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Because of an exceptionally tight field and the improbability that any of the votes are in, handicapping the American League MVP race may be almost as much a matter of handicapping the electorate as it is a question of who's deserving. This is invariably the challenge with talking about the awards at any point before they're awarded, before or during the season: Do you want to talk about who I think should win and why, more generally about who should win and why, or who the voters are likely to pick and why?

As is only too well known—and as Andre Dawson's induction into the Hall of Fame provides an easy reminder—the award isn't reliably given to the best player, and the criteria involved in selection provide plenty of wiggle room for people to vote for all sorts of players for all sorts of slippery reasons. Admittedly, there's the instinct to want to be able to say, “Aha, I was right, I foresaw all, my Kreskin-like powers of anticipation reign supreme!” While filling out BP's pre-season predictions, I always give thought to the voters as well as the merits of the players I expect will shine, because the awards aren't simply about player performance, but also wind up being about the interpretations of that performance. But here, that counts for less, and it's time to make an argument on behalf of the best entries in the field. Happily, I'm not one of the voters, nor do I know who the voters are, so I can stick with splitting statistical hairs among the potential candidates and let my arguments live or die as all of you see fit.

Let's begin with crossing a few categories off the list. First off, we can dispense with there being a valid candidate from among the league's relievers, so we don't have to worry about a Willie Hernandez or a Dennis Eckersley sneaking in. Joakim Soria is handily the AL's best reliever, ranking nearly a full win better than the Rays' Rafael Soriano. However, unless the Royals violate the First Law of Thermodynamics and become hotter than the sum of their potential energy with a quarter of the season to go, there's no danger of his suddenly setting any records beyond winding up with the third- or fourth-best relief season in franchise history. That's a very nice thing to achieve, but it's also pointless for the purposes of this discussion. He might draw some down-ballot support, as Soriano should, and if somebody boldly gives Daniel Bard some props for the league's best set-up season, that'll be a grand gesture. Basically, Soria and Bard might have a chance for greater credit if Jayson Stark's initiative to create a specific annual relief pitching award wins wider support within the BBWAA, but on this ballot they're back-end toss-ins.

Then there are the starting pitchers. I'd suggest that, not unlike the likely outcome of the Cy Young race, we're looking at the shortened-season impact of Cliff Lee balanced against the full-season splendor of his fellow ex-Indian, CC Sabathia. Felix Hernandez has produced better full-season value than either of them, but he's not going to win the MVP Award, while Jon Lester seems born to be a dark horse unlikely to get his full due unless something bad happens to several of his more famous rivals before the month is out.

CC Sabathia 26 181.2 16
4.7 39.5 4.9 143 19.2% 3.12 3.47 3.94
Cliff Lee 21 169 10 5.1 45.3 4.4 147 22.1% 2.77 3.04 2.93
Felix Hernandez 26 189
8 5.9
5.2 172 22.3% 2.62 3.24 3.30
Jon Lester 24 161 13 4.8 43.9 5.7 165 25.1% 2.80 3.07 3.15
Clay Buchholz 21 133.1 14 4.8 38.7 5.1 89 16.3% 2.36

The outcome of Lee vs. Sabathia should make for an especially interesting Cy Young Award. While I'd love to see Hernandez enter the conversation on the basis of his boasting the strongest statistical virtues as far as the performance metrics of both alternatives—Lee's rates, and Sabathia's counting stats—I don't think we'll see Nolan Ryan's Cy-worthy 8-16 '87 season avenged this year. Zack Greinke getting his due last season was progress, but there's still a chunk of this electorate responsible for giving Bartolo Colon a Cy Young Award. While Lee's arrival in Texas is supposed to be the fulcrum around which their bid to win a post-season series against an AL East team revolves, it'll be difficult to see either his performance or Sabathia's, let alone King Felix's, rating well enough to triumph over any but the most fractured of fields among the hitters.

Which we might have on our hands, because the slate of hitters is a broad jumble. I'd advance nine plausible candidates if we were having this conversation just a few weeks ago, but Kevin Youkilis is out for the year, and we have no idea what Justin Morneau will do when he returns. Who are the seven, at least as I see them?

