Picking an AL MVP a most complex chore

Sep 20 2011 - 4:13pm

SEATTLE -- I have absolutely no idea who will be the American League's Most Valuable Player. It's that wide open. And as one of 28 humans with a ballot, I'm still trying to sort out who should be.

It's a full, varied and disparate field of candidates this year, one that will test any number of preconceived notions about just what constitutes an MVP. In that way, it reminds me of last year's AL Cy Young race, in which voters (myself included) tossed aside their long-held fondness for victories and (rightly) honored Felix Hernandez despite his 13-12 record.

The beauty, and dilemma, of the MVP award, however, is that it's subject to personal interpretation to an even greater extent. Heck, the first sentence of the letter sent out annually to voters reads thusly: "There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means."

Well, that helps. The letter continues: "It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier."

The guidelines have remained unchanged since they were written on the first ballot that was distributed to members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America (two in each AL city) in 1931:

1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.

2. Number of games played.

3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.

4. Former winners are eligible.

5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

This year's debate begins with a time-honored classic issue: What does the term "valuable" actually mean, and can a player from a non-contending team fit the bill? Voters have overwhelmingly leaned in favor of players involved in a pennant race, but occasionally a player on a losing team has sneaked in, like Alex Rodriguez in 2003, Andre Dawson in 1987, and Ernie Banks in 1958 and '59.

This year's exhibit A for a player with overwhelming stats on a non-contender is Toronto's Jose Bautista. Through Friday's games, he was hitting .306 and leading the American League in homers (42), on-base percentage (.449), slugging (.629) and OPS (1.077).

He also led (at least in one reckoning) in the sabermetric stat which is growing in stature: Wins Above Replacement, aka WAR, which is designed to show a player's value to his team by measuring both offense and defense.

This leads into another element to the modern-day MVP debate: Which statistics really matter? While WAR sounds like a definitive measurement of value, there are a few problems. First, there is no foolproof way to quantify defense, though sabermetricians are working feverishly to come up with one.

Second, and more troublesome, is the fact that the two leading proprietors of WAR, Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, compute it differently. For instance, through Friday, the Baseball Reference WAR standings were topped by Bautista at 8.4, followed by Justin Verlander (7.9), Jacoby Ellsbury (7.1), CC Sabathia (6.6), Dustin Pedroia and Jered Weaver (6.5), Adrian Gonzalez (6.4) and Miguel Cabrera (6.3).

FanGraphs, on the other hand, had Ellsbury on top (8.5), followed by Bautista (8.2), Pedroia (7.4), Sabathia (7.1), Ian Kinsler and Verlander (6.7), Curtis Granderson (6.6) and Alex Gordon (6.3).

Not much love for Granderson, considering that his traditional statistics -- "counting stats," as they are known, somewhat derisively, among some analysts -- have cemented him as a favorite in many circles.

Granderson leads the AL in runs with 128, is tied for the RBI lead with 111, is second in homers with 39 and triples with 10, and has even stolen 24 bases. It's the sort of all-encompassing stats package that has always bowled over voters, especially considering he plays for the best team in the league. The new wrinkle, however, is a growing understanding that stats like runs and RBI are heavily dependent on the play of his teammates, and Granderson is blessed with perhaps the most potent teammates in baseball.

Another longtime debate in play this year is whether a pitcher can and should be MVP. Voters haven't picked one since Dennis Eckersley in 1992, and haven't awarded a starting pitcher since Roger Clemens in 1986.

Yet there is a growing sentiment that Verlander, with his 23-5 record for the rampaging Tigers, is a strong MVP candidate. Others would point out that a) we've already established that victories aren't paramount in evaluating a pitcher; and b) how valuable can someone be when he participates in fewer than 35 games?

Besides that, they say, there's already an award to honor the top pitcher. But there's a counter-argument for that I've heard coming from Detroit: the first year of the Cy Young was 1956, and National League voters selected a pitcher, Don Newcombe of the Dodgers, as the MVP, with another pitcher, Sal Maglie, second. If voters at the inception of the Cy Young didn't discount pitchers for MVP, why should they now?

Then again, even Verlander's own manager, Jim Leyland, was quoted saying, "I don't think a pitcher should be the most valuable player. ... I just think when a guy goes out there 158 times or 155 times and has a big year, an MVP-type year, I don't think the guy that goes out there 35 times should be named over that guy."

It's always been popular wisdom that strong candidates from the same team tend to cancel each other out (think Seattle's Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. in 1996, when they finished second and fourth as Texas's Juan Gonzalez sneaked into first).

That, too, will be tested this year. The Red Sox present Ellsbury, Gonzalez and Pedroia (and even David Ortiz) as viable candidates. The Yankees have Granderson and Cano, the Tigers Verlander and Cabrera (and even Alex Avila).

We haven't even mentioned Michael Young, who has emerged as a stealth candidate from the first-place Rangers.

It will be fascinating to see how it all plays out. I like to wait until all 162 games -- or more, if two teams tie -- have been played before finalizing my vote, which has to be in before the playoffs begin.

Right now, I'm liking Ellsbury. But 10 minutes later, I'm liking Bautista. And an hour later, I'm thinking Verlander.

In other words, this voter is still grappling for a clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means.

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