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The Best of 2006

Oct. 09, 2006
Oct. 09, 2006

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Oct. 9, 2006

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The Best of 2006

Neither player led his respective league in a Triple Crown category, but SI's MVP choices displayed their singular value in other ways

EITHER RYANHOWARD or Albert Pujols will look back someday on his monstrous 2006 season andwonder how the heck he wasn't the National League's MVP, not unlike TedWilliams did after his .406 season in 1941 wasn't good enough to beat out JoeDiMaggio for American League MVP. The baseball writers' voting for all themajor awards is a cold, cruel business, but it's particularly so when a classicMVP profile--a slugger with huge numbers for a contender--must be denied. ¶ Howwould you like to tell the 6'4", 252-pound Howard of the Phillies that his.313 batting average, 58 homers and 149 RBIs for a team that was eliminated onthe penultimate day of the season weren't enough to win the MVP? (Suggestion:ship to shore radio.)

This is an article from the Oct. 9, 2006 issue Original Layout

And how could theCardinals' Pujols (.331, 49, 137 for a division champion) lose for a fifth timein six seasons despite having no worse than a .314 average, 34 homers and 123RBIs in any of those years?

Both deserve towin, but the player who deserves to win slightly more is the one who producedmore consistently, was more reliable in key situations and, though barely so,pulled his team by the scruff of its neck into the postseason. It isPujols.

Likewise, the ALMVP race is razor close and should send another slugging first baseman withhuge numbers to a head-scratching defeat. Like Howard, the Twins' JustinMorneau (.321, 34, 130) loses out to the more consistent hitter who wasslightly better in key situations: shortstop Derek Jeter of the Yankees, whogets extra credit for doing so while capably manning a more importantposition.

It's an unusuallyintriguing year for MVPs, which are typically more obvious. Of the 24 MVPssince the six-division format began in 1994, 15 of them received more than 60%of the first-place votes. Only twice (in '95 and 2005) were both races wonwithout such a large majority.

Howard mostcertainly was the MVP of the second half of the season, becoming such a threatdown the stretch that managers intentionally walked him 16 times in September.But at the All-Star break Howard was hitting .278 and ranked 12th in the leaguein OPS while playing for a team 12 games out of first.

Pujols was themore consistent producer, his average dropping below .300 only four days allyear. His biggest edge on Howard was that he clearly outperformed thePhiladelphia slugger in situations that called for a key hit--while his weakSt. Louis supporting cast made such moments more critical. For instance, Howardbatted with 509 runners on, which was 82 more than Pujols and the second mostin baseball. (The Yankees' Alex Rodriguez came to the plate with 534 runnerson.) Pujols blew away Howard in batting average with runners in scoringposition (.397 to .256) and RISP with two outs (.435 to .237), as well asaverage in the late innings of close games (.319 to .286). Bottom line: Hitting.256 with runners in scoring position for a team that didn't make the playoffsisn't good enough to take the MVP away from a playoffs-bound clutch hitter withbetter on-base (.431 to .425) and slugging percentages (.671 to .659), and abetter VORP (value over replacement player), the sabermetric stat that measuresa hitter against the average backup player at his position (84.6 to 80.6).

Like Howard,Morneau was nowhere to be seen on the MVP radar for much of the season. On June8 he was hitting .235 with 38 RBIs. An even greater obstacle to his candidacywas that he wasn't even the MVP of the Twins. That would be catcher Joe Mauer,the batting champion (.347) who had the better OPS than Morneau (.936 to .934)and better VORP (65.4 to 51.6) while playing the more critical position. Mauer,however, cooled just when Minnesota took off (he hit .284 in July and August)and has fewer hits, runs, home runs, RBIs and stolen bases and a worse VORPthan his chief competition, Jeter.

Moreover, if histeam needed to get runners in from scoring position or a hit in the lateinnings of close games, Jeter did so at better rates than Mauer or Morneau.While Rodriguez slumped through the summer and injuries took Hideki Matsui,Gary Sheffield and Robinson Cano out of the New York lineup for large chunks oftime, Jeter was at his reliable best. He never let his average drop below .333or his OBP below .411 after the first two weeks, and he reached base in all butnine of the 148 games he was in the starting lineup.

Should Jeter getthe most AL votes, he would become only the fourth positional player in thepast 30 years to win an MVP with a slugging percentage lower than .500, joiningthe Dodgers' Kirk Gibson (1988), the Reds' Barry Larkin ('95) and the Mariners'Ichiro Suzuki (2001). He may be a less traditional choice, but as theclutch-hitting shortstop and pillar of reliability for the best team in theleague, despite its injuries, Jeter is every bit the MVP that Pujols is.

• More awards,plus full playoff coverage at SI.com/baseball.

Here's how SI's Tom Verducci filled out his awardsballot this year:

AL MVP

1. Derek Jeter, YANKEES
2. Joe Mauer, TWINS
3. David Ortiz, RED SOX
4. Justin Morneau, TWINS
5. Frank Thomas, A'S
6. Jermaine Dye, WHITE SOX
7. Carlos Guillen, TIGERS
8. Johan Santana, TWINS
9. Grady Sizemore, INDIANS
10. Vladimir Guerrero, ANGELS

NL MVP

1. Albert Pujols, CARDINALS
2. Ryan Howard, PHILLIES
3. Lance Berkman, ASTROS
4. Carlos Beltran, METS
5. Miguel Cabrera, MARLINS
6. Jose Reyes, METS
7. Chase Utley, PHILLIES
8. Alfonso Soriano, NATIONALS
9. Rafael Furcal, DODGERS
10. Matt Holliday, ROCKIES

AL Cy Young Award

1. Johan Santana, TWINS
2. Roy Halladay, BLUE JAYS
3. Joe Nathan, TWINS

NL Cy Young Award

1. Brandon Webb, DIAMONDBACKS
2. Chris Carpenter, CARDINALS
3. Roy Oswalt, ASTROS

AL Rookie of the Year

1. Justin Verlander, TIGERS
2. Francisco Liriano, TWINS
3. Jonathan Papelbon, RED SOX

NL Rookie of the Year

1. Hanley Ramirez, MARLINS
2. Ryan Zimmerman, NATIONALS
3. Dan Uggla, MARLINS

AL Manager of the Year

1. Jim Leyland, TIGERS
2. Ron Gardenhire, TWINS
3. Joe Torre, YANKEES

NL Manager of the Year

1. Joe Girardi, MARLINS
2. Willie Randolph, METS
3. Grady Little, DODGERS

Pujols's biggest edge was that he outperformed Howardin situations that called for a KEY HIT.
PHOTOJOHN IACONO (JETER) DerekJeter, YANKEES
.343 AVG., .417 OBP, .388 RISP
Big numbers at a premium position
PHOTOJOHN PYLE/ICON SMI (PUJOLS) AlbertPujols, CARDINALS
.331 AVG., 49 HOMERS, .671 SLG
Consistency in the clutch
PHOTOJOHN BIEVER (MAUER) JoeMauer, TWINS
.347 AVG., .429 OBP, 84 RBIS
First batting champ at catcher since '42
PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON RyanHoward, PHILLIES
58 HOMERS, 149 RBIS, .659 SLG
Did most of his damage in second half
TWO PHOTOSCHUCK SOLOMONPHOTOTOM DAHLIN (MORNEAU)PHOTOROBERT BECK (BERKMAN)PHOTOLARRY GOREN/ICON SMI (SANTANA)PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER (VERLANDER)PHOTOTOM DIPACE (RAMIREZ)PHOTOGENE J. PUSKAR/AP (LEYLAND)