Who's the Real American League MVP?

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Who's the Real American League MVP?

Now that both of the League Division Series are sewn up, and there are a few off days in baseball, I thought that I would start giving thought to the A.L. MVP race.

Unlike the N.L. award, which under no circumstances should go to anyone but Albert Pujols, the A.L. award is actually up for grabs. I thought that it would be a fun exercise to imagine how I would fill out the ballot, if I had that responsibility as a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA).

In considering my ballot, I began to notice just how many first-timers are in contention this year. None among Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler, Dustin Pedroia, Carlos Quentin, or Kevin Youkilis has ever drawn even a single MVP vote.

Moreover, the trio of Aubrey Huff, Joe Mauer, and Grady Sizemore contains no top 10 MVP finishers. That leaves only Justin Morneau and Alex Rodriguez, who were back-to-back-to-back winners from 2005-2007, as repeat contenders. 

While I did use sabermetric stats such as VORP and different forms of Win Shares to whittle down my list to the final 10, I relied on a variety of statistical, contextual, and observational criteria to make my final rankings. 

I don’t believe that there’s any perfect system for assessing a player’s value to his team. Thus, I fully expect many to disagree with my choices and point to considerations that I have disregarded. But I hope that I’ve at least made it clear how and why I’ve come to the conclusions that I’ve made.

 

10.  Justin Morneau

.300/.374/.499          

It’s remarkable how close this season’s numbers have been to those of Morneau’s 2006 MVP campaign (though at first glance, it might not seem so). Morneau has tallied almost the same stats in several categories: runs (97 in 2006 to 97 in 2008), RBI (130 to 129), hits (190 to 187), and OBP (.375 to .374).

The main difference between the two years is in the power-hitting categories; Morneau’s slugging percentage dropped 60 points from 2006 to 2008, from .559 to .499. This can almost entirely be attributed to about 10 of his homers from ’06 (34 to 23) turning into doubles in ’08 (37 to 47). 

Of course, this makes all the difference, as much of Morneau’s value comes from his ability to smoke the ball. First basemen have to bash to earn their keep, and slugging below .500 just won’t cut it for first basemen seeking MVP awards. Forget about Morneau for a moment.

If I told you that there was an MVP candidate who played an offensive-minded position, hit 23 home runs, and barely batted .300, what kind of chances would you give him to take home the MVP award? See? Morneau’s not even the MVP of his position or his team this year, let alone the entire league. 

So why is Morneau even on my list? Couldn’t I have picked someone like Miguel Cabrera instead? Sure, and I was close to doing just that.

Cabrera’s advantage is that he leads the AL in homers (37), while finishing close to Morneau in RBI (127). Moreover, with Cabrera’s final line standing at.292/.349/.537, he edges Morneau in OPS (.887 for Cabrera vs. .873 for Morneau).

But, with the way that the Tigers have underperformed this year, and the way the Twins exceeded expectations, I’m leaning towards the Canuck (which, if you didn't know, is Canadian for "Canadian"). 

In the end, I don’t feel great about either choice—a first baseman who didn’t even achieve an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .900 is not an ideal MVP candidate. I’ll stick with Morneau as my Mr. Irrelevant, but I wouldn’t fault you for going with Cabrera, or even Nick Markakis (.306/.406/.491) for that matter.

What the writers will say

Morneau has been generating a lot of buzz lately, but that may stop now that the Twins failed to make the postseason after all. It certainly helps that he’s got that recent MVP sheen to him, but he’d be lucky to finish in the top five.

It would have made all the difference if… 

Morneau had turned some of those doubles into home runs, or maybe if he had merely come up with a game-winning home run during the play-in game against the White Sox.

 

9.  Aubrey Huff

.304/.360/.552

Many baseball writers will have loads of stock excuses for keeping Huff off their ballots. He’s a DH, and therefore “only plays half the game” (Huff actually started 31 games at third base and 23 games at first, giving the Orioles some roster flexibility). 

He was the best hitter on a last-place team. He was among the worst hitters in the league in the clutch (.219/.296/.323 in close and late situations).

He makes my ballot because, despite all those knocks on him, the guy plain raked all year long. After all, he finished fifth in the A.L. in OPS with a .912 mark, batted .304, cracked 32 home runs and 48 doubles, drove in 108 runs, and even scampered for four stolen bases (without being caught once—pretty good for a slow-footed DH!).

