September 1, 2011

Debating the American League MVP race.

I'm a National League man. Always have been, always will be. As a Philadelphia Phillies fan, it's pretty much the only way to go.

But I'm also extremely intrigued by this year's American League MVP race. You can make a case for a half-dozen players, and there's one horse in particular that I feel should be an out-and-out favorite. But what do I know?! I don't really watch the other league's games.

So I started up a little email exchange with my good friend Matt Kakley -- diehard Boston sports fan and award-winning reporter at the Sun Chronicle in Attleboro, Massachusetts -- to get his take on who really deserves the award. It's kinda like what Bill Simmons and Jonah Keri did on Grantland a few days ago, only...better.

King Myno: So, young Matthew, I think I can guess which direction you'll lean in this email exchange. As a Boston Red Sox fan, there's no doubt in my mind that you feel Dustin Pedroia and Jacoby Ellsbury are the leading candidates for 2011 American League MVP.

And you might not be wrong; Ellsbury and Pedroia are second and third in Baseball-Reference's WAR for AL position players. Ellsbury's second in baseball in runs, fourth in steals, fourteenth in average and fifth in hits. Meanwhile, Pedroia's .867 OPS is barely underneath the .869 OPS that won him the MVP award in 2008. In fact, his OPS+ is even higher this year (135 versus 122).

But if you're gonna choose either of them based on numbers, then it's crazy to ignore what Jose Bautista has done in Toronto. First in WAR. First in OPS (by a mile). First in homers, first in slugging percentage, first in on-base percentage.

Obviously J-Bats isn't powering a World Series contender like the Red Sox, but I don't think that should count for too much this time around. When a hitter puts up an amazing year like Bautista's, he deserves to take home the trophy.

Matt Kakley: Am I reading King Myno's Court or FanGraphs? I should have known you'd jump on WAR and the other sabermetrics statistics, but sometimes they don't tell the whole story.

Let's do a little breakdown of your boy Bautista: 31 first half homers to go with a .334 batting average. Wonderful. But since the All-Star break, his numbers have plummeted: only 8 homers and a .256 batting average. I'd like to see my MVP show a bit more consistency. He's also way behind in the RBI race, but I'll credit that more to the terribleness of the non-Bautista Jays.

Also, can it really be ignored that Bautista is doing what he does for a fourth-place team? If a tree falls in Toronto, does it make a sound? While I don't think a player should be completely hampered by the team they happen to play for, I think an MVP needs to have incredible numbers if he's going to get past that. Bautista's numbers, while very good, are simply not incredible.

I, for one, find what Adrian Gonzalez and Curtis Granderson in the heat of a pennant race much more compelling.

KM: Adrian Gonzalez is one hell of a baseball player, but is he even the best hitter on his own team? has him in eighth in AL Offensive WAR, tied with Alex Gordon and behind Ben Zobrist; Jacoby and Dusty are tied for for fourth. His .953 OPS is stellar, but his teammate David Ortiz is second in the American League with a .993 OPS. Speaking of which, where's all the MVP support for Big Papi?

Gonzo's been a wonderful addition to the Red Sox -- especially when held up against Carl Crawford's lost season -- but he's not the Most Valuable Player. I think others have proven far more valuable.

Such as Curtis Granderson. You're right; if anyone's going to truly compete with Bautista for the award, it's Grandy. Going from .247/.324/.468 to .273/.375/.584 is nothing short of spectacular, and the career .226 hitter versus lefties has miraculously upped that average to .278 this season. 38 homers, 24 steals, 107 runs; this is everything Yankees fans were hoping for and more. I'll step aside from my beloved sabermetrics for a moment and say that the Yankees would not be where they are without Granderson. Does that make him MVP? You can make an extremely strong case.

And as to your point on Bautista, it is a full-season award, but I think his second-half slump just accentuates how dominating the first half really was. He was literally unbeatable at the plate, like Manny Ramirez in the 2008 NLCS, and he's still going to end the season with extraordinary numbers. Toronto is in fourth place, true, but they might be the worst team in baseball without Bautista's contributions. After all, the award isn't "Most Valuable Player on a Contending Team," although sometimes people like you make that incorrect assumption.

MK: I love that you included Zobrist as a way to put Gonzo down. If anything, his placement on the list shows the fickleness of the WAR stat. Would anyone really trade Ben's season for Gonzo's? At a certain point, you have to put aside the sabers and look at the actual product on the field. Should we get into a UZR discussion?

WAR puts too much stock in the way someone compares to others at his position; first base is, and always has been, incredibly deep. But the same way you want to discount a player's team success, you also can't hold a player hostage because he plays a loaded position. Would we be having this argument if Gonzo was putting up the numbers as a shortstop?

Is Gonzo the best hitter on the Red Sox? Absolutely. In fact, I think he might be the best all-around player in baseball right now, with Pujols finally showing signs of not being a robot. But this isn't a "best baseball player" contest, it's for this year and this year only, and maybe his "value" in 2011 is slightly diminished by the success of his teammates.

It seems like we're getting towards Grandy being the guy, though I immediately throw out any comparisons to his 2010 season. This is a yearly award, not a Most Improved Odor trophy. The numbers he's put up while essentially teaming with CC Sabathia to carry the Yankees to the postseason (hopefully as a wild card) might be the most impressive thing I've seen in the AL this year. And, believe me, that's tough to say as a Sox fan.

And I assume we're just not entertaining the thought of a Verlander MVP, because that would be as silly as Shane Victorino for NL MVP.

In any event, I think it's a two-horse race between Grandy and Gonzo, with Grandy firmly in the lead and a month left to play. Plus, shouldn't it always come down to the Sox and the Yanks?

KM: The only people that want it to come down to the Sox and the Yankees are Sox and Yankees fans. The rest of us want it to come down to the Phillies...or maybe the Rangers.

I have a feeling that, in the weeks leading up to the AL MVP announcement, Jose Bautista's campaign is going to be fueled almost entirely by the white-hot fire of the Internet. Much like Felix Hernandez in 2010, new-age baseball scholars and sabermetricians are going to trumpet his achievements throughout the land and demand that he be crowned as ruler of baseball.

And hopefully, also like King Felix, it'll work and he'll win.

I thought that Sabathia would take home the Cy Young last year. In fact, you and I made a bet over that very award. Even after Zack Greinke's victory in 2009, I didn't think baseball writers had it in them to vote for a 13-12 starter over a 21-7 pitcher, no matter how dominant.

They proved me wrong, however, and I think that it'll carry over into 2011. If it's anybody from a playoff contender, it'll be Grandy -- the Red Sox will probably all cancel each other out -- but Jose Bautista and his beefy OPS deserve award recognition. Call it a "season-and-a-half" award if you must, but I think what Bautista's done to turn his career around is going to be acknowledged. And if it is Bautista, I dare any real baseball fans to complain.

But a pitcher for MVP? Come on. No one's that crazy.


Ryan said...

1st place: Grandy. It is amazing to see what he has done this year.
2nd place: Gonzo. Again, a .345 average with a month left, new team, living up to expectations, and playing on a daily basis puts him in behind Grandy.
3rd place: Joey bats. Toronto is not even in America.
4th-7th: Dusty, Jacoby, the resurgence of Hamilton, and yes King Myno, Justin Verlander.

Dark horse: David Ortiz. Batting over .500 in his last 14 games... wow.

Steve Cimino said...

Come on, Toast. Gonzo over Bautista is silly. The only thing Gonzo has over him is batting average and being on a winning team; Bautista kills him in every other category.