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November 19, 2008

On the Beat

Of MVPs and Legacy Awards

by John Perrotto

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Getting Albert Pujols to talk about his personal statistics can be a difficult task. The Cardinals' first baseman will modestly reply with such tried-and-true phrases as, "the only statistic I care about is the team winning," or "I'll look at my numbers once I'm done playing." However, Pujols did talk about his numbers on Monday, after he had won his second National League Most Valuable Player award.

While Pujols wouldn't expound on the potential history he's making after putting up some of the best numbers ever posted by a player through the first eight seasons of his career, he did talk about what stats are most important to him. Pujols' preference will make statheads cringe: "The most important statistic to me is batting average." That's even though he has a .425 on-base percentage and .624 slugging percentage on his career, which tots up to a 1049 raw OPS, fifth all-time among batters with at least 5,000 plate appearances behind Babe Ruth (1164), Ted Williams (1116), Lou Gehrig (1080), and Barry Bonds (1051). "I'm proud of the fact I've hit over .300 every year in my career," Pujols said. "It's a hard thing to do over a full season, and it gets tougher every year because of all the good young pitchers coming into the league who all seem to throw 95 mph gas. When you look at what [Braves third baseman] Chipper Jones hit this year and what I hit, I really think it's a great accomplishment. It's something I really appreciate, and I think a lot of hitters appreciate."

Jones won the first NL batting title of his stellar 15-year career with a .364 average, while Pujols hit .357, two points below the career high he set in 2003. Pujols reminisced on an incident in the early days of his rookie year in 2001, when he beat out Bobby Bonilla for the final spot on the Cardinals' roster and manager Tony La Russa decided to give him a pop quiz during batting practice. La Russa asked if he would rather hit .250 with 30 home runs and 100 RBI, or .300 with 20 homers and 100 RBI. Pujols picked the .250-30-100 line and drew scorn from his veteran skipper. "It was a rookie mistake on my part," Pujols said. "Tony said it's always better to hit .300 than .250, because you're giving yourself a better chance to be productive. He's right. If you hit .300, you're going to have more RBI because you're going to drive more runners in from second base, and the more runs you score then the more games you will win. So my goal every year is to hit .300."

That is not to say Pujols is an anti-OBP guy, but he does concentrate on the walks column as the best measure of effectiveness in that area, rather than his straight on-base percentage. Beyond extending his string of .300 seasons, Pujols said that the number that meant the most to him this year was his 104 bases on balls, a career high after having walked 99 times in 2007. "You've got to take your walks, but it's hard because you want to swing the bat when you're up at the plate," Pujols said. "I think I've gotten better every year when it comes to strike-zone judgment. I'm trusting my hands more to wait that extra little bit before committing to swing. I was really disappointed last season though, when I missed 100 walks by one. That was really a goal for me. Now that I've reached 100 walks, I want to keep doing it every year."

Pujols not only set a career high in total walks, he also set one for intentional walks with 34, six more than he received in 2006. Opposing managers played the percentages when facing the Cardinals in 2008, realizing that they would have a better chance of success facing anyone but Pujols. "It doesn't get frustrating to me," Pujols said. "I understand that one man can't win a game by himself, so if that means me drawing a walk and someone else driving me in, then it's just as good as if I drive the run in."

Pujols also struck out just 54 times this year, four more than the career low he set in 2006 while hitting 37 home runs. Only two other players hit as many as 20 home runs with fewer strikeouts in 2008; Astros left fielder Carlos Lee had 28 homers and 49 whiffs, and Blue Jays center fielder Vernon Wells went deep 20 times with 46 punchouts. "I know people always say this, but if you put the ball in play you always give yourself a chance," Pujols said. "It's true. Say I get on base on an error with two outs and nobody on. At least I've given the next guy coming up an opportunity to hit a two-run homer. If a strike out, I never gave us a chance to score some runs. I struck out 86 times [in 676 plate appearances] as a rookie, and that made me so mad because I never came close to striking out that much in high school and college. I told myself I would never let that happen again."

Pujols also fared quite well in the BP stats this season, leading the major leagues in WARP3 (13.5), EqA (.372), VORP (98.7), and MLVr (.621). He did all that despite playing with a sore right elbow that will require surgery to decompress and reposition the ulna nerve. Doctors also told him that he has a torn ligament in his elbow, and that there is a 25 percent chance he might need Tommy John surgery if the October procedure does not ease his pain. "The only time it really bothered me was the last two months, because I felt more of a tingling sensation than pain and it caused my pinky finger to go numb," Pujols said. "The doctors are optimistic that this surgery will work and I'll be fine for next season. I know there's a 25 percent chance it might not work, but I'm staying optimistic."

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This was not an easy year to be an MVP voter; the general consensus was that there was no cut-and-dried winner in either league. The AL voting was particularly interesting, with the winner, Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia, being one of five players who received first-place votes from the 28-man election committee that comprised two members of the Baseball Writers Association of America from each of the 14 cities in the league. Pedroia got 16 first-place votes, while seven went to Twins first baseman Justin Morneau, two each to Twins catcher Joe Mauer and Red Sox corner infielder Kevin Youkilis, and one to Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez.

Pedroia was surprisingly left entirely off of one ballot, as Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News failed to list him among his top 10. A first-place vote is worth 14 points, with the scale then decreasing from nine points down to one point for second through 10th place. Grant is a highly esteemed writer who has covered the Braves, Marlins, and Rangers during nearly two decades in the BBWAA. Grant's ballot looked like this: Youkilis, Rodriguez, Morneau, Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton, White Sox left fielder Carlos Quentin, Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, Indians left-hander Cliff Lee, Mauer, Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore, and Rays first baseman Carlos Pena.

