Time to start figuring out the MVP races

When the baseball writers hand out their annual league MVP awards, what is the trophy supposed to symbolize? It’s called the Most Valuable Player, but does that mean most valuable to his team, sort of an ambiguous definition used mostly to suggest players on non-playoff teams have no value? Or does it mean the best player in the league, regardless of where that player’s team finishes in the standings?

Now, to me, it’s not that complicated of a debate: Doesn’t “best” imply most valuable to your team? If you’re giving extra credit to a guy on a playoff team, aren’t you potentially rewarding the quality of his teammates? While it’s clear to me, it’s not clear to everyone; this debate rages on every season.

Before I list my leading MVP candidates of 2011, let’s discuss each of the voting philosophies and the three subcategories under each.

"Most valuable to his team"

1. The best player on a playoff team, preferably one that barely makes it to the playoffs, and preferably one without a strong supporting cast.

Example: Joey Votto, Reds, 2010. Votto and Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols had virtually identical statistics in 2010, but the Reds made the playoffs while the Cardinals fell short. In what should have been a close MVP instead turned into a landslide, as Votto collected 31 of 32 first-place votes.

2. The player on a playoff team who drives in the most runs.

Example: Miguel Tejada, A’s, 2002. Under criteria No. 1, an MVP candidate on a great team is often penalized because the team coasted to the pennant and could have won even without the player. The 2002 A’s won 103 and cruised into the playoffs, but Tejada drove in 131 runs.

3. A player on a playoff team who fits a good storyline.

Example: Ichiro Suzuki, 2001 Mariners. It’s difficult to argue that Ichiro was better than second baseman Bret Boone (or A’s first baseman Jason Giambi), but the story was too intriguing to pass: skinny right fielder comes over from Japan, hits .350, energizes the Mariners, team wins 116 games. This criteria is often used in lieu of a strong statistical argument.

"The best player"

1. It should go to the most outstanding player in the league, regardless of the quality of his teammates.

Example: Cal Ripken, 1991 Orioles. Ripken was clearly the best player in the AL in 1991, hitting .323/.374/.566 and winning a Gold Glove. It was maybe the greatest season a shortstop ever had and it takes a bunch of calculators to know it. The Orioles finished 67-95, yet Ripken only barely edged out Cecil Fielder, even though Fielder’s OPS was 80 points lower and he was a fat, slow first baseman.

2. It should go to the player with the most RBIs.

This is the problem in defining "best player": Some voters don’t, umm, consider the whole package. The RBI leader often reigns supreme in this scenario.

Example: Ryan Howard, 2006 Phillies, and Justin Morneau, 2006 Twins. Albert Pujols had a higher batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, scored more runs, played better defense and ran the bases better. But Howard had 12 more RBIs. Morneau was only eighth in the AL in OPS and Joe Mauer was the Twins’ best all-around player, but Morneau was second in the league with 130 RBIs. (League leader David Ortiz was eliminated due to the "his team didn’t make the playoffs" corollary.)

3. The player with the best statistical résumé -- including advanced metrics.

Example: Barry Bonds, 2003 Giants. Bonds didn’t lead the league in home runs, batting average, RBIs or runs. In fact, he didn’t even drive in 100 runs. But it was impossible to ignore that .529 on-base percentage and .749 slugging percentage.

OK, now let’s rank the MVP candidates under each corollary.

Most valuable to his team, barely makes playoffs.

National League

1. Justin Upton, Diamondbacks.

2. Ryan Braun, Brewers.

3. Lance Berkman, Cardinals.

Upton has a huge advantage in this category, as the D-backs rely mostly on lineup depth than individual stars. Braun has help from Prince Fielder and Berkman has plenty of support from Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols. If the D-backs beat out the Giants, it could be a landslide vote for Upton. Note that under this criteria no Phillies can be MVP (they should waltz into the playoffs) and guys such as Matt Kemp and Andrew McCutchen have no shot since their teammates weren’t as good.

American League

1. Jered Weaver, Angels.

2. Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians.

Doesn’t Weaver have to be the clear favorite if you prefer this philosophy? I mean, Dan Haren is very good and Howie Kendrick is having a nice little season, but the rest of this team? The outfield collectively has a sub-.300 on-base percentage, the first baseman has an OBP under .300, the catcher can’t hit, the bullpen is 17-18. How is this team in the race? Jered Weaver. You gotta go Weaver if you’re talking most valuable to his team.

Of course, pitchers never win the MVP award and the Angels may not beat out the Rangers, so that could slide the vote to Cabrera. Of course, the Indians may not make the playoffs, which means picking somebody from the Red Sox, Yankees, Tigers or Rangers -- which means picking from several candidates.

Most valuable to his team, the player on a playoff team who drives in the most runs.

National League

1. Ryan Howard, Phillies.

2. Prince Fielder, Brewers.

3. Lance Berkman, Cardinals/Ryan Braun, Brewers.

Howard leads the NL in RBIs. The Phillies will win the East. The offense isn’t great … but Howard STILL has a lot of ribbies. Ergo, logic says he must be the most valuable player.

American League

1. Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox.

2. Mark Teixeira, Yankees.

3. Curtis Granderson, Yankees.

Gonzalez leads the majors with 90 RBIs. The Red Sox are in first place. ‘Nuff said.

Most valuable to his team, player on a playoff team who fits a good storyline.