And remember, he did all this hitting in the midst of a mediocre Orioles lineup (it ranked eighth out of 14 AL teams in both OPS and runs). He’s not a flashy pick, but he deserves to make the ballot.

What the writers will say

I’m guessing he’s totally off the radar for most writers because of his team and fielding position.

It would have made all the difference if… 

Huff’s Orioles hadn’t been patsies this year.

 

8.  Ian Kinsler

.319/.375/.517

Had Ian Kinsler’s season not ended on Aug. 17, this 2008 A.L. MVP debate might have been all about whether MVPs need to be “clutch” or need to play on winning teams, or both (actually, it is: see Rodriguez, Alex).

After all, projecting Kinsler’s stats out to a full season produces some MVP-worthy numbers, especially for a second baseman. Over a full season, to go along with that .902 OPS, Kinsler was on pace to smack 23 home runs, lead the league in runs with 132, drive in 91 runs, and steal 33 bases. Pretty impressive. 

Of course, no one knows whether Kinsler could have kept that pace up. And by going down with a sports hernia (and thereby missing a quarter of the season), Kinsler saved the writers the trouble of the clutch/winning team debates.

After all, with a .222/.308/.302 line in close and late situations, Kinsler was about as anti-clutch as a star player gets. And with a 74-88 record, Texas was not much of a contender. 

So maybe Kinsler was doomed all along, injury or no injury. Or maybe he just needed to spend that lost month-and-a-half of the season hitting game-winning homers and playing Gold Glove defense, simultaneously gaining his clutch street cred and driving the Rangers to a playoff berth.

Hey, it coulda happened, right? Nah.

What the writers will say

Missing the last quarter of the season might keep him off most ballots, and at least removes him from serious contention.

It would have made all the difference if… 

Kinsler could have stayed healthy and kept up that pace.

 

7.  Alex Rodriguez

.302/.392/.573

Year after year, Alex Rodriguez puts up the kind of numbers the keep him at the center of the MVP debate. And every year, pundits try to answer the same question: Is A-Rod clutch or not? (See, told you we’d be having that debate after all.) Rodriguez has a reputation as a perennial choke artist, but the numbers paint a different picture.

Close and late statistics

Year     AVG OBP SLG OPS

2008  .257/.361/.429/.790

2007  .357/.439/.686/1.125

2006  .237/.326/.368/.694

2005  .293/.418/.520/.938

2004  .275/.359/.438/.796

The truth is, Rodriguez has only underperformed every other year in tight situations since joining the Yankees in 2004. And, in fairness, he was only truly bad in those situations in 2006; in 2004 and 2008 he merely batted like a league average third baseman in the clutch (which is to say, well below his ability). 

Now, I don't believe there's any pattern to this. In fact, I’m not sure that I believe in clutch hitting as a repeatable skill. A few players come to mind as having put up great high-pressure numbers for many years in a row (David Ortiz 2003-2006, for example).

Most, however, follow up a strong clutch season with some kind of regression to the mean. If you look at their numbers year to year, you might see a couple of good seasons strung together, but you’re as likely to see the clutch numbers yo-yoing all over the place.

But as far as the MVP debate goes, it doesn’t even matter if “clutchness” is a skill or an aggregation of good luck. The MVP award is for the most valuable player of one particular year. We consistently name players MVP based on years that are clearly statistical outliers. 

The point isn’t whether the player can repeat his performance the next year. The point is that he drove his team to greater heights, whether by skill, luck, or (most frequently) a judicious blend of the two.

Rodriguez drove the Yankees to (relative) greatness in 2005 and in 2007. If anything, he was perceived to have the opposite effect this year, and advanced metrics such as Runs Created and Win Probability Added bear this gut reaction out (he failed to rank among the top 15 AL batters in both).

His performance in high-leverage situations wasn’t the only reason that the Yankees failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 1994, but it was certainly a contributing factor to a greater malaise. The baseball-card numbers may say MVP, but the results say disappointment.

What the writers will say

His struggles in meaningful situations have been so openly discussed by the media that I doubt he has any serious chance of winning the award despite his phenomenal numbers. Nevertheless, his overall numbers should keep him on most ballots.

