Alex Gordon Getty

Alex Gordon and the M-V-P chants

45 Comments

Every time Alex Gordon steps to the plate at Kauffman Stadium these days, fans chant, “M-V-P, M-V-P,” which is fascinating on so many levels. Let’s start with the most basic of those.

At the moment, Alex Gordon is hitting .281 with 16 home runs and 59 RBIs. Nothing at all about that looks MVPish. He is not in the American League Top 10 in any offensive category, save hit by pitch. On this Royals team he does not lead the team in batting average, he’s tied with Omar Infante (yeah, Omar Infante) in RBIs, and he has just one more home run than Mike Moustakas, who spent time in the minor leagues this year.

Still, people chant “M-V-P.” And they SHOULD chant M-V-P. Why? Well, I think it really comes down to three reasons:

1. The Royals are having their best season in a generation and what fun is that if you don’t have an MVP candidate?

2. Nobody else on the team is even a remotely viable MVP candidate, save one unusual case.

3. WAR.

We’ll get to WAR in a minute … let’s start with more traditional numbers. Look around baseball these days. Here is a potentially fascinating statistic: There’s a chance this will be the first full season in baseball history without either a 40-home run hitter or a 20-game winner.

Think about that for a second: First time ever. Now, it might not turn out – Nelson Cruz, Chris Carter, Jose Abreu and Giancarlo Stanton all have a shot at 40 homers, and Clayton Kershaw among others might win 20 games. But the fact this is even a possibility as we enter September speaks to how dramatically the game has changed. The numbers that used to define baseball are disappearing on us. There are no more .350 hitters. Twenty game winners are almost extinct. And now, with the dramatic drop in power across baseball, home runs are becoming rare events. The home run rate across baseball is lower than at any point since before the 1994 strike. Kansas City, in particular, is going to have to hustle just to get to 100 home runs as a team.

With those sorts of numbers down all over baseball, we need to look a little deeper to find our MVP candidates. There are players – Abreu, Trout, Stanton and Victor Martinez – who are putting up what you would call traditional MVP type numbers. They’re all hitting in the general range of .300, are on pace for 30-plus homers and 100 plus RBIs. But those are the only four, as of right now, who are good bets to get there, which is crazy.

In 2001, there were TWENTY EIGHT players who hit .at least 290, 30, 100.

In 2006, there were 15 of those players.

In 2011, there were nine of those players.

Last year, there were three.

This year, I’m guessing there will be four – so the very idea of MVP numbers is changing on us. This is one reason why I think Gordon is getting the MVP chant. In another year, his .281, 16, 59 through August would look utterly pedestrian. In a season like this, those numbers are more valuable than you might thing..

And … the Royals have to chant M-V-P for SOMEBODY. When a team potentially breaks through for the first time, there’s just a powerful need to believe that one great player led the way. This has long been true in MVP voting. Zoilo Versalles famously won the award in 1965 with ordinary numbers because the Twins won the pennant more or less out of nowhere. When the Angels reached the postseason for the first time in team history in 1979, Don Baylor won the MVP award as a DH with the 10th best slugging percentage in the league. When the Atlanta Braves went from worst to first in 1991, Terry Pendleton won the award with somewhat drab MVP numbers. The same was true for Jimmy Rollins in 2007, when his Phillies made the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade.*

*In all four of those cases, a teammate –  Tony Oliva in 1965, Bobby Grich in 1979, Tom Glavine in 1991 and Chase Utley in 2007 – almost certainly had better years than the MVP. Just kind of interesting.

This is one of the absurdities of  the MVP award – baseball teams do not win because of one player. This is why I have become a pretty strict literalist when it comes to MVP voting – the MVP to me is the best player. Period. I no longer care at all how his team did — not for that individual award. Mike Trout was the best player in baseball the last two years and the Angels were irrelevant. This year, he’s the best player in baseball and the Angels are winning. He should be (and should have been) the MVP all three years.

Still, he Royals are winning, and so they must have someone to shout MVP for, and there really isn’t anyone else, certainly not in the lineup. Gordon has created 17 more runs than anyone else on the team because he leads the team in doubles, homers, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. It should be said his slugging percentage is a somewhat plain looking .455. It is still 40 points higher than anybody else in the lineup.

I mentioned one other player who could (and I suspect will) get some MVP consideration — that’s reliever Wade Davis. There’s precedents for relievers having absurd statistical seasons getting a lot of MVP love (and, in the case of Jim Konstanty, Willie Hernandez and Dennis Eckersley, actually getting the away). Davis is having an absurd statistical season. He went 38 straight appearances without giving up an extra base-hit, which is truly absurd. He has not given up a run since June. The trouble with Davis is that he will probably throw just 70 innings this year, which just isn’t much and (I suspect) willl prevent people from giving him the award. That said, I’m wagering he gets some real MVP consideration, especially if he keeps pitching like this through September. On the sabermetric side, he does lead all relievers in baseball with 3.2 WAR.

