Pick a Card, Any Card

Odds are that the baseball writers who do the actual voting will make the National League MVP balloting a whole lot closer than it should be, but there is absolutely no question about who the most valuable player in the NL has been this season. His name is Barry Bonds, he’s hitting .370, he’s slugging .800, he’s won three MVPs in a row, and he’s about to break the all-time record for on-base percentage and OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) in a season.

Over in the American League, the MVP picture is actually as cloudy as many mainstream writers would have you believe the NL race is. There is really no standout player in the AL, and it’s very likely that 4-5 of the NL’s top players would run away with the AL MVP this year. No one anywhere has been better than Bonds, but it goes beyond that. Who in the AL has been better than Adrian Beltre? Or Scott Rolen? How about Albert Pujols or Jim Edmonds? Even second-tier guys like Mark Loretta, Todd Helton, Bobby Abreu, J.D. Drew, Jim Thome and Lance Berkman, all of whom get lost in the shuffle in the NL, would be serious AL MVP contenders.

With all that said, the fact is that someone is going to win the AL MVP this year, and that makes it worth talking about. In other words, whoever wins the award can tell their grandchildren about it in 30 years and the kids probably won’t respond with, “Yeah gramps, but the competition in the AL was pretty weak that year.”

What makes the AL MVP race so difficult to handicap is that not only is it close, there are a ton of players near the top. Plus, every metric you look at spits out a different answer for who has been the best in the league thus far. For instance, here’s what Win Shares Above Average (WSAA), which is one of the few metrics that takes defense into account, says about who the MVP has been thus far …

                    WSAA
Gary Sheffield        14
Manny Ramirez         10
Vladimir Guerrero     10
Carlos Guillen        10
Hideki Matsui         10
David Ortiz           10
Travis Hafner         10
Johan Santana         10
Miguel Tejada          9
Jose Guillen           9

At first glance, it would look like Gary Sheffield has a sizeable advantage over the rest of the field, with a whole bunch of guys tied in second place, nearly 30% behind Sheffield. However, if you take a look at another metric that takes defense into account, Baseball Prospectus‘ Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP), the top 10 looks a little different …

                    WARP
Carlos Guillen       9.4
Miguel Tejada        8.9
Johan Santana        8.3
Curt Schilling       8.0
Vladimir Guerrero    7.9
Alex Rodriguez       7.7
Mariano Rivera       7.5
Gary Sheffield       7.2
Ichiro!              7.2
Eric Chavez          6.9

Suddenly Carlos Guillen is the one in the top spot, and Sheffield is actually tied for eighth with Ichiro!, about 25% behind Guillen. While WSAA and WARP take defense into account, maybe you’re like me and think that a lot of defensive metrics are iffy, in which case the best way to come up with the top MVP candidates might be to first get a good grasp of what they’ve contributed hitting or pitching (which is a lot easier) and then add in the defense.

If you choose that route, you get a whole different set of rankings. First, let’s take a look at Runs Created Above Average (RCAA) and Runs Saved Above Average (RSAA), which adjust a player’s hitting or pitching to the ballpark and league he plays in and compares that production to that of a “league-average” player …

                    RCAA
Ichiro!               51
Melvin Mora           45
Travis Hafner         44
Manny Ramirez         43
Gary Sheffield        41
David Ortiz           38
Johan Santana         38
Vladimir Guerrero     37
Hideki Matsui         34
Carlos Guillen        32

Ichiro!’s amazing hot streak has continued into September and he is now almost assured of breaking George Sisler‘s all-time hits record. He has almost zero power, ranking 79th in the league in Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average), ahead of only David Eckstein among the 80 AL hitters who qualify for the batting title, and he rarely walks, ranking 71st in the league in walks per plate appearance. Yet, despite those massive flaws, he has been one of the best hitters in the AL this year, as evidenced by his league-leading RCAA total.

In addition to leading the league in RCAA, Ichiro! also leads in batting average (.379), hits (223), Runs Created (120), and Offensive Winning Percentage (.734). He ranks second in on-base percentage (.418) and stolen bases (32), and fourth in Runs Created Per 27 Outs (8.39). And the amazing thing is that he has essentially done all of that by simply slashing singles all over the field. Of his 223 hits, an astounding 84.3% (188) have been singles.

