NESN Debates: Who Is the Red Sox’ MVP of the 2011 Season So Far?

NESN Debates: Who Is the Red Sox' MVP of the 2011 Season So Far? Editor’s note: Each week, NESN.com’s editorial staff will debate a topic via email in a feature called “Field Judges.” We’ll post the conversation and the ruling on NESN.com.

Ben Watanabe, Assistant Editor, 8:38 a.m., Monday

Happy Monday all,

The Red Sox lineup has been so strong this season that multiple members of the lineup have been mentioned for American League MVP consideration. Adrian Gonzalez was an early favorite thanks to his monster start, and Jacoby Ellsbury has gotten a lot of attention for his walk-offs, but he’s having an outstanding season the other eight innings of games, too.

In this week’s edition of “Field Judges,” who is the Red Sox’ MVP to this point in the season?

Michael Hurley, Senior Assistant Editor, 10:39 a.m., Monday

With all due respect to the nature of this debate, I don’t think there’s any debate that it’s Adrian Gonzalez. If we were trying to determine the best hitter in July, it would be Dustin Pedroia. If we were trying to figure out the most-improved hitter or the most surprising hitter, it’d be Jacoby Ellsbury. But if you’re trying to determine the best hitter from Opening Day until right now, it’s Adrian Gonzalez. And it’s not even close.

Aside from all the numbers (AL-best .348 average and AL-best 91 RBIs for a .962 OPS), Gonzalez is a steadying presence in the middle of the Red Sox’ order. Everything else that happens around him, you could argue, is influenced by his very presence. Ellsbury and Pedroia are having great seasons, and it’s not a coincidence they bat in front of Gonzalez. Gonzalez, who’s become the lefty opposing teams have to worry most about, also helped David Ortiz, who is hitting 47 points higher against lefties than his career average.

The defense argument is less clear, as you could make a Gold Glove case for both Pedroia and Gonzalez, and you’d be hard-pressed to find many complaints about the job Ellsbury’s done in center, as well.

But by season’s end, when Gonzalez finishes with a .350 average and something like 25 homers and 130 RBIs, there won’t be much doubt as to who’s the Red Sox’ MVP.

Jesse Scardina, New Media Intern, 12:16 p.m., Monday

It has to be Jacoby Ellsbury.

Although I couldn’t ask for more from Gonzalez for what he’s done in the middle of the lineup, it has been the breakout season of Ellsbury that has lifted this team to another level, and that’s why he is the MVP thus far.

One of the key reasons Gonzalez leads the league in RBIs is because Ellsbury has been able to get on base and, more importantly, get into scoring position, so Adrian and the rest of the Sox lineup can drive him in.

Before the season started and everyone was trying to figure out the batting order, Terry Francona made it clear that the Sox are at their best when they have Ellsbury in the leadoff spot. We always knew Ellsbury had the speed (Taco Bell, anyone?) but this recent display of power from our leadoff spot is reminiscent of classic Rickey Henderson, except Ellsbury may be displaying more power this year than Henderson ever did.

Jacoby is the key cog that makes the Red Sox lineup what it is. Without him tearing up the basepaths and the pitchers while speeding through the spacious Fenway center field, the Sox aren’t the same offensive juggernaut.

Ben Watanabe, 1:07 p.m., Monday

We all know Mr. Hurley doesn’t put much stock into advanced statistics, so I won’t bother to mention that Dustin Pedroia is second in all of baseball in Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs.

Oops, too late.

Despite all the mumbo-jumbo that goes into a lot of these new stats, WAR is one I believe in strongly. Different databases have different ways of calculating it, but the simple explanation is that WAR takes what are widely considered the most reliable offensive and defensive measurements, adjusts them for position (since shortstop is harder to play than left field, for instance) and comes up with a shorthand way of showing who are the best all-around players. This way we can see exactly how many wins a player contributes to a team compared to a replacement Triple-A level player.

I see you nodding off Hurley. Wake up!

Pedroia is second at 6.7 WAR to Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista’s 6.9. After that, nobody’s close. Ellsbury is a distant third, at 5.9.

Most Sox fans don’t need WAR or wRAA or UZR or RAAAHHHRRR!!! (alright, I made up the last one) to tell them Pedroia’s importance to the team. If it was just his numbers, that’d be one thing. But the numbers combined with the intangibles make him the most valuable Red Sox player.

