The pressure of Major League Baseball's stretch run has boiled the race for the National League Most Valuable Player award down to two realistic options. With all due respect to Andrew McCutchen, Yadier Molina and—if you want to get sabermetric-happy—David Wright, Buster Posey and Ryan Braun are the only horses in this race.
On one side, you have the cherubic golden boy who seems to embody the James Earl Jones version of America's pastime. On the other, you have the disgraced-oh-wait-no-he's-not-on-a-technicality defending 2011 NL MVP.
The latter's surge is laying the national baseball media bare for all to see who care to look.
Although Posey seems to have the inside track at the moment, Braun has been charging hard at the San Francisco Giants' catcher for the last couple of months.
A hot August gave way to a scalding September, and though the Brewers have fallen out of contention in the last week, that they even resurfaced in the discussion is a tribute to the feats of their premier slugger. This is a team that was 12 games under .500 on Aug. 19 and will now finish with at least 82 wins.
Braun has been mashing, no doubt about it.
To understand the hypocrisy of the groundswell behind Ryan, you have to understand how much more valuable Buster's been.
If you look at the raw numbers, it's a relatively close call.
The wins above replacement (WAR) is separated by tenths of a point, but Braun has Posey smoked in the counting stats and slugging percentage, while Gerald Dempsey Posey III has Ryan licked in batting average, on-base percentage, walks and strikeout rate. So Braun's been more productive and Posey's been more efficient.
But consider the context.
Posey calls AT&T Park home, while Braun wears his whites at Miller Park. If counting stats were a growing boy, AT&T would be cigarette smoke, while Miller would be milk and vegetables.
Then take a gander at the WAR leaderboard again.
You'll see Braun is joined by teammates Aramis Ramirez, Corey Hart and Norichika Aoki in the top 40. Jonathan Lucroy and Carlos Gomez actually have a better WAR than Hart and Aoki, but don't have enough plate appearances to qualify. Either way, the Brew Crew has six position players with WAR of 3.0 or better.
For all the fuss made about the departure of Prince Fielder, Milwaukee's cupboard isn't exactly bare.
By comparison, San Francisco has three position players in the top 40 and one of those hasn't played a game since mid-August.
Also consider that Posey has done his damage despite seeing the vast majority of his innings from behind the plate and after coming back from a hellacious injury, one that clearly demonstrated Buster's import to the Giants as much of the same personnel that limped to the finish line in 2011 has been thriving in 2012.
In what has been a surprisingly strong offensive year for backstops, Posey's been the best and he's been no slouch on defense, either.
Finally, as good as Braun has been since the All-Star break, nobody in baseball has been hotter than the Giants' catcher.
Posey leads all of baseball in batting average (hitting close to .400), on-base percentage, is second to Miguel Cabrera—who's on his way to a Triple Crown—in slugging percentage and ranks in the Top Five for RBI. His inhuman play since the Midsummer Classic has propelled the Giants to a comfortable division title and the man, himself, to the cusp of an NL batting crown.
Either team suffers massively if its star disappears, but the Giants are a playoff team with Posey, whereas Milwaukee isn't going to the postseason even with Braun. It's obviously not the defending MVP's fault, but that doesn't change the value proposition: The difference in value between playoffs and no playoffs is tremendous, whereas the difference in value between X wins and Y wins is largely nominal when neither total would've qualified for the postseason.
Braun has a good argument on its face, but Posey's is significantly better. Case closed.
Which brings us to the hypocrisy of the thing.
In a normal year, this MVP debate would be a typical one based on the merits of both players.
Of course, due to the aforementioned performance-enhanced scandal surrounding Braun and the game itself, this is not a normal year.
Instead, it's been a banner one for sanctimonious hand-wringing and figurative crucifixion in the media.
When Melky Cabrera got popped for using in August, many in the press were so outraged you'd think these grown men had never been lied to before or heard of synthetic testosterone.
Meanwhile, the looming specter of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa becoming Hall of Fame eligible gave those with the holier-than-thou gene a chance to flaunt it when decrying any and each of the trio's chances.
Part of the fiction that is the post-steroid era is the media's overly dramatic and hard-line stance on anyone who gets caught up in the maelstrom. It's like the press is trying to make up for all those years when only blind eyes saw the PED telltales and it doubled down on that effort in '12.
For the record, I don't care much about the use of performance-enhancers in professional baseball, but that's a matter for a different day.
What does irritate me is that the same group that treats PED use like a communicable disease in most settings is going out of its way to French kiss it in this one.
Given the media's general attitude toward those touched by the PED scandal and the nip-tuck nature of the two studs' seasons, Braun shouldn't be anywhere near the discussion. He should be noted and dismissed by those same voting members who find PED use so abhorrent in its other contexts.
Yeah, yeah, the Hall of Fame ballot instructs voters that character should be a consideration, while there is no such directive on the MVP ballot.
Equally compelling is the fact that Braun's PED suspension was waived because the sample was stored too long.
Look, if you believe character matters, then it always matters, whether you've been explicitly told to consider it or not. It's not like the MVP ballot demands that the voter ignore character.
As for the technical loophole Braun squeezed his MVP trophy through, does Ryan's urine turn into testosterone and/or "prohibited substances" gradually over time? If so, is the medical community aware of this? Because I'm thinking there could be some beneficial applications of that little talent.
So why the special rules when it comes to Mr. Braun?
Maybe it's because he's the anti-Bonds: a likable otherworldly talent. Maybe it's because the Braun-shouldn't-win angle is too obvious and rational to ever start a firestorm. Maybe those members of the press sincerely believe the dude is innocent.
After all, somebody falls for those African prince emails, too, right?
I won't speculate as to the why of it, but one thing is certain: All players are not created (or chemically enhanced) equally in the eyes of the national media.
The NL MVP race is proving it.