Funny thing about baseball is that it is pretty unpredictable. For the first five years of his career, Shane Victorino was a complementary player on a team boasting star players --Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. He was a consistent three- or four-win player who provided solid defense in center field, above-average production on the basepaths, decent power and a respectable OBP. He was the classic undervalued, fringe All-Star player that all championship caliber teams needed to reach the promised land. Everyone knew Victorino was a good player, but on a team with so many stars; he tended to fly under the radar.
This season, that has all changed. No longer is he a supporting player in the shadows of his more famous teammates. Instead, he has quietly stepped into the spotlight and led the Phillies to the best record in baseball. Well, at least figuratively speaking. One would think being the best offensive player on the best team would lead to greater levels of visibility, but in Victorino’s case it hasn’t. Despite putting together a tremendous all-around season, it seems as if most fans and baseball writers see Victorino's teammate, the one-dimensional Ryan Howard, and his 95 RBIs as the stuff that makes a better MVP candidate.
This is a clearly myopic view of the baseball universe; one that incorrectly puts greater value on run production than it does on run creation. To be fair, I can’t blame people for following the more traditional school of thought. The world generally puts greater emphasis on results achieved than it does on the process that creates said results. In this vein, I tend to sympathize with the pro-Howard crowds of the baseball world. That said, I vehemently disagree with them this time around.
Luckily, we have more advanced methods for determining the player that truly is the most valuable. Wins above replacement (WAR) is a great method for making such determinations as it measures a player’s production over multiple categories and skills. How does Victorino stack up against the top candidates?
Overall, Victorino is tied for third with Matt Kemp in FanGraphs’ version of WAR. At this point in the season, a difference of a few tenths of a win between players is fairly meaningless; a good game tonight or a particularly tragic game tomorrow could alter the standings significantly. So essentially we have a five-way tie for top dog among our six candidates, with Howard far on the outside looking in. Yes, all this despite his sharing the league lead in runs batted in.
Victorino stacks up well with his competition in terms of batting average, on-base percentage and slugging. While he’s not a power hitter like the other players on the list, he has considerable pop that allows him to hit 15-20 fly balls out of the park per season. Victorino’s great speed allows him to stretch singles into doubles and doubles into triples; thus allowing him to rack up additional extra-base hits to supplement his slugging. Defensively, only Tulowitzki plays a more demanding position, but Victorino handles his position well as a center fielder, showing a decent arm and good range. In comparison with his defensive counterpart, Kemp, Victorino has outperformed him by 13 runs on the UZR scale. Considering that Victorino has been flanked in the outfield by the defensively challenged duo of Raul Ibanez and Ben Francisco for most of the season, his defensive contributions have been even more valuable.
They look pretty similar, right? So how is one an MVP candidate in his league, while the other is not? Well, for starters Victorino has landed on the disabled list a couple times, costing him nearly a month of the season. As a result, despite having better rate stats, his counting stats aren’t nearly as impressive as Ellsbury’s. Another reason is likely bias. Ellsbury was a hot prospect in the Red Sox farm system who burst on the scene after being called up, and eventually seized the starting center-field job from Coco Crisp in the playoffs. Victorino, on the other hand, was not highly touted, and never once ranked in Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects. Naturally, this carried over into their big-league careers.
Upon stripping away minor injuries and bias, it’s pretty amazing that Victorino provided nearly as much value to his team as Ellsbury despite playing 28 fewer games. If anything, this solidifies his MVP candidacy. Can we justify identifying one player as a bona fide MVP candidate, while leaving a similar, more productive player off of our list entirely? I don’t see how you can.
Chip Buck walks the tightrope of the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry by contributing to both Fire Brand of the American League, a blog about the Boston Red Sox, and It’s About the Money Stupid, a blog about the New York Yankees. You can follow him on Twitter.