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#MVPito: the reasons for a trend

#MVPito: the reasons for a trend

The last time a player led the American League in hits, extra-bases, RBIs, slugging and total bases, Pete Rose was more than 1,000 hits short of catching Ty Cobb in the all-time lead, Rickey Henderson hadn’t started his long-run career of 1,406 stolen bases, and Minnie Miñoso had another season to play in the Majors, although he was already 52 years old.

By the way, the last time a player led the American League in hits, extra-bases, RBIs, slugging and total bases, neither José Abreu (Mal Tiempo, 1987) nor any of the Cubans who are in the Major Leagues today were born.

Perhaps this should not surprise us, since we’re faced with an absolutely unusual event, within the reach of very few mortals. So much so that only four men have achieved it in the centennial history of the young circuit.

Four players since 1901?! Well yes, only four, although wait, we’re making a mistake; that short list has grown only a few hours ago and now has a fifth member.

We’re talking precisely about Cienfuegos-born José Abreu, one of the most consistent hitters in professional baseball in the United States and one of the most responsible for the return to the postseason—12 years later—of the Chicago White Sox.

Impressed? I would be, but if you’re not completely convinced of the magnitude of “Pito’s” performance, I invite you to find out all the details of the historic campaign of the driving force behind his team and a serious candidate for the MVP award that the Baseball Writers’ Association of America gives.

“#MVPito !, #MVPito !, #MVPito!”

When José Abreu signed back with the Chicago White Sox last winter, he was confident that the squad would sooner or later reverse its streak of seven consecutive losing seasons, including three of more than 95 losses.

“Everyone knows we have a talented group of players and I want to help guide them and together turn the franchise into a champion team,” said the Cuban after signing a three-year, $50 million contract in November 2019.

Perhaps many didn’t understand the move of Abreu, who was perfectly able to explore in free agency and land in a squad with a real chance of being a contender in the Majors, thus meeting the important goal of playing his first postseason.

Less than a year later, life has proved him right. The White Sox will be competing in October and the spotlights are pointing directly to the powerful first baseman, the leader of his team in hits (76), doubles (15), home runs (19), RBIs (60), on-base average (.370), OPS (.987)….

That leadership list is considerable and unusually long, which speaks to us of Abreu’s prominence, whose impact was not limited only to his group. For example, let’s review his positions in different sections, taking as reference all the batters in the Majors and then filtering only the American League players.

*Hits: 76 (3rd in MLB-1st in American League)

*Extra bases: 34 (2nd MLB-1st American)

*Home runs: 19 (2nd MLB-2nd American)

*Scored: 43 (10th MLB -3rd American)

*RBIs: 60 (1st MLB)

*Slugging: .617 (4th MLB -1st American)

*Total bases: 148 (1st MLB)

*WAR Positioned players: 2.8 (3rd MLB -2nd American)

We could add other metrics that are going to set the same trend, but let’s stop here. The numbers are compelling. They reflect that Abreu’s bat was relentless, which is even more impressive when we consider that his production was against several of the best pitchers this 60-game season.

You don’t believe it? Well, yes, in case you haven’t noticed, the Cuban got an imposing offensive line facing all the time the pitchers of the central divisions, largely responsible for seven of the 16 teams qualified for the postseason being from that area.

The pitchers of the central groups allowed the fewest runs this season in the Majors: 1,260 in the American League and 1,271 in the National League. In the rest of the divisions, pitchers accepted a minimum of 1,399 runs.

Las muchas formas en que José Abreu está impactando la historia

In general, the context was not the most favorable for Abreu. Suffice it to say that, of the top 20 MLB pitchers in earned run average, WHIP or strikeouts, at least half were regular rivals of the Cuban.

In this list of the center, Shane Bieber, Yu Darvish, Kyle Hendricks, Kenta Maeda, José Berríos, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo, Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff stand out, among whom must be the two winners of the Cy Young in the 2020.

