With seven games remaining in the regular season, the Philadelphia Phillies stand one-half game ahead of the New York Mets in the hunt for their second consecutive division title. Yet without the September to remember by their slugging first baseman, it's likely that the Phightin' Phillies would trail their division rivals by an insurmountable deficit.
Ryan Howard currently ranks first in the National League in home runs and runs batted in. In fact, it's not even close. With 46 home runs and 141 RBI, he has totalled eight homers and 25 more RBI than the next best National Leaguers. His defense has improved considerably, and with nine home runs in September, he has shown that he can perform in the most crucial stage of the season.
Critics will argue that Howard's sub par first half far outweighs his pennant race hot stretch; that his .204 batting average through June 12 should far outweigh his recent dominance. Yes, his batting average is currently below .250 and he has a chance to break his own single-season record for strikeouts in a season (although strikeouts are definitely an overrated statistic). What's incredible is how well he has played DESPITE these gruesome numbers.
Now what is the definition of the MVP? It's the most valuable player. It's not the greatest player. That honor goes to Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals. The MVP is the player who contributes the most to his team's success. And history shows that these players contribute for teams that make the postseason.
Only a handful of players have won the MVP award from a team missing out on October play, the most recent being Ryan Howard from the 2006 Philadelphia Phillies, when he barely edged out Albert Pujols of the world champion St. Louis Cardinals (although Howard's Phillies did win more games than Pujols's Cardinals) However, this time the roles have been reversed. Pujols plays for the team on the outside looking in, while Howard will get his chance to shine in October.
The biggest opportunity for a player in the MVP hunt to shine is in September—especially when several teams are in the hunt for two or three playoff spots. September is the most crucial time to shine.
In 2006, Justin Morneau of the Minnesota Twins captured the MVP award, due largely to his .348 batting average and 19 RBI in September. Against eventual playoff teams in September, Morneau batted .480 (24 for 50) with 11 RBI. Like Howard, Morneau had struggled earlier in the season, batting .235 in the middle of June. Little by little, his batting average rose, and his hot September helped the Twins steal the division from the Detroit Tigers on the last day of the season.
Howard has a chance to reach 50 home runs and 150 RBI, feats that in itself should be enough to earn the MVP award. He has reduced his strikeouts to the point where he, briefly, was no longer even leading the National League. His September slugging percentage (.931) more than doubles that of the major league average.
In his last 12 games versus potential playoff teams, Howard is batting .421 (16 for 38) with five home runs. During the Phillies recent seven-game winning streak, from which they jumped into first place over the sinking Mets, Howard batted .435 (10 for 23) with three home runs and 12 runs batted in.
Pujols, whose Cardinals have been all but eliminated from the playoff hunt after trailing the Phillies by just one game a few weeks ago, is suffering through the worst month of his season, batting a still-respectable .279 in September. He leads the National League in batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, and runs created/per game, but also missed almost a tenth of his team's games due to injury.
His Cardinals were just in the midst of a 5-13 slump; a slump that, if reversed, would have them in the lead for the National League wild-card.
Despite leading Howard in almost every category except for home runs and runs batted in, Pujols does not deserve his second MVP award.
Baseball can be a cruel game, and one of the facets of the sport is that people want winners. History proves it. Statistical accomplishments are fantastic, and when it comes time to vote for the Hall of Fame, Pujols should be a virtual lock to receive induction in his first year of entry.
As far as valuable goes, in the 2008 season, Howard has carried the Phillies in his September to Remember that cannot be topped by Pujols's year of all-around greatness.