In one forum or another, I’ve chimed in on three of the four biggest
postseason awards. I haven’t had the opportunity to talk about AL MVP yet,
so I figured I’d take a look today. While there are still six days left in
the AL season, it’s fair to say that not much about the MVP race should
change between now and Sunday.
One of the reasons I haven’t said much is that I’ve pretty much felt that
Alex Rodriguez was the clear choice. This reflects his greatness, as
well as my bias towards up-the-middle players in the voting. Despite the
collapse of the Rangers around him A-Rod has been a rock, hitting
.323/.404/.633 with 51 home runs, and throwing in 18 steals at an 86%
success rate to boot. Without anyone in the AL having a Barry Bonds
year, that looks like an MVP to me.
A-Rod included, there are four candidates that I feel are worthy of being
part of the discussion, plus two other players who appear to be candidates
in the mainstream media.
I’ll deal with the latter two first. Juan Gonzalez has had an
excellent season for the Indians, but his performance as a corner
outfielder/DH pales next to that of Rodriguez: .334/.379/.606 is a hell of a
season, but his EqA of .331 is a bit behind A-Rod’s .344, and that doesn’t
address the positional difference.
Gonzalez gets a boost in the voters’ minds from his RBI total, which is a
whopping 140. However, as we’re fond of pointing out, RBIs are about
opportunity as much as ability, and Gonzalez has had a lot of opportunities:
269 at-bats with runners on base, 155 with runners in scoring position.
There are other problems with Gonzalez’s candidacy. One is his playing time.
He’s going to finish the season with fewer than 140 games played, as nagging
injuries have limited his availability. That’s a lot of time going to Wil
Cordero and Russ Branyan, time that candidates like Rodriguez and
Jason Giambi have been in the lineup.
Another problem is that Gonzalez isn’t the best player on his team. Jim
Thome has had a much better year at the plate, while Roberto
Alomar has been about the same offensive contributor (.334 vs .331 EqA,
in Gonzalez’s favor) while playing second base. In light of all this,
Gonzalez can’t get my support for AL MVP; he’s just an RBI candidate.
On the other hand, Gonzalez is arguably a better MVP candidate than another
right fielder, Ichiro Suzuki. Gonzalez blows away Suzuki at the
plate–.334 EqA to .309–although Suzuki makes up a lot of that ground with
his extra 150 or so PAs, so that the gap in Runs Above Replacement Position
is a virtual dead heat. Some of those 150 PAs are due to lineup effects, but
a lot of it is due to Ichiro staying in the lineup, where Gonzalez hasn’t.
The case for Suzuki rests in large part on his importance to the Mariners’
success, as well as his own performance with runners in scoring position–a
ridiculous .455/.516/.553–and his defensive value. Well, the first point is
easily dismissed: like Gonzalez, Ichiro isn’t the best player on his team.
That honor goes to Bret Boone.
I’m inclined to give Ichiro the credit for the RISP performance, for two
reasons. One, I think he may be the rare player for whom this reflects an
actual skill, rather than luck. Ichiro’s approach at the plate, which
produces a ton of singles in any case, may be best-suited for situations in
which a base hit will mean one or two runs. The other reason is that the
performance clearly has value, and we’re measuring his value, not his
potential to replicate the performance going forward.
Ichiro’s defense is another story. His reputation is stellar, and by
observation, he seems like an excellent fielder. That said, his defensive
statistics are nothing special. He’s second in Range Factor, but that stat,
like RBI, has opportunity problems. Ichiro is sixth in the AL in Zone
Rating, and has just eight assists. Want to make the case that guys just are
"afraid to run on him?" Well, Raul Mondesi, Tim
Salmon, and Jermaine Dye all have double-figure assist totals,
and they all have established reputations as good throwers.
Put it all together, and I have a hard time considering Ichiro as a
top-of-the-ballot candidate. I’m pretty sure he’ll be on my ballot, but he’s
not the most valuable player in the league.
That leaves my top four, and they’re a bear to separate:
AVG OBP SLG EqA EqR RAP RARP VORP Roberto Alomar .336 .414 .544 .334 122.3 55.6 73.4 79.3 Bret Boone .333 .372 .577 .328 125.5 53.9 72.9 84.0 Jason Giambi .339 .474 .643 .383 151.5 76.1 96.2 98.5 Alex Rodriguez .323 .404 .633 .344 144.7 75.8 94.1 97.5
(For more on these statistics, check out
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Let’s deal with the first two as a unit. They play the same position for
playoff teams, and clearly are at an offensive disadvantage compared to the
latter two. As hitters, the two are hard to separate. Alomar’s raw numbers
are better than Boone’s, but Safeco Field is a lousy hitters’ park, which is
why the advanced metrics developed by Clay Davenport and Keith Woolner show
the two to be even.
Defensively, Boone appears to be having the better year. The two are in a
virtual dead heat in double plays and range factor, while Boone holds a big
advantage in Zone Rating (.857, second in the AL, against Alomar’s .789,
11th in the league). Boone has an insignificant edge in innings at second
base. Both players are good defenders by reputation.
In a race this close, I’m willing to at least glance at other factors, but I
don’t think that gets us anywhere. You can argue that without Boone, the
Mariners would still be in the playoffs, while without Alomar, the Indians
would be in a dogfight with the Twins. You can also argue that Boone
replaced A-Rod and gave the Mariners the power they desperately needed
behind John Olerud, enabling them to have a monster season. This is
one reason I shy away from "intangible" arguments: they’re made
not to find the truth, but to advocate a position one already holds.
With a need to get this column done, I’ll take Boone, based on the apparent
defensive edge. It would be hard to find two players having great seasons
closer in value, though.
Now we get to the two best players in the league by just about any metric:
Jason Giambi and Alex Rodriguez. Giambi is outhitting A-Rod, while Rodriguez
is playing shortstop every day. As with Alomar and Boone, the differences
between the two players cancel out when you look at the advanced metrics:
Giambi holds a slim lead over A-Rod in RARP and VORP, two excellent measures
of offensive value.
Again, in a decision this close, it’s worth looking at other factors. Giambi
is the apparent leader of a playoff team, a team that is probably the
second-best in baseball. Rodriguez’s Rangers have been out of the race for
months. That’s not enough on its own to disqualify A-Rod. I can’t
emphasize that enough, and I am firmly opposed to the idea that only players
on winning teams should be considered for MVP (especially when the
proponents of that notion are perfectly capable of ignoring it when
convenient). But in choosing between two players who are equally great, it
is valid to at least consider factors outside of their control, so long as
those factors don’t become the rationale for silly decisions.
That leaves me with my own bias towards up-the-middle players, the one that
had me thinking "A-Rod Uber Alles" for most of the season. I
believe that the stats above do a good job in correcting for the positional
differences, but I also believe that having a great up-the-middle player
makes putting the rest of a winning team together easier. That said, I think
Giambi’s performance for an A’s team that might win 100 games carries a bit
more weight than that factor. Jason Giambi, MVP.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by