It would have made all the difference if… 

Rodriguez had partied in the clutch like it was 2007 (or even 2005).

 

6.  Grady Sizemore

.268/.374/.502

Two men have won an MVP award with a batting average below .270. 

In 1944, St. Louis Cardinals shortstop Marty “the Octopus” Marion won the award based almost entirely on his defensive contributions. Marion was known throughout the 1940s as a defensive wizard and would be the best known Cardinals shortstop ever if Ozzie Smith hadn’t come along to one-up him in the 1980s. 

Still, how a guy that batted .267/.324/.362 won an MVP award is beyond me, especially when his teammate Stan Musial put up a .347/.440/.549 line that year. Maybe the writers thought it would be unfair to give it to Musial again after he won in 1943. 

I know what you’re thinking, maybe Marion was a great base stealer. Well, he was perfect that year on the base paths; he stole one base and was never caught (Musial stole seven).

The other guy that managed to snag an MVP award without cracking .270 just might have been a bit more deserving. After all, you have to give a guy credit for breaking the single-season home run record, especially without the aid of pharmaceuticals (amphetamines don’t count, right?). 

Roger Maris hit .269/.372/.620 during his 61 in ’61 season to win his second-straight MVP award.  The writers gave Maris a pass for his low batting average, even with Norm Cash’s career year to lure them away (361/.487/.662, with 41 bombs, 119 runs, 132 RBI, and 11 steals).

That Maris won the award in the face of Cash’s numbers was more a testament to how amazing it was to see Ruth’s record fall than to who was the top offensive player in the league that year. 

Grady Sizemore is no Maris, and I doubt we’ll see an encore of the 1944 voting. Nor do I believe he should win the award, despite my indifference to batting average when it can be replaced by a robust on base percentage (.374). Some of Sizemore’s counting numbers are alluring (specifically the 33 home runs and 38 stolen bases). 

But, because of that low batting average, his OPS (.876) is relatively low for a guy who hit for so much power, and he wasn’t among the league leaders in any other offensive categories. 

Moreover, picked by many to win their division, the Indians underachieved in a big way, and he played a part in that. With a .149/.357/.324 line in close and late situations, his ability to hit for power, or even get a hit at all, disappeared when it mattered the most, so he wasn’t much help in pulling out tight wins (beyond taking walks).

As a center fielder, his overall numbers are still outstanding, but there are too many flaws here to make him an up-ballot choice.

What the writers will say

I think there will be too much focus on his batting average to allow him to get serious consideration for the top spot, but he might still make many ballots on the overall strength of his numbers.

It would have made all the difference if… 

Sizemore could have just cracked .280 in the batting average department.

 

5.  Josh Hamilton

.304/.371/.530

In July, Hamilton was the consensus MVP favorite. His comeback story (drug user kicks the habit and makes good), combined with gaudy first-half stats (.310/.357/.562, with 21 HR and 7 SB before the All Star break), propelled him to enormous popularity, even before his record-setting performance in the first round of the Home Run Derby.

His second half numbers have flagged a bit (.296/.376/.498, 11 HR, 2 SB), but they are still excellent for a center fielder. 

Of course, Hamilton isn’t your prototypical center fielder. He’s a middle-of-the-order hitter, with a league-leading 130 RBI, a power stroke, and significant defensive limitations. The limitations are a big part of what holds Hamilton back as an MVP candidate in my mind.

According to John Dewan’s Revised Zone Rating stat, Hamilton is the second worst starting center fielder in the American League. If you prefer to rely on Bill James’ Fielding Win Shares, Hamilton fares no better, again finishing second to last in the league. Clearly, some of the value Hamilton gains by being such a good hitter he gives right back when he takes the field. 

The upshot of all this is that Hamilton doesn’t deserve a center fielder “bonus” when looking at his numbers.  He should be compared right alongside corner outfielders, designated hitters, and first basemen, and therefore power numbers are to be expected.

The problem for Hamilton is that he is outshone one way or another by the two other top power bats in the MVP race, Carlos Quentin and Kevin Youkilis. As a true center fielder, Hamilton would have been your 2008 MVP. But he is what he is, and no one in Texas is complaining about that.

