MVP! MVP! MVP!
Time to handicap the MVP races
By Adam Hoff
I love team sports, but I also love individual awards. Whether it is determining the defensive player of the year in the NBA, the Cy Young winner in the American League, the MVP of the NFL, or the Lady Bing winner in the NHL, there is nothing more enjoyable than trying to ascertain which players rise out of the landscape and stand out among the masses. (Okay, maybe not the hockey part.) For some reason, the Major League MVP races are my favorite. Unlike basketball where it seems like six guys have accounted for the last 25 MVP awards (only a slight exaggeration) or football where the top quarterback always snags the MVP or the Heisman trophy, baseball has some drama. You've got different positions, offense versus defense considerations, amazing snubs, the media bias, unwritten rules, and - most of all - stats. Baseball, more than any other sport, is a game of statistics. And so it is that every season, we try to find the best set of statistics and then balance it against all the other factors. It makes for compelling drama and this year is no exception. Here is a look at the MVP races in each league.
1. Albert Pujols. For the past four seasons the feeling has been that Pujols simply needed Barry Bonds to retire and he would start winning awards hand-over-fist. Well, Barry didn't retire but he might as well have. With Bonds on ice for the 2005 season, Pujols has been up to his normal tricks, which mainly consist of crushing the ball all over the field. He's cooled down the past few weeks to keep this from being an absolute boatrace, but his numbers still blow your mind: .333 average (third in the NL), .427 OBP (second), .616 slugging (second), 33 home runs (fourth), 96 RBI (first), 101 runs (first), 70-50 walk-to-K ratio (only player in NL with at least 20 home runs that has more walks than strikeouts), and even 11 stolen bases. Add in the fact that he's hitting .345 with a .506 OBP when there are runners in scoring position and the fact that the Cardinals are once again running away with the National League's best record and you are probably looking at the first of many MVP awards for Albert Pujols.
2. Derrek Lee. Until three weeks ago, it looked like Lee might win the Triple Crown and steal the MVP away from Pujols no matter how the Cubs finished up in the standings. Then Lee hit the skids a little bit and allowed the "how is his team doing?" question to creep into things. He's homered each of the past two days and is showing signs of life again, but he is probably going to need the Cubs to make a late charge at the Wild Card to win the hardware. Regardless, his numbers are incredible: he leads the league in every big ratio-based category (.351 average, .432 OBP, .684 slugging, and 1.116 OPS), has 37 home runs (second in NL), 91 RBI (fifth, but only five behind leader Andruw Jones), 39 doubles (first), 162 hits (first), 97 runs (second), a solid 65-78 walk-to-K ratio, and 14 steals. His situational stats are even better than those of Pujols, as Lee is going .362/.489 with runners in scoring position and has driven in two more runs despite 14 fewer plate appearances under those circumstances. Plus, he's the best defensive first basemen in the game. Despite all of this support for his case though, Lee is still up against the tried and true notion that the MVP award goes to a stud from a winning team. There have been a few exceptions to this (Andre Dawson in 1987, A-Rod in 2003), but whenever there is a legit candidate from a winning team (see: Pujols), you are really up against it. So Lee's fate is in the hands of guys like Nomar and Corey Patterson, and Ryan Dempster. If the Cubs make a charge, get over .500, and make some noise in the Wild Card race, he's got a terrific shot. If not, well … enjoy feeling like Albert Pujols for a year.
(By the way, I'm not sure which would be worse: Lee missing out on the award because his team is a bunch of head cases managed by the always-oblivious Dusty Baker, or Pujols losing out on the award yet again because Lee happened to go crazy the one year Bonds was out. Either way, you're going to get the old "it is too bad there has to be a loser" feeling over this one.)
3. Miguel Cabrera. The darkhorse. If the Marlins catch fire and surge into the playoffs, Cabrera could wrestle the award away from the two stud first basemen. Don't believe me? Consider Vlad Guerrero surging down the stretch last year, Miguel Tejada toppling statistically superior players like A-Rod, Soriano, and Jason Giambi in 2002, and the likes of Kirk Gibson getting the surprise win in 1988. Sometimes the award goes not to the best overall player or even the best player from the best team, but to the best player on the hottest team. Cabrera ranks in the top five in the NL in batting average, OPS, slugging percentage, runs, hits, and doubles, and in the top 10 in home runs, RBI, and OBP, so he's got the numbers. If he becomes the centerpiece of yet another furious Florida Marlins stretch run, he could get some serious support.
4. Andruw Jones. He's got the glove, the power (leads NL in home runs with 39 and RBI with 96), and multiple storylines ("Super talent finally fulfills promise," "Slugger carries decimated Braves lineup into the playoffs," and "Centerfielder somehow faster despite gaining 30 pounds over course of season"). So why is he fourth? Simply put: you can't hit 70 points below the other candidates and still come out on top. Plus, Lee and Pujols have both done their damage in shaky situations as well. Lee is keeping an awful Cubs team within shouting distance of the wild card race and Pujols has overcome the injuries to Scott Rolen and Reggie Sanders and the decomposition of Larry Walker's corpse to keep the Cardinals offense churning. So just because he's strapped Atlanta on his suddenly-wide back doesn’t give Jones the super bonus points it normally would.