Mike Cole, Assistant Editor, 1 p.m., Monday

When it comes to wins and losses this season, Josh Beckett has been a little unlucky. For what it’s worth to the righty — a ton I’m sure — he’s my pick for the Red Sox’ most valuable player.

The Red Sox, despite arming Beckett with just 3.44 runs every time he toes the slab, are 16-6 in the big right-hander’s starts. In 10 of his starts, he’s gone seven innings or more. While the Boston starting rotation has had its issues (Jon Lester’s lat, Clay Buchholz’s back, John Lackey’s inconsistency, Daisuke Matsuzaka … well, you know), Beckett has been a model of consistency.

He’s also outdueled Yankees ace CC Sabathia three times, including a two-hit, 10-strikeout gem over eight innings in April on a Sunday night that helped start the Red Sox’ turnaround. He’s 3-0 with a 1.00 ERA overall against the Bombers this season, and he is the main reason Boston is 10-2 against New York, and thus, holds a lead in the AL East.

Beckett is looking more and more like the one guy the Red Sox could least afford to lose down the stretch. Take him away, and you’re going to have a difficult time convincing anyone that the Sox are a serious World Series contender, and that is the truest measure of Josh Beckett’s value.

Ben Watanabe, 1:10 p.m., Monday

Four responses, four different MVPs. Wow.

John Beattie, Associate Editor, 1:49 p.m., Monday

Adrian Gonzalez is the obvious choice so I’m doing my best to steer clear of the chalk. Jacoby Ellsbury was my first non-Gonzo choice, but while I’m always open to a tater, I’d rather see Ells keep it on the ground, get on base and have the big dogs smack it around behind him. Give me 20 pushups, Jake.

My choice is Dustin Pedroia -– not just for his high numbers and dirt dog ways, but his even-keel swagger on and off the field and his leadership in the clubhouse. You can rely on Pedey to be out there every night and you can place this No. 2 hitter anywhere in the lineup, including the No. 3 and No. 4 holes -– who else could you say that about? He’s a perfect balance of speed, power, consistency, defense and toughness.

Tony Lee, Red Sox beat reporter, 4:38 p.m., Monday

I don’t think I can keep that trend going, Ben, for Adrian Gonzalez is still my guy. I can echo much of what Mr. Hurley has said, and add a note on consistency.  Remember, this is a yearly honor, and the scope of the entire season should be considered, whether you are talking RAHHHHHRRRRR!!! or any of that other stuff, some of which is woefully overrated.

It was just after the All-Star break when Gonzalez had his first real swoon with the Red Sox, his average plummeting all the way to .337 (yikes!). Everyone wondered if the Home Run Derby was the culprit, and when Gonzalez snap out of it. In the uber-confident manner that is his way, he told reporters they would be asking him about a three-hit game in a matter of days. Well, he had four hits the next day, beginning a 14-game hitting streak that saw him bat .483 (28-for-58).

That helped Gonzalez finish July strong and gave him these four monthly OPS totals: .836, .989, 1.185, .949.

Pedroia and Ellsbury both had numbers below .836 on multiple occasions.

Of course, OPS is just one indication, but when we’re talking about a lineup loaded with hitters who can work the count and hit for power, it’s a pretty good place to start.

If there’s a “knock” on Gonzalez, it lies in the fact that his home run totals have not been what some had hoped, especially after that binge he had in May. But he has always been a guy that goes in streaks when it comes to power, while the rest of his game remains rather steady. He also may be a victim of hype in the sense that there were too many predictions of him lofting balls over the Green Monster on a regular basis. Gonzalez himself said that he would probably get more wall-ball singles than anything, and that’s what we’ve seen. He has eight home runs in 58 games at Fenway, compared to 10 in 53 road games, which is much more in line with his career norms.

During his recent hitting streak, Gonzalez homered just once. Safe to say that the .483 average made that a non-factor. That’s what makes him the MVP. Even when one portion of his game isn’t quite there, or a few teammates ride the roller coaster, Gonzalez remains a rock.

