By rights, the NL MVP Award should come down to a choice between two first basemen having monster seasons. Derrek Lee chased a Triple Crown for a while, and while he won’t snag that honor, he’s still the best player in the NL this season. Meanwhile, the Albert Pujols Factory cranks out another .330/.420/.620 season and wonders what it has to do to win one of these things.

                    AVG   OBP   SLG   PA   EqA    EqR  VORP   Def  WARP

Derrek Lee         .343  .425  .673  590  .354    125  93.0   +21  11.2
Albert Pujols      .334  .430  .617  607  .346    121  88.7   +11   9.6

Lee’s edges in power and glovework translate to a WARP edge of more than a win and a half. Even if you care to grant Pujols extra credit for being part of a successful Cardinals’ team (or, as I prefer to think of it, penalize Lee for not working under better management), I don’t see how you make up more than a win on bonus points. Derrek Lee has been the most valuable player in the National League, and that argument should be enough to carry him to the top of most ballots.

It’s not going to be, though. We know that MVP voters like team success, and with no Barry Bonds season in this mix, a bias like that become influential. Moreover, voters may be inclined to treat this ballot as something of a lifetime achievement award for Pujols, who has been eating Bonds’ dust for four remarkable seasons.

Pujols getting the MVP Award would be wrong, but not silly, as he’s clearly the second-best player in the league and at least within shouting distance of #1. The real problem is the guy coming up on the outside, the one with the very loud bandwagon.

About two weeks ago on XM Radio’s “Fantasy Focus” show, I dismissed the notion of Andruw Jones‘ candidacy, pointing out that he was 80 points behind the Lee and Pujols in OBP, a gap that couldn’t be closed by his home-run count or solid defense. After the show, in fact, I ended up in a friendly wager with host Chris Liss that Jones would not receive more than two top-two votes for the award. The whole idea seemed silly to me, as should be clear when you compare the players’ performances:

                    AVG   OBP   SLG   PA   EqA    EqR  VORP   Def  WARP
Derrek Lee         .343  .425  .673  590  .354    125  93.0   +21  11.2
Albert Pujols      .334  .430  .617  607  .346    121  88.7   +11   9.6
Andruw Jones       .270  .354  .591  585  .305     96  57.8   +25   8.1

Let me make this as clear as I can: Andruw Jones is not one of the two most valuable players in the National League. There’s no amount of extra credit you can assign–the Braves’ success, his durability on a fragile team, his being the only Braves’ outfielder old enough to know that Will Smith used to be The Fresh Prince–that makes up 70-odd points of OBP, along with the other markers Lee and Pujols have on him. In fact, Jones slots in well behind a number of other National Leaguers, as Clay Davenport shows in this list of 2005 WARP leaders:

Derrek Lee       11.2
Albert Pujols     9.6
Roger Clemens     8.9
Jim Edmonds       8.9
Morgan Ensberg    8.8
Dontrelle Willis  8.8
Jason Bay         8.7
Miguel Cabrera    8.3
Marcus Giles      8.3
Todd Helton       8.1
Andruw Jones      8.1

Jones isn’t the best center fielder in the league: that’s Jim Edmonds. He is arguably not the MVP of his own team: that may be Marcus Giles. I wouldn’t use WARP as the only determinant of my MVP ballot, but it says something that Jones is three wins behind Lee, one and a half behind Pujols, and trails a handful of other players as well. If you look at VORP, or runs created, or really any performance metric, you’ll get the same result. Jones shouldn’t be mentioned with Lee and Pujols as a candidate for Most Valuable Player.

Of course, we’re doing performance analysis here, and MVP voting doesn’t always rise to that level. It is often about the best story, and while the AL voting has lent itself to more of this silliness in recent years than the NL has, this may be a year in which the NL gets to have its own head-scratcher. Jones has been stronger in the second half than he was in the first, which tends to garner attention; he plays for a team that will go to the postseason; he’s a center fielder, and as such more prone to highlight-reel defensive plays that show off his skill. His hot streak has coincided with people’s turning their attention to him; since I made that wager with Liss, he’s hit just .250 with three home runs, but racked up 17 RBI in 12 games. That’s what the voters like to see.

Very often, MVP voting will come down more to moments than to merit, and Derrek Lee is going to have a hard time holding back Pujols and Jones in that regard. Consider Monday’s games; Jones came to bat in the fourth inning of a tie game with the Mets and smacked a solo home run to give the Braves the lead. He also made two good defensive plays in a game televised nationally. In St. Louis, Pujols hit a three-run home run in the eighth inning that broke a 2-2 tie and pushed the Cards to a 6-4 win.

Lee? He batted in the ninth inning of that Cards/Cubs game, with two on and one out and his Cubs down by two. He grounded into a 6-3 double play to end the game, dropping the Cubs a bit deeper into irrelevance.

Merit vs. moments. In the battle for votes, the former should carry all the weight, but it’s the latter that wins awards. There’s a very real chance that the best player in the NL this season is going to go home empty-handed.

Thank you for reading

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