Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The AL MVP Race



On Monday, I discussed at length the ongoing debate regarding the AL Cy Young, and reasonably concluded that Felix Hernandez has been the best pitcher in the league and therefore should win the award. Today, I'll look at the AL MVP race and as you'll see, there are a lot of ways the votes could go. Away we go...

There are currently four viable candidates for the AL MVP in my opinion; Josh Hamilton of the Rangers, Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers, Jose Bautista of the Blue Jays, and Robinson Cano of the Yankees. Joe Mauer and Evan Longoria have had very good years, and are on very good teams, but they haven't been on the same level as these four. Paul Konerko has been even better offensively than Mauer or Longoria, but the White Sox played so poorly down the stretch I don't think many people will vote Konerko most valuable.

Josh Hamilton seemed well on his way to finishing off his absolutely stunning comeback from a very serious drug problem by winning the AL MVP this year. Before getting hurt on September 4th here at Target Field, Hamilton was hitting an absolutely ridiculous .361/.414/.635, with 31 home runs and 97 RBI. That's a great season any way you slice it, but adding in the fact that Hamilton didn't play at all the last month of the season and you realize he was going to post some video game like numbers. It was an unfortunate injury, but it did manage to make the AL MVP race as close as I can remember it in recent memory. Yes, I think it's even closer than the Mauer/Morneau/Jeter year when Morneau won despite every statistic in the world pointing out that both Mauer and Jeter were more valuable, because of the position they played and how rare those kinds of offensive seasons are from that position.

Hamilton has spent about 20% of his time in Center Field this year, which makes his offensive line even more impressive, and his defense has rated well above average in both center field and left field. Hamilton has been a five-tool player all season. I believe if Hamilton had missed the first month, rather than the last month, but still finished with the same line he will (.361/.414/.635, 31 and 97) that his great offensive season would have won him the MVP Award by a landslide. Voters tend to value September games more than other games, and while they like to say that's because the games mean more in September, the truth is a win in April is equivalent to a win in September. They all count the same. The reason, I think, that great Septembers help MVP cases (See Tulowitzki, Troy this year) is because that is the month that is fresh in voters' minds as they cast their ballot. Hamilton's great May happened four months ago, a lot of voters probably don't remember it, but I promise you every voter knows the kind of September Tulo's having.

FanGraphs has pegged Hamilton's WAR at a ridiculous 8.0 this season*, which is amazing because the more games you play the more opportunities you have for your WAR to go up. Albert Pujols, for example, is pegged at 7.2 this year, but he's played in almost thirty more games than Hamilton. Hamilton likely would have finished near a 9.5 if he would have continued his torrid pace. That's ridiculously good, and the fact that he was almost a run better than Pujols when healthy isn't meant to suggest Pujols is bad; on the contrary, the fact that Hamilton was having such a better year than the best player in baseball makes his season that much more special.

*Mauer finished last season at 8.0 and was only a silly Miguel Cabrera vote from winning the award unanimously. Mauer missed the first month, not the last, but their seasons were unbelievably similar when it was all said and done. Hamilton doesn't seem likely to get the majority of the votes, or at least not as certain as it was last year at this time.*

Okay, so Josh Hamilton has had a fantastic year, how does he compare to the guys that have played all season? Miguel Cabrera is the established hitter, the well-known commodity, having another amazing season, but the Tigers have been so far back in the AL Central for so long that he's kind of gone under the radar. Cabrera, statistically, is as deserving as anyone. He's hitting .328/.420/.622, which puts him behind only Hamilton in OPS. He's added 38 home runs, a career high and league leading 126 RBI, and he's walked just about as much as he's struck out. Of course, as great as he's been, he's had very little exposure because of how few times Detroit played in prime-time as the summer dragged on.

