Boston Red Sox rightfielder Mookie Betts has already emerged as one of the brightest stars in the wave of young talent that has crashed on the shores of major league baseball (I know, mixed geological metaphors going there). But in the first several weeks of the season, Mookie has gone to a higher plateau and emerged as the early frontrunner for the American League MVP award.
Betts’ core stat line is a .451 on-base percentage/.823 slugging percentage. His .365 batting average leads the league, as do his 32 runs scored. He’s hit 11 home runs, including three on a Wednesday afternoon when he singlehandledly pushed the Red Sox to a win over Kansas City. His defensive skills are widely lauded as among the best among outfielders and those of us who watch Boston regularly have been able to compile scores of anecdotal evidence at the way he plays the field.
Mookie finished second in the MVP voting in 2016. Last year he slipped to sixth. Nagging injuries weren’t enough to keep him out of the lineup, but they did inhibit his production. The stat line of .344/.459 was good, but not MVP-worthy. This year, coming out of the gates with full health, Betts is setting the pace for this award.
Every statement we make in baseball right now has to be qualified with “but it’s early”, and the MVP is certainly no different. There’s no shortage of viable candidates nipping at Mookie’s heels. Here’s a look at the rest of the AL MVP landscape…
Didi Gregorius (SS, NY Yanks)
Mike Trout (CF, Mike Trout)
Comment: Mookie might be the frontrunner, but Trout is where discussion of this award inevitably returns. In his first five years in the majors, he finished in the top two each time, winning twice. Last year he was limited to 114 games by injuries…and still finished fourth. His team is a little better this time around, so if you’re just waiting for Trout to take the race over, I can’t blame you.
Gregorius had the task of filling Derek Jeter’s shoes in New York and has quietly gotten better each year. He was an excellent defensive shortstop for the moment he stepped into the lineup. He showed flashes at the plate, though never posted big numbers for an entire season. Last October, he stepped into the limelight when he homered twice off Cleveland’s Corey Kluber in a winner-take-all playoff game. This year, Gregorius has become a complete player, with a .419/.717 stat line and his 30 RBI leads the American League.
Jose Altuve (2B, Houston)
Aaron Judge (RF, NY Yanks)
Jose Ramirez (3B, Cleveland)
Francisco Lindor (SS, Cleveland)
Carlos Correa (SS, Houston)
J.D. Martinez (DH, Boston)
Josh Donaldson (3B, Toronto)
Comment: We’re basing this article heavily on today’s numbers, and none of these names would win it based on that. But they’re all one two-week surge away from moving to the top of the list. They all have a track record—Altuve won this award last year, with Judge as the runner-up. Ramirez and Lindor were in the top five. Correa was the third choice of Las Vegas bettors this spring for the honor, while J.D. Martinez is coming off a 45-HR season and stepping into new digs at Fenway Park. Donaldson is somewhat out of place here—injuries have kept him to just 12 games. But he’s due back this week, and the 2015 AL MVP had already put up a nice .352/.457 stat line. If his team stays in the mix with the Red Sox & Yanks all summer, Donaldson will be a big reason why.
Mitch Haniger (RF, Seattle)
Manny Machado (3B/SS, Baltimore)
Comment: Based strictly on numbers, Machado would belong in the group with Trout and Gregorius, as the lead challengers, with his .433/.664 stat line and magnificent defensive skill and multiple spots in the infield. But with the Orioles having crashed and burned, it seems unthinkable that Machado will still be in Baltimore in August. If he’s traded to the National League—where the Dodgers, with Justin Turner and Corey Seager both out would have to be interested—Machado’s AL MVP case goes out the window. Haniger is interesting for another reason—this is his first year getting full-time at-bats and he’s making the most of it, with a .383/.670 stat line, as Seattle looks like a contender. We’ll find out if he—and his team for that matter—are for real.
Jed Lowrie (SS, Oakland)
Comment: If this were all about voting today, Lowrie would be in the top five, with his .396/.618 stat line, his 30 RBI that are tied with Gregorius for the league lead, all the while playing a difficult defensive spot in a stadium that’s very difficult to hit in. If the landscape is still this way in October, I’ll be the first to push Jed’s case on that basis. But let’s be real—he’s 34-years-old and unlike Hanigan, is a known commodity. He gets a hat tip for a nice start and we’ll leave it at that.