The instructions to the 60 baseball writers who vote on the Most Valuable Player awards could not be more ambiguous. "Dear Voter," they begin. "There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter...." All that's missing is the closing, Sincerely, Dr. Rorschach.
Trying to define value is what gives the award its appeal. There are no barstool arguments over who should win the Hank Aaron Award, which is presented to the best hitter in each league based team broadcasters' votes. The MVP award, especially the American League race this year, can occupy patrons well past last call.
"Tejada has had a fabulous year, and he deserves to be recognized for that," Seattle Mariners manager Lou Piniella says. "But Alex is doing things no one has ever done. You could say that Tejada plays for a winning team and Alex doesn't, but how can you penalize Alex for that? He's got to be the MVP, in my view."
Another manager, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' Hal McRae, saw this year's inkblot a bit differently. Rodriguez, he says, "shouldn't be mentioned in the same sentence with the guys that are on winning ball clubs. You can't be that valuable when you're on a last-place club."
Confused? We're here to help (using stats through Sunday). Pull up a stool. Start by eliminating Hunter (.286, 28 home runs, 91 RBIs), the sensational centerfielder who fell off the MVP pace by hitting .211 after July 31. Moreover, he batted .244 for the season with runners in scoring position. Likewise, Anderson (.310, 27, 118) enjoyed a fabulous year for the surprising Angels. But he's not likely to reach 30 home runs or score 100 runs, minimal milestones against such stiff competition. That leaves three players to challenge Rodriguez: Tejada, Giambi and Soriano.
"I'd take A-Rod," says one AL scout, "not only because he's the best player in the game but also because he makes everybody around him better. During a game he's always talking in the dugout and on the field, helping the young players. If Tejada gets hot the final 10 days and Oakland wins the division, though, you have to consider him. It seems like he's had every big hit in the second half."
Tejada (.303, 31, 124, .368 with runners in scoring position) did have several September signature hits, the way Chipper Jones did for Atlanta in 1999 and Giambi did for Oakland in 2000 -- and both were MVPs those years. But Tejada feasted on losing teams more than any of the other three candidates, hitting 48 points worse against plus-.500 clubs. His September (.275) wasn't as torrid as you might imagine. Also, he doesn't show up in the top 10 in the league in slugging percentage or on-base percentage. Indeed, his OPS (on-base plus slugging) is only .843.
By comparison, Giambi (.307, 38, 114) has an OPS (1.013) within sniffing distance of Rodriguez's (1.021), and he hit better against winning teams than against losers. Giambi reached base at least 20 more times than any other candidate, batted .345 with runners in scoring position and very possibly could have been looking at an unprecedented third straight MVP if he had not been robbed last year by the writers who gave the award to Ichiro Suzuki of the Mariners. Ichiro became the first outfielder ever to win the award without landing in the top 10 in on-base percentage or slugging percentage; Giambi became only the sixth player to lead the league in both categories for a playoff team and not win the award. "He's the Yankees' MVP because he's had to carry the load the whole year in the middle of the lineup and he's done it," says a scout, who then thinks again. "Soriano, though ... wow, he's phenomenal. I don't know. It's real close."
Soriano (.305, 39, 100) packs speed and power in historic proportions. He leads the AL in runs, hits, extra-base hits and stolen bases -- a grand slam achieved only twice, by Ty Cobb in 1911 and Snuffy Stirnweiss of the Yankees in 1945 (a wartime season without stars such as Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio). Soriano also has the most home runs, most total bases and most multihit games of any AL player going to the playoffs. And clutch? If it's not enough that Soriano is hitting .333 with runners in scoring position, he also is hitting .330 in the late innings of close games (seventh inning or later, one-run lead, tied or tying run at least on deck) -- better than Tejada (.316), Giambi (.286) or Rodriguez (.245).
Soriano, the Yankees' leadoff hitter, rarely draws a walk and whiffs too often, but as the Blue Jays' Ricciardi says, "He's like Vladimir Guerrero or Nomar Garciaparra. He's an exception to the general rules of how you might evaluate a player, because he's so dangerous in so many ways. He's the complete package."
Tejada, Giambi or Soriano would be fine choices to win the MVP. That's Rodriguez's problem: There are too many candidates from winning teams to pick a player off a last-place club. Context does matter. What were the consequences for Texas if Rodriguez didn't drive home a runner from scoring position with two outs (situations in which he hit .214)? And if you believe the intradivisional games that the Rangers played in September were meaningful because they mattered toward deciding the pennant race, can you write off Rodriguez's hitting .209 this month?
Nothing is more valuable in the game than contributing at an elite level for a playoff-bound team. And no one did it in more ways than Soriano, a Swiss Army knife of offensive might. He is the only MVP candidate who made pitchers quake whether he was batting with no one on base or taking a lead off first base. He gave the post-O'Neill-Martinez-Knoblauch-Brosius Yankees a new dynamic offensive personality by turning singles into doubles, stealing bases with bravado and answering the call for a clutch hitter. He outran Suzuki, outslugged Tejada and racked up more extra-base hits than A-Rod. The thinking man's MVP ballot, with a respectful nod to Rodriguez's peerless season, should therefore start with Soriano.
Of the 143 MVP winners in history, only six have been leadoff hitters. And only one Yankee in the last quarter century has earned the honor (Don Mattingly, 1985). But it's been much longer since anyone in pinstripes carved up the league quite the way Soriano has. The MVP race is perfectly clear now. Isn't it?
Photo by Heinz Kluetmeier
Issue date: September 30, 2002