It’s not surprising then that, day in and day out, the White Sox lit candles at the altar to “Saint Abreu” and promoted the #MVPito label, with which they are defending tooth and nail the Cuban’s candidacy for the Most Valuable Player of the American League.

However, an individual award is not what motivates Abreu most now. Nothing really compares to qualifying for the postseason, just like he told reporter Scott Merkin a few days ago.

“It’s a dream come true, the result of our hard work in recent years. We, as an organization, as a team, are moving in the right direction. We have to focus on the game, keep improving. That’s the key.”

Merits

In the past 100 years, only two players have dominated the American League in hits, extra bases, RBIs, slugging and total bases during a single season. Two! We’re talking that, among thousands of players, only a couple of them achieved such a performance in a campaign.

The last to win the five-time crown was Jim Rice, the mythical Boston Red Sox number 14, who had no mercy against opposing pitchers during the 1978 season. That year he registered 213 hits, drove in 139 runs, compiled 86 extra bases and one slugging of .600, in addition to leading the Majors in home runs (46) and triples (15).

José Abreu y el valor de las rachas de jits

Eleven seasons earlier, in 1967, Carl Yastrzemski had one of the most spectacular offensive runs in Major League history, including a Triple Crown. Also wearing the Boston shirt, he achieved .326/.418/.622/1,040, covered 360 bases, batted 44 homers and 189 hits, with 112 runs scored and 121 RBIs, the absolute leader of the American League in each one of those departments.

If we expand the spectrum a little further, analyzing the entire history of the American League since 1901, we only find two other players who also commanded the hits, extra bases, RBI, slugging and total bases sections during the same season. They are Nap Lajoie (1901/1904) and Ty Cobb (1908/1911), with the particularity that they achieved it a couple of times.

What do Lajoie, Cobb, Yastrzemski and Rice have in common? Well simple, all four are members of the Cooperstown Hall of Fame (HOF). Also, of them, only Lajoie didn’t win the MVP, basically because the award only started being presented in 1911.

The great Lou Gehrig, another immortal, a leader in extra bases (92), hits (211), RBIs (185) and total bases (410) during the course of 1931, was very close to achieving the five-fold lead. Yankees teammate Babe Ruth stole the reign in slugging (.700 by .662).

In a shortened season, atypical in every way, Abreu has managed to catch up with these phenomena and his results have transcended beyond the American League. For example, 13 years ago no player from either circuit achieved the lead in hits, RBIs and total bases.

The last to get that treble―and the only ones in this century―were two members of Colorado: Matt Holliday (2007) and Todd Helton (2000), who took advantage of the benefits of playing in the offensive paradise of Coors Field, fiefdom of the Rockies.

#MVPito: the reasons for a trend
Rogers Hornsby won the hits, RBI and total bases titles three years in a row. In the photo he wears the St. Louis Cardinals shirt, on September 16, 1926. Photo: AP Photo.

Expanding the search on the old circuit, we find that, over the last 100 years, in addition to Holliday and Helton, an exclusive group of eight players, six of them members of Cooperstown, also finished as leaders in hits, trailers and total bases in the same campaign:

*Rogers Hornsby (1920/1921/1922) HOF

*Paul Waner (1927) HOF

*Chuck Klein (1933) HOF

*Joe Medwick (1936/1937) HOF

*Stan Musial (1948) HOF

*Joe Torre (1971) HOF

*Al Oliver (1982)

*Dante Bichette (1995)

It’s definitely not a very common feat, so much so that many, many American baseball stars never did it, including the best Latino hitters, say Tony Oliva, Roberto Clemente, Tany Pérez, Albert Pujols or Miguel Cabrera. That leads us to fully appreciate the performance of Abreu, who has just put his name next to several of the purest sluggers in history.

Rivals

As the season progressed, José Abreu increased his credentials to fight for the Most Valuable Player award and become the fourth member of the Chicago White Sox to win the award, after Nellie Fox (1959), Dick Allen (1972) and Frank Thomas (1993/1994).

