Cast a wider net for MVP award

November, 17, 2008
In the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Joe Strauss sets up today's National League MVP results:

    Does a player often described as his league's most dominant hitter win this year's award for leading in several significant categories for an overachieving but ultimately fourth-place team?

    Or does the honor go to a lefthanded slugger who led the league in home runs and RBIs by a wide margin and helped push his team to a division title while striking out a whisk shy of 200 times?

    Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols versus Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard: the 2005 NL MVP versus the 2006 NL MVP.

    Does remarkable consistency for a team that unexpectedly remained in playoff contention for most of the season trump a streak hitter whose late-season tear coincided with his club's push to the postseason?

Well, now we know.

We know that the MVP did wind up coming down to Pujols versus Howard, and we know the former trumped the latter.

As he should have. Pujols destroyed Howard in baseball's two more important statistics, on-base percentage (.462 to .339) and slugging percentage (.653 to .543). There are other statistics, and Howard did quite well in some of them. Howard scored more runs, and drove in more (in fact, he drove in more than anyone else). He hit more home runs (more than anyone else). His team won more games (and the World Series, but that doesn't count).

The problem for Howard's viability as an MVP candidate is that the things he did more of were utterly dwarfed by the things Pujols did more of.

In Howard's defense, he did exceptionally well -- .320/.439/.589 -- with runners in scoring position. Unfortunately (again) for Howard's viability, Pujols did significantly better: .339/.523/.678. What's more, Howard is easily neutralized; in late-and-close situations -- when the enemy manager can usually summon a lefty reliever from the bullpen -- he batted just .158/.306/.337 this year. Meanwhile, Pujols was his usual awesome self in those same situations.

The question this year shouldn't have been, "Pujols or Howard?" The question should have been, "Who else deserves serious consideration?"

Pujols' statistics are so impressive that he was always going to be the most popular choice from a non-playoff team. But must he be the only popular choice? Lance Berkman's totals weren't as impressive as Pujols', but Berkman's clutch performance was even more impressive. When games were late and close -- in the seventh inning or later, with his team tied, ahead by one, or with the tying run at least on deck -- Berkman batted .354/.447/.823, with 10 homers in only 79 at-bats. Those numbers are what push Berkman slightly ahead of Pujols in Win Probability Added, which is about as good a measure of value as you'll find. At least purely in terms of hitting.

In past years, Pujols has been justifiably considered an outstanding fielder and baserunner. This year, Berkman was the better baserunner and quite possibly the better fielder (according to the numbers at hand). Pujols played in 148 games this year; Berkman played in 159.

Albert Pujols enjoyed an incredible season, right in line with the incredible seasons that characterize his career. Meanwhile, Berkman's was just as incredible, the best of his fine career. I wouldn't want to choose between them, because I'm absolutely sure the choice isn't nearly as easy as the MVP balloting would suggest.

And Berkman's not the only other worthy candidate. Carlos Beltran doesn't hit like Pujols or Berkman, but he's a Gold Glove center fielder and one of the five or six best baserunners in the National League. Did anyone even notice that Hanley Ramirez -- a poor shortstop but still, it should be said, a shortstop -- upped his walks from 52 to 92 and led the National League with 125 runs? And finally, there's Chase Utley, who played Gold Glove-quality defense (but didn't win) and hit like the dickens. If MVP stood for Most Valuable Phillie and the correct answer wasn't Brad Lidge, it might well be Utley.

Berkman finished fifth. Lidge finished eighth. Ramirez finished 11th. Utley finished 15th. Beltran finished 22nd. And I can't help but wonder if the voters might want to consider casting their nets a bit wider next year. There's more to baseball than just hitting, you know.


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