The question of who should win the American League Most Valuable Player Award hasn’t had an easy answer in a few years, and 2006 will not change that. There are, once again, multiple viable candidates for the award, and they range from the best hitters in the league to up-the-middle players having excellent seasons to a couple of pitchers-and arguably one closer-with reasonable cases. There is, as there always seems to be in the AL, a debate over whether the timing of a player’s contributions should carry extra weight, and with five good teams battling for three playoff spots, those who would consider a team’s performance in gauging an individual’s merit will be heard.

With apologies to Miguel Tejada and Francisco Liriano, here are the candidates for AL MVP:

                   AVG   OBP   SLG   EqA    VORP    FRAR   WARP1
Travis Hafner     .299  .424  .628  .337    62.4       0     6.1
Manny Ramirez     .325  .434  .630  .338    57.0      -4     5.7
Grady Sizemore    .303  .383  .537  .305    56.0      17     6.7
Joe Mauer         .361  .441  .522  .320    54.7      21     6.8
Derek Jeter       .340  .416  .476  .306    53.9      18     6.3
Vernon Wells      .320  .379  .588  .309    53.9       1     4.6
David Ortiz       .287  .399  .624  .322    53.4       0     5.7

                      ERA     IP    SV   VORP    SNLVAR   WXRL  WARP1
Johan Santana        3.24  169.1     0   51.7       5.5     --    7.5
Roy Halladay         3.23  170.0     0   51.7       4.8     --    6.6
Jonathan Papelbon    0.91   59.1    30   34.8        --    5.6    7.5

Through August 12

Jonathan Papelbon is interesting because of his WARP total, which is even higher than Roy Halladay‘s despite about one-third the innings. He leads MLB in WXRL, and anytime a reliever has an ERA below 1.00 he gets a look from the writers. Realistically, he needs to maintain that figure, reach the mid-40s in saves and, fair or no, have the Red Sox reach the postseason for the writers to consider him. Whether he deserves consideration, regardless, is a harder call; I’m inclined to think his VORP figure above, perhaps adjusted upwards for leverage, is a more accurate reflection of his value than his WARP. While he’s earned downballot consideration, I wouldn’t place him higher than sixth or seventh in the league. In all honesty, figuring the relative values of short relievers compared to everyday players is not easy, and I think reasonable people could make an argument for Papelbon as one of the five most valuable players in the AL.

Halladay and Johan Santana are difficult to separate, although the advanced metrics above give a substantial edge to the Twins’ left-hander. He’s been much less reliant on his defense than Halladay has been, with nearly twice as many strikeouts. That’s enough to rate him the top pitcher, which is good for top-five consideration this year. (No, WARP isn’t the sole statistical consideration. Would that we had a single magic bullet.) If Liriano was set to finish the season completely healthy, not only would he have likely lapped both veterans, he would have had a strong case for league MVP. He’s been the best starting pitcher in baseball on a per-inning basis. His elbow injury, added to his late start, will cost him too many innings for him to win the hardware.

The other seven guys cleave nicely into two categories: “hitters” and “players.” Two of the first three are DHs, while the third plays a marginal left field, so all of these guys are trying to hit their way to honors. Travis Hafner has been the best hitter in the league for most of the season; Manny Ramirez recently caught him for that title, and the two are virtually even in production metrics. The people’s choice, David Ortiz, gives away 25-35 points of OBP to the other two, making him a clear third in this analysis.

Of course, you can’t discuss Ortiz without discussing his reputation for having skills other players don’t. He’s had another handful of late-game heroics this year, and systems that give him credit for those over and above the value of the events themselves, such as Win Probability Added, rate him much more highly than context-neutral ones do. While I can see an argument for giving Ortiz some credit for the timing of his hits, because they certainly have added real wins for the Red Sox, I’m not convinced that it should be an overriding factor. Opportunity plays an enormous role in determining who gets called clutch, and Ortiz does seem to have an inordinate amount of opportunities, in no small part because of the guy hitting behind him.

I’d add that the Red Sox-and Indians, for that matter-take a minor hit by having their DH spot locked up. It’s very clear that they don’t want Ortiz in the field; like Hafner, he’s a threat to himself and others when he plays defense, and the Sox suffer through the valences of Ramirez in left field to keep him from doing so. He’s not a DH by circumstance, and there’s some loss in value to guys like that. If not exactly the amount that he gains by his late-game heroics, it’s certainly enough to call into question whether he’s even the best defensively-challenged hitter on his own team.

Put another way: if Ortiz played first base and batted fourth, while Ramirez DHed and batted third, would it just come down to the numbers?

My bias towards up-the-middle players in MVP voting is well-established, which is why I find the above discussion a bit irrelevant. As good as the three hitters have been, the three players have all had more value because of their ability to play key positions on the diamond. Beyond that, all three have played their spots fairly well this season, at least according to our defensive stats. The three are close enough in value that choosing among them ends up a referendum on who had the best week. Grady Sizemore gets the nod if that’s the criteria, moving past Derek Jeter and Joe Mauer in VORP over the weekend. He’s an above-average center fielder and one of the top hitters in the AL. On the other hand, there’s not much difference between him and Vernon Wells, the gap between them mostly Sizemore’s better defensive performance this year. Can you be the league MVP without clearly being the best player at your position in your league?

Mauer, of course, is vying to be the first AL catcher to win a batting title, and he’s spiked that high BA with walks and doubles and strong defense. You’d think a catcher who was one of the best hitters in the league would be a shoo-in for MVP, but Mike Piazza‘s peak argues otherwise. Jeter is having the second-best season of his life both at the plate and in the field. His defensive improvement since 2003 is one of the better stories in the game, and deserving of an analysis all its own. Improving from poor to average at shortstop has added two wins to his value, making him a reasonable MVP candidate in each of the past two seasons.

The least-interesting factor in this discussion, yet the one likely to move at least some names on some ballots come late September, is team performance. I think it’s interesting that the Tigers, the best team in the AL, have no one in the discussion. The A’s and White Sox, who could both make the postseason, lack MVP candidates as well. The Red Sox and Twins are well-represented, and even the Blue Jays have two of the top ten names. While playing for a team that contends keeps a player in the spotlight, I firmly believe that players have to be evaluated based on what they’ve done, and not the caliber of their teammates. Grady Sizemore is no less valuable because the Indians’ bullpen was lousy. The case for the two Red Sox hitters isn’t diminished by the team’s poor pitching from the back half of the staff, and Derek Jeter’s case isn’t improved because Brian Cashman channeled Branch Rickey for 72 hours in late July.

Teams have awards: division titles, playoff berths, World Championships. Individuals have to be judged based on what they did, not what the guys around them did.

So with that, who’s the AL MVP? Right now, my ballot for the IBAs would probably be Jeter, Mauer, Santana, Sizemore, Ramirez, and that’s just what I’m going with Monday, August 14 at about 9 a.m. My comfort level with each spot decreases as we get away from #1, and at that, I’m not sure that the added value Mauer has as a catcher doesn’t push him ahead of Jeter, or that I’m not undervaluing the real wins Ortiz has put on the board, or minimizing the impact of Francisco Liriano’s 119 innings.

This has the potential to be the best awards race in years, and not because of the traditional “clutch” or “pennant race” arguments. The candidates for AL MVP are tightly packed and generate their value in disparate ways, so much so that even conscientious analysts will be scratching their heads deep into the offseason.