Why the AL MVP is anyone's guess
The key word is "valuable." That's where they get you. If the award was called "Most Excellent Player" or "Most Superb Player" or "Most Productive Player" or even "Most Awesome Player," everything might be a whole lot easier.
But the award is called "Most Valuable Player." And that phrase -- like the phrases, "right to bear arms," "slow traffic keep right," and "make my steak medium" -- means drastically different things to different people.
It's that vague word. Valuable. It can mean anything. Think about this: If you asked a hundred people to name their most valuable possession, they might name a hundred different things -- their wedding album, their 1952 Mickey Mantle card, the antique necklace passed down through their generations, their unpublished novel, their iPhone, their putter, their first edition of Catcher in the Rye, their suitcase of cash hidden under cellar floorboards, their Cleveland Browns-engraved bowling ball (hey, it's nice and it rolls well), their shoebox stuffed with love letters from long ago.
Same deal here. Every year, right around this time, there is a nationwide etymology debate over that word. What does it mean in baseball? Is it even something you can measure? This year, I have a vote for the American League MVP. I'm not supposed to tell you who I'm going to pick, and that's good because right now I have no idea.
Start here: Baseball Prospectus has a great little statistic called "Value Over Replacement Player" or "VORP," which attempts to measure how many more runs the guy you have at any given position is worth compared to what BP calls a "replacement level player."
The American League leaders in VORP this year are:
1. New York's Alex Rodriguez, 64.3.
2. Cleveland's Grady Sizemore, 64.0
3. Boston's Dustin Pedroia, 61.0
4. Baltimore's Aubrey Huff, 58.7
5. Texas' Milton Bradley, 56.5
We'll get to Pedroia shortly ... there's probably something you will notice about the other four guys. Yep, they all play for horribly disappointing teams. The Yankees and Indians were supposed to be World Series contenders, and both dropped out of the playoff race a long time ago. The Rangers and Orioles were expected to be bad and are both pretty awful. None of those players have performed under the intense glare of playoff pressure. Now, you can ask: Is it a players' fault that his teammates stink? Is it really fair to use team performance in MVP voting? Well, it comes down to what the definition of value is.*
*I do believe that if a player is unquestionably the best player in the league, then he should win the MVP regardless. For instance, the St. Louis Cardinals dropped out of the race, but I think it would be a farce if Albert Pujols does not win the MVP award in the National League. He's far and away the most valuable player in the league. It's tougher, though, when dealing with players like A-Rod or Sizemore who are having very good but not necessarily dominating years.
See, this year's MVP race in the AL is unusual -- maybe even unprecedented -- because as far as I can tell, none of the three likely division winners has a bona fide MVP candidate. This truly is the year of team baseball.
It's the craziest thing. Look at Tampa Bay, one of the great baseball stories in years. Here's a team that had the worst record in baseball last year, and this year the Rays beat out the Yankees, they seem about ready to close the door on the Red Sox, and, let's face it, there has to be an MVP candidate somewhere on the this team.
But there isn't. Rookie Evan Longoria is having an excellent year -- 26 homers, terrific third-base defense, he clearly has put a charge in the Rays -- but he got hurt and has only played 117 games. First baseman Carlos Pena has given the Rays some juice (31 homers) but his numbers are way, way down from last year.
Here's how you know Tampa doesn't have an MVP candidate: The local branch of the Baseball Writers Association actually chose shortstop Jason Bartlett as team MVP, even though Bartlett has missed 32 games and has all of one home run this year and he has scored 45 runs and driven in 36. Apparently his defense has been spectacular, though that doesn't really show up in his defensive statistics.*
*He has scored a minus-1 on my favorite defensive statistic, the John Dewan plus/minus system. This means that after reviewing video of every single play made by every shortstop and punching the data into a computer, Dewan's folks figured he has made one less play than the average shortstop.