This is a weird year for the AL MVP, and I think Cabrera is going to be the guy that is actually hurt by the randomness. MVP voters historically have felt that voting for a player on a team that doesn't make the playoffs is only acceptable if said player has a fantastic season. The voters got it wrong with Andre Dawson over 20 years ago, but they did get it right with A-Rod in Texas. So, that's why I keep bringing up the Tigers' struggles, because history would suggest that a player on a non-playoff team isn't going to win the award.

That said, Cabrera's numbers this year are the kind of numbers that would allow voters to overlook a team's poor performance in light of how wonderful the player, in this case Miguel Cabrera, has been. I still think Cabrera will get the lowest amount of votes among the four players mentioned. While Cabrera has had a better statistical year than Jose Bautista everywhere but the home runs, I feel the voters are going to be more likely to vote for Bautista because he seemingly came out of nowhere to hit 50+ bombs, and because, well, he hit 50+ bombs. With the Blue Jays also a non-playoff bound team, I think the voters that are willing to look past a team's win loss record will rally around Bautista, not Cabrera**, and despite having another monstrous season Miggy won't be a serious threat to win the award.

**It's tough to judge, though, because Cabrera has that gaudy RBI total that so many old-school writers seem to love. I think Bautista's 52 and counting HR season will be considered more impressive, especially if he continues to catch Miggy in the RBI category, now that steroids are believed to be cleaned up. That will be an interesting thing to watch, though. Which way will the old-school guys go?**

That's not to say the voters would necessarily be wrong to vote for Bautista over Cabrera. Plenty has been written about the unbelievable surprise Bautista has been, but the short version is of course that Bautista had never hit as many as 20 home runs in a season before this year, and now as a 29-year-old, in the midst of a position change from third base to left field, has suddenly hit .262/.382/.622, good for the league's third best OPS and as mentioned above, the 52 home runs. His offensive numbers are sensational, and though his OPS is almost 50 points below Hamilton's, Bautista deserves credit for playing in every game this season. FanGraphs, though, pegs Bautista's WAR at 6.8, which is still fantastic, is still quite a bit below Hamilton's league leading 8.0, and the fact that it should in fact be even higher than that speaks to the level Hamilton was playing at before his injury.

That brings us, finally, to Robinson Cano. He's been great all season long, hitting .318/.378/.530, all the while playing above average defense at a very weak offensive position. We know the voters aren't biased against second baseman, as Chase Utley has fared well in previous MVP votes, although he's yet to win one. Cano's Yankees seem likely to finish with the wild card, because they have a much more difficult schedule than the Rays down the stretch, but I don't think the division finish between those two teams will effect votes for Cano. Cano's WAR currently sits at 6.4, and it's clear he hasn't had quite the offensive years the other players have. However, he's playing a much weaker offensive position and the next closest second baseman in terms of OPS in the American League is Howard*** Kendrick of the Angels, with a .720 OPS. Cano's is .904. Dan Uggla currently leads all NL second baseman at .874, so Cano has been hands down the league's best second baseman, and he's been the best player on the defending World Champs as they look to win back-to-back championships. That all sounds great, but to me, it doesn't take away from the better seasons the other players had. Cano had the fourth best season of these players, and I think it's silly to reward Cano for going to the playoffs while playing on the Yankees and punishing Cabrera for playing for Detroit.

***Howard Kendrick? When did he stop going by Howie? Why make a name change after you've been a top prospect for years? You're still Howie to me, man.***

If I had a vote, I'd be undecided as long as possible. While I am inclined to say that Jose Bautista would be my vote, because he's had such a monster power year and he's come out of nowhere, I think I'd vote for Hamilton. Even with the missed time he was the most valuable player in the entire league, with FanGraphs WAR giving him the edge. I don't expect the majority of voters to look at WAR, though, and I wouldn't be surprised at all to see Robinson Cano, who's actually the least deserving in my opinion, come away with his first MVP award. If the Yankees take both the AL Cy Young and MVP awards despite not deserving either, all I can say is they better not eliminate my beloved Twins or their will be hell to pay. Or something like that.

My Vote: Josh Hamilton

Predicted Winner: Robinson Cano