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Friday, September 13
'Value' points Tejada to MVP Award

By Jayson Stark

In the next few hundred words, we're supposed to tell you who rightfully deserves to win the American League's Most Valuable Player Award.

We're just not sure whether to consult Peter Gammons or Noah Webster.

You don't need a dictionary, a scouting bureau or a stat sheet to know that Alex Rodriguez has clearly established himself as the best player in the American League. But we've learned over the years that's not the same thing as establishing he's the MVP.

Miguel Tejada
Miguel Tejada has 119 RBI, second only to Alex Rodriguez's 132 in the AL.

The truth is, A-Rod's chances of winning that MVP trophy won't have anything to do with whether he gets to 60 home runs before the calendar gets to October. It will have to do with how 28 voters choose to define the magic word, "valuable," in their own personal dictionaries.

And that's an assignment that's as impossible now as it was when the MVP award was invented 71 years ago. So before opening this to classroom discussion, let's roll out the candidates:

  • Alex Rodriguez: The good news is: He's in line to become the first player to lead the major leagues in homers and RBI in the same season since Cecil Fielder (1991). Has a chance to compile the first 60-homer, 140-RBI, 120-run, 200-hit, 90-extra-base-hit season ever. Might even win a Gold Glove. The bad news is: His team has spent all but one day of the season in last place.

  • Miguel Tejada: Through Thursday, Tejada had more hits, more doubles, fewer strikeouts and a higher batting average than A-Rod. Second only to A-Rod in RBI. And during Oakland's 20-game winning streak, we're pretty sure Tejada was in on more highlights than Chris Berman.

  • Alfonso Soriano: We regret to announce Soriano won't become the first man since Stuffy Stirnweis (1945) to lead his league in both stolen bases and total bases. But he is on pace to set a record for RBI by a leadoff man. Also could become the first player to lead his league in runs, hits and steals since Rickey Henderson in 1981 -- and the first in a nonstrike season since (ta-taaa) Stuffy Stirnweis in '45.

  • Jason Giambi: If you tuned out early while Giambi was scuffling, your attention please: Assuming he isn't out long with his bruised hand, he's on pace to become the first player to top 40 homers, 120 RBI and 120 runs in his first season as a Yankee since (ahem) George H. Bambino Ruth in 1920.

  • Garret Anderson: Has a chance to be the first hitter with 60 doubles since 1936 (Charlie Gehringer, Joe Medwick). Has more hits, extra-base hits and multi-hit games than A-Rod. The CIA really hasn't spent the last three years trying to suppress rumors of his stardom. It just seems like it.

  • Torii Hunter: The MVP of the team with the biggest lead in the AL, Hunter is about to become the first Twin to hit 30 homers since 1987. (Seriously.) And if you haven't seen a replay of him making some stupendous play in center field in the last 15 minutes, please call your cable operator. Your box is out of order.

    The Ballot Instructions
    When the Baseball Writers Association of America sends out its MVP ballots to two writers in each major-league city, these are the instructions that accompany the ballot:

    Dear Voter:

    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. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.

    The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931:

    1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense.
    2. Number of games played.
    3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort.
    4. Former winners are eligible.
    5. Members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

    You are also urged to give serious consideration to all your selections, from 1 to 10. A 10th-place vote can influence the outcome of an election. You must fill in all 10 places on your ballot.

    Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, and that includes pitchers and designated hitters.

    Only regular-season performances are to be taken into consideration.

    So that's your field. Now what?

    We've crunched more numbers than H&R Block, surveyed a bunch of GMs, asked players and considered the intangibles. And we've concluded that it still comes down to the same question:

    What is an MVP?

    I've held that ballot in my own hands and always felt a player whose great season came in the context of a pennant race, of six months' worth of meaningful games, deserved more consideration than a player who put up huge numbers for a team that spent six months preparing for that big offseason hunting trip.

    But I have to admit there is nothing in the ballot instructions that spells that out. In fact, voters are told specifically that the MVP "need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier."

    Then, however, they are given five main criteria for how to determine an MVP. And the very first guideline cites that magic word -- "value."

