Cleveland Indians: Taking stock of the AL MVP race

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - AUGUST 15: Carlos Santana #41 of the Cleveland Indians celebrates his two run home run in the fourth inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on August 15, 2019 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - AUGUST 15: Carlos Santana #41 of the Cleveland Indians celebrates his two run home run in the fourth inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on August 15, 2019 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

If the season ended today, Carlos Santana would be the MVP of the Cleveland Indians. But where does he rank on the American League ballot?

As we arrive at the dog days of summer, we near the thick of an annual debate throughout the baseball world of what exactly it means to be the Most Valuable Player.

On one side of the fence are those who believe the MVP is simply the best player in his respective league, regardless of how his team ends the regular season. Ever since the arrival of Mike Trout, it’s been pretty easy to determine who holds that title in the AL. But even he has only won the MVP award twice.

The other school of thought is that a team’s success should hold more weight than an individual’s numbers. A player with a 30/100/100 line for a playoff team can be construed as more “valuable” than a guy with a 35/110/115 line for a team that finishes 15 games under .500. (And this is before we take into account advanced metrics and other evaluation tools, but the point remains.)

There honestly is no wrong answer. Trout doesn’t deserve to have it held against him that the Angels have consistently failed to make the playoffs during his time there. And the players whose teams have succeeded can’t help it that they’re not Mike [expletive] Trout, arguably the greatest player to ever live.

But let’s pretend for a minute that there was an MVP award and an MOP (Most Outstanding Player) award, which would completely nullify the need for this debate. Trout could be rightfully voted as the MOP every single year, while the MVP could be awarded to the player who played the most vital role in his team’s overall success.

If such a situation existed in 2019, Cleveland Indians first baseman Carlos Santana would have to be in the running for the AL MVP.

Here are Santana’s numbers in the most meaningful hitting categories, along with their AL ranks: fifth in wRC+ (147), 10th in fWAR (4.3), seventh in home runs (29) and runs scored (89), third in walk rate (17.1%), second in on-base percentage (.414), and fourth in OPS (.962).

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Among the rest of the players on good teams who routinely pop up at the tops of those leaderboards–Rafael Devers, J.D. Martinez, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Alex Bregman, Michael Brantley, Matt Chapman, Marcus Semien–Santana and D.J. LeMahieu are the only ones without a teammate keeping them company.

Take any one of the four Red Sox players out of the equation, and Boston probably isn’t much worse for wear offensively. Take Brantley or Bregman off the Astros, and they still have a lineup full of All-Stars and arguably the game’s best pitching staff. Chapman and Semien are admittedly irreplaceable within the constructs of Oakland’s roster, but again, there are two of them.

To be fair, Francisco Lindor is well on his way up many of these leaderboards despite missing the first month of the season, but Santana stands alone in the most important offensive categories among Indians hitters at the moment. There is something to be said for that on a team that is trying to pull off one of the more improbable divisional comebacks in MLB history.

With the offseason departures of Brantley and Edwin Encarnacion, compounded by the prolonged first-half slump of Jose Ramirez, the middle of the Indians’ lineup could’ve been the downfall of the team. Instead, Santana stepped up and became its guiding light. He has stabilized the heart of the order, his presence in the three-hole allowing for the rest of the lineup to find itself as the season wore on.

Speaking objectively, Santana probably falls outside the top three in MVP voting as of this moment regardless of your criteria. Whether Trout is in the hypothetical scenario or not, it’s hard to argue against what LeMahieu has meant to the Yankees amid their maelstrom of injuries. Bogaerts and Devers are having seasons so remarkable that mere numbers don’t tell the whole story.

But there are more than a month’s worth of games to be played, and Santana isn’t done yet. The fact that he can even be mentioned in the conversation is a testament to what his return in a dreary mid-winter trade has meant to the Indians.

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Santana was supposed to come back and give the Indians quality at-bats somewhere near the top of the order, take walks, strike out minimally, and perhaps hit two dozen home runs. And look at him now: leading a team on its quest for October baseball just months removed from a time when the Phillies couldn’t get rid of him fast enough. Maybe he’s just happy to be home.