Pick a Side

Pick A Side: Is Atlanta's Josef Martinez an MLS MVP candidate or not?

Is the sample size too small, or the goal haul just too big?

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PAUL TENORIO: He's up for MVP because he's incredibly valuable

It might seem like an easy answer.

How can a player be considered the Most Valuable Player in a league when he only steps on the field for 62 percent of his team’s games?

It’s simple. With Josef Martinez in the starting lineup, expansion Atlanta United is 8-2-2 with 37 goals scored. When he does not play or is limited to 30 minutes or less of game time, Atlanta’s record is 5-6-5 with 24 goals scored.

In other words, with Martinez on the field, Atlanta is a legitimate MLS Cup contender that averages 2.17 points and 3.1 goals per game. Without him on the field, they’re another expansion team and a fringe playoff squad, averaging 1.25 points per game and 1.5 goals per game.

When we talk about the most valuable player in any league or on any team, it’s all about the impact that player has on his team. In this case, Atlanta United is clearly a far better squad when Martinez is on the field. In addition, Martinez has completely changed the scope of the Eastern Conference playoff race since returning from injury.

Martinez has eight goals in his last four games, a remarkable two goals per game rate, and despite having played in just 15 games – 11 fewer than David Villa, 13 fewer than Diego Valeri and 14 fewer than Nemanja Nikolic – the Venezuelan forward sits just two goals off the pace for the MLS Golden Boot.

Atlanta, meanwhile, has jumped up to No. 4 in the Eastern Conference and, if it picks up a win on the weekend, would be just two points off pace for the No. 2 seed and a bye in the playoffs. You can say he hasn’t played enough games, but it’d be a weak excuse. Martinez has, in his limited time on the field, been the most important player for a legit contender and turned a playoff race on its head.

That’s good enough for taking home the MVP, and he should absolutely be considered for the award.  

Richard Farley: He's missed too much, and padded his stats

There’s a limit to how much good a player can do in one game. Score one goal or four, you can ultimately only influence three points at a time. Anything beyond what’s needed to secure a win isn’t exactly wasted, but largely, its main impact is on your resume.

Once you accept that, Josef Martinez’s season looks a bit different — something more fitting a Most Remarkable Player honor than the MVP award. The Venezuelan international is raising the bar when it comes to MLS goal production, but although he has scored 17 times, he’s only appeared in 15 games. That means he’s only had a chance to influence 53.6 of Atlanta United’s potential points.

For some, that won’t matter. The MVP should be the league’s best player, and for them, Martinez may still be it. But a reasonable interpretation of best is most influential on a team’s chances of winning, and although Martinez has likely been the MVP of the 15-game sub-season he’s played, there’s nearly half a season of points where his contribution is zero.

By comparison, David Villa has appeared in 89.7 percent of New York City’s games. Diego Valeri? 93.3 percent of Portland’s.

Dilute those contenders’ campaigns down to their best 15 games, and their seasons won’t compare to Martinez’s. But MLS doesn’t have a 15-game season. Its teams play 34 games, and while Martinez may have been the dominant factor in Atlanta’s amazing record when he’s on the field, the resources wasted with him off of it — his roster spot, his Designated Player spot, as well as the cap hit that entails — are part of why United’s been less successful with him gone.

To be sure, this is arguing at the margins, but within those margins is a case against looking purely at aggregated numbers. If you had two players who scored 20 goals in a season, the one who spread that contribution over 20 games would be influencing more results than somebody who scored them all in one.

Martinez’s case isn’t that extreme, but it’s still a case where you have to look beyond the aggregation. And when you do, as great as he’s been, he hasn’t played enough to justify a Most Valuable Player honor.