This Red Sox season can’t be definitively described as fun; it’s almost impossible for a 162-game campaign to ever be described as that. There have just been too many ups and downs for that.
The lineup, however, is capital-F Fun. It’s an insanely deep unit that has seemingly had a different member step up each and every game. With this fact, I began wondering over the weekend who the team’s MVP would be if the season ended today.
Does this matter even a little bit in the grand scheme of Boston’s season? Of course not. Does the fact that it doesn’t matter matter? Of course not. It’s a thought experiment from which I’ve developed a very strong opinion: Jackie Bradley Jr. is the MVP of the 2016 Boston Red Sox, at least to this point in the season.
Now, my opinion may be very strong, but I will acknowledge that there are obviously other options. David Ortiz has been on another planet offensively, and Matt Kory outlined how he could win MVP of the league, never mind the team. Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, who will forever be linked to make things easier, have each been outstanding on both sides of the ball and have been major contributors to arguably the scariest top-four of a lineup in the game. One could even make a real case for Steven Wright, who has somehow been the rock atop a rotation that so desperately needed one. Those are all interesting cases, and smart people can, have and will make them. Unfortunately, as Mac so eloquently pointed out on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, smart people get things wrong.
We’ll start with the straight-up numbers, because this is Baseball Prospectus and that’s what we do. The simplest way for a numbers-oriented voter to decide on an MVP is by looking at the WARs. By our own WARP metric, Bradley is second on the team with 3.7 WARP, 0.3 behind Betts. By Fangraphs’ fWAR, he is once again second on the team, this time with 4.0 fWAR and 0.1 behind Betts. By Baseball-Reference’s bWAR, he is once again second on the team with 4.3 bWAR and 0.7 behind Betts. So, to take an average of all three WAR metrics, Bradley has been worth four wins this year (a 6.6-win pace, by the way) and is roughly 0.37 wins behind Betts.
By WAR, Betts is the clear MVP of the team. So, that should be the slam-dunk answer, right? The stat that values everything says Betts has been the best player, and the best player is always the most valuable, right?
Well, sort of, but that assumes any of the WAR metrics are perfect. They are not. Specifically, there are some highly publicized issues with the defensive numbers, particularly in smaller samples. Case-in-point, Bradley has been only slightly above average by BP’s FRAA and Baseball-Reference’s DRS. He’s been very slightly below average by Fangraphs’ UZR. I don’t think I’m stepping out of line to say that those numbers severely underestimate who Bradley is defensively. Despite the metrics, he remains in the conversation for the best defensive outfielder in baseball, and giving him credit for that would significantly boost his case by WAR.
By every measure — TAv, wRC+ and OPS+ — Bradley has clearly been the second best hitter on the team behind Ortiz.
There’s also the bat, which is far more straightforward. By every measure — TAv, wRC+ and OPS+ — Bradley has clearly been the second best hitter on the team behind Ortiz. As I mentioned above, Ortiz has been on another planet with the bat, and trying to put any Red Sox hitter up against him is unfair. Of course, this is where the defense comes up again, because Ortiz obviously doesn’t play it. So, in terms of overall value, if you adjust the defensive numbers to where they (probably) should be, Bradley would more than make up the 0.37 wins he trails Betts by.
With that being said, using straight-up WAR leaderboards is not the most satisfying way to pick MVP, and not everyone will be convinced by that criteria. Luckily, Bradley checks other boxes as well. You want to talk about intangible value to the team, a la Wright’s value as the one consistent starter? Bradley comes up there as well. Heading into the season, we were all reasonably confident that Betts, Bogaerts and Ortiz would produce well at the plate. Additionally, Pedroia and Ramirez were going to play their second-tier roles as well.
The real wild card was Bradley, and him stepping up and turning into one of the league’s better bats is a massive reason this lineup is as scary as it is. Ortiz is still the king of this offense, and will be until the day he retires, but in terms of marginal value compared to preseason expectations, one could argue Bradley is the most valuable.
There is also the narrative argument. Now, this is where I defer to Kory and recognize that no one will trump Ortiz in this regard. You can’t defeat a retiring legend putting up a historic season en route to a playoff race for an organization coming off two dismal seasons. Nonetheless, Bradley has a fine story himself. His road from top prospect to potential flameout to budding star has been jarring and enthralling. It’s still so recent, but it’s also easy to forget how low his stock was. So many — including yours truly — were convinced he would never be more than a late-innings defensive substitute. We write movies about comebacks like this.
Finally, and this might be the most important thing from a fan’s perspective, Bradley is fun as hell. Everyone on this team is fun, but Bradley seems to bring a little extra oomph. There is the outfield celebration dance, for which Betts certainly gets credit as well. Bradley gets extra credit, though, for having the best idea in the club’s brainstorming video. Even when other people are getting awards on TV, Bradley just can’t help but steal the spotlight.
That’s to say nothing of the fun involved with watching him, ya know, play baseball. The way he gets to every ball without even watching its flight path is incredible and something we all take for granted. The same goes for the way he holds runners, and the way he makes the unthinkable look routine.
There’s very little doubt in my mind that Bradley is the team’s MVP right now. Things could certainly change over the final two months, but I can’t see it happening. Bradley has every box checked, from the hard numbers to the intangible value to the entertainment value. This is an inarguable point. #JBJ4MVP.
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