Let's assume the season ends today, after Sept. the 3. The Chicago White Sox, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Boston Red Sox, and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are your playoff teams. Naturally, because we like to look for a good leadership story, we choose our MVP from one of these teams, unless a player from a different team is having an absolutely otherworldly season. In the American League this year, this is certainly not the case. So we limit the discussion to these four teams.
If we are only looking at hitters, the best hitters from each team are Quentin, Dustin Pedroia (Youkilis has been a better hitter, but the fact that Pedroia plays second base and Youkilis plays first base matters a ton), Evan Longoria, and Vladimir Guerrero (we are assuming Teixeira cannot win the award). Longoria's injury is largely preventing him from getting it, but without it, he was as eligible for it as any of these candidates. Vlad is out of the question. He simply has not had a good enough season.
So who do you give it to? The .314/.369/.458 second baseman or the .287/.394/.571 left fielder?
By just looking at the slash stats, it's obviously Quentin. However, Pedroia has a lead over Quentin in VORP, 55.6 to 50.3. VORP is defined by Baseball Prospectus as "the number of runs contributed beyond what a replacement-level player at the same position would contribute if given the same percentage of team plate-appearances." Basically, since offense is much harder to come by at second base than left field, Pedroia gets the nod in this category. It's also significant that Pedroia is a plus defender at second base, while Quentin is a minus in left field.
The reason that ultimately the award should go to Quentin is his heroics in late-game situations. Quentin is among the lead leaders in game-winning RBI and is hitting .351/.448/.757 in situations that qualify as "close and late," according to ESPN. Pedroia has also been good in these situations, with .375/.420/.538 to back him up. However, the decent difference in OBP and the tremendous difference in slugging suggests that Quentin has been able to take close games and turn the tide in his team's favor significantly more effectively than Pedroia. It's a close race, for sure, but Quentin has been the hero that has brought his team through stretches when not many people around him have been hitting. The nod should go to Carlos Quentin.
But let's say we change the question.
What if we were to hold a draft of all AL players before the 2008 season, and these players were guaranteed to perform exactly as they have this season (including injuries). Who is your No. 1 overall draft pick in such a draft? Is it the same as the Most Valuable Player? Sadly, the MVP award is typically restricted to hitters and people on playoff teams. Grady Sizemore has been the best offensive player overall in the American League this year, at a VORP of 61.3.
However, there have been two pitchers in the American league that top that figure. VORP for pitchers is defined as the number of runs that a pitcher prevents over what a replacement-level pitcher would prevent given the same amount of innings pitched. In the American League, Roy Halladay has a 63.2 VORP, but Cliff Lee absolutely takes the cake, at 70.3 runs prevented above a replacement-level player.
Comparing Lee and Carlos Quentin with respect to replacement-level, Lee has prevented 70.3 runs, Quentin has created 50.3 runs. Translating this to Baseball Prospectus's Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP), Cliff Lee has accumulated a 9.8 WARP compared to Quentin's 7.4.
10 points in VORP is approximately one WARP point. The rest of the difference between the two is made up for in fielding. Quentin is a slightly subpar defensive left fielder (VORP accounts only for the position one plays, not how well he plays it), and that reconciles the rest of the difference between the two in WARP. Quentin has certainly turned the tide of plenty of some games for the Chicago White Sox, but in 2008, no hitter can compare to the complete and utter dominance that Cliff Lee has exerted over the league.
To conclude, Quentin is your MVP because statistically, he is at least one of the three best hitters in the American League, plays for a contending team in a tight pennant race (which he is assumed to have won), and has swung the tide of multiple close games. But in the end, what prevents him from really being the BEST player in the American League is the fact that left fielders who hit well are a dime a dozen (only DH and 1B have higher offensive expectations), and that he doesn't field his position particularly well.
Cliff Lee, however, has been worth 9.8 wins more than what your classic swingman/middle reliever would have been worth in a starting role, while Carlos Quentin has only been worth 7.4 wins more than your classic back-up left fielder. For this reason, Cliff Lee has been the best player in the American League this season. He stands no chance to win the MVP award, and I can respect that. But if you were to start from scratch and have just one player to build your team around for the 2008 season, Cliff Lee's your man.