Who is leading in the AL MVP race, Mookie Betts or J.D. Martinez?
TORONTO — When Mookie Betts steps to the plate at Fenway Park, the crowd often chants, “MVP! MVP!”
Well, did they forget about J.D. Martinez?
As great as Betts’s season has been, how can you ignore the numbers Martinez has put up? He belted a three-run homer (his 34th of the season) and knocked in four runs (pushing his total to an ungodly 97 RBIs) in Boston’s 10-7 win Tuesday night over the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre.
The Red Sox were trailing, 3-1, entering the eighth inning. They closed it to 3-2 before Martinez uncorked a vicious homer to left field on a two-ball, no-strike pitch from reliever Ryan Tepera to make it 5-3.
The Red Sox bullpen relinquished the lead in the ninth inning, but Mitch Moreland’s three-run homer in the 10th broke the 5-5 tie and Jackie Bradley Jr. added a two-run homer for insurance.
Betts tripled with one out in the 10th when his long drive to center eluded a diving Kevin Pillar. That got the ball rolling for Boston’s five-run 10th. This back-and-forth offensive duel between Betts and Martinez has been fun to watch all season.
You can certainly show DH bias when considering the MVP award, and the fact that Betts is a premier defender in right field and has 21 stolen bases in 24 attempts adds more dimensions to his game. You can argue Betts is hitting leadoff and therefore doesn’t have access to the RBI opportunities (he has 58) that Martinez does as the No. 3 or No. 4 hitter in the lineup.
Already, Martinez is one of the most prolific first-year players in Red Sox history. Dick Stuart has the most first-year homers (42) in a season for the franchise, and if Martinez stays healthy he’ll shatter that. His 34 homers tie Carl Everett for fifth-most by a first-year player and we’re only in the first week of August.
Martinez has 41 starts in the outfield and 67 at DH, so you can’t say he’s more of a DH. He entered Tuesday’s game with a 4.8 WAR while Betts was at 7.1. There’s no doubt that Martinez has transformed the Red Sox offense. He has turned Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Andrew Benintendi into better hitters. His off-the-field contributions to teammates as a teacher of hitting is off the charts. No number can measure that. And so it is a debate — Mookie or J.D.
You might say this is a tremendous problem to have.
Both players have been the heart and soul of Boston’s phenomenal start (Tuesday’s win pushed the Red Sox to 80-34). And please don’t tell me the MVP leader in the clubhouse is the Angels’ Mike Trout. There has to be some consideration for leading a team to the postseason. The Red Sox almost have wrapped that up and the Angels won’t sniff games in October.
Entering the game, Martinez had 58 homers and 147 RBIs in his last 162 games. At this pace, he’ll shatter last season’s career high of 45 homers with Detroit and Arizona. Betts had a 1.080 OPS, second to Trout’s 1.083. Martinez was fourth at 1.0333 and was hitting .328 after Tuesday. Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez, with 33 homers, 83 RBIs, and a .300 average, is also in the MVP discussion.
While Martinez loves to play the field, manager Alex Cora probably should limit that. Martinez has sustained injuries while playing the outfield that kept him out of the lineup while he was in Detroit. While you can’t keep him in bubble wrap to protect him, using him as the DH preserves his value as the middle-of-the-order power. To lose Martinez for any length of time because of an injury sustained in the outfield would be hard to swallow.
Teammates are just watching in awe as Betts and Martinez put up eye-popping numbers.
“Oh, man, obviously they’ve been unreal leading the way,” Moreland said. “It’s tough when you just have one of those guys in your lineup, but when you have two guys who could possibly be the MVP, that’s saying something. We got 80 wins, they’re leading the way for us.
“Yeah, I feel you hear starting pitchers say that you set the bar and then you want to keep it going and do better than the next guys. It’s like a friendly competition. They [Betts and Martinez] don’t have as many people doing what they’re doing. It puts us in a good spot.”
Martinez didn’t want much to do with the topic, preferring to stick to the team’s success.
“No, I don’t care about that,” he said. “You guys know how I am and how I answer those questions. Just worry about tomorrow and the next day and what we have to do to win. This is all kind of stuff that you think about when the season is over. We’re on a mission to keep doing what we keep doing and win a World Series.”
Betts also wasn’t biting on MVP talk, but continued to rave about Martinez.
“It’s a lot of fun. I’m spoiled. It’s amazing to watch him,” Betts said. “It’s not just home runs. It’s hits and good at-bats. It’s J.D. doing what he does.
“We don’t give up at-bats. We never make it easy on our opponents.”
Cora, meanwhile, is enjoying his front-row seat.
“We feel like we’re always one swing away from getting back into games,” Cora said.
Two amazing MVP candidates. Right now, it’s too close to call.