However, as the season progressed, the rivalry also grew with the rest of the candidates, who had an enormous performance in the fleeting straight of 60 games.

Among the strongest contenders is Cleveland Indians ace Shane Bieber, winner of the Triple Crown, not only of the American League, but of all MLB. The right-hander is the second pitcher in that franchise to reach the Triple Crown of the young circuit, eight decades after Bob Feller did it in 1940. Those are a lot of years.

For his part, DJ LeMahieu joined the campaign late because he became ill with COVID-19, but he had enough time to thunder his bat properly and become the first player of the modern era (since 1900) to win the batting title in the American League and the National.

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Following the historical lines, Luke Voit (MLB home run leader with 22) joined the exclusive men’s club that, wearing the New York Yankees shirt, have hit 20 home runs in the first 50 games of a season. The other members of the club?: Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle.

All of them, plus José Ramírez and Mike Trout, have real arguments to contest the Cuban’s MVP, so presumably, the race should be close and full of nuances.

According to the criteria of many specialists, Abreu’s great rival is Shane Bieber, although many also say that the Cleveland ace should not opt ​​for the MVP, because, due to his condition as a pitcher, he already has the Cy Young.

That argument is valid, but in the eyes of those who decide, Bieber is a full-fledged candidate. In fact, if he were to win the Most Valuable Player award, it wouldn’t be his first ever. In the American League, for example, a total of 12 pitchers have won the award since Walter Jhonson first won it in 1913.

It’s true that in the last 30 years the landscape has changed, to the point that only three pitchers have finished at the top of the voting: Dennis Eckersley (1992), Justin Verlander (2011) and Clayton Kershaw (2014).

The closest references are those of Verlander and Kershaw, the only MVP pitchers of this century. Therefore, we’re encouraged to compare some of their indicators in their winning seasons with those that Bieber has achieved in this 2020.

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*Average earned runs

1.63 Bieber/1.77 Kershaw/2.40 Verlander

*WHIP

0.866 Bieber/0.857 Kershaw/0.920 Verlander

*Percentage of strikeouts

41.1 Bieber/31.9 Kershaw/25.8 Verlander

*Strikeouts for every nine innings

14.2 Bieber/10.8 Kershaw/9.0 Verlander

*AVE/OBP/SLU/OPS

Bieber .167/.229/.265/.494

Kershaw .196/.231/.289/.521

Verlander .192/.242/.313/.555

Here’s a red flag: Bieber, albeit with a smaller sample (12 starts), has done better than Verlander and Kershaw in their MVP seasons, something the guys at the Baseball Writers’ Association of America might take into account.

With Bieber, there is no way to establish points of comparison, so we focused on the direct competition between Abreu, José Ramírez, Mike Trout, Luke Voit and DJ LeMahieu. To do this, we selected some impact metrics, which show us very interesting results.

*WAR

2.8 Abreu/1.6 Trout/2.1 Ramírez/2.9 LeMahieu/1.5 Voit

*Percentage of appearances that achieved extra bases

13.0 Abreu (15 doubles-0 triples-19 homers)

11.6 Trout (9-2-17)

13.4 Ramirez (16-1-17)

10.2 LeMahieu (10-2-10)

11.5 Voit (5-0-22)

*Percentage of appearances that ended in strikeouts

22.5 Abreu/23.2 Trout/16.9 Ramírez/9.7 LeMahieu/23.1 Voit

*Frequency of runs batted in

4.0 Abreu (60 RBIs)/4.3 Trout (46)/4.8 Ramírez (46)/7.2 LeMahieu (27)/4.1 Voit (52)

*Percentage of runners who scored at their turn at bat

22.7 Abreu/18.6 Trout/18.6 Ramírez/17.2 LeMahieu/22.2 Voit

Clearly, there is parity in several of these metrics, although with Abreu’s slight advantage in most. It’s true that the Cuban is surpassed by almost everyone―also by minimum margin―in on-base average and OPS, but in terms of runs, he is at the top.

