Tuesday November 23rd, 2010

On September 4 at Target Field, the Twins' Delmon Young lifted a third inning flyball that Rangers centerfielder Josh Hamilton tracked back to the wall over his right shoulder. Upon hitting the warning track, Hamilton leaped, caught the ball, and slammed his left side into the padded centerfield wall. Hamilton grounded out in the top of the fourth, then, after playing the field in the bottom of that inning, was replaced in the field in the bottom of the fifth. He didn't play again until October 1.

At the time of his injury, Hamilton was the clear favorite for the American League Most Valuable Player award, but what proved to be two broken ribs placed a large question mark over his candidacy. Though Hamilton returned for three games in October, picking up a homer and the three RBIs he needed to reach 100 for the season, he finished the season having played just 133 games.

In fact, Hamilton, who turns 30 in May, has played more than that number of games just once in his four-year career. That came in 2008, when he put up very similar counting stats to this season's while playing in 23 more games. Whether or not his fragility has anything to do with the way he abused himself earlier in his career, it is impossible to say. Still, it's fitting that Hamilton's MVP award came in a season in which his talent managed to out-shine a major set-back, that he succeeded despite a prolonged absence, that he won despite his body betraying him after he had for so long betrayed his body with is much-publicized substance abuse problems that helped keep the No. 1 pick in the 1999 draft from reaching the majors until 2007.

RELATED CONTENT: Hamilton tops Cabrera, Cano for AL MVP

As rare as Hamilton's comeback has been, his MVP award is almost equally rare. Among the five criteria MVP voters are instructed to consider when filling out their ballots, the second listed is "number of games played." Since the schedule expanded to 162 games in 1961, just four men had played in 133 or fewer games and still won their league's MVP award. Of those four, the Pirates Willie Stargell, who played just 126 games in 1979, tied on points in the voting with Cardinals first baseman Keith Hernandez, but received just four first-place votes to Hernandez's 10. On Tuesday, Hamilton picked up 22 of 28 first-place votes to join an elite group of three men who had previously won the award outright after having played as few games in a 162-game season.

Here's the company he joins:

Mickey Mantle, CF, Yankees, 1962

123 Games, .321 average, .486 on-base percentage, .605 slugging percentage, 30 HRs, 89 RBIs, 9 SBs

After bowing out early from 1961's storied home-run chase with teammate Roger Maris due to an abscess on his hip, the injury-prone Mantle missed a month in mid-1962 due to a torn adductor muscle in his right hip and strained ligaments behind his left knee, injuries suffered when trying to beat out an infield hit on May 18. The iconic centerfielder was limited to right field for a month after his return, but led the majors in on-base percentage and the AL in slugging, won his only Gold Glove (undeserved), and picked up 13 of 20 first-place votes for MVP.

George Brett, 3B, Royals, 1980

117 games, .390/.454/.664, 24 HRs, 118 RBIs, 15 SBs

Brett missed a month at mid-season after damaging ligaments in his right ankle while sliding into second on a stolen base, but hit .421/.482/.696 with 77 RBIs in 72 games after his return. Despite missing another week due to right wrist tendinitis in September, was batting .400 as late as September 19. Brett led the majors in all three slash-stats (batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging) and received 17 of 28 first-place votes for the MVP award. Despite the time he missed, Brett's 1980 season stands as one of the greatest single-season performances of that decade.

Barry Bonds, LF, Giants, 2003

130 games, .341/.529/.749, 45 HRs, 90 RBIs, 7 SBs

Unlike Mantle, Brett and Hamilton, Bonds did not suffer a major injury during the course of his abbreviated MVP campaign. Rather, at age 38, he was plagued by tendinitis in his right knee brought on by age and his increased bulk and missed additional time in August due to the death of his father. Bonds didn't start more than 11 consecutive games at any point during the 2003 season, nor did he miss more than six in a row. Still, despite the physical and emotional distress of that season, he led the majors in on-base percentage (thanks in part to 61 intentional walks) and slugging, and picked up 28 of 32 first-place votes to claim his third of four straight MVP awards.

What these four men have in common is that they all played for first-place ball clubs and led their leagues (and, with the exception of Mantle's slugging percentage, the majors) in at least two of the three slash-stat categories. Hamilton lacks the patience of the other three and thus finished second to MVP runner-up Miguel Cabrera in on-base percentage (.420 to .411), but he led the majors in batting average (.359) and slugging (.633).

What distinguishes Hamilton from that group is that he is the first man to miss as much time as he did in September and still win the MVP award. It surely helped that the Rangers were up by nine games in the AL West when he suffered his broken ribs and ultimately won their division by the same margin. In fact, despite the fact that he vanished from the final month of the season, the team-based argument for Hamilton is easy to make. Hamilton won the award by going out of his mind and hitting .410/.461/.717 from June 1 through September 4. On May 30, the Rangers were a half-game out in the West. By the end of July they were up by 8 1/2 games. That wasn't all Hamilton's doing, but the parallel between his success and the Rangers' is easy to draw.

Hamilton also benefited from his all-around play. Not only was he far and away the best hitter in the league for those three white-hot months, but he was a solid defender in both left and centerfields (that is, after all, what got him into trouble in September), and a threat on the bases who stole eight bags in nine attempts on the season. Cabrera was more consistently productive over the full season, but he was a liability in the field and on the bases (and, though it shouldn't matter, stuck on a third-place Tigers team that finished with a .500 record).

Third-place finisher Robinson Cano, meanwhile, won the Gold Glove for his play at second base (Orlando Hudson was a more deserving candidate, but Cano's play was indeed strong), but fell off in the latter part of the season, hitting .299/.371/.507 in the second half, excellent numbers for a second baseman, but not enough to compete with the sort of numbers Hamilton put up while also contributing in the field and on the bases.

That kind of all-around excellence helps make Hamilton a Hall of Fame talent, but the late start to his career, his age and his injury problems leave him with little to no hope of reaching that lofty perch. But when he's healthy, he's clearly one of the best players in the game, and he finally has the MVP award to prove it.

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