For Your Consideration: Baseball’s MVP Candidates

Albert PujolsI am confident that both Dustin Pedroia and Albert Pujols had the best all-around years in their respective leagues. Based on their individual performances in the batter’s box and on the field, and considering how they contributed to their teams’ playoff chances, they each deserve to be MVP.

The voting process takes place the Friday before the regular season ends. As a result, even though guys like Derek Jeter and David Ortiz come through with jaw-dropping numbers in the post season, these figures won’t matter to the Baseball Writer’s Association of America—their minds have already been made up.

It’s the regular season that matters. Sports writers use various methods when deciding who gets their vote. Whether their basis is purely statistical or how the player individually affected his team, most can agree on one criterion: The team must have a good record. So, despite having superb seasons, Josh Hamilton and Lance Berkman probably won’t win the award. However, you could make a case for each as to why they should win, and this raises an interesting topic concerning the semantics of “Most Valuable Player.”

Much has been written about how the word “value” isn’t properly defined. Does “value” simply figure into hitting? What about defense? Or attitude in the clubhouse? All affect the performance of a team. You can already see how convoluted the decision-making process can get. Nevertheless, most baseball fans eschew statistical reasoning and data analysis, instead depending on gut instinct. In looking at the winners from the recent past, I believe the writers do as well. With this in mind, a clearly defined rule emerges: How would the team fare without the player in question?

There’s no doubt that a Texas Rangers team without Josh Hamilton would have finished with a worse record. The same goes for Lance Berkman, Albert Pujols, Justin Morneau, Carlos Quentin, etc., and their respective teams. You can see where I’m going with this. Each team has a keystone player whose absence would greatly hurt their team’s record. Unfortunately, this is why it’s hard to decide who is more valuable. Ryan Howard leads the National League in homeruns and RBIs but is only decent defensively at first base. Albert Pujols’ hitting has also been tremendous; on top of that, he’ll probably win another gold glove. Both the Phillies and the Cardinals would have had drastically different seasons without these players.

But would the Cardinals have fared worse without Pujols? Or the Phillies without Howard? In my opinion, Pujols, with his combination of hitting and fielding, is more of an asset that Howard. Obviously, much of this is based on conjecture—speculating how games and standings would turn out if a certain player wasn’t involved.

This is why critics have called the MVP candidacy of CC Sabathia, Manny Ramirez, and Francisco Rodriguez “preposterous” and “embarrassing.” I don’t look at it that way. Nobody expected Sabathia and Ramirez to perform they way they have after getting traded. Same goes for Rodriguez surpassing the all-time single-season saves record. Baseball is the only professional sport which gives out separate MVP awards in both leagues (including numerous other accolades). Therein lies the problem—a problem I find intriguing rather than irritating.

Francisco Rodriguez will not win the MVP, but he will be close.

Only three relief pitches have ever won the MVP (Dennis Eckersley was the last to win it in 1992). The Anaheim Angeles are a very similar team to the ’92 Athletics. Rodriguez has already tallied more saves than Eckersley (breaking Bobby Thigpen’s record of 57 in the process). Shouldn’t Rodriguez then win as well? It’s hard to say. To quote Tom Singer of

The Angels have won 55 games by one or two runs; K-Rod has saved 47 of them, and picked up the victory in two others. No one else in the league, obviously, has directly affected as many team wins. By definition, no one else has been as valuable.

He makes a valid point, but I just don’t see it happening. History has shown the voting to be extremely prejudiced against pitchers. Of course, there is the Cy Young Award which recognizes their accomplishments. However, there’s also the batting title, gold gloves, and the Rolaids Relief Man of the Year Award. Rodriguez is definitely the most valuable player on the Angels. Still, I think the Red Sox would be worse for the wear without Pedroia.

CC Sabathia. You just can’t.

Chew on this: No player has won an MVP Award in a season in which he was traded. After leaving Cleveland for the Cubs, Rick Sutcliffe still managed to win the Cy Young, going 16-1 with his new team. Sabathia will have played in about 12 games with the Brewers. Even though he has helped Milwaukee’s playoff hopes, his time there produces too small a sample to even predict what might have happened. Also, his overall record, which includes his starts with the Indians, does not stand up to Brandon Webb’s of the Diamondbacks.

Manny Ramirez is the National League MVP.

No way. Not this year, and not next year since I don’t see him resigning with the Dodgers (or any NL team). Given a full year with Los Angeles, he would have won, hands down. He’s singlehandedly turned the Dodgers into a playoff team and I believe that merits the MVP votes he will garner. It just wouldn’t be right to give Ramirez the award after playing in only 52 games (maybe something else, like a bulky contract, will suffice). He’s played above average in left field and he’s hitting better than anyone in the league. What’s most important, however, is that he makes his teammates happier and more productive. Without Ramirez, the Dodgers might have fallen behind the Rockies in their division. His arrival has brought a sea change to their organization. This alone should qualify Ramirez for the MVP. Still, as with Sabathia, this sample is just too inconclusive. We’ve seen what Pujols can do in a full year on one team, and in one league.

Perhaps the Most Valuable Player Award should change its name to the Best Position Player Award. That way, both pitchers and the hitters have their own accolade. Until “value” becomes easier to define, and doesn’t steer conversations into “what if” territories, then we should welcome the preposterous and the embarrassing. It’s fun to flirt with the idea of a closer or a late arrival receiving the coveted honor, but the discussion is for the birds. When it’s all said and done, traditional thought will prevail.

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