National League

1. Prince Fielder, Brewers.

2. Lance Berkman, Cardinals.

3. Carlos Beltran, Giants.

Doesn’t the Fielder story add up nicely: Son of a former big leaguer, MVP candidate himself, has a big season as he heads off into free agency, carrying the small-market Brewers into the playoffs? Berkman’s comeback story is a nice angle if the Cardinals pass the Brewers. It’s a long shot, but if Beltran has a big final two months he fits nicely in this category.

American League

1. Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox.

2. Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians.

3. Curtis Granderson, Yankees.

Big-market team pays a ransom in prospects to acquire slugging first baseman -- and he delivers! Beantown fans fall in love with his sweet stroke and clutch hitting. Three-year-old kids in Boston who have never seen the Red Sox win a World Series can dream about a title. Cabrera’s unlikely MVP tale is best written if Cleveland makes the playoffs and Granderson’s story of learning to hit left-handers is an inspiring tale of hard work and perseverance.

The best player, most outstanding regardless of quality of teammates.

National League

1. Matt Kemp, Dodgers.

2. Jose Reyes, Mets.

3. Ryan Braun, Brewers.

I’m just kind of eyeballing this one, but it seems most observers would rate Kemp and Reyes as the best all-around players in 2011, with Pujols out of the discussion due to his injury. It’s not clear-cut in either direction, but Kemp leads the league in OPS while hitting .320 with 26 home runs, 84 RBIs and 28 steals while playing a premium defensive position. Reyes doesn’t have the home run numbers, but has 26 doubles and 16 triples and plays a solid shortstop.

American League

1. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays.

2. Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox.

3. Curtis Granderson, Yankees.

Most of the MVP discussion, tweets or chat questions I’ve seen seem to revolve around these three guys. Bautista’s power numbers were once otherworldly, but he’s slowed down in the second half, hitting under .250 with just one home run his past 15 games, cutting his lead over Mark Teixeira to just one.

Best player with the most RBIs.

National League

1. Matt Kemp, Dodgers.

2. Prince Fielder, Brewers.

3. Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies.

As mentioned above, Ryan Howard leads the NL in RBIs, but many voters would eliminate him from the "best player" category due to a substandard batting average and lack of all-around game. That opens the door for Kemp, Fielder and Tulo’s all-around game.

American League

1. Adrian Gonzalez, Red Sox.

2. Curtis Granderson, Yankees.

3. Robinson Cano, Yankees.

This corollary brings Cano into the MVP discussion, a second baseman with a nice batting average, power numbers and good defensive reputation. Miguel Cabrera would usually enter the discussion here, but he has just 69 RBIs, well behind the league leaders.

Best players, statistical résumé, including advanced metrics

This is when we look at things like WAR, runs created per 27 outs, advanced fielding metrics and the like. For our listing, we’ll just average together the WAR totals from FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com.

National League

1. Matt Kemp, Dodgers.

2. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates.

3. Jose Reyes, Mets.

Ryan Braun is fourth. All three of these guys will face an uphill battle in the actual voting due to the "not a playoff team” rule that many writers invoke. Kemp rates as the clear No. 1 player in the NL under the B-R formula, as it likes his fielder better than FanGraphs, which gives a very slight overall edge to Reyes over Kemp and Justin Upton.

American League

1. Jose Bautista, Blue Jays.

2. Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox.

3. Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox.

Bautista once had a commanding lead, but Pedroia has been closing ground. According to FanGraphs, Bautista’s WAR is 6.9, Pedroia’s 6.8, not enough to sneeze over. Ellsbury ranks third to those in both rankings, although about a win behind in both cases. Why does Pedroia rate so high? His defense rates as superb, second-best in the AL in runs saved to Brett Gardner under FanGraphs and fifth-best under B-R (which also rates Gardner first).

* * * *

Anyway, what do I think? Because I know you want to know.

As you have probably guessed by now, I lean to the "best player" philosophy. Sure, if two candidates are close after everything is analyzed, I may break the tie to the guy on the playoff team. That seems fair, and often these debates are close enough when that’s the case.

In the NL, I’d go: (1) Matt Kemp; (2) Jose Reyes; (3) Ryan Braun; (4) Andrew McCutchen; (5) Justin Upton.

Overall, this race is far from decided. Upton is the late riser and red hot right now. To me, Braun is clearly the better Brewers candidate over Prince Fielder. A reader asked in my chat if I thought Roy Halladay or any NL pitcher has a case; right now, I think any of the pitchers rate behind these guys. Halladay hasn’t even separated himself in the Cy Young race from Cole Hamels or Clayton Kershaw.

In the AL, I’d go: (1) Dustin Pedroia; (2) Jose Bautista; (3) Jacoby Ellsbury; (4) Jered Weaver; (5) Adrian Gonzalez.

Pedroia and Bautista are extremely close in my book. Pedroia is fourth in the AL in on-base percentage, seventh in OPS, sixth in runs scored, is hitting .314 and doing this while playing great defense at a premium position. (I know Yankees fans will complain about not seeing Granderson here, but Pedroia’s OBP is 42 points higher; that, dear readers, is a huge advantage. Granderson also doesn’t rate well on defense.)

Anyway, that’s my AL vote. I will add this: If you want to say Jose Bautista deserves it, I won’t disagree.

And we do have two months left. Let the arguments begin! (And don’t worry, in late September, we’ll do a much more in-depth breakdown.)


Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.