Race will come down to the wire

He's going to hit 60 home runs. But does that make Ryan Howard an automatic MVP?

He's going to drive in 150 runs. But does that make Ryan Howard an automatic MVP?

He might get intentionally walked in his next 80 trips to the plate. But does that make Ryan Howard an automatic MVP?

Lots of people seem to think so these days. But the truth is, we don't. Not yet.

Not while Albert Pujols continues to drag the Cardinals toward the postseason like the human towing company he's become. Not while some of those Phillies not named Ryan Howard keep finding ways to avoid surging into the wild-card lead.

"I love Ryan Howard," says one assistant GM whose job involves scouting both leagues. "But for me, Albert Pujols is the most valuable player, in the purest sense of the definition, in the National League. … It's impossible for me to imagine the Cardinals winning that division without Albert Pujols."

Then again, it's equally impossible to imagine the Phillies still being in contention, after dumping Bobby Abreu, without Howard. And that, friends, is why this discussion group is now in session.

It's that definition -- of what the heck that word "valuable" means exactly -- that causes us to spend so much otherwise-useful time debating this MVP stuff all summer. Every summer.

We can run the stats through any computer in Silicon Valley and spit out a sheet that tells us whose numbers are the most photogenic. But the MVP award has another dimension to it. And that dimension has to do with the elusive concept of "value."

So how do we separate who was really more "valuable" -- Ryan Howard or Albert Pujols? How do we do that when one guy is stampeding toward Ruth-and-Maris-ville, and the other is having possibly his greatest season ever, in a career packed with nothing but great, greater and greatest seasons?

And, most of all, how do we do that when both teams might make it to October, mostly because their middle-of-the-order MVP mashers wouldn't let them turn into the Devil Rays?

"I honestly don't think you can separate them right now," said one scout. "But the good thing is, you don't have to. People are always in such a hurry to say it's this guy or that guy. But aren't there three weeks of season left? There are. So let it play out."

We sometimes forget at times like this that September, more and more, is the time when MVP scripts are written. Now that we live in the age of wild cards and six divisions, there are always enough races raging that opportunities show up every night for somebody to have that vintage "SportsCenter" moment, the kind that seems to say: "This is what an MVP looks like."

But increasingly, this year's NL MVP debate appears to be narrowing into a two-man wrestling match: Howard versus Pujols. If their teams keep winning and both of them keep piling up these insane numbers, this is going to be no easy call.

On one hand, Howard doesn't just lead the league in homers and RBI. He's demolishing the league in homers and RBI.

He has 11 more home runs than his closest challenger (Alfonso Soriano) and 18 more RBI (Lance Berkman). So is that what an MVP looks like? Well, let's just say you have to travel back more than 60 years to find someone who piled up margins that humongous without getting an MVP trophy out of it.

Since the inception of the MVP award in 1931, only six times has a player led his league by at least 10 homers and at least 15 RBI in the same season: Jim Rice in 1978, George Foster in 1977, Ernie Banks in 1958, Bill Nicholson in 1943 and Jimmie Foxx in 1932 and '33.

Only Nicholson didn't win an MVP award. But there was a reason for that: He was a Cub. OK, the more technical reason was that his team finished 30½ games back of MVP winner Stan Musial's Cardinals that year. But you get the idea.

The Phillies, however, aren't having a year like that. They've made it through Labor Day without getting eliminated. So these are no empty numbers on Howard's stat sheet. These are going to be 60 home runs that mean something.

But even if we assume he's 100 percent clean -- and there's no reason to assume otherwise -- Howard still could pay an indirect price for other people's crimes in the Steroid Era. How? Because nowadays, it's clear that 50-homer seasons, and even 60-homer seasons, aren't what they used to be.

Once, those were round numbers that practically came with MVP-or-your-money-back guarantees. Not anymore.

Of the 19 50-homer seasons before this one in the wild-card era, guess how many of them turned into MVP awards? How about three: Barry Bonds in his 73-bomb 2001 season, Sammy Sosa in his 66-homer 1998 season and Junior Griffey in his 56-trot 1997 season.

