I don't care what Uggla says -- Hanley still gets my MVP vote
Baseball writers often vote for the best player for the MVP award
The MVP should be decided on who is most irreplacable, not best player
Hanley Ramirez, while controversial, clearly holds the most value to his team
I live in a nice part of Chicago. Saul Bellow wrote some of his best novels while living here. Barack Obama represented the neighborhood in the Illinois Senate. My apartment is around the corner from the site of the first sustained nuclear reaction and one of Frank Lloyd Wright's more beautiful houses, and, more impressively, right down the street from Bill Veeck's old digs. Neither Mr. Sammler's Planet nor the fission reactor nor the exploding scoreboard can, though, quite rate with Hyde Park's greatest contribution to world culture: The Latke-Hamantash Debate.
Every year since 1946, University of Chicago scholars, including such eminences as Allan Bloom and Milton Friedman, have come together to debate the relative merits of delicious latkes (fried potato pancakes) and vile hamentashen (cookies with sweet filling, often made of prunes), presenting papers with titles like "The Archetypal Hamentasch: A Feminist Mythology" and offering learned disquisitions on whether or not Finnegans Wake is a tribute to the latke. After the thundering denunciations are done, everyone repairs to a reception to devour latkes, choke down hamentashen and ponder the implications of the latke's self-evident superiority for string theory or what have you.
If you're wondering when I'll come around to baseball, you clearly haven't spent much time reading or talking about Most Valuable Player awards lately. However much mock sophistry esteemed professors can summon once a year on the subject of Jewish holiday foods, it's nothing compared to the quite real sophistry that baseball fans and pundits can summon when the subject of a plaque adorned with Kenesaw Mountain Landis' face comes up. You probably aren't really a fan if you've never seen someone turn bright red while bellowing "It's a most valuable player award!" at you, as if emphasizing the second word of the sentence were enough to prove that Pedro Feliz or whomever deserves it.
This is delightful, one of the best things about baseball, precisely because it's so absurd and because so much air and ink and so many electrons are spent on something that means so little to anyone. Which is why one should be thrilled by the new controversy around Hanley Ramirez, involving Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla snapping in front of reporters about how Ramirez shouldn't have asked out of a Tuesday game on account on an injury. Here's drama!
Until now, anyone who wanted to get into a good argument over an MVP award had to key in on the American League, and even that one isn't all that interesting. Joe Mauer is the best player in the circuit by so much that the cases made for players like Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira have been half-hearted and perfunctory, as if the people making them are a little abashed about doing so. Ramirez, though, has now given us something almost as worth getting angry about as a paper purporting to prove that prune cookies were the unacknowledged source of the Enlightenment.
MVP debates, in their pure form, are about what different people consider important. I tend to side against the red-faced bellowers (and their more respectable fellow travelers) and with those who think the best player in the league should get the thing. This is mainly because the plain text of the actual ballot is quite unambiguous about the criteria that voters are supposed to use: "strength of offense and defense," games played and "character, disposition, loyalty and effort" count, and voters are explicitly reminded that one doesn't have to play for a contender to win. A player such as Mauer, who clearly has more strength than anyone else, has played lots of games, whose disposition is never questioned, and who even plays for a fringe contender, obviously deserves the award.
With Ramirez, though, the case actually becomes interesting. If you go by a good all-encompassing statistic like WAR, there are three serious MVP candidates in the National League: Ramirez, Albert Pujols and Chase Utley. Ramirez entered Thursday with 6.5 WAR, Pujols with 6.9, and Utley with 7.2. (Don't be misled by those decimal points, by the way; they're false precision.) Given the quirks in UZR, the statistic that comprises the defensive element of WAR, you can basically say that they've all been about equally good.
This sounds right, even if you go by entirely conventional statistics. Ramirez is a competent shortstop who's leading the league in batting average and has popped 57 extra-base hits with a month left in the year. Pujols is an excellent first baseman who's leading in on-base average, slugging average, runs and home runs. Utley isn't leading in anything except being hit by pitches, but he's sixth in OPS and is probably the best-fielding second baseman in the league. There's not that much to distinguish one from another.
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