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Thursday, September 20, 2007

MVP? (or NYC)

I like David Wright. I certainly like him a lot more than Derek Jeter. But with all the promotion of him for NL MVP, I'd have to say he's benefiting from the Jeter treatment (or, if you prefer, "the New York media bias"). Wright is more deserving of consideration than Jeter was last year, but he should by no means be the favorite.

It is essentially a four-horse race for the NL's premier award (much more intriguing than the one-horse race in the AL). The injury to Albert Pujols and the Cardinals collapse eliminates a perennial MVP favorite. Ryan Howard made a push to defend his 2006 crown, but a 7-for-45 stretch at the beginning of September probably put his campaign to rest. Hanley Ramirez will no doubt garner some much-deserved votes, but it is difficult to get elected league MVP when your team's record is worse than the Washington Nationals. That leaves Prince Fielder, Matt Holliday, Jimmy Rollins, and Wright. All four play for teams that are still in contention with a week to play, although it is reasonable to suspect that only Wright's Mets will actually advance, which may be his biggest advantage.

If you're looking for offensive statistics, Holliday is clearly your man. The 2007 winner of the Jay Buhner look-alike contest leads the NL in average (.341), RBI (131), Hits (205), and 2B (48). He is 2nd is SLG (.616), 3rd in OPS (1.017), 4th in HR (36) and Runs (112). Whether it is fair or not, those gaudy numbers will be viewed with suspicion because of Colorado's notoriously hitter-friendly conditions. It is true that Holliday pace away from Coors Field is a little more modest, though still admirable (.303-22 HR-108 RBI-867 OPS).

Milwaukee's Prince Fielder, the runaway 2007 NL HR-King, is powerful everywhere he goes, with 24 homers in his friendly confines and 23 on the road. He's batted a respectable .291 with 117 RBI, 107 R, and a 1.007 OPS. I've heard several commentators suggest that Fielder's MVP chances ride upon Milwaukee getting into the playoffs. I find this logic somewhat flawed, seeing as players like Wright and Rollins take already potent offenses and make them into powerhouses, while Fielder makes an at-best league average offense into a serious contender. Every year, MVP discussions revolve around the success of a player's franchise. Notably, last year Albert Pujols criticized voters for electing Howard because the Phillies didn't make it into October. If Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Colorado all scuffle this week, does that mean Wright should be the default MVP, even if he takes a ten-day O-fer? Personally, I agree that players like Hanley Ramirez can be ruled out of the equation (unless they have truly superlative seasons) because they never played a meaningful game after July, but anybody who is tested by the pennant race, whether their team makes it or not, deserves equal consideration.

Fielder will also be criticized because he is a defensive hack. That's absolutely valid. Defense should be taken into consideration when MVP awards are being handed out, by definition. However, if you're ready to anoint David Wright on those grounds, you need to look past reputation. Sure, Wright makes some spectacular highlight-reel plays (much like that Yankee shortstop). But, those of us who keep watching Baseball Tonight after we see the New York scores know that he isn't the only third baseman in the NL capable of creating Web Gems. Moreover, he isn't nearly as consistent as Scott Rolen, Aramis Ramirez, Chipper Jones, and Pedro Feliz. Wright is a league-average third baseman. Granted, in a league of very good third basemen. Should he receive some credit for that? Sure. Is it equivalent to 10 HR and 20 RBI? No way. (By the way, it should be noted that Matt Holliday has been a very solid outfielder this year. In fact, if Gold Gloves were still handed out to left-fielders, he would probably be running neck-and-neck with Arizona's Eric Byrnes.)

In another aside, Bill James invented a fashionable statistic a few years back, Runs Created. It is supposed to assess a players overall worth. I don't understand how it works exactly, but it seems to be a pretty competent method of assessment. It is interesting to note that Wright, Fielder, and Holliday rank 4, 5, and 6 in the NL in Runs Created per 27 Outs. (They rank behind Barry Bonds, Chipper Jones, and Chase Utley, all of whom would be in this discussion if they didn't miss so many games) All of them have been worth between 8.43 and 8.48 RC/27, which is a good indication of how close this race really is.

That brings us to the long-shot case for Jimmy Rollins. Rollins has a lot going against him. In the last 25 years, only three position players have won the MVP who weren't prototypical middle-of-the-order/power hitters: Ichiro Suzuki (2001), Rickey Henderson (1990), and Willie McGee (1985). Making his road more difficult is the fact that only three MVPs in the last fifteen years have come from teams on which another player finished in the top 5 in voting: Ichiro (2001), Jeff Kent (2000), and Ivan Rodriguez (1999). Rollins will undoubtedly lose a few critical votes to teammates Ryan Howard and Chase Utley.

Rollins will not have a top-ten finish in average (.293), HR (28), RBI (88), OPS (869), or RC/27 (6.73). However, when you add some of his peripheral numbers to very respectable totals in those core categories, you realize that his season has truly been something special. He leads the league in runs (129) and 3B (18) by a sizable margin. He's second in hits (197). He will get serious consideration for the Gold Glove at shortstop. And he's stolen 37 (5th in NL) bases in 43 attempts. Much has been made of Curtis Granderson's 20-20-20-20 season, as should be the case seeing as it is only the third in baseball history. Nobody seems to have noticed that Rollins needs only two more triples and two more homers to go 30-20-30-30. Not a single player has ever done that.

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