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September 21, 2011

Clubhouse Confidential

An MVP By Any Other Name

by Marc Carig

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TORONTO—The following—courtesy of a living, breathing, American League voter who hopes to be compensated with an alcoholic beverage to be named later—is a copy of the instructions given to those within the Baseball Writers' Association of America who have been tapped to elect this season's Most Valuable Player.

I present them here because of Jose Bautista.

The Toronto Blue Jays slugger doesn't think these instructions have been read enough. Or if they have, he thinks they've been badly misinterpreted. Obviously, Bautista has an interest in the voters seeing things his way, because if they did, the right fielder would stand a much better chance of winning the AL MVP.

“To me, I look at the basics, and I try to keep it simple,” Bautista said on a quiet Sunday morning. “And if I was one to vote, I'd look at the criteria and I would stick with the guidelines that they suggest.

“That's the only thing I would look at. It's hard for me to go into more detail than that because I don't want to sound like I'm campaigning for my own vote. But that's would I would do.”

Of course, there's nothing simple or straightforward about the guidelines, hence the sudden intensification of an MVP race that includes the Tigers' Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera; the Yankees' Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano; and (if they can stop the bleeding) the Red Sox trio of Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, and Jacoby Ellsbury.

Finally, there's Bautista, who probably should win but probably won't. And because of the depth of this field, not only will he likely fall short of winning, he could conceivably miss out on the top three altogether. That would be a crime, considering that Bautista is in the midst of one of the top 10 offensive seasons of the last 60 years.

Nobody has done more with each plate appearance to give his team a better chance of winning.

But a top-three snub wouldn't be a surprising outcome. After all, following his 54-homer effort last season, Bautista garnered only 42 percent of the vote (and just one nod for first place), a showing that he called “a bitter disappointment.”

How could this happen? Check out the guidelines yourself:

Dear Voter:

There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. 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 rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot 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.

You are also urged to give serious consideration to all your selections, from 1 to 10. A 10th-place vote can influence the outcome of an election. You must fill in all 10 places on your ballot. Only regular season performances are to be taken into consideration.

Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and designated hitters.

So, Bautista would like to know, where exactly does it say that the Blue Jays' status as also-rans disqualifies him from real consideration for the MVP? Don't the instructions actually make specific mention that playing for a contender is not a prerequisite? When did this contender clause become such a clear-cut element of the voting when “there is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means?”

Said Bautista: “I've never read where the winner of the MVP vote has to come from a playoff team.”

***

What annoys Bautista more than anything is all the hand-wringing over the word “valuable,” which is at the root of the most popular argument against Bautista's candidacy. How can he be the league's most valuable player—the pervading logic goes—if his contributions weren't enough to make his team a playoff contender?

This controversy could all be avoided, he said, if the voters would stop fretting about that word that he considers to be nothing more than part of the award's name, not some vague idea to be debated endlessly.

“That's the thing,” Bautista said. “You don't have to do that. You have to follow the guidelines and take it from there. You don't have to try to look at it and make it more complicated... The Cy Young Award is not given to the person whose season most resembles one of those by Cy Young. It's just the best season. So, the MVP award should be whatever the guidelines are, and you follow that.”

The Blue Jays will tell you that Bautista is invaluable. Asked to contemplate where the Blue Jays would be without him, teammate Jose Molina said, “Let's not even think about it.”

Perhaps, it's best instead to consider where they are with him: in fourth place, sure, but with a winning record (78-75) in what could be the most loaded division in North American sports.

Yet, this MVP election will hinge on how voters will penalize Bautista for playing on a non-contender, despite the historic proportions of his season.

It's happened before. Just like Bautista, Ralph Kiner (1951) and Jim Thome (2002) posted top-10 offensive seasons (based on total average), but they did it while playing for lousy teams with the Pirates (64-90)  and the Indians (74-88). Neither finished in the top five of their MVP voting.

“Valuable,” Bautista said. “That's just a name.”

So, what happens to Bautista's case when only the guidelines are considered? Let's go down the list:

Number of games played
When it is all over, Bautista will have played in more than 140 games at third base and in right field. An ankle injury cost him a few games, but he has otherwise played through the typical dings and dents of a long season. He has certainly played enough to be considered.

General character, disposition, loyalty, and effort
Want a picture of leadership? Consider this snapshot in time, from last week in the visitor's dugout, near a lineup card filled with novices, one of them a former big-league pitcher who has been re-made into an outfielder and forced to patrol one of the trickiest strips of land in all of the majors, the angular oddity known as center field at Fenway Park.

Toronto Blue Jays manager John Farrell had little choice. His starting shortstop's left arm was still swollen where it had been hit, one outfielder was dealing with issues of the lungs and teeth, and another was at a minor-league game rehabbing from a banged-up wrist. He didn't have enough bodies to spread around. So, Farrell turned to September call-up Adam Loewen, whose major-league life began as an Orioles pitcher.

