MVP candidates are plentiful and diverse

Jeff Passan
Justin Verlander has his fans everywhere

In what remains a great mystery of the cosmos, Shannon Stewart received three first-place votes in the American League MVP balloting in 2003. It was one of those wacky years where the voters confused Shannon Stewart with someone who deserved MVP votes because the best player came from a mediocre team and all the other position players were decent but not as good and there were pitching performances that certainly merited consideration but, c'mon, seriously, who votes a pitcher MVP?

Sound familiar?

Hopefully there is no Shannon Stewart in the AL this season. The best player is again on a middling team, and if history holds, he'll win the award. And there is a dominant pitcher, and if history holds … he'll muster a sixth- and ninth-place vote and be left off 26 ballots.

That's what happened to Pedro Martinez(notes) in '03. He threw 186 2/3 innings of Pedro-prime gorgeousness. And even though he missed 20 percent of his starts – like, you know, AL MVP Josh Hamilton(notes) in 2010 – he deserved better than to finish behind Shannon Stewart, Keith Foulke and a menagerie of others.

And for the sticklers who care to point out that the real Pedro shaft came four years earlier (he really deserved the '99 award) and that he didn't even win the AL Cy Young in '03 – that was Roy Halladay(notes), who made up in durability what he lacked in dominance – that's fair. Doc didn't garner a single vote, either.

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Whether the sabermetric revolution has opened hearts and minds enough for starting pitchers to get more than a cursory look at MVP voting is the question as the 2011 winds down. Since the pitching mound was lowered to 10 inches in 1969, two starters have won MVP: Vida Blue in 1971 and Roger Clemens in 1986. And whether …

1. Justin Verlander(notes) becomes the third depends as much on whether the groundswell of public support he's getting can penetrate the psyches of a group of voters whose motives and attitudes have kept many a tavern atwitter with conversation deep into the night.

Twenty-eight people from the Baseball Writers Association of America will decide Verlander's worthiness by Sept. 30, the due date for ballots. Unlike 2003, he has no statistical peer. Verlander leads the AL in innings pitched, earned-run average, strikeouts and victories. Barring a meltdown, he should win the AL Cy Young unanimously.

How that translates to the MVP voting depends on a voter's perspective. Some bring the preconceived criteria that the winner must come from a playoff-caliber team. Verlander's Detroit Tigers are running away with the AL Central. The dominance factor is apparent, as is Verlander's value to his team: Without him, the Tigers might be locked in a three-way race with Cleveland and Chicago instead of trouncing both.

But he's a pitcher. He contributes once every five games. And no matter the level of contribution those games, some voters struggle to quantify it when compared to someone who thrives daily like …

2. Jose Bautista(notes) has for the Toronto Blue Jays. Bautista is the best hitter in the game this season. His 40 home runs are tops. Same with his .446 on-base percentage and .637 slugging percentage. The primary arguments against him are steroid suspicion and that he benefitted from alleged sign stealing; the first is beyond stupid and the second negates the idea that it's still tough to hit a pitch even if you know what's coming.

Bautista comes with some dings. Foremost among them: The Blue Jays are 69-71. That didn't hurt Alex Rodriguez(notes) in 2003, of course. The Texas Rangers finished 71-91. A-Rod still won MVP ahead of Carlos Delgado(notes) (whose Blue Jays went 86-76), Jorge Posada(notes) (the best player on a 101-win Yankees team, and one with far less production than A-Rod) and – gulp – Stewart.

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Also: Bautista's second-half wane is demonstrable. His line since the All-Star break after hitting his 40th home run Sunday: .255/.406/.503. His OBP is among the top 10 in the AL. His slugging percentage isn't in the top 20. His nine home runs are tied for 13th. He has been very good. Just not the best.

Thing is, he was so overwhelmingly good in the first half that to discount him for playing any different now is rather disingenuous. Every game in the first half counts as much as every game in the second half. An April game is worth the same as a September game. And when it comes to the objective measurements, nobody stacks up to Bautista – not even Verlander.

