Throughout their “storied” history, the Seattle Mariners franchise has only twice seen one of their players voted as the American League Most Valuable Player (they’ve never had an NL MVP winner, but that’s a little more excusable). Ken Griffey Jr. was the first M to claim the league’s top individual honor, which he did after a 1997 season where he hit .304/.382/.646. Ichiro Suzuki was the 2001 MVP after debuting in MLB with a .350/.381/.457 line. Aaaaaaand that’s it. Nobody before, nobody after.
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Nelson Cruz is currently in the midst of his first season with the Seattle Mariners. He’s hitting .324/.389/.604 through 111 games. His 178 wRC+, if it hold up over the next two months, will go down as the second-best offensive season in Mariners history. It’s also the second-highest mark in the AL right now, behind only Mike Trout‘s 180. It’s been a remarkable season that none of us are likely to ever forget.
Trout is the prohibitive MVP favorite, the game’s best player once again leading the league in just about every category. But his team’s once again only on the periphery of the playoff race, which could open things up a bit. Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado have been excellent for AL East contenders, and Lorenzo Cain is leading the Royals into what looks like an amazing new era. But for all that the competitors have done, it should be noted that Cruz has easily outhit them all – in an extreme pitcher’s park, no less.
Nelson Cruz plays for a fourth-place team that has a very real chance of ending the year as a last-place team. The MVP has historically been an individual award with serious team-based complications, and for this reason alone Cruz is unlikely to get much ballot support. But the question is still worth asking – is Nelson Cruz a legit MVP candidate? Does he deserve to take home some votes?
Cruz is the second-leading hitter in the AL by wRC+, a catch-all park-adjusted hitting statistic where 100 is league average and 178 is 78% better than league average. The only guy who’s been better than Cruz is the guy who’s been the best player in baseball for the last four years. You could say that Trout is just being Trout, whereas Cruz is doing something truly unbelievable. What should voters want to recognize and reward – typical or atypical? The latter, you’d hope.
Yes, wRC+ adjusts for Safeco Field’s insane pro-pitcher park factors, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give Cruz extra credit for running a literal .604 slugging percentage with the Seattle Mariners. The last player to slug over .600 while playing half his games in Safeco Field? That’d be Alex Rodriguez in 2000. He’s also the only player to ever slug over .600 as a Mariner during the Safeco era. What Cruz is doing isn’t unprecedented, but it is something that has only been done once before.
Seattle vs. Anaheim is a case of two pitcher-friendly run environments, but it’s safe to say Seattle is a worse place to hit. Trout’s disadvantage in Angel Stadium is worse than Cruz’s at Safeco Field. The difference in their adjusted batting lines is two percentage points. That’s hardly a differene. Cruz and Trout have essentially been offensive equals, though Cruz has been the one of the two who’s doing something that hasn’t been done since the steroids era.
Cruz has a very strong case to be named the AL MVP – if you only look at his offensive production. The Mariners factor probably shouldn’t matter, but in reality it does since the BBWAA doesn’t like rewarding good players on bad teams. Plus, there’s the whole issue of defense to be considered. Cruz’s range has prevented him from getting to a crazy amount of batted balls that a defensively-competent right fielder should be able to field. He’s been a -16.8 in the field, whereas Trout has been -almost exactly league average (with his share of flashy home run robberies, no less).
Take defensive play into consideration, as the WAR statistic does, and Cruz drops from second in the league to seventh, trailing all-around stars Trout, Donaldson, Machado, Cain, Jason Kipnis, and J.D. Martinez. His 4.2 WAR pales in comparison to Trout’s 6.5. He’s a ways back when looking at the bigger picture, and even moreso considering the disadvantage of playing for the Seattle Mariners.
Is Nelson Cruz likely to win the AL MVP? No, he isn’t. Mike Trout is the top pick, and Josh Donaldson is a strong bet to finish second. But third place isn’t out of the question, and it’s easy to argue that it’d be a well-deserved finish. Plus, maybe the BBWAA is just sick of all this Trout talk and wants to stir things up by giving top honors to a throwback slugger. In which case, congratulations, Nellie. He’s not the favorite, but we’ve seen the award go to the wrong guy before. Maybe this year it’ll go to the right wrong guy.