Bautista worried about Fenway's odd dimensions, which is why at the start of the second inning, he put his right arm around his manager and offered to help. Bautista has played some center field and had more experience than Loewen, who in the minors had played mostly in the corners. Bautista proposed trading spots with Loewen.

“I know you've got a lot on your plate,” Bautista told Farrell. “But I'm willing to do that right now.”

Farrell tells the story a week later. He has been asked once more about why he believes Bautista deserves to be voted as the Most Valuable Player of the American League. He has been asked what the slugging right-hander brings to the team that can't be seen on a stat sheet. He has been asked to help fill in the blanks for an outsider.

And so he tells of Bautista's natural leadership, the way he had agreed to a position change, the way other players gravitate toward him, the way he offered to move in the middle of the game to take the heat off a teammate.

“Those are the things you don't measure, you don't see,” Farrell said. “Those are the things that are in some of the private moments. It just, again, spoke volumes about what he's about. And that's this team.”

***

Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense
Defensively, FRAA thinks highly of Bautista’s performance in the field, crediting him with a combined 11.2 runs for his work at third base and in right field. For another take, I talked to a longtime scout who said Bautista's arm and instincts help him in right. Meanwhile, he said Bautista shows “sound reactions and footwork.”

Offensively, Bautista may be wrapping up one of the most productive offensive seasons in the history of the game. Bautista leads the big leagues in home runs (42), on-base percentage (.445), slugging (.615), on-base plus slugging (1060), and walks (125). No man in the A.L. has more intentional walks (23).

All of this translates into a remarkable True Average of .380 (as of Sunday), the best of any player this season.

If he finishes the year at that number, Bautista will have posted one of the 10 most productive seasons since 1950. Since then, only two men in the American League have turned in better offensive seasons—Jim Thome and Mickey Mantle. Here's a look at the single-season leaderboard by TAv (since '50, minimum 600 plate appearances):

Rank

Year

Player

Team

TAv

MVP

1

2002

Barry Bonds

SFN

.430

1st

2

2001

Barry Bonds

SFN

.429

1st

3

1957

Mickey Mantle

NYA

.413

1st

4

1956

Mickey Mantle

NYA

.395

1st

5

1961

Mickey Mantle

NYA

.390

2nd

6

1969

Willie McCovey

SFN

.389

1st

7

1951

Ralph Kiner

PIT

.387

10th

8

2002

Jim Thome

CLE

.383

7th

9

1965

Willie Mays

SFN

.382

1st

T-10

2011

Jose Bautista

TOR

.380

N/A

T-10

1967

Carl Yastrzemski

BOS

.380

1st

T-10

2001

Jason Giambi

OAK

.380

2nd

T-10

2001

Sammy Sosa

CHN

.380

3rd


In terms of adjusted on-base plus slugging percentage, only 36 other players all-time have surpassed Bautista's OPS+ of 186 this season. By this measure, Bautista is having one of the 100 offensive seasons of all-time.

Yet, even those who are around him every day admit that his brilliance can be overlooked.

“What happens when you get around a great player and see him every day, you begin to expect it,” Farrell said. “That might be somewhat unfair to Jose. The things that take place offensively, they're not as surprising as if someone had a hot series where they haven't done it before. He has set the bar extremely high.”

***

This season, Bautista might have set the bar too high after his first two months, during which he posted an obscene .363/.505/.786 line with 20 homers. In the four months since, those numbers are down to .272/.416/.532 with 22 homers, but no one could have kept pace with what he did in the first two months. Still, Bautista keeps reaching base at a clip of over .400.

“That's been my biggest challenge all season long, just remaining patient,” he said. “I think I ran out of patience there for awhile.”

Despite his slowdown, Bautista is still the best player on his own team, an indisputable fact. No other AL MVP candidate can make that claim.

“It would be amazing that I would be put in a category with some of those names that have won it in the last 20 or 30 years that I think are some of the best players in the history of baseball,” Bautista said. “It would huge. And hopefully if I do get it, it will be the first but not the last.”

Farrell, who is obviously biased, had his opinion on the MVP vote before Bautista came to him in the dugout of that game at Fenway Park. But that action seemed to reinforce it. After the game, Farrell sought out his most feared slugger to tell him that of all the players he's ever coached or managed, he has been perhaps the best.

“Numbers aren't going to show leadership and what he means to our club,” he said. “He's our Most Valuable Player. And if I'm getting a vote, I'm voting for him as the Most Valuable Player in the American League.”

Marc Carig is in his third season as the New York Yankees' beat writer for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J. He previously covered the Baltimore Orioles for the Washington Post. A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Carig once believed Dennis Eckersley to be the greatest closer of all time, though seeing Mariano Rivera every day has forced him to reconsider.

Marc Carig is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Marc's other articles. You can contact Marc by clicking here

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