The key word is "valuable." That's where they get you. If the award was called "Most Excellent Player" or "Most Superb Player" or "Most Productive Player" or even "Most Awesome Player," everything might be a whole lot easier.
But the award is called "Most Valuable Player." And that phrase -- like the phrases, "right to bear arms," "slow traffic keep right," and "make my steak medium" -- means drastically different things to different people.
It's that vague word. Valuable. It can mean anything. Think about this: If you asked a hundred people to name their most valuable possession, they might name a hundred different things -- their wedding album, their 1952 Mickey Mantle card, the antique necklace passed down through their generations, their unpublished novel, their iPhone, their putter, their first edition of Catcher in the Rye, their suitcase of cash hidden under cellar floorboards, their Cleveland Browns-engraved bowling ball (hey, it's nice and it rolls well), their shoebox stuffed with love letters from long ago.
Same deal here. Every year, right around this time, there is a nationwide etymology debate over that word. What does it mean in baseball? Is it even something you can measure? This year, I have a vote for the American League MVP. I'm not supposed to tell you who I'm going to pick, and that's good because right now I have no idea.
Start here: Baseball Prospectus has a great little statistic called "Value Over Replacement Player" or "VORP," which attempts to measure how many more runs the guy you have at any given position is worth compared to what BP calls a "replacement level player."
The American League leaders in VORP this year are:
1. New York's Alex Rodriguez, 64.3.
2. Cleveland's Grady Sizemore, 64.0
3. Boston's Dustin Pedroia, 61.0
4. Baltimore's Aubrey Huff, 58.7
5. Texas' Milton Bradley, 56.5
We'll get to Pedroia shortly ... there's probably something you will notice about the other four guys. Yep, they all play for horribly disappointing teams. The Yankees and Indians were supposed to be World Series contenders, and both dropped out of the playoff race a long time ago. The Rangers and Orioles were expected to be bad and are both pretty awful. None of those players have performed under the intense glare of playoff pressure. Now, you can ask: Is it a players' fault that his teammates stink? Is it really fair to use team performance in MVP voting? Well, it comes down to what the definition of value is.*
*I do believe that if a player is unquestionably the best player in the league, then he should win the MVP regardless. For instance, the St. Louis Cardinals dropped out of the race, but I think it would be a farce if Albert Pujols does not win the MVP award in the National League. He's far and away the most valuable player in the league. It's tougher, though, when dealing with players like A-Rod or Sizemore who are having very good but not necessarily dominating years.
See, this year's MVP race in the AL is unusual -- maybe even unprecedented -- because as far as I can tell, none of the three likely division winners has a bona fide MVP candidate. This truly is the year of team baseball.
It's the craziest thing. Look at Tampa Bay, one of the great baseball stories in years. Here's a team that had the worst record in baseball last year, and this year the Rays beat out the Yankees, they seem about ready to close the door on the Red Sox, and, let's face it, there has to be an MVP candidate somewhere on the this team.
But there isn't. Rookie Evan Longoria is having an excellent year -- 26 homers, terrific third-base defense, he clearly has put a charge in the Rays -- but he got hurt and has only played 117 games. First baseman Carlos Pena has given the Rays some juice (31 homers) but his numbers are way, way down from last year.
Here's how you know Tampa doesn't have an MVP candidate: The local branch of the Baseball Writers Association actually chose shortstop Jason Bartlett as team MVP, even though Bartlett has missed 32 games and has all of one home run this year and he has scored 45 runs and driven in 36. Apparently his defense has been spectacular, though that doesn't really show up in his defensive statistics.*
*He has scored a minus-1 on my favorite defensive statistic, the John Dewan plus/minus system. This means that after reviewing video of every single play made by every shortstop and punching the data into a computer, Dewan's folks figured he has made one less play than the average shortstop.
The MVP story is more or less the same for the Angels, who have a real shot at winning 100 games despite being 10th in the league in runs scored. The last American League team to win 100 games while finishing 10th in runs scored is: Nobody. Never happened.
So the Angels obviously don't have an especially intriguing offensive MVP candidate, unless you want to consider the two torrid months of Mark Teixeira. Well, people are considering Manny Ramirez across town for his two torrid months (though admittedly Ramirez's two months are more torrid). Vladimir Guerrero is certainly having a good year, though it's probably his worst since he was 21 years old.
