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José Ramírez still has work to do in AL MVP race

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Leading the league in WAR is fun, but it doesn’t automatically make José Ramírez the AL MVP

Minnesota Twins v Cleveland Indians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Narratively speaking, José Ramírez could not have picked a better time to get hot for the Cleveland Indians.

Through the fun of cherry-picking, Ramírez has 19 hits in his last 43 plate appearances. Seven of those are home runs, four are doubles, and he has walked two and struck out four times. He has at least one hit in all but one game dating back to Sept. 11 and he has multiple hits in all but two games. No one in that span can top his 313 wRC+ and .463/.488/1.073 slash. He’s a man on a mission to single-handedly carry his team’s offense into the postseason.

José is the hottest player in the game down the stretch — but does that make him a Most Valuable Player by MLB’s standards? If I want to avoid being a hypocrite and stick to my personal definition of an MVP (because there is no true definition of an MVP), I would have to say no. Not yet at least.

Before you close this post and cut up all your Let’s Go Tribe fleece blankets and burn your Let’s Go Tribe jerseys, allow me to explain myself.

First and foremost, to me, the MVP award should strictly mean the best player in baseball. Sure, if you want to picture the Indians offense without José Ramírez you might vomit blood, but that doesn’t necessarily make him the league’s best player. This is why I — and most others — have always been on board with Mike Trout winning MVP awards year after year despite one playoff appearance since he debuted in 2011. An MVP is the league’s best player. Period.

Is that player current American League WAR leader José Ramírez? Maybe, maybe not — but not because he leads the league in WAR.

To put it simply: Looking at a WAR leaderboard and proclaiming the top player as the MVP doesn’t work. It’s not what WAR was made for, and it doesn’t paint an accurate picture.

This is a hill of complaining that I’ve stood on a lot on Twitter and I’m willing to do it again here. In-season WAR leaderboards are at best silly and at worst completely misleading and inaccurate. WAR is, by design, a very rough estimation of a player’s skill compared to peers at that position. It’s not in the same vein as say, wRC+, where a 101 wRC+ batter is 1% better than a 100 wRC+ player. An extra 0.1 WAR is virtually nothing; a rounding error.

WAR was designed to compare players across entire generations in a very general sense. You can look at a 6-win player in 2019 and a 6-win player in 1964 and accurately say they were both generally All-Star caliber players. If the 2019 player has a WAR of 6.6 and the 1964 player has a WAR of 6.2, that doesn’t necessarily mean the 2020 player is any better. Because how in the world would you actually tell, given how much the game has changed in that span? But a larger, multi-win gap can probably tell you the difference between 2019 Mookie Betts and 1964’s Ron Fairly. It’s a dozen steps above anecdotal evidence based on which games you happened to watch, but it’s not a strict, down-to-the-decimal measurement of anything over a full season, much less a truncated one.

Part of José’s high WAR this season comes from the fact that third base is led by three absolute superstars in himself, Manny Machado, and Anthony Rendon followed by a steep drop-off before you get to the likes of Rafael Devers and Kyle Seager. In terms of WAR, José gets the benefit of being leagues better than any replacement third baseman. This is fantastic news for the Indians, who have a superstar at a position mostly void of superstars. It’s fantastic news for Indians fans, who get to watch José Ramírez be José Ramírez every night. But does it mean that he’s instantly better than a first baseman worth 0.3 fewer WAR?

José’s WAR also benefits from his solid base-running and defense, which certainly pass the eye and helmet-flying test. But in WAR’s calculation, batting runs, baserunning runs, and fielding runs are all credited equally. That’s well an good over several seasons, but the problem is we’re still learning how accurate (or inaccurate) these defensive numbers are. One thing we know for sure is that they are not that accurate in a single season — or, again, much less so in a shortened one.

Turning away from the misapplication of WAR and onto something more solid like wRC+, José doesn’t rank quite as highly. His early-season struggles have held him back looking at the whole picture, but his torrid streak in the last few weeks has him 8th in the AL with a 156 wRC+. It’s not a huge gap between him and fourth-place Tim Anderson (who, by the way, still has to face Indians pitching three more times). But Nelson Cruz, Jose Abreu (again, has to face the Indians), and DJ LeMahieu have been upwards of 20% better offensively than Ramírez. Luke Voit doesn’t have the advanced metrics on his side (161 wRC+), but he leads the league with 21 home runs and plays for a fairly popular team.

Continuing his current pace through the end of the season would likely put him close to those league leaders (his wRC+ was 120 on Sept. 10) — and maybe his defense and base-running do put him above the others regardless? It’s a fun conversation to have, because that’s the fun of the MVP races. But just brace yourself because José probably won’t win the AL MVP and that’s perfectly fine. He’ll get votes, and that’s not absurd either.

Just, you know, enjoy him. He’s the GOAT, no matter what some silly award says.