I don’t intend to get into the whole “you can only have value on a winning team” nonsense you often hear during contested MVP races. Instead, this is a question of whether we care about context neutral numbers or context dependent numbers, whether we care about the cost of the player, or whether playing time matters very much.
Let’s start with the basics. You could probably make a decent case for six Tigers using Wins Above Replacement (via FanGraphs) as a conversation starter. Miguel Cabrera (5.1), Ian Kinsler (5.0), Victor Martinez (4.2), and J.D. Martinez (3.6) are all close enough to be worth discussing among the position players and Max Scherzer (5.4) and Rick Porcello (3.4) come in as the pitchers. The gap between Porcello and Scherzer might seem large, but if you use RA9-WAR, which uses runs allowed instead of FIP as the main component, it’s 5.2 for Scherzer and 3.7 for Porcello.
We know that WAR is context neutral and that it’s an estimate, so if that’s the framework you want to use, it’s probably Cabrera, Kinsler, or Scherzer. None is really better than the other, but you probably favor Scherzer if you’re forced to pick due to prolonged slumps from the hitters.
But you can define value in a few different ways. Among those six players, J.D. Martinez has been about as good on a plate appearance for plate appearance basis and he was also free, so from a cost to production ratio, he’s the off the charts MVP.
So you can make a case for Scherzer. You can make a case for J.D. Martinez. You could easily have made a case for Kinsler if he hadn’t slowed down during the second half and he’s still plenty close enough to the team leader in WAR for you to make a strong argument on his behalf, especially considering how important some of his big defensive plays have been.
Victor Martinez has been the team’s best hitter, so if you don’t care about defense, he’s your man. He’s also been the most consistent of the bunch and has avoided slumping all season long. If you value high quality performance on which you can count, he’s got a terrific case.
Of course, many people care a lot about the timing of your performance, and attach words like “clutch.” Cabrera narrowly leads the team in Win Probability Added (WPA) and Victor Martinez leads the team comfortably in RE24. Although, Cabrera gets the biggest boost moving into RE24 from traditional batting runs.
The case for Porcello probably centers on your belief in stability in the rotation, but if you’re giving it to a slightly less valuable player, that probably still circles back to J.D. Martinez.
Six reasonably good candidates and no obvious winner. It really depends on what you value. If you’re making your best guess for context neutral performance, you might give it to Scherzer. If you care about saving runs on defense, it’s Kinsler. If you care about offense above all, you’re picking Victor Martinez.
Should you value production per dollar or production per PA, J.D. Martinez is a terrific choice. If clutch is more your style, it’s probably Miguel Cabrera who added to his case on Tuesday night.
That’s one of the fun aspects of this particular version of the Tigers. While they don’t have a standout leader like the last few seasons, they have an MVP for everyone. It hasn’t exactly been the most enjoyable season in recent years due to moments of peril and frustration, but there are certainly a lot of performances to like.
If pressed, I’d probably lean on Scherzer as my pick, but I wouldn’t really argue against Cabrera, Kinsler, or either Martinez. Victor Martinez is going to finish highest among the actual voting because offense wins among most BBWAA voters, but you really can’t go wrong.
Neil Weinberg is a Senior Analyst for TigsTown. He is also the Founder of New English D, a contributor to Gammons Daily, the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond the Box Score, and the Site Educator at FanGraphs. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44