The Orioles have not had someone win the Most Valuable Player award since Cal Ripken did so for a second time in 1991. As long as Mike Trout is ensconced in Anaheim, doing Mike Trout things, it's not looking like there will be another MVP brought to Baltimore, or at least not this year.
Still, even knowing they are not going to win, it's nice as an Orioles fan when the team's best players are recognized farther down the ballot. In the losing years of 1998 to 2011, the O's only had one top 10 MVP finisher: Miguel Tejada's fifth place finish in 2004. Since Cal's win in 1991, the Orioles have only had eight players come in the top 10 of MVP voting. Three of those came within the last two seasons.
When Adam Jones placed sixth in the 2012 voting and when Chris Davis came in third place while Manny Machado finished ninth last year, these were great moments, more signs that things were getting better for the franchise after so many dark, lost years. There's still nearly a full month of baseball left to be played, but the contours of that race can be seen. Will Jones or any other Oriole find their way into the top ten this year?
As things stand before Wednesday's games, it's looking like Jones is the only Oriole with a chance to place so high. Currently, Jones sits eighth among AL position players with a 4.8 Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR), which isn't a perfect measurement of a player's value, but it's not a bad starting point for discussion.
The next highest Oriole is Steve Pearce, who remarkably has 3.8 fWAR in only 85 games played. A player with such little playing time is probably not going to get any serious consideration. J.J. Hardy, with 3.4 fWAR, is #23 among qualifying batters, also probably not enough to get him anywhere near the top 10. He should get another Gold Glove to add to his collection, though.
Through 137 games, Jones has a batting line of .284/.318/.468, a respectably above-average line that nonetheless leaves him shy of the upper echelon of hitters in the league. His 24 home runs through Tuesday's games are 10th in the AL, and for those who get excited about RBI (which includes many BBWAA voters), Jones' 81 are only good for 13th. Fangraphs rates him at +4.9 runs on the basepaths, eighth in the AL, and +9 runs of defensive value, which is 14th in the AL.
One big difference for Jones compared to past years is that he is rated positively for defense. Whether that's actual evidence of improvement or just of the mercurial nature of defensive statistics, we can't say. But, the idea of Jones doing better defensively does pass the eye test based on what we've seen this year. He is good, if not great, out there. Jones is good if not great at all facets of baseball except for taking a walk. He does all of this while playing center field, one of the crucial up the middle positions on the diamond.
As the best player for a team that could win its division, Jones would benefit from that kind of narrative. That may be enough, if he doesn't crater over the last month of the season, to place him in the 6th-8th place range.
Though Jones is eighth among position players, there are pitchers to consider, too. Hurlers like Felix Hernandez, Jon Lester, and Corey Kluber are all in the midst of great seasons that are worthy of recognition. It's a bit harder for pitchers to get MVP recognition, almost like some voters consider the Cy Young the pitchers version of MVP. Among those, probably only Hernandez will contend for a top 10 spot.
The seven position players ahead of Jones through Tuesday's games: Trout, Alex Gordon, Josh Donaldson, Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, Michael Brantley, Jose Abreu. The four players behind him, who round out a top 12: Adrian Beltre, Ben Zobrist, Ian Kinsler, Jose Bautista. Players like Detroit's Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, defensive liabilities who are having good offensive seasons on a possible playoff team, may also wind up in the mix.
Trout, Donaldson, and Cano are all players who are having great seasons for possible playoff teams, and they've all been recognized as top 10 MVP candidates in recent years as well. A good way for everyone to recognize you for being good is if they already recognized you for being good. Baseball awards are not unlike the Emmy's in that way.
Another good way is by having a good story to go along with playing well. Gordon's exact value is debatable given that his position on the WAR list is heavily influenced by a large amount of defensive value, but one thing he has going for him regardless is being the best player on a resurgent Royals team that's contending beyond anyone's preseason expectations. This is the kind of thing that powered Jones to a sixth place finish two years ago.
Abreu, the rookie Cuban slugger sensation, also has a great story going for him, slugging over .600 in his first full MLB season. He is almost certainly the Rookie of the Year and he also deserves to be high up in the MVP consideration. In a just universe - which this one is not always - that's probably your top five. Or should Seager, with his 21 home runs (more than teammate Cano) and better defensive metrics, supplant one of these? The Mariners could be a good enough team to warrant two players in the top five or six.
The last of those ahead of Jones is Brantley of the Cleveland Indians, who has put up a .311/.371/.495 batting line in a strong effort for a decent Indians team that went into Wednesday's games five back of the second wild card spot. Add in 17 stolen bases against only one caught stealing and that's probably another player who is ahead of Jones, if the voters remember Cleveland exists.
It's hard to predict the BBWAA. This is the same body that, through its voting, made the straight-faced assertion that Cabrera was more valuable than Trout over the past two seasons, and that Derek Jeter was the seventh-most valuable player in the AL in 2012. You never really know with them.
On Wednesday's MASN broadcast, Gary Thorne even tossed out teammate Nelson Cruz as a player who should get consideration on the strength of his career-high 36 home runs. An .840 OPS for a DH-type isn't going to cut it for MVP, not even in the diminished offensive environment of 2014. Or at least, it shouldn't, just like Cabrera's .869 OPS shouldn't get him very far. The BBWAA voters do love RBI, though. Through Tuesday's games, Cruz had 91, with Cabrera at 94, both top five in the AL.
Is anyone below Jones in fWAR going to jump up and pass him? Based on past years, we can guess that those who are near Jones in fWAR who are based heavily on defense and the positional adjustment - Zobrist and Kinsler - will probably not be leapfrogging him. Those players have yet to get much down-ballot attention for so-so offense and good defense at second base.
The likes of Beltre and Bautista have both produced significantly more offense than Jones. Bautista's OPS is fourth-best in the AL, while Beltre's is sixth-best. Offense often equals value to those voters, but it's often only offense on a playoff team that they really care about.
With a month still to play, maybe Jones is as high as sixth. Maybe he could be tenth or lower. Wherever they vote him, it doesn't change the fact that Jones is one of the best players in baseball this year. The Orioles are lucky to have him. Orioles fans are lucky he's on our favorite team.
As for getting the franchise a sixth MVP trophy, well, maybe next year. But hopes for a fourth Orioles World Series championship are still alive. Jones is a big part of why.