The Angels' most talked-about MVP candidate is probably their closer, Francisco Rodriguez, who has a mind-boggling 61 saves. Hey, it's an amazing thing, no question about it, and it's a record that might never be broken. But it should be noted that the guy has pitched 66 innings all year -- that's not even eight complete games. What's more, I don't think K-Rod is even one of the three best closers in the American League, much less an MVP candidate. He has been given an extraordinary number of opportunities because the Angels don't score many runs (and don't give up many, obviously). He's a hero of circumstance.
Put it this way: K-Rod does not have a single save that required him to pitch more than one inning (New York's Mariano Rivera has eight). He has eight saves in which he pitched less than an inning (Minnesota's Joe Nathan has zero). He has also blown nine save chances (Kansas City's Joakim Soria has blown three). His 2.31 ERA is significantly higher than Rivera's, Nathan's or Soria's.*
*Also, an Angels' fan mentioned that K-Rod's saves have been much more of a thrill ride than the others'. For fun, I did a quick countdown of easy saves -- those would-be saves where the pitcher went 1-2-3 without allowing walk or hit. Obviously easy saves are worth exactly the same as difficult ones, but I think it does tell you who are the most dominant closers around.
Rivera: 20 easy saves out of 38 (52.6 percent).
Soria: 21 easy saves out of 41 (51.2 percent).
Nathan: 16 easy saves out of 38 (42.1 percent).
K-Rod: 19 easy saves out of 61 (31.1 percent).
Then there is the American League Central, where the Chicago White Sox still seem like the likely bet to win the division. The White Sox had a clear-cut MVP candidate in outfielder Carlos Quentin. By Sept. 1 he had 36 homers, 100 RBIs, a .394 on-base percentage and a .571 slugging percentage. He was the guy. Trouble is, he has not played since Sept. 1 because of a fractured bone in his wrist. Tough to be an MVP when you don't play the last month.
So where do you turn? Most, I suspect will turn to Dustin Pedroia, because he's had an outstanding year (200 hits, 50 doubles, leads the league in runs scored) and, perhaps more so, because he's scrappy. Every few years MVP voters go scrappy and choose players like Ichiro or Barry Larkin or Terry Pendleton. They are good players, yes, but they actually get the award for that voodoo that they do so well, like inspiring the fellas and moving runners over and something to do with leadership.
Pedroia is plenty scrappy, and he's a good second baseman, and he's a very good MVP choice. My only trouble with Pedroia is that I'm not entirely sure he's the best player on the right side of the Red Sox infield.
Pedroia: .324/.375/.492, with 53 doubles, 2 triples, 17 homers, 117 runs, 82 RBIs, 19 steals.
Kevin Youkilis: .314/.390/.565 with 43 doubles, 4 triples, 27 homers, 88 runs, 111 RBIs, five fewer grounded-into-double plays. (For more on the Pedroia vs. Youkilis debate check out John Donovan's take.)
Finally, there are the two candidates in Minnesota. I think the Twins, in many ways, are as big as surprise as Tampa. Lots of people, including someone I know pretty well, picked them to finish last after they traded away Johan Santana. And they still have a shot to win the division. Their obvious MVP candidate is Justin Morneau since he's leads the league in RBIs, and over the years it seems that RBIs have been the MVP voter stat of choice.
But I'm wondering about catcher Joe Mauer. I thought he should have won the award in 2006 -- I was stunned that not a single voter chose him over Morneau. Best I can tell, he's a fabulous catcher -- it's hard to break down catcher defense, but he throws out base runners, he's doesn't commit errors or allow passed balls and every current Twins starter has a winning record and a solid ERA.
It's much easier to see that he is about to become the only American League catcher to ever win two batting titles. That's because he's also the only American League catcher ever to win one batting title. He is second in the league in on-base percentage, he could score 100 runs despite missing all those games catchers miss, and he's just remarkable considering the wear and tear of the position.
This week I asked five baseball executives who they would choose for American League MVP. They gave me five different names. Of course. Maybe, in honor of the Rays, there should not be an MVP this year. Maybe they have proven that you can beat the Yankees with a bunch of good players, five good starters and a home ballpark where you win 70 percent of the time. Maybe Tropicana Field should be MVP. I wonder if those Baseball Prospectus guys can figure out the Trop's Value Over Replacement Park.