Quick, and without looking: who is the most valuable player in the American League?

If you defaulted to “Alex Rodriguez,” you’re probably right, but it’s a close call. The 2005 AL MVP race is one of the least inspiring award chases in recent memory. Even the 2003 field in the AL, which was even bigger, had more interesting storylines. In ’05, there just isn’t anyone in the AL who’s having a high-profile season, certainly nothing like what we’re seeing in the NL, where at least four players would be running away with the MVP award if they played in the junior circuit.

Here are the stat lines for five top contenders:

                    AVG   OBP   SLG   PA   EqA    EqR  VORP   Def  WARP

Alex Rodriguez     .316  .416  .599  541  .343  109.8  71.0   +12   7.9
Miguel Tejada      .312  .358  .546  531  .315   94.5  60.8   +24   7.4
David Ortiz        .297  .393  .579  540  .328   99.4  57.9    +2   5.7
Brian Roberts      .317  .389  .524  521  .325   95.9  57.4   +24   7.8
Vladimir Guerrero  .321  .387  .576  447  .333   86.7  54.0   +10   6.0

The defensive value held by the three infielders enable them to move well ahead of David Ortiz and Vladimir Guerrero when looking at Wins Above Replacement Player. It’s defense, though, that makes the race close. The Orioles’ double-play combination of Miguel Tejada and Brian Roberts closes the one-win, one-win-plus gap between them and Rodriguez at the plate by playing superior defense at more valuable positions.

Rodriguez’s edge over the field in run production surprised me. I thought Ortiz, among others, would be closer to him. Travis Hafner leads the AL in Equivalent Average (.346), but with just 412 plate appearances, he lags behind Ortiz in nearly every other measure. Rodriguez is the second-best hitter in the league, just ahead of Jason Giambi and Guerrero, and he has considerable playing-time advantages over both.

What’s interesting is that the list above doesn’t include the #2 guy in the American League in WARP. Here’s his line:

                    AVG   OBP   SLG   PA   EqA    EqR  VORP   Def  WARP

Player X           .303  .365  .548  406  .315   71.0  46.6   +36   7.6

The Indians’ Jhonny Peralta, who didn’t even have a lock on the Indians’ shortstop job until May, has quietly been one of the most valuable players in the league. His tremendous defense at shortstop enables him to make up ground he lost early in the season, when he missed a lot of time as his batting average languished in the low .200s and the Tribe messed around with Alex Cora at shortstop. He’s hit for a higher average, more power and shown marginally improved plate discipline as the year has gone on, and rates a slight edge on Tejada as the best-hitting shortstop in the game this year.

Does that make him the MVP? No, but it puts him in the discussion. Rodriguez’s edge on the three middle infielders closest to him is less than a win, meaning this race is yet to be decided. Rodriguez and Tejada are performing closest to their established levels, so you’d have to consider them the favorites. If you want to consider the relative importance of the players’ performances to their team’s seasons–a factor overstated by many orders of magnitude by the mainstream media, but one that I think is reasonable to consider in a close race–the two Orioles will lose ground to the various Yankees, Red Sox, Indians and Guerrero.

Right now, my vote would go to Rodriguez, but given that I’m biased towards up-the-middle players, I can see a close call between him and Tejada at the least, and the possibility that Peralta and Roberts will make this a very difficult decision in the waning days of September. The lack of an overwhelming performance in the AL will make the league MVP an arguable point deep into the winter.

Then again, about the only thing less inspiring than this battle is the one for the AL Cy Young Award. We’ll dive into that on Tuesday.

Thank you for reading

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