Anyway Davis doesn’t pitch enough to get all the M-V-P chants, so the focus is on Gordon even if his basic offensive numbers inspire yawns.

That’s where Wins Above Replacement come in.

Gordon’ is second in the major leagues in Fangraphs WAR – that would be AHEAD of Giancarlo Stanton. He’s fourth in the American League in Baseball Reference WAR. How is this possible? Well, he plays spectacular defense in left field (and it really is special defense). He’s also an excellent base runner. We’ve already pointed out that his offensive numbers, in context, are better than they look. When you add it all up WAR style – you get a legitimate MVP candidate.

Or do you? This, to me, becomes a more and more interesting question. I’m working on a piece now about the statistical revolution in baseball, and among the statistical people I’m speaking with there seems to be a growing concern that we as a so called “advanced-statistics community” are beginning to make many of the same leaps of faith and broad generalizations that doomed the old statistics. I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but it’s fair to say there’s a growing sense among some that WAR is becoming the advanced version of RBIs or batting average or pitcher wins – that is to say that people, to quote Vin Scully, are using WAR the way a drunk using a lamppost, for support and not illumination. Heck, I might be the Foster Brooks of WAR.

So, I’m not sure of the answer on that one. I’m a huge Alex Gordon fan and have been for some time. I really do believe he has been one of the most underrated players in baseball because he does a lot of things well. I think he SHOULD be an MVP candidate. That said, is his defense in left field SO GOOD that it makes up for the 25 or so more runs that Jose Abreu and Victor Martinez are creating offensively? Can you even BE that good in left field to make up such a gap?

WAR says yes. I want to believe it’s true. So I believe WAR.

That’s definitely support and not illumination.

Anyway, Gordon is the Royals best every day player, and if the Royals continue this miracle he will get a lot of MVP support. I don’t think he will win, but there’s a month yet to go — and he’s in the conversation. He will hear a lot of M-V-P chants. And that’s fantastic because an M-V-P chant at Kauffman Stadium in late August sounds to me a lot like Springsteen live.

READ MORE JOE POSNANSKI PIECES ON HBT

Jose Fernandez was in the middle of baseball’s culture war

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 11:  Jose Fernandez #16 of the Miami Marlins and Brian McCann #16 of the Atlanta Braves have words after a solo home run by Fernandez in the sixth inning during a game  at Marlins Park on September 11, 2013 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Leave a comment

A lot has been written since news of Jose Fernandez’s death broke early Sunday morning. Fernandez will be remembered fondly for the way he seemed to never stop smiling and for the way he competed on the field. Having already won the 2013 National League Rookie of the Year, it seemed inevitable that Fernandez would one day win a Cy Young Award. We were truly watching one of the best arms of this era and that was paired with a terrific personality. The combination is quite rare and the sport was made so much better in the four years during which Fernandez pitched.

Fernandez attempted to defect to the United States four times and was sent to prison after each of the first three unsuccessful attempts. On the fourth attempt, his mother was thrown overboard in choppy waters and Fernandez dove in to rescue her. Fernandez risked everything to come to the United States to play baseball and seek a better life for himself and his family. If anyone had a right to tell other players to “play the game the right way” or to “respect the game,” it would have been Fernandez. But he never did. He played every game like it was his first. He savored his time out on the baseball field.

When Fernandez somehow snagged a Troy Tulowitzki line drive, Tulo stopped in his tracks to ask him, “Did you catch that?” Fernandez, flashing his trademark smile, replied, “Yeah, I did.”

When Giancarlo Stanton hit a monster home run to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth inning, Fernandez cheered like he had just won the lottery.

Most memorably, Fernandez took a moment to take in his first career home run, hit on September 12, 2013 against the Braves. He lifted a 1-0 Mike Minor change-up for a no-doubt home run just in front of the Clevelander sign beyond the left field fence at Marlins Mark. Fernandez took his time circling the bases and, as he passed third base, Chris Johnson chirped at him. Catcher Brian McCann confronted him at home plate and shortly thereafter, both benches emptied. Even during this tense moment, Fernandez was seen smiling. In the dugout, he had an expression on his face that seemed to say, “Really?”

Fernandez was not the most central figure in baseball’s culture war, but as one of baseball’s best and most well-known players, he was certainly in the middle with the likes of Yasiel Puig, Jose Bautista, and Carlos Gomez. The war was about baseball’s “unwritten rules” which were devised by a homogeneous group of players decades ago and still followed today, still a rather homogeneous group. Newer players, an increasingly diverse group, were expected to adhere to these rules despite the fact that many of them played the game in a culture where emotion and exuberance were a normal part of the game.

