The first month of the 2021 MLB season is in the books and to mark the occasion, MLB handed out its monthly awards, including correctly honoring the great work of Matt Barnes. These monthly awards are nice, but what about the annual awards? Although some may argue that early May is still too soon to think about things like the American League MVP award, I am not one of them, especially since the Red Sox have more than one bona fide contender based on what we saw in April. For now, let’s focus on just one of those contenders: J.D. Martinez.
After a miserable 2020, Martinez has returned to form with a vengeance. He has been absolutely scalding the ball, ranking in the 87th percentile in MLB in average exit velocity while ranking in the 79th percentile in hard-hit rate, according to Baseball Savant. Such consistently blistering contact is showing up in a major way elsewhere on his resume, as he was slashing .349/.430/.698 with nine home runs through his first 121 plate appearances of 2021. He is also among just four players in MLB with a wRC+ of 200 or better, putting him in company with the ever exceptional Mike Trout, April’s AL Player of the Month Byron Buxton, and young phenom Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Would you look at that? The top four players in wRC+ in the majors are all from the AL (it's actually the top five when you include Yermín Mercedes and his 198 wRC+) and that brings us to one of the first roadblocks Martinez will encounter if he hopes to claim the AL MVP award: The competition in the league is already top-notch. Martinez has been fantastic, but he is still being outpaced by quite a wide margin by Trout and Buxton in wRC+ and he trails Trout, Buxton, and Guerrero Jr. in fWAR. Now, all three of those guys (and Martinez himself) will likely regress to some degree. I mean, Trout is batting over .400, and although it's a risk to doubt the best player in baseball, decades of historical evidence point to him at least falling into the .390s. However, even with regression from his primary competitors, it’s clear that Martinez is already playing from behind a bit and that’s without considering the real elephant in the room.
Martinez is such a good hitter that he is paid to do that and only that. As a designated hitter, Martinez doesn’t get the benefit of adding (or subtracting) to his performance with his play in the field. This is usually the primary death sentence for any DH looking to mess around and win an MVP award. Sure, there have been winners who have spent some time DH-ing, but for the most part, the MVP award is reserved for players who get in the field (or out-of-this-world pitchers). Guys like David Ortiz and Edgar Martinez, who were some of the best players of their era, never managed to take home the MVP hardware, but maybe they would have if they played in the field on a full-time basis.
Now, I’m not necessarily arguing that DHs have been unfairly judged in the MVP race. Playing the field is an important part of the game and it makes sense that DHs should have to take a bit of a penalty since they don’t contribute to that aspect. However, I also think that just because DHs don’t play the field doesn’t mean that they should be automatically disqualified from contention. Of course, my thinking there could be influenced by having watched Ortiz hit for the Red Sox for 14 years, but who’s to say?
So, back to Martinez. He is off to a great start to the year, but what would it take for him to win the MVP award as a DH? The short answer is a lot, but let’s try to outline some tangible and semi-realistic developments that could help his case.
To start, Martinez will need to keep up his incredible triple-slash line or even improve on it. He managed a somewhat similar one in 2018 (.330/.402/.629), but he only came in fourth in MVP voting that year, rightfully losing out to former teammate Mookie Betts despite winning two Silver Sluggers. Improving on those numbers (and only having to deal with Trout and not Trout and Betts) could inch him up the leaderboard.
Speaking of Trout, Martinez will likely need a little help from his competition. That means at least some regression from the current frontrunners like Trout and Buxton in addition to Martinez avoiding said regression. If Trout hits .400 or Buxton leads the AL in fWAR by a wide margin, it will be curtains for any Martinez for MVP hopes.
Getting back to things within Martinez’s control, he could really help his case by reaching some sort of statistical milestone. Clearing the single-season home run record isn’t all that realistic, but could he get to 60? Martinez hit nine home runs in April. If he does the same thing every month and throws in a few extras here and there, he could get within range. A 60-home run season might not lock it in for him, but it would certainly get more momentum on his side. In addition, flirting with the Triple Crown would be another potential boost to his narrative. Martinez is tied for second in MLB in home runs and he leads in RBI while ranking sixth in batting average, so he’s within striking distance. Your reverence for the Triple Crown may vary, but it could still be a potent boost for Martinez’s chances.
Now, I mentioned the word narrative before and that can be an important element for any would-be MVP winner. It can be built around statistical excellence, of course, but sometimes less tangible factors play a role as well. For Martinez, the bounce-back narrative could be a huge boon to him both on an individual and team level. The Red Sox have surprised many people by leading the AL East for a large chunk of the season (despite an 0-3 start) and being the face of such a turnaround could be a powerful story to tell.
Of course, the Red Sox would need to continue playing at their current rate or better and I’m not sure Martinez would be considered the “face” of the team right now, but if he can keep hitting as well as he has, produce some historically meaningful numbers, benefit from some regression from the other MVP contenders and help power the Red Sox to a division title, suddenly his path to the MVP award looks a little clearer. Heck, maybe even throwing him in left field a few days a week could help. Any way you slice it, Martinez would likely have to do a lot more than is reasonable to expect to win the AL MVP award, but it's not entirely out of the question, at least not yet.