If the season were to end right now, the voters would be faced with one hell of a dilemma. Who is the MVP of the American League?
With numerous factors in the mix that can shake up the vote, the AL has turned into a proverbial crap shoot in terms of MVP. Many candidates (Grady Sizemore, Milton Bradley, Josh Hamilton), are on teams with no realistic shot at the postseason, while in contrast, the top 5 teams in the AL (Rays, Red Sox, White Sox, Twins, Angels) all seem to lack that one true superstar standout like Alex Rodriguez was in 2007.
One thing I know is for certain, and that is the best player often times finds themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to the MVP vote. From minor, difference of opinion errors like Ryan Howard's victory over Albert Pujols in the 2006 NL MVP race, to massive mistakes like the 2002 AL MVP vote, to all out debacles like the 1962 NL MVP vote, the MVP race is a fickle monster. For now, though, let us look at what I will call the "contenders".
Milton Bradley: DH, Texas
What a rebound year he has been having. He was hitting well in San Diego before losing a fight with Bud Black and the ground and having his ACL pay for it, but he has torn the cover off the ball all season long. Registering slash stats of .318/.445/.585 through August 23rd, Bradley has lapped the field in the AL in Equivalent Average (defined here) at .349, and leads the AL in OPS. Unfortunately for Bradley, the Rangers will miss out on the playoffs, and as evidenced by David Ortiz in 2006, the voters tend to hold DH's to a much higher standard in hitting than any other player.
Carlos Quentin: LF, Chicago
Arizona must be wondering where this guy was in 2007. Since coming to Chicago, Quentin has done nothing but impress, putting up slash stats of .290/.397/.577, leading his team in OPS, even with hitters like Jermaine Dye and Jim Thome on the roster, and leads the big five teams in VORP. The drawbacks to Quentin, however, would be the sheer fact that there are multiple players who have statistically had better seasons, and Quentin's sub par defense (.969 Fielding percentage, 1.8 RF9) will come into play in the voting.
Alex Rodriguez: 3B, New York
What is an AL MVP race without arguably the best player in the American League? While the Yankees have generally faltered, and look to be out of the playoff mix for the first time since the MLB strike of 1994, Alex Rodriguez has just done what he normally does: an OPS of .987 and a solid glove. A-Rod ranks second in both VORP (defined here) and EqA in the American League, making him statistically a good candidate for the MVP vote. Unfortunately for Alex Rodriguez, his numbers are not as spectacular as his 2007 numbers to really differentiate himself from the pack, he missed time due to injury, and if 2006 was an indication of anything, New York Yankees do not get the benefit of the doubt in the MVP vote.
Grady Sizemore: CF, Cleveland
Already a star coming into this season, Sizemore has made the next step towards becoming one of the premium players in the majors. While his hitting statistics may be unspectacular compared to some of his rivals (.272/.385/.525, 137 OPS+), he also plays very good defense in a very important defensive position. With an RFg of 2.58 and a Fielding percentage of .994, Sizemore has the advantage of not only being, along with Josh Hamilton, by far and away the best offensive players at their position, but having the glove to make him valuable in every aspect of the game, as indicated by his first place standing in AL VORP. He is also 34 for 37 in stolen bases, giving him a .919 Stolen base percentage. It would be a tough sell to claim statistically that Sizemore is the best player in the American League, however, as even EqA (which factors in stolen bases) has him fifth, and for a voter that does not consider position to be a key factor in the MVP race, Sizemore would not look too hot. Especially since his team is a sub .500 ballclub that has been sending away players all summer.
Kevin Youkilis: 1B, Boston
The Red Sox offense has done nicely despite losing Manny Ramirez in that eighty cents to the dollar deal the Red Sox performed at the deadline to get rid of the troubled Left Fielder. The "Greek God of Walks" has become a little more aggressive at the dish, and while his at bats per walk ratio is up significantly in 2008 (10.49, as opposed to 6.86 in 2007), his slugging has exploded, slugging .572 in 2008, and an OPS of .957 puts him with the league leaders. He is looking at a chance for his first career 30 home run season, and continues to be a very good doubles hitter as well. He is also a candidate for the Gold Glove at first base, and when needed, has transitioned back to third base seamlessly. The argument is tough, however, as Carlos Quentin, who is also playing for a real American League contender, has Youkilis slightly covered in most offensive categories, and while he has played very good defense, the value of a Gold Glove first basemen is not near that of a middle infielder, center fielder, or catcher. No Red Sox player has won the MVP since Mo Vaughn did it in 1995.
