White Sox’ Jose Abreu in AL MVP race that’s too close to call

Traditional statistics favor Abreu, but modern metrics show a tight three-way race with the Indians’ Jose Ramirez and the Yankees’ DJ LeMahieu.

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Wild Card Round - Chicago White Sox v Oakland Athletics - Game One

Jose Abreu hits a two-run homer against the Athletics in Game 1 of the American League wild-card series Sept. 29.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

White Sox players have won the American League Most Valuable Player Award four times. First baseman Jose Abreu could make it five when the Baseball Writers’ Association of America announces the 2020 award Thursday, but the competition is rugged by the numbers.

Previous Sox winners were second baseman Nellie Fox on the pennant-winning Sox of 1959 and first basemen Dick Allen in 1972 and Frank Thomas in 1993 and ’94.

Abreu is one of three finalists, along with Indians third baseman Jose Ramirez and Yankees jack-of-all-trades DJ LeMahieu.

By Triple Crown numbers that were the player-rating stats of choice for decades, Abreu looks golden. He led the AL with 60 RBI, his 19 home runs ranked second to the 22 by the Yankees’ Luke Voit and his .317 batting average was fourth among AL qualifiers, trailing LeMahieu (.364), Sox teammate Tim Anderson (.322) and the Angels’ David Fletcher (.319).

Among the finalists, he leads in homers and RBI ahead of Ramirez (17, 46) and LeMahieu (10, 27), and his batting average falls between LeMahieu’s and Ramirez’s (.292).

Modern metrics offer a different picture. Numbers such as weighted runs created plus and wins above replacement don’t factor RBI. They’re designed to measure individual responsibility, and RBI involve team contributions.

An ability to get on base and extra bases in addition to homers count. Abreu walked in 6.4% of his plate appearances to trail LeMahieu (8.3%) and Ramirez (12.2%). The walks boosted Ramirez to a .386 on-base percentage, behind LeMahieu’s .421 but ahead of Abreu’s .370.

LeMahieu was the AL OPS leader at 1.011, with Ramirez’s .993 tied with the Angels’ Mike Trout for second and Abreu fifth at .987.

Moving a giant step beyond OPS to wRC+, LeMahieu was the AL leader at 177, meaning he produced 77% more offense than the average hitter. In wRC+, every offensive event is assigned a weight that correlates to run production. Singles add more to the chance of scoring than walks, so they’re given more weight. Results are adjusted for ballparks and opposition, then normalized so 100 denotes an average hitter.

Among the finalists, Abreu was next at 167, then Ramirez at 163.

When we get to WAR, defense has to be taken into account. Ramirez leads the pack, with Fangraphs.com listing him at 1.7 defensive runs to minus-2.1 for LeMahieu and minus-5.4 for Abreu.

Tied up into a nice little fWAR package, Ramirez led the AL at 3.4 to 2.6 for Abreu and 2.5 for LeMahieu, who missed 10 games (early because of COVID-19 and later because of a sprained thumb). Non-finalists Anthony Rendon (2.7) and Trout (2.6), both Angels, fit in with that group, but all three finalists are from playoff teams.

If traditional numbers carry the day, Abreu is the MVP. But if voters heed today’s metrics, WAR leader Ramirez and wRC+ leader LeMahieu have solid cases.

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