But it's those 16 other 50-homer guys, the ones who didn't win, who suggest that this year's MVP race may still be up for debate. Six of those 16 failed to win even though their team made the playoffs. Five of those 16 led the league in homers and RBI -- including Andruw Jones just last year, for a first-place team -- and still didn't win.

And even more amazing, four of those 16 were non-MVPs in seasons when they hit 60 home runs or more -- Mark McGwire in 1998 (70) and 1999 (65), and Sosa in 1999 (63) and 2001 (64). Heck, McGwire led the league in homers and RBI in '99, and still finished fifth in the MVP voting. And remember, there were no steroid debates coloring those MVP elections.

So what are we telling you? We're telling you this NL MVP race isn't over, especially when the cases for each candidate seem to grow more compelling every day.

The case for Ryan Howard

Ryan Howard

The reincarnation factor: Do you believe in miracles? The Phillies pronounced themselves dead in late July. Then Howard unpronounced them. Since July 24, the Phillies are 28-20. And -- in an apparently related development -- Howard has hit .376 in that run, with 25 homers, 60 RBI, an insane .855 slugging percentage and a Barry-esque .516 on-base percentage. Nobody in the National League is within 10 homers, 14 RBI, .180 slugging points or .065 OBP points of him. And he has never, at any point, gone more than three games without a home run or an RBI.

The game-changing factor: Of Howard's 56 home runs, half of them have either tied games or given the Phillies the lead. Even if you throw out the game-tying homers, an impressive 41 percent (23 of the 56) of his home runs have put the Phillies ahead. For the record, though, Pujols has done even better. Of his 45 homers, 21 (or 47 percent) have given the Cardinals a lead, and two more have tied a game. Which means an incredible 51 percent have resulted in a tie or a lead.

The ferocious-finish factor: Since the All-Star break, Howard would be your basic Octuple Crown winner. He leads his league in batting, homers, RBI, walks, intentional walks, slugging, on-base percentage and total bases. And we haven't even mentioned his outrageous second-half OPS (on-base plus slugging) of 1.347. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that would be the highest second-half OPS in the entire division-play era (1969-2006) by any player not named Barry Bonds. Bonds topped 1.400 in 2001, '02 and '04. But no other player in that era has even reached 1.300. The closest was 1.267, by the ever-lovable Albert Belle in 1998.

The four-fingers factor: As Howard's legend grows, the guys who manage against him have told us precisely how valuable they think he is -- by intentionally walking him in unimaginable situations. Among them: (1) Leading off the ninth inning of a tie game (against Houston); (2) with no outs and runners on first and second in the 14th inning of a tie game (against Cincinnati), to load the bases with nobody out; and (3) with first base occupied in the ninth inning of a one-run game (against Florida), to move the tying run into scoring position and put the winning run on base. Howard has now been intentionally walked eight times in his last 16 games. But while that might hurt his home run numbers, it might actually help his MVP credentials. "To me," said one scout, "that's saying he's more valuable, based on how the people in the other dugout act when he comes up."

At first glance, those credentials would seem to be enough, assuming the Phillies can stay in the wild-card race into the final few days. But hold on. Consider …

The case for Albert Pujols

Albert Pujols

The I'm-in-he's-out factor: If the season ended right now, Pujols' team would be allowed to keep playing in October. Howard's team wouldn't. History tells us that matters more than ever in the wild-card era. Of the last 16 MVPs, 12 came from teams that made the playoffs.

The oblique factor: Is there any rational human who thinks the Cardinals would be in first place right now without Albert Pujols? They were 34-24 (a .630 winning percentage) -- the best record in the National League -- the day Pujols strained his right oblique muscle in June. They haven't been the same since (43-43). And while nobody says much about it, Pujols hasn't been anywhere near as healthy himself. Not that that has stopped him from hitting .333, with 20 homers (more than Jones or Jim Thome) and 55 RBI (more than Chase Utley or Paul Konerko) since he came back.