Josh Hamilton: CF, Texas
If there was a feel good story MVP of the year, Hamilton would win it hands down. While the never ending All Star weekend coverage of the Josh Hamilton born-again bonanza got tedious quickly, there is no denying that it is a great story. But Hamilton is not just an ESPN hype up, he has the numbers to back it up. With slash stats of .303/.368/.550, 29 Home Runs, and an obscene 115 RBI's with over a month still to go, Hamilton has done damage to opposing pitching all season. His OPS+ is the highest among center fielders in MLB, and he has been a cornerstone of one of the best offenses this decade. He has the same problem as Milton Bradley in that the team is not playoff bound, and Hamilton also has the statistical issue of being second in EqA and third in VORP...on his own team. Grady Sizemore also has been much more impressive in the field, and edges him in EqA, making him a tough sell in terms of statistics alone.
Joe Mauer: C, Minnesota
One of the "big two" on Minnesota, Mauer is once again putting in a very good, albeit unexciting, offensive season. While most people see a catcher with a .320+ OBP as being a solid on base catcher, Joe Mauer is currently registering a .416 OBP, and is dominating all over American League catchers in VORP. Despite only having 8 home runs, also has a solid .451 SLG, giving him a 135 OPS+, and is currently fourth in American League EqA. He trails teammate Justin Morneau by 3 points in OPS+, and his defensive range factor is below average (albeit he also boasts a very good .997 Fielding percentage). The unspectacular play may also be frowned upon by the voters.
Justin Morneau: 1B, Minnesota
These guys seemed to be joined at the hip anyway, might as well discuss them one after the other. While his 2006 MVP victory has drawn my criticism (surprisingly, as a Red Sox fan, on Jeter's behalf), he has put together another season that has him in the MVP talks. His batting average and on base percentage are very comparable to Kevin Youkilis', so it is a matter of ability preference. While Youkilis has displayed a very good glove, Morneau has been outstanding on defense, with range factors and a fielding percentage well above the league average to go along with his solid hitting. Unfortunately for Morneau, though, he not only trails his own teammate, Joe Mauer, in VORP and EqA, but he also trails Youkilis in VORP, and by a lot in SLG (.572 to .499). His balanced skill set won him over in 2006, however, and it could happen again.
Dustin Pedroia: 2B, Boston
An outsider in the race, but still a slight contender, Pedroia will be the one to reap the most benefit of Ian Kinsler's injury, knocking him out of the AL hits lead and essentially out of the MVP race. While statistically, Pedroia has been hitting very well (.318/.362/.475), and the solid power has been a welcome addition to his offensive game, it has been this in addition to his gold glove contending defense at a paramount defensive position (.992 fielding percentage) that really has him in any sort of consideration for the MVP vote. While he ranks a respectable 11th in VORP (the same as Morneau in 2006), he has two major hangups: He will probably still not pass Ian Kinsler in VORP, despite Kinsler's missed time (he played that well in 2008), and is statistically very similar to Brian Roberts, both on offense and defense. Roberts will likely not receive much consideration at all in the MVP vote. Unless Roberts also finishes high in the vote, voting Pedroia would not make much sense.
Nick Markakis: RF, Baltimore
I am going to make a slightly surprising final pick to appear as one of the ten names on my fictional ballot, and put on the underrated Nick Markakis, who seems to do nothing but play very good baseball every time I watch him. While he is the only player on my list on one of the three cellar dweller teams in the American League, he has quietly put together yet another good season in Baltimore, and is really positioning himself to be one of the best corner outfielders in the majors for years to come. While his slash statistics of .302/.403/.489 are good enough to include him in talks among good offensive players, it is his defense that particularly impresses me (an attribute I do not normally look too much into for a corner outfielder). His 2.10 RFg is impressive, as is his .993 Fielding percentage, but what I really like about Markakis is his arm: his 14 outfield assists (which is more than Ichiro has ever had in a full MLB season) is spectacular, and players will eventually just give up on running against him outside of a sure base. He ranks fourth in on base, and if the Orioles are serious about winning again, will look to lock Markakis up long term. Of course, Markakis loses on the offensive front to other corner outfielders that I have not even put on my ballot, like Jermaine Dye and J.D. Drew, and playing for a team like Baltimore is not a good way to help your MVP prospects.
