Friday, September 30, 2011

MVPs (Mike's Value Picks)

When the baseball writers decided to start giving out individual awards 80 years ago, there was a reason they opted to call it "Most VALUABLE Player" and not just "Player of the Year."

Anybody can look at stats and say, "This guy's the best." There is nuance in determining "value." I had absolutely no problem with Willie Stargell winning the 1979 NL MVP (actually, a tie with Keith Hernandez) even though Hernandez had significantly better stats. Voters decided that Stargell's value -- the way he willed the Pirates to a division title -- was more valuable than raw numbers. And they were right!

The BBWAA left it up to each voter to define value. I like that, too, because it nets a nice cross-section of votes. Some writers won't vote for pitchers. Some vote for the guy with the best stats. And many -- including yours truly -- believes the only possible definition of value suggests a player who brought both outstanding stats and outstanding intangibles to a contending team.

Despite their superior stats, I have a hard time accepting Jose Bautista and/or Matt Kemp as MVPs this season. While the guys I chose faced pressure every single day, Bautista and Kemp had the huge advantage of playing in few games that mattered in the standings. Their ballclubs stunk with them and their ballclubs would have stunk if they had suffered season-ending injuries in April. Where's the value?

The Bautista and Kemp backers often cite precedence: Alex Rodriguez, Andre Dawsonand Ernie Banks, among other players for non-contenders, are former MVPs. Hey, just because voters made a mistake in those seasons, it doesn't mean we should repeat that mistake now. Most years, my BBWAA colleagues have agreed with me.

Anyway, if I had a vote, here would be the MVP ballots I'd cast in 2011:

American League

1. JUSTIN VERLANDER. I know, I know ... he participated in barely one-fifth of his team's games. Well, this is why we can't just let stats dictate these things -- not that Verlander lacks amazing stats. Let's look past his sheer brilliance all season, especially in the second half as the Tigers ran away with the division title. Instead, let's look at the intangibles: Because Verlander saved the bullpen every fifth day, Jim Leyland had a full and rested relief corps at his disposal the rest of the time; psychologically, the team knew it would never have a killer losing streak because every fifth day a win was all but guaranteed; for the first two-thirds of the season, Verlander was the only starter who kept Detroit in the race; inspired by Verlander -- and relieved of the burden of carrying the team -- other Detroit starters finally came around and several went on to exceed expectations. And let's consider this hypothetical: If an average ballplayer (say, Coco Crisp) replaced Curtis Granderson in center field, would the Yankees have won their division? Almost surely. Now, if an average starter (say, Trevor Cahill) replaced Verlander in the rotation, would the Tigers have won their division? Please.

2. CURTIS GRANDERSON. Many associated with the team believe Robinson Cano actually is the straw that stirs the Yankees' drink. Still, Granderson had the stats of an elite player and benefited the players both in front of and behind him in the lineup.

3. JACOBY ELLSBURY. One of the few Red Sox who didn't choke down the stretch. Besides having 105 RBI mostly from the leadoff spot, Ellsbury steals bases and plays fine CF.

4. MIGUEL CABRERA. The AL's best all-around hitter had another banner season for Detroit.

5. ROBINSON CANO. His performance made up for A-Rod's injury-filled year and for Mark Teixeira's occasional struggles.

6. MICHAEL YOUNG. A big reason the Rangers survived injuries to Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and Adrian Beltre.

7. JOSE VALVERDE. Forty-nine times, Leyland asked him to protect a lead. Forty-nine times Papa Grande came through. Pretty hard to ignore a guy with a 100 percent success rate.

8. JOSE BAUTISTA. Incredible stats, especially the first half. My definition of value, however, relegates him to this spot on my ballot.

9. CC SABATHIA. For much of the season, he had even less support in his rotation than Verlander did in Detroit's.

10. EVAN LONGORIA. While Adrian Gonzalez -- the midseason pick for this award -- was shrinking in the season's second half, Longoria was scorching: 24 RBI in August and 22 more in September, including the Rays' two biggest HRs in the wild-card clincher.

National League

1. RYAN BRAUN. I had a difficult time separating Braun and Prince Fielder. One could make a pretty good argument that with Fielder protecting Braun -- versus the likes of Casey McGehee protecting Fielder -- Braun saw far more hittable pitches all season. Still, Braun's statistical advantage in most categories gives him the edge.

2. PRINCE FIELDER. As I said, he helped make Braun's big season possible. Plus, he put up monster numbers despite opponents often pitching around him. He plays every day, hits the ball far and seems to have a lot of fun being the Brew Crew leader.

3. MATT KEMP. His Dodgers stunk, so I make no apologies for placing him here despite his great stats. You want precedents? Ted Williams batted .406 in 1941 and won the Triple Crown the following year; in neither season was he MVP ... and Matt Kemp is no Ted Williams.

4. ALBERT PUJOLS. His slow start contributed to the Cardinals having to play catch-up but he had 20 RBI in September to wrap up another impressive season and help the Cards rally to the postseason. There is no more feared hitter in the world.

5. RYAN HOWARD. I admit I'm not 100 percent sure he's even Philly's MVP, but he is by far the best run-producer on baseball's best team ... and that's gotta count for something.

6. LANCE BERKMAN. In addition to finishing with nice numbers, he carried the Cards while Pujols was all messed up and Matt Holliday was hurt. Slam-dunk Comeback Player choice.

7. ROY HALLADAY. Why Doc instead of rotation-mate Cliff Lee? Because Halladay is the tone-setter and acknowledged ace of a great staff.

8. JUSTIN UPTON. The top hitter on baseball's surprise team.

9. HUNTER PENCE. Did precisely what a guy going from a crappy team to a great one was supposed to do, taking advantage of more talented teammates by elevating his already high level of play.

10. JOHN AXFORD. Considered Jose Reyes here but he lost me when he took himself out of the season finale after one inning so he could preserve his batting-title lead. He might as well as told Mets fans who paid $100 a pop to go to h-e-double-Louisville-Sluggers. Instead, I'll give spot No. 10 to the Brewers' ninth-inning stalwart.

A few other awards:

CY YOUNG: AL -- Verlander (over Sabathia and Jered Weaver); NL -- Clayton Kershaw(over Halladay and Lee). Remember: Cy Young is best pitcher, not most valuable pitcher, and Kershaw was ridiculously good for the mediocre Dodgers.

ROOKIE: AL -- Mark Trumbo (over Ivan Nova and Eric Hosmer); NL -- Craig Kimbrel(over Freddie Freeman and Vance Worley). It wasn't Kimbrel's fault he was overused and had nothing left at the end.

MANAGER: AL -- Joe Maddon (over Joe Girardi and Jim Leyland); NL -- Kirk Gibson(over Tony La Russa and Ron Roenicke). Two obvious choices.

And before I wrap this up ...


AL: Adam Dunn ... by a landslide. He authored one of the statistically worst offensive seasons in baseball history: .159 BA, 177 K, .569 OPS. He was so bad that the White Sox -- who signed him to a $56 million contract -- benched him in favor of Triple-A kids in a desperate (and futile) effort to stay in the race.

NL: Derek Lowe. The diametric opposite of an MVP. Not only did Lowe lead MLB with 17 losses, he went 0-5 with an 8.75 ERA in September to make himself the one most responsible for Atlanta's historic collapse. All for only 15 million bucks. Now that's the true antithesis of value!

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