His case has many points in common with Josh Donaldson’s in 2015. That year, the Toronto third baseman finished behind Mike Trout in WAR (7.1 by 9.6), and his OBP/Slugging/OPS was also lower than the Los Angeles outfielder (.371/.568/.939 by .402/.590/.991), but he was the leader in RBIs and runs.

His contribution in runs was overwhelmingly higher than Trout’s, and that, coupled with the fact that he led the Blue Jays to their first postseason in 20 years, weighed in Donaldson’s favor in the battle for the MVP.

Voices

“Abreu is one of the best batters I’ve seen. Every time he’s on the plate I learn something. He always tries to teach us something at every turn at bat.” With those words, the Dominican Eloy Jiménez described the impact of “Pito” in the White Sox clubhouse, plagued with young blood that needs the experience of men like the Cuban.

Jiménez has been one of the fundamental pieces in the return to stellar planes of the South Chicago team and appreciates the lessons and support of Abreu, whose leadership role among the American and Latino players in the organization has grown year after year, according to White Sox general manager Rick Hahn.

“He’s the heart and soul of the team,” ace Lucas Giolito said of Abreu. Of course, we didn’t expect negative criteria from within the franchise, so we sought a bit more of opinions of five Cuban and American media specialists, who offer us their perspectives on Abreu’s chances of winning the MVP.

#MVPito: the reasons for a trend
Abreu has formed a fearsome couple with the Dominican Eloy Jiménez. Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images.

Yasiel Cancio (Prensa Latina)

“This year, Pito Abreu’s performance outshone that of any other American League batter, including longtime MVP favorite Mike Trout, plus electric DJs LeMahieu, Luke Voit and Tim Anderson, and Dominicans Nelson Cruz and José. Ramirez. Among all these contenders, the only one who played all 60 games of the season was the Cuban slugger.

“Really, the big rival in the MVP race would be the Indians’ right-hander Shane Bieber with his explosive Triple Crown Pitching and hellish strikeout rate. Either of them has plenty of merits to win the award, but I prefer the one who went out to the field every day, the one who played with discomfort, the one who imposed his character and experience in all of his team’s games.

“He achieved career-best averages in OPS and offensive percentage and, for the second season in a row, finished leading in RBIs, as well as having the best WAR among position players on the young circuit. Those totals are outrageous for any hitter at any time.

“My vote is for Abreu, pride of Cuba and beacon of the White Sox, which thanks to him returned to the playoffs more than a decade later, exactly 12 years.”

Jorge Morejón (ESPN)

“I think he would deserve it. He’s a machine for RBIs and, above all, when it matters most. You’d have to look at each White Sox game to determine how many times his RBIs have led to his team’s tie, lead, or win, but I’m sure it’s a lot.

“In addition, he is a leader in hits and RBIs in the American League, something so unusual that it hasn’t happened in more than 40 years, not forgetting that he is among the first in average, runs, home runs and OPS. And in WAR, which is so measured by sabermetrics to vote, he has finished in the Top-3 of the American League.”

Jeff Passan (MLB Insider)

“He could absolutely win. He has been the best player in what has possibly been the best team in the American League for most of the season. Playing first base works against him, but it’s hard to argue with his candidacy given his offensive performance.” 

#MVPito: the reasons for a trend

Michel Contreras (Cibercuba)

“Since the end of August, I’ve been writing that Abreu is for MVP. I have been saying it based on his numbers, which weigh a lot, and also because of their ability to be the core of a team that surprised everyone, a team full of young guys who needed a central figure. That was Pito.

“There isn’t a single batter as stable as the Cuban. His everyday dedication and sacrifice stand out, as he didn’t miss any game. He retained the RBI championship, and finished among the top in two-base hits, home runs or slugging, which tells you how strong his connections have been, with barrels higher than in other seasons. But he also finishes first in hits, as if he were a contact batter.