The productivity factor: Pujols won an MVP award last year, but unless you've been watching "Dancing with the Stars" reruns all summer, you know he has been even more valuable to the Cardinals this year. Last season, Pujols was responsible for 16.5 percent of all the Cardinals' runs produced (in a season when they were third in the league in runs scored). This year, if you subtract his DL time, he has accounted for 17.2 percent of their runs produced (in a season in which they're just seventh in the league in runs scored).

The RISP factor: Which player has gotten the bigger hits, Pujols or Howard? It isn't as clear-cut as Howard's RBI totals might make you think. Average with runners in scoring position: Pujols .389, Howard .248. Two outs, men in scoring position: Pujols .421, Howard .230. Two outs, runners anywhere on base: Pujols .359, Howard .227.

The can't-drive-them-in-if-they're-not-out-there factor: Then there's this fascinating stat. Plate appearances with runners in scoring position: Howard 197 (and 73 RBI), Pujols 150 (and 72 RBI). It tells you all you need to know about the top of the Cardinals' lineup that Howard has gone to the plate 47 more times with runners in scoring position than Pujols has. It tells you something about Pujols' ability to rise to the moment that those trips have produced virtually the same number of RBI.

The leatherwork factor: Defense rarely becomes a hot subject in MVP debates. But it could be a difference maker in this one. Howard is tied with Nick Johnson for the most errors in the league by a first baseman (14). Pujols, on the other hand, has the third-best fielding percentage in the league and ranks first among all NL first basemen in range factor.

The we-have-a-winner-factor: Finally, 18 of Pujols' 45 homers have resulted in the Cardinals' game-winning RBI. And that's a more imposing number than you might think. Retrosheet's Dave Smith reports it's the most "game-winning homers" by any player in any season since Willie Mays had 19 in 1962. Howard, for the record, is second in the league this year -- with half that many.

Before we conclude this discussion, it wouldn't be right to ignore Those Other Candidates. Logically, this is a two-man race. Rationally, we can't bring ourselves to close three other names out of the conversation until everyone reaches the finish line:

Miguel Cabrera

Miguel Cabrera

Has anybody noticed Cabrera is having a spectacular year? He keeps bobbing in and out of the league lead in average, on-base percentage and multi-hit games. He's hitting .387 with runners in scoring position. He has been responsible for a higher percentage of his team's runs produced (16.0 percent) than any regular player in the league. And according to the stat gurus at Baseball Prospectus, the only player in the NL who has had a "more valuable" year than Cabrera, as measured by his value over an average replacement player (VORP), is Pujols. And Cabrera was actually No. 1 in those rankings until Pujols' game-winning double Tuesday against the Astros.

Lance Berkman

Lance Berkman

Try leading the league in RBI while hitting in that Astros lineup. It isn't easy. But Berkman is No. 2 in the league, even though he has 31 fewer plate appearances with runners in scoring position than Howard and 17 fewer home runs. But when you hit .387 with runners in scoring position, as Berkman has, almost anything is possible. Berkman is also hanging around the league leaders in homers, average, slugging and on-base percentage. So if the Astros somehow make the playoffs and he has a big finish, he'd be an incredibly credible candidate for a guy whose name has barely shown up in an MVP conversation so far.

Carlos Beltran

Carlos Beltran

Beltran has finally looked like a $119 million player this year. But in a lineup with as many co-stars as the Mets', that's probably not going to be good enough for an MVP award. He has 40 homers, as many extra-base hits as Howard (77) and 119 runs scored (most in the league). But he has bizarre home-road splits (76 road RBI, only 38 home RBI). And in the wild-card era, the MVP deck has been stacked against players whose teams clinch early. Only four of the last 16 MVPs came from teams that won their division by 10 games or more.

If we had to vote right now, we'd check Howard's name -- barely. But remember this: We don't have to vote right now. We don't have to vote for three more weeks, until we see where the numbers stop, until we see which teams are still standing Oct. 1, until we see who has that definitive MVP look when the highlights roll.

It will be hard to ignore 60 homers and 150 RBI. But it might turn out to be even harder to ignore the relentless greatness of Albert Pujols.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.