Baseball-References gives Bautista 8.2 Wins Above Replacement. FanGraphs has him at 7.9 WAR. Verlander is at 7.6 and 6.4, respectively, and so in the eyes of all sabermetricians, it's neither a race between Bautista and Verlander nor one among Bautista and the …

3. Boston Four whose vote-splitting almost assuredly will nullify their real-life impact anyway. The candidates include:

Jacoby Ellsbury(notes). The résumé: ranks second in baseball behind Bautista in FanGraphs WAR and third in B-Ref WAR. Advanced metrics say he's among, if not the best, defensive center fielder this season. His power surge has been unexpected and voluminous. Still, he lacks elite counting stats to garner a majority.

Dustin Pedroia(notes). The résumé: ranks second in baseball behind Bautista in B-Ref WAR and third in FanGraphs WAR. Also a defensive stalwart, among the best metrically at second base. Previous MVP award makes him a comfortable vote, as does grinder's attitude that endears him to writers who value dirty uniforms. Likely a favorite of Larry David, an unabashed Yankees fan, because of his comfort with balding head.

Adrian Gonzalez(notes). The résumé: ranks fourth in B-Ref WAR and seventh in FanGraphs WAR in AL. Leading the league in batting average in his first season with Boston. Lots of RBIs (thanks to Ellsbury and Pedroia getting on base) and well-above-average defensive first baseman. The favorite of a number of players around the Red Sox's clubhouse, including …

David Ortiz(notes). The résumé: third-best OPS in the AL (.989) and fourth in baseball. Leads the Red Sox in home runs, slugging percentage, and NOLHIG (number of loogies hocked into gloves).

All of which is to say: None has a chance. The subtraction rule by which so many voters abide – in a close vote, value can be judged by how a team would do without a particular player – nullifies all of their impacts. The Red Sox are still a juggernaut without any of the four, much like the Yankees would be if …

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4. Curtis Granderson(notes) were still in a Detroit uniform. Now, Granderson does have the counting stats (38 home runs, 107 RBIs, 125 runs) to stand alongside Bautista if not the triple-slash ones (.271/.375/.576). He plays a far more demanding position (center field) for a much better team (New York) and doesn't have the question marks, fair or not, that surround Bautista.

Now: Granderson is 1.2 FanGraphs WAR behind Bautista and 2.9 B-Ref WAR behind him. His manager, Joe Girardi, threw Robinson Cano's(notes) name out recently for consideration (which, even if he's just being honest, is the sort of thing that could torpedo Granderson's chances by splitting a vote). And for those who want to go back to the importance factor, it's easy to make an argument for another player in pinstripes.

Out of strict indispensability, nobody is more valuable to the Yankees than starter CC Sabathia(notes). Without him, the Yankees are vulnerable to the Rays and Angels for the wild-card slot, not leading the AL East by 1½ games with three weeks left in the season. After today's start, Sabathia's fielding-independent pitching numbers – which are supposed to indicate skill over luck – are actually better than Verlander's, and when FanGraphs recalculates its WAR on Monday morning, Sabathia should be ahead of him.

Perhaps that says as much about FanGraphs' pitching WAR as it does Sabathia. Still, Sabathia's argument mirrors Verlander's, and he's not the only pitcher with a good one, since …

5. Roy Halladay led the National League with 7.2 FanGraphs WAR going into his start Sunday. His otherworldly strikeout-to-walk ratio (195 to 26) and low home-run rate propelled him to the top. And yet just like in 2003, he's getting next to no MVP buzz in spite of a race that remains as wide open as it is in the AL.

Perhaps it's because one could argue that Halladay hasn't even been the best pitcher on his team – Cliff Lee(notes) and Cole Hamels(notes) each are in the running – nor his league, where Clayton Kershaw(notes) twirled another beaut Sunday only to see his Dodgers do what his Dodgers do.

