Adam Jones has been the best player on the Orioles this year. That was acknowledged by the local media, who selected him as the Most Valuable Oriole in the recently-completed balloting. Every other year out of the last decade or more, saying someone was the best player on the Orioles wasn't worth a heck of a lot. This year, it is different, because the Orioles are a good team, and Jones has been such an important piece to the team that he is deserving of some down-ballot consideration for the Most Valuable Player award.
The question is: where does Adam Jones rank among his peers in the league for his performance this season?
I've been thinking about this for myself for a couple of weeks in anticipation that eventually I would be voting in the SBN blogger postseason awards like last season. This year, the SBN award is for "Player Of The Year" rather than Most Valuable Player, but I take this in the same spirit as Most Valuable Player. In either case you are trying to choose the player who had the best season. The lesson I learned last year is that it's very hard to articulate why you think someone should be 6th instead of 8th, or 9th instead of off the ballot.
On Twitter last week, I asked what is the highest that someone could rank Jones on the American League MVP ballot without being accused of being insane or being a homer. I did this both because I was curious and also because I would prefer to not be accused of being a homer when I inevitably place Jones on my ballot.
This is Adam Jones, on paper, through 160 games played.
Batting line: .288/.336/.508
Home runs: 32
Runs scored: 103
Base stealing: 16/23
In few categories does Jones rank in the top 10 of anything, with three exceptions: his 103 runs scored are tied for 3rd in the AL and his 326 total bases, which he gets thanks to adding 39 doubles to his total, ranks 4th in the AL. As well, when counting its pure Offensive WAR (Wins Above Replacement), Jones is rated at 5.3 WAR, which is tied for 4th in the AL, behind only Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera and Robinson Cano. Jones is also one of only four players in MLB to play in every game so far this season.
His strikeout rate is down, though his swinging strike rate is up. His power is up. Defensive metrics do not like him to varying degrees. By all accounts, he is a leader within the locker room and undoubtedly he has embraced the role of face of the franchise to the Baltimore. He is not a player whose numbers will make your jaw drop, but he is putting together a special season all the same.
One national writer, ESPN's Jayson Stark, posted his hypothetical award ballot today - he is a BBWAA member with an NL MVP ballot this year - and he ranked Jones 4th in the AL MVP. It seems that not everyone who writes for ESPN hates the Orioles and refuses to acknowledge when any of them do anything well. (Stark also picked Buck Showalter as AL Manager of the Year.) On Stark's hypothetical ballot, Jones is ranked below Trout, Cabrera and Beltre and is ahead of players like Justin Verlander and Robinson Cano.
Trout and Cabrera are 1-2, and this is not the place to argue in which order. Beltre beats out Jones in just about every offensive category that either old-school or new-school baseball writers could care about except stolen bases. His slash line is .319/.357/.560 while playing a strong third base.
Cano and Verlander, mentioned above, are also two players I would rate above Jones. Cano beats him out for much the same reason as Beltre: exceeding Jones' numbers in every offensive category while doing a solid job playing at second base. Verlander remains the best pitcher in the American League, though this year he's not so much better than any offensive player that he will win MVP as well. He leads the league in innings pitched and strikeouts and is second in ERA.
So, that's five names, and I would be a homer if I ranked Jones above any one of those guys. If the ballot was a top 5 ballot, we would be done and there would be no Jones. But we have to rank 6th-10th as well. Where does Jones fit there? As mentioned above, his 5.3 Offensive WAR means he ranks higher than every player in the AL whom I haven't already placed higher than him.
The next tier of players to consider includes names like Ben Zobrist, Josh Hamilton, Prince Fielder, and possibly Alex Gordon (if you really like his defense); we should also not fail to consider (as I failed to do so last year) the other two of the top three pitchers in the AL, namely David Price and Felix Hernandez.
Let's pause for a moment here and consider how pathetic it is for Detroit to have only yesterday clinched the AL Central when they could have three top-10 MVP players - and they've also got guys like Austin Jackson and Max Scherzer (2nd in the AL in strikeouts!) Okay. Moving along.
Jones is a player worth mentioning in the same breath as any of those guys. No one of them is so much better than the rest at everything that they are an obvious choice. Do you like the solid defense at several positions combined with on-base skills of Zobrist? How about the pure power of Hamilton, with 43 home runs? Or the traditional .300/.400/.500 line of Fielder?
With the Red Sox falling off the table this year, the "AL East is a tough place to pitch!" narrative should help Price less than it used to. 3/4 of Price's divisional opponents were in the bottom half of AL offenses. Hernandez has the feather of the perfect game in his cap, and he's third in the league in strikeouts, second in innings pitched, but 5th in ERA (though 3rd among pitchers with 200+ IP). That's good, but is it great enough to break in to the MVP discussion?
The great Trout-Cabrera conflagration will take up much of the oxygen as MVP ballots are considered, discussed, and torn down, but these down-ballot selections can be just as interesting.
A player on the Orioles was one of the best players in the American League, and no matter how many votes he gets, that is still pretty cool. He might very well find himself getting a little extra support due to "playoff bias" - and that is also pretty cool.