MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Hot start fuels talk of Lindor's MVP chances

Hot start fuels talk of Lindor's MVP chances

This endurance test we refer to as the baseball season will provide proper context for what Francisco Lindor did Wednesday night at Globe Life Park, where he atoned for an ultra-rare defensive gaffe by homering twice, including the game-winning grand slam that completed a sweep and made a grown Rangers fan weep.

For now, this felt like early justification of all those spring predictions that Lindor could emerge as the American League MVP Award winner.

This column isn't an evaluation of that case after three games, so put down the pitchforks. This is merely a discussion about the uphill battle a player like Lindor faces and how moments of magnitude like Wednesday's help push back against precedent.

The Tribe is a popular pick to win the AL Central. Lindor, as its emoticon embodiment who delivers on both sides of the ball, is a popular AL MVP Award pick among those who veer away from Mike Trout, if only for the sake of variety.

Personally, I'm skeptical of Lindor's AL MVP Award likelihood -- not because I doubt him personally (I'm currently looking into the legality of adopting him) and not because I blindly assume Trout will win yet another one (it's still surprising voters did the right thing in not holding a 74-win Angels squad against him). It's because the Baseball Writers' Association of America electorate tends to lean more toward power numbers in the MVP Award vote.

Lindor's .482 slugging percentage as a rookie in 2015 was a revelation, given his Minor League track record (.384 SLG in 1,880 plate appearances). Predictably, his power regressed a little his sophomore year. Even if Lindor surges this season, keep in mind only six men who manned the shortstop position slugged .500 or better in the past decade, and none have done it since '13.

Lindor on go-ahead grand slam

MVP Award winners with sub-.500 slugging percentages are outliers. In the past 40 years, there have been just four: Dustin Pedroia (.493) in 2008, Ichiro Suzuki (.457) in '01, Barry Larkin (.492) in 1995* and Kirk Gibson (.483) in '88.

*While Larkin's 1995 National League MVP Award might seem a nice comparable as a fellow shortstop, it ought to be stricken from the record. Barry Bonds recorded a 1.009 OPS and league-best 7.5 Wins Above Replacement mark… and finished 12th! It was a different time.

So Lindor will need other factors in his favor.

We can probably rule out a serious statistical setback for Trout, because, well… you know. But if the Angels fall shy of October again and the Indians are anywhere near as good as they looked in Arlington, that cracks the door open a little. Like Mookie Betts last year, Lindor could potentially log a case built more on overall impact than outlandish OPS.

Ignore Wednesday's two-run error (which arguably should have been charged to Edwin Encarnacion, anyway) and assume that Lindor will finish 2017 with strong defensive metrics. Soon enough, we'll have better Statcast™ data, in the vein of the Catch Probability currently available for outfielders, to really illustrate just how good Lindor is. For now, defensive runs saved, where he has graded out as elite, will suffice.

Rangers plate two after error

The reason Lindor received only down-ballot MVP love on the heels of the Tribe's surge up the standings last season was his offensive output was solid but not extraordinary. His 112 Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) mark, for instance, was good but nothing like that of Dodgers rookie sensation Corey Seager (137). Lindor did not finish in the top 10 among AL position players in WAR.

A way-too-early takeaway in 2017 is that Lindor, right in line with a growing concept in our game, is elevating the ball. His ground ball percentage was 50 percent in his first two seasons. So far, Lindor has put nine balls in play and only three were on the ground.

That'll merit monitoring. Lindor will never be a slugging shortstop in the vein of a young Alex Rodriguez, but he does have a combination of strength and strike zone judgment that could be improving. In the entirety of 2016, Lindor put 27 balls in play measured by Statcast™ at an exit velocity of 105 mph or greater. He had two such balls on Wednesday alone, and they both cleared the wall.

Lindor's two-run smash

Lindor is not going to suddenly be a 40-homer sensation, but bump everything up a bit -- turn that 15-homer season into something north of 20 and that 30-double output into something north of 40 -- and pair it with the dazzling D and the storyline of a squad running away with its division, and you might have something that attracts MVP Award attention.

The elevated profile that accompanies what Frankie did in the Tribe's 2016 postseason (.310/.355/.466 slash line in 15 games) could also help, as it did with Pedroia in '08 after his rookie run to the World Series title.

It's merely a conversation built on assumptions for now, but it's a fun one, especially in the aftermath of an evening in which Lindor elicited two very different raw emotions from Indians and Rangers fans.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.