After driving in 130 runs and still finishing fourth in the American League Most Valuable Player Award voting in 2018, Red Sox designated hitter J.D. Martinez felt understandably pessimistic about his position.
“For a DH to win MVP,” he told reporters the following spring, “they’re going to have to walk on water.”
Well, the Twins’ Nelson Cruz hasn’t quite done that in 2020. But he has arguably done enough to force the DH issue to the forefront. This is the “Year of the DH” -- as in “doubleheaders” (lots of ‘em) and the DH finally arriving in the National League. But one DH has stood out from the rest -- at age 40, no less.
Bottom line: One cannot concoct a short list of viable AL MVP candidates that doesn’t include Cruz.
Before we state his case, a little history:
No player has ever won the MVP Award in a season in which DH was his primary position. The closest Major League Baseball has ever come to a DH as MVP was Don Baylor’s AL win in 1979, when he started 97 games in the outfield and 65 as the Angels’ DH.
Only six times has a DH finished in the top three of the AL vote (or what we now call a “finalist”):
1993: Paul Molitor, 2nd
1995: Edgar Martinez, 3rd
2000: Frank Thomas, 2nd
2005: David Ortiz, 2nd
2006: Ortiz, 3rd
2014: Victor Martinez, 2nd
It’s hard to argue any of the above were hosed. Edgar’s 1995 effort was deserving, but probably not as deserving as Albert Belle’s 50-homer, 50-double campaign (either would have been a better choice than the real winner, Mo Vaughn). The best MVP argument of the bunch belongs to Ortiz in 2006. When we conducted a “re-vote” for 2006 on MLB.com earlier this year, second-place finisher Derek Jeter overtook the real winner, Justin Morneau, with Ortiz moving up from third to second. Ortiz did, however, finish slightly ahead of Jeter in Baseball Reference’s WAR calculation (5.8 to 5.6), with the AL lead in homers (54), RBIs (137) and walks (119) and the league’s best OPS (1.049) among those with at least 500 at-bats.
Looking at each year individually, the fact that no DH has won this award is defensible, even before you get into people’s reservations about the role. And those reservations, for the record, have merit. A player manning a position can detract from the value of his offense if he doesn’t field that position well. The DH carries no such concern. If he delivers at the dish, that’s all we see from him.
Ordinarily, I get all of that, and I would not utter much of an argument for a DH to be the MVP.
But pretty much everything is different about 2020, Cruz’s case included. For the sake of discussion, let’s present it:
1) Cruz has been the AL’s best offensive player.
If a DH is ever going to win this award, it goes without saying that he’d better be the best hitter in his league.
Cruz has met that lofty bar so far. At midweek, he was tops in the AL in slugging percentage (.646), OPS (1.059), adjusted OPS+ (184), weighted runs created plus (178), adjusted batting runs (19) and adjusted batting wins (1.8), while vying for the home run title (16). That OPS+, by the way, would be the second-best ever for a DH, trailing only the aforementioned Edgar in ’95 (185).
Cruz’s 32 RBIs do rank a distant eighth in the AL. But even after stranding nine runners in a single game against the White Sox earlier this week (a performance that admittedly did not help this column’s cause), he carries an extraordinary .379/.526/.724 slash with runners in scoring position. So let’s not dwell on his RBI rank.
2) Cruz has been the best player on a good team.
This matters, too. A DH can’t afford to have his case complicated by sharing the spotlight with a teammate and/or playing for an also-ran.
Injuries and regression have prevented the Twins from being the “Bomba Squad” of 2019. With their big winter acquisition, Josh Donaldson, having missed all of August with a right calf strain, Miguel Sanó (.831) is the only qualified hitter on the Twins other than Cruz to have an OPS north of .800.
So Cruz’s impact has clearly been crucial in Minnesota again vying for the AL Central title.
3) WAR does not necessarily work against him.
Right or wrong, fair or not, Wins Above Replacement has taken on an outsized importance in how voters cast their MVP ballots. In a normal year, this basically kills any chance of a DH winning the award.
But the shortened 2020 season prevents Cruz from getting totally whipped in WAR. Per FanGraphs, he’s at 2.0 compared to league leader Anthony Rendon’s 2.4. He’s further off in the Baseball Reference tally, with a 1.7 against league leader José Abreu’s 2.4. But it’s not a situation like the one Martinez encountered in 2018, when his 6.5 bWAR were more than four full wins behind MVP Mookie Betts' 10.6 mark. There simply haven’t been enough games for that to happen.
4) The AL MVP field is muddled.
Where Cruz’s MVP case really gets interesting is when you consider the complications associated with other candidates on other clubs.
We have to start with Trout, who is bound to attract his annual MVP attention with another monster year. But unlike his 2016 and 2019 wins, Trout is unfortunately not out front in enough categories to rise above the Angels’ subpar standing. Furthermore, he now has a teammate in Rendon who has every bit as strong an MVP case, leading Trout in both WAR tallies.
As for the AL postseason field, it is littered with complications:
White Sox: Tim Anderson (2.4 fWAR) and Abreu (2.1) are both viable candidates on their own. But they’re not on their own. They’re on the White Sox. You’d struggle to get consensus even among the club’s fans as to who its MVP is. Voters will face the same issue, so Anderson and Abreu stand a good chance of impeding each other’s first-place votes tally.
Indians: Starter Shane Bieber is their best candidate. But the Tribe has lost two of the last three games he’s started, which -- given the difficulty pitchers encounter in trying to claim this prize -- won’t help his cause.
Yankees: DJ LeMahieu (1.7 fWAR) and Luke Voit (1.5) have the best cases but likely aren’t at the forefront of the voting, as of today, and, much like the Sox guys, could affect each other’s totals.
A’s, Rays and Blue Jays: It’s been more about the collective than any single candidate jumping off the page. The Rays’ Brandon Lowe and the Blue Jays’ Teoscar Hernández are the most likely candidates from any of the three clubs to get down-ballot love.
Astros: Who’s their MVP? Dusty Baker?
Even if Cruz’s position prevents him from raking in first-place votes, you could see him compiling enough points via second-place votes to come out in front in this convoluted ballot.
5) Cruz is doing all of this at age 40.
This is not a reason to vote for Cruz. But it is a reason to appreciate his MVP candidacy even more. Should he win, he would not only be the first DH to win the award but also the oldest MVP by three weeks. Barry Bonds, who was born on July 24, currently holds that distinction for winning his last NL MVP at age 40 in 2004. Cruz was born on July 1.
Meanwhile, Fernando Tatis Jr. is the likely NL MVP at age 21. That’s right: In the same year, we could have both the oldest MVP in history and the youngest, as well as the first MVP DH.
And Cruz might not even have to walk on water to make it happen.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.