What the writers will say

Some will still like the feel-good story enough to give him the nod as the top choice.  But, given his second-half fade, and his team’s drop out of contention, he’ll likely have to settle for a finish in the top five.

It would have made all the difference if… 

Hamilton had kept up the pace in slugging and ended up leading the league in home runs in addition to RBI.

 

4.  Carlos Quentin

.288/.394/.571

Oh, what might have been! On Sept. 1, 2008, with less than a month to go in the season, Carlos Quentin seemed like a shoo-in for A.L. MVP. In the month-and-a-half after the All-Star break, Quentin had batted .312/..436/.681, with 14 home runs. He was on a roll, and it seemed like nothing could stop him from taking home the hardware.

And then he broke his wrist.

Not making a diving catch. Not being hit by an inside fastball. Not sliding into home plate. He broke his own wrist. He just took his bat and struck himself in the hand. As he explained:

“Something I've done thousands of times since I was a kid—a little frustrated. I had the bat in my left hand, and I just kind of hit down on the bat head with my right hand with a closed fist. I kind of hit a little bit low, nicked my wrist and finished the at-bat.”

And that’s how an MVP campaign ends.

The amazing thing is that he almost ended up with the league lead in home runs, even while missing the entire month (Miguel Cabrera, who finished with one more homer, didn’t pass him until Sept. 27). And his overall numbers, including a .351/.448/.757 line in close and late situations, are still good enough to keep him on the top half of the ballot.

After all, had Quentin missed the same amount of time around the middle of the season (as Alex Rodriguez did in May, for example), it wouldn’t have seemed like nearly such a deal-breaker for MVP consideration.

But had Quentin played at all in September, even while slumping, he would have easily finished as the consensus favorite. 

For example, if Quentin had finished September with the same stats he compiled in June, his worst month of the season, he would have still added five home runs, 13 RBI, and 18 runs to his season totals. Is there any way he wouldn’t win the award with 41 home runs, 113 RBI, and 114 runs, even if his rate line dropped to something like .285/.390/.550 because of the slump?

Alas, bad things happen. As it is, he’ll have to settle for being a serious part of the MVP conversation in his first full season as a regular. If all goes well, he’ll have another dozen years or so to mash his way to an MVP.

What the writers will say

Some writers won’t forgive the fact that Quentin went down at the end of the year, no matter that the games are worth the same in April as they are in September. He deserves to finish in the top five, but he could end up being shunted to the bottom of a lot of ballots for his bad timing.

It would have made all the difference if… 

Quentin had said “Aw shucks!” and channeled his frustration into crushing the next pitch he saw, instead of taking it on his own wrist.  

 

3.  Joe Mauer

.328/.413/.451

Most casual baseball followers probably think of Morneau, not Mauer, as the MVP of the Twins. After all, as a power-hitter and an RBI machine, the big Canadian has a more classic MVP profile than Mauer. The fact that Morneau won the award in 2006 only further cements this perception.

A closer look, however, reveals that despite his low home run and RBI totals, Mauer has provided his team with much more value this season. Most fans know that, at .328, Mauer is the A.L. batting champion, but many might not realize that he also finished second in on-base percentage (.413), one of only three A.L. batters to get on base more than 40 percent of the time. 

True, he lacks flashy counting numbers by general standards, not cracking 100 in either runs or RBI, while hitting a mere nine home runs and swiping only one bag. For a catcher, however, his numbers are excellent, and he was by far the best in the league at his position. 

Moreover, by all accounts, Mauer is an excellent defensive catcher and a superb game-caller. One need only look at the fine numbers put up by Minnesota’s unheralded pitching staff (a 4.16 ERA and 1.35 WHIP from a staff topped most of the year by Kevin Slowey and Scott Baker) to see that Mauer has been a team leader in ways that are unquantifiable. 

Still, while these factors are more than adequate to push Mauer to the top of my ballot, they aren’t quite enough to get him the nod as my MVP. This is no slight against Mauer; rather it is recognition of his competition.

Put simply, if you’re inclined to choose an up-the-middle player who mixes superb defense with stellar at-bats, you’d pick Dustin Pedroia, for reasons given below. And if you’re inclined to vote for a traditional slugger, Mauer isn’t even on your radar. 