5. Morgan Ensberg. The candidate that nobody talks about, Ensberg put the Astros offense on his shoulders for two months and has gaudy power numbers to show for it. He's fourth in OPS and home runs and fifth in RBI and has done it all while hitting in the middle of a pretty poor offensive unit. Even with Berkman back in Houston, Ensberg is carrying the show. He is fading though as his average has dropped 10 points and he's failed to drive in a run since August 16th. If Ensberg and the 'Stros can regain their momentum … who are we kidding, he makes a nice #5.
1. Alex Rodriguez. Honestly, this might be his best season to date. When you consider the abuse he took in the offseason for everything from his ALCS gag to his "purse snatcher" arm swipe on Bronson Arroyo, he has bounced back better than most could have imagined. He has anchored an up-and-down Yankees club all year (Matsui was brutal early, and Sheffield is swooning late, while the likes of Posada and Bernie have just generally been horrible) and is on pace for another huge statistical season. A-Rod has hit .300 or better in four out of five months, has hit eight or more home runs in four out of five months, and has driven in at least 15 runs in every month. He leads the AL with 36 jacks, is third in RBI, fourth in runs, first in OPS, second in OBP, first in slugging percentage, and fourth in average. All while manning an important defensive position and serving as one of the best base runners in the game. A-Rod is the AL MVP if the season ends today.
2. Manny Ramirez. It seems that this happens every year. Manny puts up the best numbers for one of the best teams, is the most feared hitter in the league, and generally performs in the clutch better than anyone … yet everybody comes up with a way to write him off as an MVP candidate (too many Red Sox players worthy of consideration, no defense, no hustle, mental breakdowns, hanging out with Enrique Wilson, etc.). After a fairly poor start to the season, Manny is back to doing what he does best. He's botching fly balls, asking for trades, rapping out hit after hit, and clubbing game-winning home runs. I'm not sure if "Manny being Manny" (maybe the second most overused phrase in the universe after "Booyah!") is the recipe for an MVP, but he's in the conversation. The "hitting savant" leads the majors with 111 RBI and he ranks among the AL leaders in home runs (second with 33), runs (fifth with 87), and OPS (third at .976). Just another huge year at the plate for Man-Ram.
3. David Ortiz. The legend grows as Big Papi continues to deliver huge hits and loom as one of the most simultaneously personable and terrifying players in the game. The big strikes against his MVP candidacy is the fact that Ramirez shoulders half the load in the middle of the order, and that he's a DH and doesn't contribute defensively (although you could argue that by not playing defense, he helps the Red Sox more than Manny does in that department). However, with a big hot streak, this might just be the year he overcomes those little glitches. He's hitting 10 points higher than Manny, has more hits, runs, and doubles, possesses a better walk-to-K ratio, and he is right behind him in the power numbers (31 HR, 107 RBI, .971 OPS). Factor in his incredible clutch hitting (almost 100 points higher with men on base) and Ortiz has a shot if he's the hottest bat down the stretch. To do so, he will need to shake off his current 1-for-20 streak as quickly as possible.
4. Vlad Guerrero. Forget about the 13 games he missed with an injury, Vlad is still going to post sensational numbers for a playoff team. That alone gets him into the mix. Then when you consider that he is once again doing it late, that his defense is still rock solid, and that he's even running a bit again, well, he might be the guy that flies in at the last minute and repeats as AL MVP. He's currently third in average at .321, fifth in OPS at .963, and eighth in home runs (26) and RBI (88). However, he's already had his biggest month of the season in August, and there is still over a week to go. Vlad has posted .388/.494/.761 with 7 home runs, 23 RBI, and four stolen bases in the month and could do it again in September. It is not unrealistic to imagine him finishing at .330 with 40 home runs and 120 RBI at season's end. Combine that with an AL West crown for Anaheim (I refuse to use the new name) and you never know.
5. Travis Hafner. I thought about Sheffield here as well as Damon, Teixeira, Konerko, and even Indians teammate Jhonny Peralta, but decided to take a flyer instead. IF the Indians get hot down the stretch and win the wild card, and IF Hafner has a .400/14 home run/35 RBI kind of September, we could be looking at the most surprising right-out-of-the-clear-blue-sky MVP winner in recent memory. After all, the young Indians would be in the playoffs, they would have reached the postseason without an offensive All-Star on the roster, and Hafner would have numbers in the ballpark of .320/.420/.600 (ratios that only A-Rod is posting right now) with 30-35 home runs and 110-120 RBI. Even that probably wouldn't be enough, but it would get people talking.
(By the way, what ever happened to Brian Robert and Miguel Tejada? Poor Orioles.)
Adam Hoff is a columnist for the Webby-winning WhatifSports.com and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.