By Sam Hyman
Is it possible to simultaneously be extremely specific and yet impossibly vague?
Using both a dictionary and common sense, it would seem that the award criterion for an MVP is simple: the Most Valuable Player is the player who contributes the most to his team’s success. That seems like a good explanation. There is only one problem: how is a voter expected to determine value contributed?
Interestingly, the Baseball Writers Association of America—the organization that hands out the awards in MLB—provides no true explanation. It simply tells all voters that, “There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team.”
For years, there has been a deep debate over whether the MVP award is meant to go to the most valuable player in the league or the most outstanding player. Whatever the primary reason for debate is, the fact that no true definition is given makes it so that each voter can decide what the award means to him or her.
The lack of clarity surrounding the award has become especially interesting this season as each league boasts multiple candidates that all have extremely different resumes.
In the American League, there are cases for Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista, Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson, and Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander.
On a purely individual basis, Bautista is the most likely front-runner for the award. Not only has he led all of baseball in homeruns all season long, he is also on pace to lead the league in OPS (baseball’s accepted statistic for comparing offensive value) by a relatively enormous margin.
The biggest issue with Bautista’s candidacy is that he has staggering numbers on a subpar team. With the Blue Jays on pace to finish with a losing record, how much value can Bautista really be adding? Opposing arguments have said that candidates in Bautista’s position cannot be criticized for the lack of team success because baseball games are not won by individual performances.
Whatever the conclusion may be, it is difficult to fully ignore team performance and Bautista will inevitably suffer because of that.
The cases for Adrian Gonzalez and Jacoby Ellsbury are inevitably problematic because they are so intertwined. The fact that the two play for the same team questions each player’s candidacy in a number of ways. Which player meant more to the team’s success? Which player was more consistent? Which player was more of a necessity to the team? Any of these questions will create separation amongst the voters and makes it far too difficult for either player to take home the hardware.
This reality is truly a shame because Ellsbury is currently having an historic season. In addition to playing a key role for a true contender, the speedster is currently on pace to finish the season with over 200 hits, 40 doubles, 30 homeruns, 40 stolen bases, and 100 RBI. If that line does not mean enough on its own, please consider that it has only been seen twice before in history, and never by a leadoff hitter.
The true heart of the debate may come down to Curtis Granderson versus Justin Verlander. Both players present equally easy cases, and equally strong cases.
Granderson is on pace to do something that no player in AL history has ever done. Currently leading the AL in triples, RBIs, and runs (second in homeruns), Granderson is on pace to finish the season with 140 runs scored, 40 homeruns, 25 stolen bases, and 120 RBI. Such a dominant season has never even been sniffed in the 110-year history of the league.
Verlander has been, without a doubt, the most dominant pitcher in the game all season. He could potentially finish the season with 25 wins, an ERA at or below 2.50, and over 250 strikeouts. To begin with, no pitcher has won 25 or more games in over 20 years. Even without the staggering win total, no pitcher has finished a season with such a low ERA and high strikeout total in 14 years. Verlander is all but a lock for AL Cy Young, but can he become the first starting pitcher to win both awards since 1968?
Verlander represents the lack of clarity in the awards criteria. Although he is unanimously seen as the best pitcher in the game and the best player on his team, he is still a pitcher and he only helps his team once every five games.
With the strength of his case and the potential opponents of Verlander’s, you can fully expect this season’s AL MVP to be Curtis Granderson.The National League presents an equally diverse and competitive field with Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun and first baseman Prince Fielder, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp, and Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Justin Upton. Interestingly, each league’s candidates seem oddly comparable to each other.
Matt Kemp presents a wildly similar case to that of Jose Bautista. The NL Triple Crown, which has not been done since 1937, is firmly within reach. Kemp currently sits in third place in all categories. As dynamic as Kemp has been, the Dodgers, like Bautista’s Jays, are on pace for a sub-.500 season.
Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder present eerily similar cases to Ellsbury and Gonzalez. They are the two best players on a playoff contender, amongst the league-leaders in multiple categories, and will inevitably hurt each other’s candidacies.
Of the two, Braun probably has a stronger case. While Fielder has the edge in both homers and RBI (league leader for RBI), Braun is currently second in the league in batting average and is on pace for a 30 homer-30 stolen base season. Both players are amongst the best in baseball, and, in the end, that may hurt them.
It is possible to consider Justin Upton’s resume to be that of a poor man’s Granderson, but it definitely is the least comparable of any candidate. Upton has undeniably been the best player on the league’s most surprising contender. (The Diamondbacks, who where expected to be cellar-dwellers, have now all but locked up the division with almost a month left in the season.) Upton’s numbers may not garner him strong consideration. However, as the linchpin for a division winner, he certainly deserves consideration.
Halladay may actually have a more compelling case than Verlander, even though he may not even deserve the NL Cy Young (Clayton Kershaw could win the triple crown for the Dodgers). Initially, his individual value to his team is equal to or superior to that of any pitcher in the game. More definitively, the main reason that Halladay may be a stronger candidate than Verlander is his competition. Many voters would find it hard to vote for any pitcher when there is a worthy everyday player in the race; this will have a greater negative effect on Verlander than it will on Halladay because Granderson presents a stronger case than Kemp or Braun.
In the end, the NL MVP race should include Ryan Braun, Roy Halladay, and Matt Kemp. The vote should be expected to be closer than the AL vote, and, by the slimmest of margins, Ryan Braun can be expected to edge out Roy Halladay and Matt Kemp and become the 2011 NL MVP.