Ben Watanabe, 8:40 a.m., Tuesday

If I’m going to be swayed off Pedey, I think I’m liable to take Gonzalez over Ellsbury. Even though center field is a more important position than first base, the MVP should be who has been the best the entire way, as Tony mentioned, not merely the best the last few weeks.

Beckett has absolutely, positively been underrated this season because of his win total. But if Pedro Martinez couldn’t win MVP in 1999, then I’ll go to my grave insisting no pitcher can be MVP ever. I hope Ivan Rodriguez doesn’t display his trophy prominently, because as a catcher he should recognize how dominant Pedro was that season.

I don’t put a whole lot of weight in RBIs or runs scored, since those are too reliant on what sort of team you play for (Jose Bautista might have roughly 326 RBIs if he played for the Rangers or Red Sox), but there’s no denying what his presence in the middle of the lineup and defensively has contributed.

Looks like we’re leaning toward Gonzo. Any objections?

Mike Cole, 11:39 p.m., Tuesday

Fiiiiine. Even though I still think that Beckett is the guy the Sox can least afford to lose at this point and going forward (can someone tell him that by the way? I feel like he’s someone whose good side you want to be on), I think there’s no question that Gonzalez has been the most valuable player for the Sox -– at least in terms of everyday guys.

For me, it comes back to consistency. Gonzalez has been there seemingly every day. Like, seriously. He’s missed, what? Two games all season? The guy shows up to work every single day, and he does his job better than just about everyone else. Speaking as a baseball fan, he’s truly been a pleasure to watch.

However, they don’t give out MVP awards because someone is a pleasure to watch. That said, you can’t argue his run production, even if you don’t believe in RBIs (that’s a debate for another day), and his defense has made everyone around him better – including No. 19.

So there you go. Just before the buzzer sounds, I’m now in the Gonzalez boat. On a related note, we’re gonna need a bigger boat …

Michael Hurley, 8:03 a.m., Wednesday:

A debate for another day? How about right now? AL leaders in RBIs, since 1996: Albert Belle, Ken Griffey Jr., Juan Gonzalez, Manny Ramirez, Edgar Martinez, Bret Boone, Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Delgado, Miguel Tejada, David Ortiz, Ortiz again, A-Rod again, Josh Hamilton, Mark Teixeira, Miguel Cabrera.

National League: Andres Galarraga, Galarraga again, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Todd Helton, Sosa again, Lance Berkman, Preston Wilson, Vinny Castilla, Andruw Jones, Ryan Howard, Matt Holliday, Howard again, Howard once more, Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols.

Jeez, what an awful representation of players. RBI is clearly an incredibly flawed stat if its leaders over the past 15 years include some of the best hitters in the history of baseball. (I’ll give you that Preston Wilson and Vinny Castilla are the anomalies here.)

To take anything away from Gonzalez because of the two batters in front of him is sheer lunacy. The man had 90 RBIs by the end of July. Put David Ortiz in that spot, and he doesn’t have 90 RBIs. Put Josh Hamilton in that spot, and he doesn’t have 90 RBIs. Put Joey Bats there, as Ben suggested, and his .315 average isn’t enough to drive in 92 runs. Sure, he’d see a few more hittable pitches and walk less often, but remember, Gonzalez is “protected” in the lineup by Kevin Youkilis, a guy batting .270 and having a down year in almost every category. It’s not as if Gonzalez is hitting in front of Manny Ramirez in his prime.

Batting third in such a potent lineup obviously increases your RBI opportunities, but when you hit better than .350, you’ve earned every single one of those RBIs.

Wait — we were debating the value of RBIs, right?

Ben Watanabe, 8:17 a.m., Wednesday

We can debate the value of RBIs another day. My point is, nobody who evaluates baseball players even looks at RBIs other than for contextual information. They just don’t care because it’s such a relative stat.

On the actual topic, it looks like we have something of a consensus.

RULING

Although Josh Beckett’s importance as the team’s ace can’t be disputed, Jacoby Ellsbury’s resurgence has made every one of his at-bats the start of a potential rally, and Dustin Pedroia’s impact offensively, defensively and intangibly makes him a fan favorite, the reliability Adrian Gonzalez brings makes him the Red Sox’ MVP. Also: We need a bigger boat.

What do you think of the ruling? Share your opinion in the comments below.

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