Josh Hamilton 496 .356
.408 .624 .340 26 82 81 68.3
Adrian Beltre 487 .328 .366 .568 .313 23 63 83 46.2 7.4
Evan Longoria 530 .293 .375 .504 .312 16 77 80 42.8 7.3
Miguel Cabrera 503 .340 .433
30 83 98
68.1 7.3
Robinson Cano 514 .322 .385 .557 .313 23 79 75 56.0 6.6
Carl Crawford 492 .303 .354 .487 .303 14 86 66 35.4 5.9
Joe Mauer 460 .335 .407 .496 .319 8 71 65 46.1 5.8

Generally working our way up from the bottom to the top, while Morneau's absence at a time when the Twins are making tracks in the AL Central probably won't do him any favors, it might help the case of his teammate, Joe Mauer, who's having a very good, sub-incredible season. Morneau is likely to have to settle for honorable mentions instead of vying with Mauer for top honors among the Twins, so Mauer might command the “they had to have won somehow, so let's blame the best player on the team” segment of the voting population. He's also last year's MVP, which might incentivize some people to not vote for him, but unless somebody comes away as a clear favorite, the fact that he'll show up on so many ballots could help him.

Crawford is more than a courtesy mention, because of course he's right here among the leaders in WARP3 (or WARP adjusted for league difficulty for 162 games*). On a tough ballot, some people might skip the apples versus oranges argument of best player versus best-ish player on a contender, and reach for the pineapple. He's second in the league in stolen bases and runs scored, and leading the field in Equivalent Baserunning Runs, and if the electorate wants to veer into some sort of argument over how fundamentals and speed and defense are what put the Rays in the postseason, I can see how Crawford's very distinct contributions relative to the half-dozen sluggier alternatives would look good. That said, I think he's got less hope than Mauer—left field is not catcher, and Crawford's strengths really rely on counting stats and health, not pure excellence.

Similarly, Longoria's case has Crawford's virtues as far as durability, quality performance, and across-the-board value. Interestingly enough, they're both plating over 17 percent of their baserunners, which puts them among the league leaders. put that on a contender, and he becomes an easy choice for people who lean toward voting for players on playoff teams. Longoria has almost bulls-eyed his rate stat projections, and he plays an excellent third base. It might strike some as downright dull as narratives go, but total fulfillment of high expectations deserves its day at the ballot box.

Robinson Cano deserves more consideration than he ever seems to get, and his dominance as the top hitter at the position seems secure. The problem is that there's always going to be that question over whether or not he's a second banana shining in the shadow of the bigger stars populating the Yankees' lineup. Add in that, like many Yankees, he's gotten the benefit of facing pitchers allowing among the highest slugging rates in the league, plus the disdain with which his defense seems to be regarded, and I wouldn't be surprised if he has to settle somewhere in the middle of the pack. His virtues as a slugger and as a position-relative dominating contributor on offense don't outshine the people ahead of him on this list.

The Tigers' Miguel Cabrera should be an easy favorite in a number of regards. If you're old-school and hung up on batting average, he's second, while leading the league in RBI. If you're new-school, the fact that he's leading in OBP, SLG, True Average, and almost there in VORP positions him somewhat nicely as far as the pure value proposition. Position-relative, he suffers a little bit because the standards are higher at first base, and he's also not a particularly nimble defender, but Cabrera's case for MVP is about as sound as it gets… except for a few incidentals. The Tigers are already dead, which won't really help him with the drama addicts, and last year's incident with drunkenness didn't help him any then, and probably doesn't help him any now.

To some extent, Longoria's problem as well as Cano's is that another infielder in their own division has put them both in the shade: Boston's Adrian Beltre. Delivering his best season since his huge 2004 with the Dodgers, Beltre makes an easy choice for the single most important player down the stretch because, against a dramatic backdrop of an injury-riddled Red Sox team that's always going to command an outsized amount of attention, he has to keep it up for the Sox to have much hope. Here again, there are going to be some voters who liked voting for Justin Morneau in 2006 who might see enough in Beltre's season to be seduced from either Cabrera or the last major candidate.