    So thanks to A-Rod, the question every MVP voter this year is going to have to confront is: How much "value" is there to a great season that is compiled for a team that has been out of the race since around Valentine's Day?

    "How valuable can you be in last place?" wondered one GM.

    "He's MVP of what?" wondered another. "He's the game's best player ... but they'd finish last with or without him."

    "A-Rod is the best player in the league, but the award is the 'Most Valuable Player,' " said White Sox GM Kenny Williams. "I interpret this to mean this is the best player on teams that are pennant contenders -- someone that is carrying the team and the city's hopes on his shoulders every day and coming through in the face of all the pressures and expectations surrounding him. For me, this means players on teams with poor records need not apply."

    Well, A-Rod has done more than apply. His year has been so sensational, he has forced himself into the discussion. But it's a big leap from the discussion to the top of the ballot.

    Without exception, everyone surveyed heaped a giant pile of kudos on A-Rod's talents, said none of what has happened in Texas is his fault and conceded that if he played behind a rotation of Mulder-Zito-Hudson, this debate wouldn't even be necessary.

    "He might win the Cy Young, too, if he had those guys," joked Oakland GM Billy Beane, whose team (and whose MVP candidate) does happen to have those guys.

    But the guys in A-Rod's rotation were named Myette and Benoit and Davis. And the only place they led the Rangers was to the third-worst ERA (5.12) in the whole sport. So how do you assess the value of a remarkable year, when you place it amid that backdrop? If you hang the Mona Lisa in a junkyard, does it look as beautiful?

    "I can't control what people think," said Texas GM John Hart. "All I know is that I've been around the game a long time, and I've never seen a player like this have a year like this.

    Alex Rodriguez
    Alex Rodriguez leads the majors with 54 home runs.

    "If a guy has to play for a winning team, then Alex won't win it," Hart conceded. "But I don't know if that's what this award is. It's not just a great year. It's a year for the ages -- on both sides of the ball. And he's done it while having to carry the burden of his ($252-million) contract, on a team that hasn't been very good."

    Again, though, no one disputes that. The question is: Where is the value of that in the context of what this award is supposed to be all about?

    "If you want to talk about his value," Hart said, "you have to look at the surroundings. We've been last in the league in ERA most of the year. We've gone through four closers. We've had zero pitching. And that's been compounded by the fact we've been behind the 8 Ball with injuries since Day 1. ...

    "We had a chance to fold the tent, but we haven't. Clubs don't want to play us. We're going to win 75 to 80 games with the worst pitching in the league. And Alex has had a significant presence around the club, on the field and away from the field. How does that register on 'value?' I don't know. But he's helped us get the most out of this. He's given us respectability. Without Alex, we wouldn't be close to where we are."

    True. But where are they? They're 22 games out in the wild-card race.

    Sure, four MVPs (Cal Ripken, Andre Dawson, Ernie Banks twice) have come from teams with losing records. But that also means 139 MVPs haven't.

    And recent history tells us no candidate from a losing team has come close to winning since baseball split into three divisions and a wild card in each league in 1994.

    Frank Thomas finished third (with no first-place votes) in 1997, for a White Sox team that was 80-81. But those White Sox actually hung in the race until September and wound up just six games out.

    And Junior Griffey tied for fourth (with no first-place votes) in 1998, despite a very similar season (56 HR, 147 RBI) for a team that finished way behind the (coincidence alert) Rangers.

    Nothing Short About 'Em
    Shortstops who have had at least 200 hits, 100 RBI, 30 homers, 100 runs and a .300 batting average in a season:
    Player, Year H RBI HR R Avg.
    Rodriguez, '96 215 123 36 141 .358
    Rodriguez, '98 213 124 42 123 .310
    Rodriguez, '01 201 135 52 133 .318
    Miguel Tejada's current pace:
    209 hits, 133 RBI, 35 homers, 113 runs, .311 batting average

    Actually, though, the closest analogy to this race was probably the 1998 NL MVP duel between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. It was McGwire who made history, for a team that didn't nudge itself over Mount .500 until the last week and a half of the season. But it was Sosa who won the MVP award, for a team that made the playoffs.

