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Apparently, the NL MVP race isn’t as small as I would have it. Many, many readers–even more than the number who chimed in defending Jermaine Dye‘s honor when I left him out of the AL MVP discussion–wrote in to question the absence of Ryan Howard from Monday’s article. Howard leads the NL in homers, RBI and slugging average. His hot August (.330/.431/.699), coupled with the Phillies’ “surge” to the vicinity of .500 and the wild-card slot, has made him a viable candidate in some quarters.

The problem isn’t just that Howard’s season is not on par with Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Beltran. The problem is that Howard isn’t the most valuable Phillies infielder on the right side of second base.

                   AVG   OBP   SLG   EqA    VORP    FRAR   WARP1
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Ryan Howard       .294  .382  .628  .318    50.2      -4     5.4
Chase Utley       .317  .385  .525  .300    53.5      15     6.4

Howard hits more home runs than Chase Utley. Utley and the three real MVP candidates do everything else better than Howard does. The big guy is seventh in the league in EqA, VORP and RARP, and off the charts in WARP. Once you account for position and the things baseball players do other than hit homers, he falls rapidly down the lists.

Can Howard be a serious MVP candidate when he’s three wins worse than the other first baseman in the discussion?

                   AVG   OBP   SLG   EqA    VORP    FRAR   WARP1
----------------------------------------------------------------
Ryan Howard       .294  .382  .628  .318    50.2      -4     5.4
Albert Pujols     .323  .424  .665  .345    65.4      19     8.8

Throw out the defensive difference–which in this case does seem to accurately assess their relative performance–and you still have a 15-run edge for Pujols, despite the Cardinal having missed time with a strained oblique muscle.

For a better example, consider the AL situation. Howard is, in many ways, comparable to David Ortiz. Ortiz isn’t the best hitter in the league and he isn’t the most productive DH in the league, but his entire case rests on his bat. Howard isn’t a DH only because the prevailing rules prevent him from being one, but his case also rests entirely on his bat as well, and he’s further behind the league leaders in hitting than Ortiz is, plus he doesn’t bring Ortiz’s highlight reel of late-game hits to the table.

Howard is a mainstream MVP candidate because of his homers and RBIs. The former are a legitimate point in his favor, and those show up in his SLG and his EqA and his VORP. The latter are a combination of that power, which we account for, and his opportunities. Batting behind Utley and Bobby Abreu for most of the season, Howard has had 424 runners on base when he’s come to the plate, the seventh-highest total in baseball. He’s 13th in the majors in plate appearances with runners on base. It feels a bit strange to be pointing this out in 2006, but Howard’s RBI total doesn’t tell us anything about his value than more player-specific metrics do.

The 2006 MVP discussions have a retro feel to them. The strong support David Ortiz and Ryan Howard have are relics of an earlier age, when the Triple Crown stats carried far too much weight as compared to the broader range of skills that players can possess. Positional value matters, getting on base matters, hitting doubles matters, playing defense matters. Reducing the argument to RBIs does the argument a disservice, and increases the likelihood of coming up with the wrong answer.

Ryan Howard isn’t the right answer. He’s one of the ten best hitters in the league, and probably one of the ten best players. He’s not the most valuable first baseman, most valuable Phillie or most valuable guy with ten letters in his name. And no matter what they’re saying on your satellite dish, he’s damn sure not the MVP.

I want to throw in a mention of the weekend I refer to as “ShandlerFest.” Ron Shandler’s Baseball HQ runs a seminar called “First Pitch Arizona,” in conjunction with the Arizona Fall League, during the first weekend in November. It’s four days jammed full of AFL games and baseball talk, including seminars led by some of the top analysts in the industry.

There’s a discount if you sign up by the end of the week, so take a look at the Web page with all the information and get yourself in. I can’t recommend the weekend highly enough; it’s been one of the highlights of my year since 2002, a chance to sit in the sun and watch some great prospects while talking baseball with people who are passionate about the game. If you go once, you’ll come back again and again. I’m going to miss it this year–an unfortunate scheduling conflict–but I guarantee that I’ll be regretting that all weekend long.

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