Which brings us to Josh Hamilton. Between what is by now a nearly legendary back story of redemption, participation in a pennant race, a past RBI title that helped him achieve a top-10 finish with the voters in 2008, his history, however checkered it might be in the grand scheme of things, will be an asset for him. Add in that he's second in the league in slugging, leading in WARP per 162 games and total bases and VORP, and he's not just a guy leading the league in hits and batting average for the stathead community to rail about.

Put all of that together, and I think it boils down to Hamilton or Cabrera as the likely winners. They have the right sorts of associations with winning teams, the leaderboards of both performance analysts as well as traditionalists, and their nearest competition, Beltre and Longoria, don't play up-the-middle positions, but a different corner. Longoria's almost effortless arrival into greatness might actually work against him. I expect the voting will be fairly tight as long as everyone's performances hold up. Were it my call to make and if I had to make it now, I'd probably wind up being a bit stubborn and running with my pre-season pick and sticking with Longoria, in part because I expect Beltre to lose ground down the stretch, while Hamilton gets hurt or gets rested. However, as much as I like what he's doing and will do, my suspicion is that Longoria won't win. Instead, Hamilton may be just too irresistible as a self-generating story line, and there's no begrudging him an outstanding season no matter what your flavor of numeracy might be.

*: The time's a-coming when WARP2 will be WARP, and WARP3 should render as WARP/162, and we'll phase out simple WARP, because the distinctions can be a bit opaque otherwise.

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Great work as always, Cristina.

I'm surprised that you did not mention Hamilton's high BABIP and extreme splits (.848 OPS on road). And you said Cabrera suffers a little bit by playing first, just a guess, but the average first baseman now likely OPS's in the .850 range. Shouldn't he suffer a lot bit?

As for the Yankees facing teams with high slug -- this is anecdotal but I would imagine AL pitchers facing the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 7th best offenses has something to do with that.

This is a tough MVP race, for sure. I'd just be so reluctant to hand it to a corner OF or 11b unless they were head and shoulders above the rest.

Longoria and Beltre seem pretty interchangable. Give me one of them or Cano (with his improved defensive metrics at a premium position).
By the 'he' who should "suffer a lot bit", do you mean Cabrera? As far as OPS for first basemen go, for example, Albert Pujols is currently at .999, Joey Votto at 1.015, Mark Teixeira at .855, and Cabrera at 1.082. Josh Hamilton's OPS is 1.023. (All stats from the MLB site, 08/20/2010.) Miguel Cabrera's in the catbird's seat with this stat!
I expect Hamilton might regress a little, but consider the factors in his favor: great park, big lead, a batting title to protect. He'll get rest as the Rangers protect their regulars in September. On the other hand, Cabrera will get to face AL Central pitching, so a successful pursuit of the triple-slash triple crown isn't out of the question.

As I noted, to return to my original proposition of whether we're handicapping the likely result versus arguing on a specific player's behalf, I'm clinging to Longoria, while anticipating Hamilton.
If things remain the same, Hamilton will win the award. Cano should get consideration, but you are correct that he gets lost in the Yankee shuffle. Beltre has been amazing and it's cool that I predicted that in the preseason. Personally, I like what Crawford has done for the Rays. He makes them so much better and he will be really missed if he walks at the end of the season.

Nice wrap up of the candidates.
Gracias, much appreciated.
My wife asked me the other day who I thought might win the AL MVP this year. (This came up as White Sox announcers were speaking highly of Delmon Young, and I made the comment that here's another player who, while having a very good season, is being made to look even better by hitting behind Joe Mauer. Then I told her about 2006.) My pick was Hamilton, too, for pretty much the same reasons as Christina outlines.