And while Doc does win the WAR argument with FanGraphs …

6. Matt Kemp(notes) absolutely trounces him with B-Ref WAR, 8.5 to 6.3, which illustrates the problem with counting on WAR strictly for MVP voting as opposed to using it as just another piece when putting together a ballot.

The 26-year-old Kemp is the NL Bautista, putting up a monster season for a mediocre team. He plays center field (not all that well, but still), runs with aplomb and is a fearsome hitter. Plenty more time could be spend espousing his virtues; instead, do yourself a favor and take a look at what Tim Brown wrote. He lays out an intelligent case for Kemp over …

7. Ryan Braun(notes) and all the other names being tossed out there. Among the contenders, Braun seems the likeliest choice, even if his defensive bugaboos leave him behind Kemp, Joey Votto(notes), Justin Upton(notes), Troy Tulowitzki(notes) and Shane Victorino(notes) in FanGraphs WAR. (He's second in B-Ref WAR.)

Thing is, it's doubtful Braun's subpar play in left field will turn off voters. They've given the MVP to so many first basemen, it's obvious that the idea of positional value has yet to fully penetrate the electorate. More likely: Because Braun's team won, and his numbers are almost identical to Kemp's, he's the likelier choice.

Braun has a .335/.404/.590 slash line to Kemp's .320/.401/570. He has 26 homers, 94 RBIs and 31 stolen bases to Kemp's 32-105-37.

The only thing working against Braun is …

8. Prince Fielder(notes) hitting behind him and providing the sort of protection every hitter would love. Prince, too, is playing voter-approved role on a winner: the middle-of-the-lineup enforcer whose presence – that unquantifiable but undeniable piece of past MVP, Cy Young and even Hall of Fame balloting – looms large over so many races.

Still, Joey Votto's slash line of .318/.431/540 is superior to Fielder's .295/.407/.548. Fielder has five more home runs and 19 more RBIs.

Those 24 points of on-base percentage, not to mention Votto's Gold Glove-caliber defense and Prince's wooden mitt, make Fielder not even the most valuable first baseman in the league, let alone the most valuable player. Don't mistake this for a slight. Fielder is great. Great enough to win the award in another city next year when he separates himself from Braun and goes to a place that gives him a monster nine-figure free-agent deal, maybe alongside …

9. Stephen Strasburg(notes) in a Washington Nationals uniform.

No, Strasburg does not fit among the other degrees this week. He's no MVP candidate – yet. He is returning Tuesday, however, for his first major league start in more than a year after undergoing Tommy John surgery one year, three days earlier.

It's an edifying comeback for a phenom who treated baseball to one of those magical runs last season. If Strasburg can return to form, he will be someone who merits annual consideration for MVP awards, especially if the Nationals' plan to build around him, Bryce Harper(notes), Jordan Zimmermann(notes), Ryan Zimmerman(notes), Jayson Werth(notes), Michael Morse(notes), Danny Espinosa(notes) and others works out as well as it ought. A year ago, the Nationals looked snakebitten.

Now, for four starts this season, they've got their very own version of …

10. Justin Verlander, albeit one who still needs to learn the lessons Verlander has as he's ascended from great arm to dominant player. That evolution has been a joy to watch, and it's a shame that Verlander's MVP candidacy will depend far more on his final four starts than it did his first 30.

If Verlander spits the bit in one start and his ERA jumps toward Jered Weaver's,(notes) or he takes a couple hard-luck losses and the shine comes off his 21-5 record, it will be enough for those who prefer not to vote for pitchers to rationalize that Verlander isn't head-and-shoulders better than the crowd of everyday players, that he's a great pitcher, sure, but not the MVP.

The BBWAA rules do not give any definition of "value," and it's that malleable interpretation that throughout the years has vexed so many candidacies. Whether the debate over Verlander's value has driven enough positive publicity into the minds of voters to open them remains to be seen. They may vote for him. They may not. It's their prerogative, and it's fine by me as long as they make a promise.

Don't vote for Shannon Stewart.

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