Will his Clutch Hitting Give Jacoby Ellsbury the MVP? It Should-

 

Last night, after an exhausting 14 innings, the Red Sox finally won again, avoiding a sweep by the Yankees and keeping an edge on the Rays in the wild card race. Yesterday’s doubleheader may be the final push Ellsbury needed to lock down the American League MVP. With the team in danger of blowing what once seemed like a sure playoff berth, Ells provided all the offense the Sox got in the first game and shook off a tough second game to provide the game winning blast. When the Red Sox have needed him most, Ellsbury has come through. That should separate him from Curtis Granderson, Justin Verlander and the other AL MVP candidates.

Jacoby Ellsbury leads all of baseball in fWAR by a significant margin. His 9.2 fWAR is almost a full win above Jose Bautista’s 8.4 mark and more than two wins above Verlander’s 7.0. Much of that difference comes from his exceptional defense; Ellsbury is +14 runs defensively by UZR, the system Fangraph’s uses. Given the uncertainty surrounding defensive measurements, it is fair to say his lead may not be as significant as it appears. However, Ellsbury has been better than almost any other player in key game situations and for that reason he should be the clear American League MVP.

In addition to all the other goodies on their sites, both Fangraphs and Baseball-reference.com keep track of a little statistical jewel called win probability added (WPA). This stat tracks a team’s likelihood of winning a game and how each plate appearance affects those chances. Because it assigns all responsibility for an out to the pitcher, the system does not track defense at all. It is does however consider context and therefore, clutch performance.

Jose Bautista leads all of baseball in raw WPA for position players with 8.08 WPA. Ellsbury (5.62) is third in WPA in the junior circuit, behind Miguel Cabrera (7.27). However, Jacoby has been better than either Cabrera or Bautista in high leverage situations, recording a clutch rating of 1.73, third best in the AL*. Ellsbury has not only been one of the best players in the game, he has been better when it matters most. With the Red Sox swooning in September, Ellsbury’s performance when the game is on the line may be a huge factor in deciding the wild card. Considering Ellsbury also plays a premium position and plays it very well (something WPA doesn’t give him any credit for) the case for Ellsbury as the clear AL MVP has a lot more to it than his advantage in fWAR or his traditional stats.

*Fangraph’s Clutch statistic compares a players performance in high leverage situations to his performance in a neutral environment.

 

Some MVP voters are loathe to consider a player like Jose Bautista, who is certainly a viable candidate, because he plays for a non-contender. I don’t share this view at all. However, a player on a team on the edge of making the playoffs who performs at the same level as another on a non-contender certainly impacts the team’s playoff race more. Given the team’s desperate needs for wins right now, Ellsbury’s clutch performance is extremely relevant to Boston’s chances at a playoff berth. Without any one player clearly exceeding Ells in value, I think the tremendous impact his clutch hitting may have pushes him above the field, making him the clear choice in the AL MVP race.

Clutch performance is a controversial topic. Most people have some sense that certain players just perform differently when the pressure is at its highest. However from the statistically side, there is a good deal of evidence showing that performance in the clutch tends to vary widely, leading some to conclude that it is the result of luck or random chance.

Whatever your beliefs on the reasons for it, Ellsbury’s clutch performance can’t be denied. He has been among the game’s best hitters and also possibly the best hitter when the game is on the line. Among the MVP candidates, only Miguel Cabrera is in the same category in this respect. With the entire pitching staff and a number of other key players struggling wildly, Jacoby Ellsbury might be the difference between the Sox playing in October watching from home.  How much more does the man need to do to be the MVP? 

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