Ichiro! has almost certainly been a more valuable player this season than he was in 2001, when he actually won the AL MVP. The thing he had in 2001 that he lacks this year is good teammates — that 2001 Mariners team won 116 games and had all kinds of outstanding individual performances on it. But unless you blame Ichiro! for the poor work done by the other Seattle players this year, there’s little he hasn’t done better this time around.

YEAR      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS      GPA     RCAA
2001     .350     .381     .457     .838     .286       46
2004     .379     .418     .474     .892     .307       61*

*RCAA is pro-rated for the rest of this season.

His batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, Gross Productive Average (GPA) and RCAA are up 8.3%, 9.7%, 3.7%, 6.4%, 7.3% and 32.6% from 2001, respectively. Throw in the fact that his defense has been as good as always and he’s done nice work on the bases, and there’s little doubt in my mind that Ichiro!’s been far superior than he was in 2001. And, of course, since his team stinks, he won’t even sniff first place when the MVP ballots are cast.

One of my favorite baseball writers, Alan Schwarz, recently penned a column in the New York Times about Ichiro!’s value not being quantifiable, and thus Ichiro! being underrated by “stat types.” While much of what Schwarz had to say on the subject is interesting, I think the general assumption that guys who like their baseball with lots of numbers thrown in don’t think highly of Ichiro! is misguided.

I’d rather have a guy who hits for power than one who doesn’t and I’d rather have a guy with good plate discipline than someone who refuses to draw walks, but the end result is what matters, not how you get there. And hitting .379 makes up for a whole lot of flaws.

So Ichiro! leads the league in RCAA, but let’s see where he ranks in another good metric, Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) …

                    VORP
Melvin Mora         67.8
Johan Santana       67.7
Ichiro!             67.0
Carlos Guillen      66.2
Vladimir Guerrero   65.1
Miguel Tejada       64.9
Travis Hafner       64.0
Manny Ramirez       61.4
Gary Sheffield      61.0
David Ortiz         58.5

Ichiro! ranks third in VORP, behind Melvin Mora and Johan Santana, and the entire field is incredibly bunched together. First place and 10th place are separated by less than 10 runs and the top three guys are within a single run of each other.

I am one of those guys who prides himself on having strong opinions on just about everything, particularly when it comes to baseball. I think Bonds should run away with the award in the NL this year, I thought Alex Rodriguez got robbed by Miguel Tejada in 2002, and I’m already gearing up to be upset when Santana gets screwed in the AL Cy Young voting this year. With that said, this crop of AL MVP candidates is too big and too bunched together to really form a strong opinion on at this point.

Not only do all the players jump around the rankings depending on what metric you’re looking at, some guys are at or near the top of one list and not even in the top 10 of another. In fact, of the four things I looked at — WSAA, WARP, RCAA, VORP — only Sheffield, Guillen, Santana and Vladimir Guerrero — are in every top 10.

Just for fun, here’s a little table with the rankings of the players who appear in the top 10 of at least three of the four metrics (remember, lower is better) …

                    WSAA     WARP     RCAA     VORP     TOTAL
Johan Santana          2        3        7        2        14
Carlos Guillen         2        1       10        4        17
Vladimir Guerrero      2        5        8        5        20
Gary Sheffield         1        8        5        9        23
Manny Ramirez          2       13        4        8        27
Travis Hafner          2       16        3        7        28
Miguel Tejada          9        2       20        6        37
David Ortiz            2       20        6       10        38
Ichiro!               32        8        1        3        44

Now, you might be able to convince me that Santana has been the MVP of the AL thus far, but it’ll take some doing to get the general public and the actual voters to come along for that ride. Of course, he is 14-3 with a 1.75 ERA over the last four months, he does have 17 straight Quality Starts, and he does lead the league in ERA and strikeouts. Did I mention how upset I’m going to be when the voters mess up the Cy Young decision? Just checking.

Assuming there’s no way a pitcher will win (I don’t think that should be the case, but it will be), I think there are at least 6-8 legitimate MVP candidates in the AL at this point. It’s interesting that perhaps the best two right now — Santana and Guillen — have almost zero shot at winning the award. In the end, I would guess that it will come down to Manny Ramirez, Sheffield and Guerrero, because the voters tend to go for big RBI totals and winning records. As for who should win it, we’ll have to wait and see.

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