Fernandez’s death should be a reminder that, when all is said and done, baseball is just a game and we’re meant to have fun with it. He was the embodiment of fun on the baseball field. In his memory, players should admire their handiwork on the field. Flip a bat after hitting a foul ball, like Odubel Herrera. Bat flip a fly out, like Puig. Players should laugh and pump their fists and cheer as if they might never have a chance to do it again. Because they might not.

Jose Fernandez was remarkable on and off the field

JUPITER, FL - FEBRUARY 24: Pitcher Jose Fernandez of the Miami Marlins poses for photos on media day at Roger Dean Stadium on February 24, 2016 in Jupiter, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jose Fernandez’s love for baseball was born in Santa Clara, Cuba. It was there, alongside childhood friend and St. Louis Cardinal Aledmys Diaz, that he devoted hours to makeshift games of baseball. Often alone, often without a teammate, a playing field, or even a baseball, Fernandez would spend hours lobbing baseball-sized rocks in the air, hitting them with sticks, and circling imaginary bases.

The dream was to play in the Cuban National Series, a 16-team league that formed when the original Cuban League disbanded in 1961. When Fernandez became a teenager, however, his stepfather, Ramon Jimenez, defected to the United States. It took Jimenez 13 attempts before he made a successful escape, and soon he sent for his wife and children. Whatever baseball aspirations Fernandez had took a backseat to his own treacherous journey from Cuba to Florida.

After two unsuccessful attempts and two months in a Cuban prison, 15-year-old Fernandez, his mother, and his stepsister tried again. The voyage was tumultuous; at one point, Fernandez’s mother fell overboard. Fernandez dove in after her and helped her swim 30 yards back to the boat. It took another month and change before Fernandez was settled in Florida with his family, and from there, his baseball career appeared to flourish overnight. He enrolled in Braulio Alonso High School and pitched during two championship runs with the Florida Class 6A state champions, working a 13-1 record and 2.85 ERA in his senior year with two no-hitters.

By 2011, several weeks before his 19th birthday, Fernandez was selected by the Miami Marlins in the first round of the MLB draft. His ascension through the minor leagues was even more remarkable. In his first season with Single-A Greensboro, Fernandez contributed six innings of a combined no-hitter, pitched to a combined 1.75 ERA and 158 strikeouts between Greensboro and Advanced-A Jupiter, and was distinguished as the preeminent Marlins minor league pitcher of the year.

If the transition from Miami’s minor league circuit to the big league stage was a rocky one, Fernandez hid it well. He debuted with the Marlins on April 17, 2013, holding the Mets to five innings of one-run ball and striking out eight of 19 batters. Only six major league pitchers under 21 years old had struck out at least eight batters during their major league debut; at 20 years old, Fernandez was the seventh.

The rest of his rookie season was no less groundbreaking. Fernandez worked a 2.19 ERA, second only to Clayton Kershaw’s 1.83 mark among qualified starting pitchers, appeared in his first All-Star Game, was named Rookie of the Month in two consecutive months, and capped his year with a staggering 4.1 fWAR. The Marlins didn’t just find their next ace in Fernandez; they found one of the best starting pitchers of the decade.

This isn’t to say that Fernandez was perfect — no player is. Reports surfaced in November 2015 that the 23-year-old hurler was working under a strained relationship with the Marlins’ brass, refusing to adhere to dugout protocol and asking president of baseball operations Michael Hill when he would be traded. Per Andy Slater of slaterscoops.com, the higher-ups in the Marlins’ organization weren’t the only ones frustrated with their star pitcher. Casey McGehee reprimanded Fernandez for showing up late to the clubhouse, and unnamed players also expressed their hope that Fernandez would struggle on the mound in future starts as a consequence for his arrogant behavior.

Following the report, several players stepped forward in Fernandez’s defense. According to a report by FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, the worst criticism levied at Fernandez was that he occasionally acted his age. (Brian McCann, who confronted Fernandez in a benches-clearing brawl after the rookie’s first career home run, might have agreed.) Others, like right-handers Dan Haren and Tom Koehler, vocalized their support for the pitcher despite any underlying tension surrounding his potential departure.

Whether or not the rumors had merit, Fernandez was spared the chopping block during his lengthy recovery process in 2014 and 2015 after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow. In 2016, he again proved his dominance on the mound. Through 186 ⅔ innings, the 24-year-old posted 16 wins, a staggering 12.49 K/9 rate, a 2.86 ERA and career-high 6.2 fWAR. It should have been just the second outstanding season of a lengthy career; instead, it was his last.

In the wake of today’s tragedy, it is difficult to dwell on Fernandez’s professional accomplishments. We know that he was more than the sum of his innings pitched in Miami, more than a feel-good story or a testament to the resilience of other players who defected from their home countries in pursuit of a better life. By all reports, he was a man of incredible courage, a cherished son and grandson, and a remarkable talent on the field. His life, as with any other, should be valued not for what he did or did not do, but simply because he existed.