“The other thing is WAR, a key statistic in the world of sabermetrics that has had a lot to do with MVP voting in recent years. Abreu achieves a very high WAR as first baseman, when this metric tends to reward players with more important defensive positions over corner players. Pito has done it with hard work, he has raised his WAR with hard work.

“Chicago is what it is now because Pito Abreu is there. Without him, nothing would have been the same for that team. It’s not about him being Cuban and wanting to have a third MVP, I think he deserves it more than any other batter.”

Jeremy Frank (Diamond Digest)

“Yes, I think he has a good chance of winning the MVP. He’s been one of the best batters in the league, he’s played outstanding defense at first base, and he’s in a top spot with the White Sox. He and his teammate Tim Anderson have a good chance, in my opinion.”

The Cuban factor

Since the Baseball Writers’ Association of America began awarding the Most Valuable Player award in 1931 (before it had fluctuations and some special rules), only two Cubans have finished at the top of the voting and four players from the island have managed to be on the podium.

Much remembered is the 1-2 of Zoilo Versalles and Tony Oliva in 1965, when they became the first pair of Latinos to occupy the first two positions in one same year. They were pivotal pieces in the American League title and the Minnesota Twins’ World Series trip.

José Canseco’s MVP, in 1988, a season in which he also reached the World Series with the Oakland Athletics, is also kept as a prominent moment in Cuban history in the Major Leagues.

The other representative of the Island who entered the MVP podium was the immortal Tany Pérez, a member of the distinguished Red Machine of the 1970s. The first baseman finished third in 1970, when he hit 40 home runs, drove in 129 runs and also reached the World Series.

#MVPito: the reasons for a trend
Infograph of Cubans in the race for MVP in Major League history. Via Score.

*Caption:

CUBANS FOR THE MVP

31 Cuban baseball players have gotten points in the voting for MVP since it started being awarded in 1911, at that time named Claimers Award.

Armando Marsans

First Cuban to get points in the voting for MVP. The Matanzas player ranked 18th and 24th in 1912 and 1913, respectively, when he played with the Cincinnati Reds.

Adolfo Luque

The pitcher was the only Cuban to receive points in the race for MVP in the 1920s and 1930s (1925 and 1933). He was the first player of the list and of Latin America with a World Series title (1919).

After Adolfo Luque’s points, almost 20 years had to go by for another Cuban (Minnie Miñoso- 1951) to again receive votes for MVP.

Since the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) started awarding the MVP in 1931, just two Cubans have been able to win it: Zoilo Versalles and José Canseco.

Only four Cubans have entered the MVP podium: 

Tony Oliva: (2nd in 1965 and 1970)

Zoilo Versalles (1st in 1965)

Tony Pérez: (3rd in 1970)

José Canseco: (1st in 1988)

The only Cubans who have ranked in the Top-5 of the race for MVP in their debut season are Tony Oliva and José Abreu.

Both finished winning the Rookie of the Year in those campaigns.

Cubans who have entered the MVP Top-5 

In general, 31 Cubans have received points in the voting for MVP, but few have really managed to come close to the top. Only nine Cubans have positioned themselves in the Top-5 of the scores and, of these, only two have achieved it this century.

The last was precisely Abreu (2014), who is on his way to become the fourth exponent of the island with multiple inclusions in the MVP Top-5. To date, the only ones who have succeeded are Minnie Miñoso (four times), Tony Oliva (three) and José Canseco (two).

The level of the Cienfuegos player is exceptional, so much so that, in this sense, he can surpass the one considered by many to be the best Cuban batter in the history of the Majors: Rafael Palmeiro. The renowned slugger, despite his impressive numbers, only managed once (1999) to be fifth in the Most Valuable Player voting.

Whether Abreu will win or not in 2020 is anyone’s guess. Some say that, due to his Latino and Cuban status, he may be at a disadvantage, but his merits should be taken into account. There is time to know the verdict; until then, we have to give our vote to #MVPito.

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