Now that the ten men on my ballot are set, I take into consideration the factors I will use in voting for an MVP.
Best pure offensive player: Voting on this alone, hands down, Milton Bradley is the MVP. The hang up on this, however, is that Bradley is not a positional player, and Bradley is not as outstanding compared to other DH's as other players are in regards to their position, which leads to my second criteria...
Best in relation to position: This would lead me to vote for Grady Sizemore. He leads the American League in VORP, and outside of Alex Rodriguez and Ian Kinsler (who is not even on my ballot), no one is really even close to Sizemore. However, his contributions have not helped to lead to a winning ballclub, which leads me to a third criteria...
Best of the best: This is Carlos Quentin. He leads the players of my "big five" in EqA and VORP, has an OPS of nearly 1, and has had a fantastic year. But sometimes, you just have to think about combining this category and the previous category and get...
Joe Mauer. In a time where good offensive catchers are somewhat rare (only four regular catchers have OPS's over .800, with Russell Martin of the Dodgers barely under, at .799), Mauer has been by far and away the best catcher in the American League, with Brian McCann of Atlanta being the only catcher in the majors on Joe Mauer's talent level. In addition, he is playing on a team that has surprised everyone in their ability to contend, and his sheer ability to get on base provides base runners and scoring opportunities for what has statistically been a slightly above average hitting team. But sometimes the homer just has to come out and you have to think...
Kevin Youkilis. While slightly trailing Quentin in the big offensive categories, he has played terrific defense and has provided the calming force in the lineup with Ramirez gone. This can also pay dividends to David Ortiz, who has been unable to really obtain a rhythm in 2008, and having Youkilis' bat behind him in the lineup could be what he needs to see hittable pitches and get back on track for the stretch run.
So now that I have caused everyone's head to spin, it is time for me to rank my 10 players. They are:
10) Dustin Pedroia - Just too hard of a sell, in terms of statistical production, this could just as easily be Brian Roberts.
9) Nick Markakis - Great season, good player, just not the statistical backing and team record that the men in front of him have.
8) Justin Morneau - Does not deserve to be voted ahead of Kevin Youkilis or Joe Mauer. Good season, finds himself with a respectable top 10 MVP showing.
7) Josh Hamilton - Probably a lot lower than most people will have him going. But I have Grady Sizemore's season rated higher than Hamilton's, and offensively is not even the MVP on his own team.
6) Kevin Youkilis - The Red Sox fan in me would love to vote Youkilis higher, but the MVP vote is not and should not be about fan allegiance. I would not hold First baseman defense in particularly high regard if he was not in Boston (as evidenced by Morneau), and I should not do it as a fan of the team he plays for. Not as statistically impressive as Bradley, Rodriguez, or Quentin, and not as positionally elite as Mauer or Sizemore. Sixth is a good fit for Youkilis.
5) Alex Rodriguez - It is starting to become a cluster up near the top, and nothing makes that more clear than me voting Alex Rodriguez only fifth in this ballot. Missing time hurts Rodriguez, as does the pure hitting statistics of Milton Bradley, and the fact that Quentin's just playing on a better team.
4) Grady Sizemore - Just yesterday I said he was my MVP, but a mind can change quickly. While Sizemore is the best Center Fielder in the game, Quentin and Bradley have just been more impressive in 2008 at the dish. Not to mention it is a hard sell to call a player from the fourth place team in the AL Central the MVP.
3) Milton Bradley - The DH curse strikes again. Despite owning the league in EqA, and leading the league in both OBP and SLG, his status as a DH makes it tough for me to vote him any higher. I might be more inclined to if the Rangers were a playoff contender, however.
2) Joe Mauer - Probably much higher than I originally planned, but after seeing the divide in catchers in the majors, and saw Mauer's pure on base production, I was swayed. Will probably win another batting title, and still has a top 5 EqA despite lacking power numbers, all the while playing the most difficult position in the field. However good his season has been, I cannot put it in front of my current AL MVP...
1) Carlos Quentin - Great season. While Youkilis (the likely second place overall man when all is said and done) has a higher RISP, Quentin's .336 with RISP is nothing to be bashful of, either. His surprise play is the reason why the White Sox have a shot at the postseason.