I will say that as I read the paragraph about Beltre, I couldn't help thinking that the same could apply to Paul Konerko (other than the outsized attention granted to his type of Sox). If he gets hot and the Sox overhaul the Twins, there will be Konerko's five-hit performance last night in a "must-win" game at Target Field, etc and so on. Not that Konerko could make up the ground statistically unless he was Bondsian from here on out, but I could see him generating pretty strong support if the Sox prevail over the Twins. Konerko is fourth in VORP, after all.

That's a Fielder-sized if on current trends, of course.
You're talking to somebody who's very fond of Konerko, but I expect it would have to involve a desperately fractured electorate and something like nine or 10 viable candidates. I just don't see if being that fractured.
Unless he misses VERY! significant time, Hamilton 2010 = Gibson 1988. The 'traditionalists' will all vote for Hamilton, unless maybe Miggy C does reach a Triple Crown.

Even then, I'd still wager on Hamilton.
The importance of good narrative to the voters is always fascinating, and it's interesting, Christina, that you seem to suggest Hamilton's redemption story is more valued than Cabrera's. It probably is true that people see overcoming drugs as more heroic than overcoming alcoholism. Which tells us way more about our society than it tells us about baseball.

I understand that this is not the point of the article, but I'm curious. Why rank the leading pitchers by SNLVAR instead of SIERA or VORP? Either would bring Weaver and Liriano into the discussion.
In a competition for the most value SIERA isn't really useful. Yeah, it's important when talking about who's the best, but MVP isn't really that (even if it should be), it's simply who's done the most.

Further, the mention of the pitchers was done while simultaneously dismissing all of them, as Christina explains. Whether that analysis is complete or not is irrelevant if we're not really considering them.
Well, Hamilton is the best player on a team that is making the playoffs, and wasn't expected to. Regardless of his rehabbed life, that's enough for most MVP voters.

Could people hold Beltre's injuring of two teammates against him? Surely their injuries are a big reason why the Sox are not really in a playoff hunt.
Thanks Christina. As always an interesting and thoughtful take on the situation.

At the end of the day I think Hamilton wins, when you factor in his stats and the story behind his comeback from drug abuse. I'm not sure why his comeback is any more noteworthy than Cabrera's. But, it's received more positive attention, and that's what will matter for purposes of the vote.

That said - I think it's interesting that Mauer's WARP3 score is so high, when everyone is talking about him having a down season.
I wonder how a guy like Jose Bautista, who seemingly comes from out of nowhere to become one of the most personable, entertaining players in the game, fares in the voting.
If he leads the league in homers he'll garner a few 5th place votes, but even the BBWAA can tell he's not on the level of a Hamilton or Miggy, plus he plays for a team that really had no shot.
.323 TAv puts him in the middle of that list, and should at least get him in the conversation. Same with Paul Konerko at .325
Ah timing. I had just put this on my twitter, yesterday.

Time for my annual-Josh Hamilton reality check. Home split. 396/444/752. Road. 312/366/485. 2008-345/408/611. Road. 263/311/448. Not MVP.
Miguel Cabrera numbers. Home. 337/436/603. Road. 341/417/671. Park adjusted it's not even close. Even after giving Josh points defensively.
Ask Milton Bradley about his thoughts on Rangers home park. 2008 Home. 358/466/679. Away. 290/410/462. This park makes a hitter rich.
17 AL hitters have a better OBP & SLG % than Hamilton's road stats. 13 AL hitters have an OPS better than his road 851 Cabrera slam-dunk MVP.

I suspect his story and the Rangers playoff clinch will give him the award, but I don't see where the race should be close based on statistical merit.
2 things:

1) Hamilton has 38 games this year in centerfield, and while he doesn't have the range that Borbon does, he's got a great arm, and his range is fairly close to average in center. He'll probably play center in the post season, as David Murphy is hitting much better than Julio Borbon.

2) The Texas Rangers have made the playoffs three times before, in 1996, 1998, and 1999. in each of those three years a Ranger has won the MVP. An interesting trend which won't change this year.
Does Beltre get any credit (from the Yankee or Rays perspective) for taking out Ellsbury for the year?