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.
Take Alex Rodriguez. Or not. At week's end the Texas Rangers' shortstop led the majors in home runs (56), RBIs (139) and total bases (382). He almost certainly will be, for the second straight year, the league's Aaron award winner. "He's the best player in the game," Toronto Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi says, "and maybe the greatest player ever to play the game." But should Rodriguez be the Most Valuable Player after playing for a last-place team that was essentially out of the playoff race in April? More than anything, this year's AL MVP vote is a referendum on a player's value to a losing team: Should Rodriguez win the award even though Torii Hunter of the Minnesota Twins, Garret Anderson of the Anaheim Angels, Miguel Tejada of the Oakland A's, and Jason Giambi and Alfonso Soriano of the New York Yankees put up MVP-worthy numbers for playoff-bound teams?
" 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 rans, minimal mile-stones 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 die 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."