AL MVP race a five-way battle

The numbers put Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury above his offensive competition for American League MVP. Elsa/Getty Images

Justin Verlander is hoping to become the first pitcher to win the MVP Award since Dennis Eckersley in 1992, and the first starting pitcher since Roger Clemens in 1986. Jacoby Ellsbury is hoping to win the MVP Award despite the late-season collapse of the Red Sox (hey, don’t blame him!). Jose Bautista is hoping his big offensive numbers carry the day even though his team finished 81-81. Curtis Granderson is hoping to win despite a September slump that would leave his .262 batting average as the lowest ever for an MVP hitter. And then there’s Miguel Cabrera, who put up monster numbers in the shadow of his teammate.

Who will win? Nobody knows. Despite a storyline that seemed to focus on him, will a historical bias against pitchers hurt Verlander? There is also a strong historical bias in favor of players on playoff teams, which will help Verlander and Granderson, but work against Ellsbury and Bautista. Will Ellsbury lose some votes to teammates Adrian Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia, who also had strong seasons? Here’s how the SweetSpot bloggers voted (14 points for first, nine for second, eight for third, etc.)

Jose Bautista, Blue Jays: 296 points (15 first-place votes)

Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox: 256 points (8)

Miguel Cabrera, Tigers: 177 points

Justin Verlander, Tigers: 131 points (1)

Curtis Granderson, Yankees: 114 points (1)

Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox: 44 points

Ian Kinsler, Rangers: 26 points

Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox: 23 points

Alex Gordon, Royals: 12 points

Evan Longoria, Rays: 8 points

CC Sabathia: 7 points

Michael Young, Rangers: 6 points

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Let’s do the center fielders first, since that’s the easiest comparison. Granderson starts with an advantage of nine more home runs (41 to 32), five more triples (10 to 5), three more hit-by-pitches (12 to 9) and 33 more walks (85 to 52). That’s 87 more bases. But Ellsbury had 20 more doubles (46 to 26), 53 more singles (129 to 76) and four fewer double plays hit into (12 to 8). That’s plus-97 bases for Ellsbury. Ellsbury stole 39 bases (caught stealing 15 times) and Granderson stole 25 bases (10 caught stealing), a minor edge for Ellsbury. Granderson used up 463 outs, Ellsbury 479. Run it through the mixer and Baseball-Reference.com estimates that Ellsbury created 139 runs, or 7.8 runs per 27 outs; Granderson created 121 runs, or 7.0 runs per 27 outs. Granderson played in a slightly higher run-scoring environment.

Some more numbers: Ellsbury hit .366/.420/.691 with runners in scoring position, Granderson hit .242/.303/.516. With two outs and runners in scoring position, Ellsbury hit .400, Granderson hit .208. When the score was tied, Ellsbury had a .900 OPS, Granderson .820. No matter how you slice things, I can’t come up with a way that proves Granderson had the better year at the plate. And the deeper you dig, the more you uncover that Ellsbury played his best in clutch situations and close games. Yankees fans may accuse me of bias or being a Red Sox fan, but such is not that case. Ellsbury was the more productive offensive player.

Then you get to the defense. By all accounts, Ellsbury played a better center field in 2011. I’m not sure he deserved his Gold Glove (Austin Jackson and Peter Bourjos were superb), but the defensive metrics also say he was far superior to Granderson.

Look, both were dynamic players, power-speed combinations at an important defensive position. But I think it’s clear that Ellsbury had the superior season. The one caveat in regard to MVP voting, of course, is that Granderson’s team made the playoffs and Ellsbury’s did not. But don’t blame Ellsbury for Boston’s collapse -- he hit .358 with eight home runs in September. But some voters will hold the collapse against him; to me, it's failed logic to say that Ellsbury is less of an MVP candidate because Jonathan Papelbon couldn’t close out a lead on the final night of the season and Dan Johnson hit a home run off Cory Wade.

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OK, Ellsbury versus Jose Bautista is a little tougher. Bautista starts off with 11 more home runs (43 to 32) and 80 more walks (132 to 52). He had an awesome year at the plate. But Ellsbury had three more triples (5 to 2), 22 more doubles (46 to 24), 43 more singles (129 to 86), three more hit-by-pitches (9 to 6). Both players grounded into eight double plays. Bautista had 25 more bases, although Ellsbury closes that gap with a 39-to-9 edge in stolen bases. The big difference is Ellsbury used up 479 outs and Bautista 375. Run it through the mixer and Baseball-Reference estimates that Bautista created 149 runs, or 10.7 per 27 outs; Ellsbury created 139 runs, or 7.8 per 27 outs. Both guys played in similar run-scoring environments. Given Ellsbury’s production over the same number of outs as Bautista had, he would have created 108 runs, 41 fewer than Bautista.

But Ellsbury did have the advantage of playing nine more games and, since he hit leadoff, receiving more plate appearances (and thus more chances to affect the game). And then we have to factor in defense: Ellsbury is a good center fielder (+6 runs better than average according to Defensive Runs Saved, +15.6 runs by Ultimate Zone Rating), while Bautista rates as a below-average right fielder in both systems (-1 and -8.6), although he did rate well at third base in his limited time there (+6 and +3.8).

If you remember, Bautista was on fire early on, hitting .363 with 20 home runs through May. He slowed down after that, hitting .257 with 12 home runs in 65 games after the All-Star break. His walk rate actually remained consistent throughout the year, so it doesn’t appear that he started chasing pitches, but maybe frustration did set in from not getting a lot of pitches to hit. And for those who think he was part of the sign-stealing allegations that came out, his home/road splits were actually nearly identical: 1.063 OPS at home, 1.047 on the road. Breaking down some of Bautista’s other numbers, one jumps out at me: He hit .307/.523/.760 in “close and late” situations.

It was an impressive season, MVP-worthy.

If you go by WAR (Wins Above Replacement), it’s essentially a dead heat: If we average FanGraphs WAR and Baseball-Reference WAR, Bautista is at 8.4, Ellsbury 8.3.

But I give the edge to Ellsbury. The season-long excellence matters, but so does his combination of playing center field, hitting leadoff and putting up awesome numbers at the plate. He created runs and prevented runs, while playing an important up-the-middle position. If you watched the Red Sox regularly, he was clearly the best player on the team, the dynamo at the top of the order.

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Obviously, I’m more of a numbers guy. But even I admit: Sometimes we get too caught up in the numbers. In 10 years, in 25 years, when we think of the 2011 season, what will we remember most other than the dramatic World Series and the greatest final day in baseball history? I think we’ll remember Verlander, the year he turned from flamethrower to pitcher, the year he made The Leap, when we began thinking of him as a guy with Hall of Fame potential, a pitcher who could win 300 games and join that inner circle of greatness. Now, maybe all that won’t happen, but that doesn’t mean the 2011 regular season didn’t belong to Justin Verlander. I think if you ask managers and general managers around baseball if they could have one player from the 2011 season, the majority would say Verlander.

Which is why, I admit, I’m conflicted to say that I think Jacoby Ellsbury deserves the 2011 American League MVP Award.

My unofficial ballot:

1. Ellsbury

2. Verlander

3. Bautista

4. Cabrera

5. Granderson

6. Pedroia

7. Robinson Cano

8. Gonzalez

9. Alex Avila

10. Longoria