He readily admits that he made a mistake by omitting Pedroia. "Did I get too cute at the bottom of the ballot? Yeah probably. Was that a mistake? Yeah, probably," Grant said. "Was it a mistake to leave [Pedroia] out of the top five? In retrospect, yeah, it was. My colleagues all thought he belonged in the top five. My opinion on this one was obviously wrong. What I'm happiest about is at least it did not cost Pedroia the MVP award. I can assure you I give the MVP vote an awful lot of time. In this case, perhaps I gave it too much time and overanalyzed, particularly at the bottom of the ballot. It's hard to argue that Pedroia wasn't one of the 10 best players in the league."

Pedroia was third in the AL and second among hitters in WARP3 with a 10.4 mark (Justin Morneau was tops at 11.8), and Pedroia's 59.8 VORP was third in the league behind Alex Rodriguez (62.4) and Sizemore (60.7). Pedroia was 15th in MLVr (.202) and 18th in EqA (.298), while Rangers designated hitter Milton Bradley topped the AL in both categories.

Pujols received 18 of the 32 first-place votes in the NL, while Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard got 12 and the remaining two went to Phillies closer Brad Lidge. What made the NL race especially interesting were the fantastic partial seasons turned in by Dodgers left fielder Manny Ramirez and Brewers left-hander CC Sabathia, after both were acquired from AL clubs during in-season trades. Ramirez finished fourth in the voting, and Sabathia sixth. "The writers had a tough job this year because you had so many guys having good seasons, and then you factor Manny and CC into the mix because they both were big reasons why their teams got to the playoffs," Pujols said. "I'm glad I didn't have a vote because it would have really been difficult to make that decision."

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One of the biggest highlights of the offseason will occur on January 10, when Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston receives the Jackie Robinson Award for lifetime achievement at the ninth annual Legacy Awards at the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. Gaston returned to the Blue Jays this past year in June, leading them to a 51-37 finish. He was the first African-American manager to win a World Series when he led the Blue Jays over the Braves in 1992, and his Blue Jays successfully defended their title the next season with a victory over the Phillies.

The Oscar Charleston Awards, presented to the most valuable player in each league, will go to Morneau and Pujols. Lee and Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum will be presented with the Bullet Joe Rogan Awards for best pitchers. The C.I. Taylor Awards for manager of the year will be given to the Rays' Joe Maddon and the Cubs' Lou Piniella. Rays third baseman Evan Longoria and Cubs catcher Geovany Soto will receive the Larry Doby Awards for top rookie in each league.

The Rube Foster Awards for top executives in each league will go to the Angels' Tony Reagins and the Brewers' Doug Melvin. Tigers center fielder Curtis Granderson will receive the Pop Lloyd Award for community leadership, and Chris Murray of the Philadelphia Tribune will be honored with the Sam Lacy Award for meritorious service as a baseball writer.

Others include the Buck Leonard Awards (batting champions) to Mauer and Jones; Josh Gibson Awards (most home runs) to the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera and Howard; Cool Papa Bell Awards (most stolen bases) to the Red Sox's Jacoby Ellsbury and the Rockies' Willy Taveras; and the Hilton Smith Awards (top relievers) to Francisco Rodriguez and the Astros' Jose Valverde. Tickets for the banquet are $75-150, and can be purchased by calling 816-221-1920. All of the proceeds benefit the museum.

---

AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Mariners will hire Athletics bench coach Dan Wakamatsu as their manager today; the new skipper will be the first ever big-league manager of Asian descent. ... The Yankees have backed off trying to trade for Padres right-hander Jake Peavy, and instead will continue to try to pull off the trifecta of signing Sabathia and right-handers A.J. Burnett and Derek Lowe as free agents. The Mets and Braves seem to be the Yankees' stiffest competition for Lowe, with the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Rangers also in on him. The Blue Jays and Red Sox are in the hunt for Burnett along with the Braves, Orioles, and Phillies. ... The Orioles are believed to be preparing a substantial offer to hometown boy and top free-agent first baseman Mark Teixeira in an effort to win back some goodwill from their fans. ... The Tigers would trade left-hander Dontrelle Willis to the Red Sox for shortstop Julio Lugo if the sides can work out financial issues in the deal. The Tigers are also pursuing free-agent lefty reliever Joe Beimel. ... The Twins have inquired about shortstops in trade talks, particularly the Brewers' J.J. Hardy and the Braves' Yunel Escobar.

NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Astros are willing to listen to trade offers for Valverde and shortstop Miguel Tejada. ... The Cubs are eyeing the Royals' Mark Teahen as a trade target to play right field. ... The Cardinals are pursuing left-handed relievers Will Ohman and Arthur Rhodes in free agency. The Braves are also trying to re-sign Ohman. ... Ohman is reportedly also on the Phillies' wish list for middle-relief help, along with lefty Dennys Reyes and right-handers Doug Brocail, Russ Springer, and David Weathers. ... The Diamondbacks want to sign free-agent infielder Ramon Vazquez to fill their hole at second base. ... The Giants would like to bring back free-agent right-hander Bob Howry (a Giants farmhand at the start of his career) to stabilize their young bullpen. ... If Mark Cuban's chances of purchasing the Cubs were slim before, they're now dead after he was charged with insider trading by the Securities and Exchange Commission. ... Speculation persists that Nationals president Stan Kasten is ready to take the same job with the Blue Jays.

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

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