in the low 90s) that could turn that 15 homers into 20, and that 30 doubles into 40. Just one little tweak — or in this recent case of Yonder Alonso changing his mental approach just thinking differently — that's all it takes. Based on our old friend Small Sample Size, we can judge from two home runs in five hits with the WBC and the two doubles in six hits in spring training, an adjustment has probably been made. Or not. We have to wait and see.
We've seen a shift the last half decade or so that makes baseball value more athletic, multi-skilled players. That is Lindor to a tee. Where once he was going to be a great glove and enough bat, he's increasingly proving to be something much more incredible. There’s a glimmer of generational talent in him. Whether or not it results in an MVP is immaterial. He's spectacular. But the hardware is not out of reach. That's exciting.