    Obviously, none of these candidates (besides A-Rod) is having a season to rival Sosa's. But if you judge Tejada's season against shortstop history, instead of Rodriguez's numbers, you find a man having one of the greatest seasons by any shortstop ever.

    If Tejada keeps up his current pace for another two weeks, he'll wind up with a .311 batting average, 35 home runs, 133 RBI, 113 runs scored and 209 hits. And exactly how many shortstops in the history of the sport have matched those numbers?

    Exactly one: Alex Rodriguez.

    The Near-Misses
    Player, Year H RBI HR R Avg.
    Ripken, '83* 211 102 27 121 .318
    Yount, '82* 210 114 29 129 .331
    Ripken, '91* 210 114 34 99 .323
    Garciaparra, '97 209 98 30 122 .306
    Aurilia, '01 206 97 37 114 .324
    Trammell, '87 205 105 28 109 .343
    Garciaparra, '98 195 122 35 111 .323
    Banks, '58* 193 129 47 119 .313
    * Won MVP award
    Source: Lee Sinins' Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia

    So does Tejada's historic year, at the same position, for a team heading for October have more "value" than a more historic year for a team heading for an early vacation? Of the six GMs we polled, only Hart said no.

    Indians GM Mark Shapiro called A-Rod's season "inspiring -- and among the elite historic performances in the game." But when you look for an MVP, Shapiro said, you start with one question: "Whose team could not have attained a championship caliber of play without his performance? Tejada has to get the edge, using this criteria, for me."

    The A's were a team that lost their cleanup hitter (Giambi) and leadoff man (Johnny Damon). It took months for Jermaine Dye to feel his way back from a broken leg. True, they wouldn't be in this spot without their dominating rotation -- "but no matter how great you pitch," said Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi, "you still need someone to hit."

    When Tejada took over the No. 3 hole in the Oakland lineup May 19, they were four games under .500 (19-23) and 10 games out of first place. Since then, through Thursday, they were 72-32, and Tejada had 96 RBI in 104 games.

    And when he got those walkoff hits in back-to-back games in the 18th and 19th games of his team's AL-record winning streak, Tejada left magic freeze-frame moments for all those MVP voters to store in their memory banks. They were also moments that were significant not just in a pennant race, but within the context of history.

    "He's really garnished his season with those moments," said Beane, who has been trying his best not to overdo the MVP hype on Tejada. "And I really think history shows that when you look at who wins the award, memorable moments are part of it."

    But September is part of it, too. And the A's haven't won anything yet. If the Angels wind up passing them and Anderson is in the middle of that -- while surging past Tejada in average, RBI and runs scored -- he would be a tough candidate to overlook.

    Meanwhile, no Yankee has won an MVP award in 17 years. But how do you separate Soriano from Giambi?

    Soriano has been a force and a difference-maker. But we keep hearing talk that the Yankees brass thinks Giambi has really been their MVP.

    Regardless, it's likely neither will win for the same reason no Yankee has won in their other six World Series seasons since 1996 -- because the Yankees are so good and so deep, it seems as if they'd finish first whether Giambi hit cleanup or David Letterman hit cleanup.

    Meanwhile, it isn't likely that Hunter -- who has hit .224 since Aug. 1 -- will win, either. So where does that leave us?

    It leaves us awaiting the dramatic finish in the AL West. And it still leaves us debating whether A-Rod's season has been so great that he makes that race between the A's and Angels -- and the final numbers for Tejada and Anderson -- irrelevant.

    Maybe we'll feel different in two weeks. But right now, I'd vote for Tejada. And I'm not alone.

    "If you put down Tejada, you're doing it for other reasons than who was the guy in the league," Hart said. "If you feel the MVP has to be the catalyst on a championship team, then you'll put down Tejada. I feel that's not what the award is, but I can't change anything. Nothing I say is going to change this vote. But I would say that if you vote for Alex, you can't go wrong."

    True. Then again, no matter which guy you vote for, you're not wrong. But history also tells us, loud and clear, that in just about every case, if you vote for the guy whose team is in last place, you're not right, either.

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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