Mauer may be the most valuable player on his team, not to mention his division, but he’s not quite the MVP of the league this year. Nevertheless, he has an excellent chance of being in the discussion for years to come. 

What the writers will say

As an nontraditional candidate, Mauer will likely have a hard time getting the attention he deserves from many writers. He is not likely to be a serious candidate for the top spot for even those who appreciate his skills.

It would have made all the difference if… 

Mauer had crushed a few more balls, eclipsed 100 runs (he finished at 98), and the Twins had squeaked their way into the playoffs.

 

2.  Kevin Youkilis

.312/.390/.569

1.  Dustin Pedroia

.326/.376/.493

I’m examining these two side-by-side because I found this final determination to be so difficult.

Choosing Pedroia over Joe Mauer wasn’t so difficult. Not only did Pedroia exhibit the same skills as Mauer (hitting for average, getting on base, and playing excellent defense), he was also a decent power-hitter (17 HR and a majors-leading 54 doubles) and base-stealer (20 SB), especially relative to his position. 

Choosing Pedroia over Youkilis was the hard part. 

It’s an apples and oranges situation. The two play very different styles of baseball. Pedroia’s game is a compromise of contact hitting (he led the league in hits and was second in batting average), gap power (with his fair share long balls), speed, and excellent middle-infield defense. 

Youkilis (at least the 2008 version) is a more traditional slugger, who provided value through his high batting average, stellar on base percentage, and his ability to play excellent defense at two positions. The latter ability was especially important this year, as he made a seemingly effortless transition across the diamond to sub in during Lowell’s many 2008 injury breaks. 

Beyond these differences, however, there are a remarkable number of similarities between the two. Both hit for average, have good on-base skills, and have been embraced by teammates and fans alike as gritty leaders of a Red Sox team that can no longer rely on the offense of Manny Ramirez (now out in Hollywood) and David Ortiz (not quite the same since he injured his wrist).

Fitting in with the overall theme of this year’s A.L. MVP race, both Youkilis and Pedroia can count 2008 as the most successful season of their young careers. 

As far as I can see, it’s a toss up. I ended up focusing on a few things to make my final decision:

1. Pedroia didn’t just steal a lot of bases; he was extremely efficient, only being caught once in 21 attempts. Youkilis, on the other hand, not only was no base stealing threat, he was actually caught (5) more times than he was successful (3). His attempts at thievery hurt the team much more than they helped. 

2. While Youkilis played great defense all season, Pedroia was equally adept, and he did it at a more demanding and higher-impact position. 

3. Both hit pretty well in the clutch, but Pedroia’s .368/.419/.526 line in close and late situations far exceeded his norms, while Youkilis’s .927 close and late OPS fell below his season mark. 

Admittedly, these are fairly arbitrary considerations on which to base an MVP award.  Like I said, it was a toss up to me, and these paltry differences seemed better than a coin flip (and don’t think that there aren’t writers feeling around in their pocket for a quarter as they fill out their ballots).

In the end, the Red Sox are extraordinarily lucky (or well-managed) to have had two players (neither of whom was even among their top three hitters last season) develop into MVP candidates just as the team needed to replace some offensive firepower. 

What the writers will say

I think one or the other will win the award. With this combination of statistical success, hype, and being a crucial part of a playoff team, it is almost a foregone conclusion that one of the two will come out on top. Each of them has made headlines for stepping up for a Red Sox team beleaguered by injuries.

It would have made all the difference if… 

Pedroia had eclipsed the 20 home-run mark. I think he’d be the shoo-in as a 20-20, slick-fielding, clutch-hitting second baseman on a winning team. I think Youkilis’s chances would have been better if he had hit just one more bomb, since we’ve grown accustomed to seeing MVP sluggers hit at least 30 home runs.

 

In the end, this exercise left me with one sure conclusion: I really respect the difficulty writers face in not only choosing the MVP, but also ranking the nine runners up. I am fairly sure that I’ve at least included the top seven or eight most deserving players in my list, but I can’t say that I would disagree strongly with any number of alternate orders that they could be ranked in. 

As I’m sure many of the BBWAA writers must do as they vote for the various year-end awards, at some point I just had to stop running through the numbers and make some tough calls. 

 

Don't forget to vote for your MVP choice in the poll above before you leave!

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