HOWARD or Albert Pujols will look back someday on his monstrous 2006 season and
wonder how the heck he wasn't the National League's MVP, not unlike Ted
Williams did after his .406 season in 1941 wasn't good enough to beat out Joe
DiMaggio for American League MVP. The baseball writers' voting for all the
major awards is a cold, cruel business, but it's particularly so when a classic
MVP profile--a slugger with huge numbers for a contender--must be denied. � How
would you like to tell the 6'4", 252-pound Howard of the Phillies that his
.313 batting average, 58 homers and 149 RBIs for a team that was eliminated on
the penultimate day of the season weren't enough to win the MVP? (Suggestion:
ship to shore radio.)
And how could the
Cardinals' Pujols (.331, 49, 137 for a division champion) lose for a fifth time
in six seasons despite having no worse than a .314 average, 34 homers and 123
RBIs in any of those years?
Both deserve to
win, but the player who deserves to win slightly more is the one who produced
more consistently, was more reliable in key situations and, though barely so,
pulled his team by the scruff of its neck into the postseason. It is
Likewise, the AL
MVP race is razor close and should send another slugging first baseman with
huge numbers to a head-scratching defeat. Like Howard, the Twins' Justin
Morneau (.321, 34, 130) loses out to the more consistent hitter who was
slightly better in key situations: shortstop Derek Jeter of the Yankees, who
gets extra credit for doing so while capably manning a more important
It's an unusually
intriguing year for MVPs, which are typically more obvious. Of the 24 MVPs
since the six-division format began in 1994, 15 of them received more than 60%
of the first-place votes. Only twice (in '95 and 2005) were both races won
without such a large majority.
certainly was the MVP of the second half of the season, becoming such a threat
down the stretch that managers intentionally walked him 16 times in September.
But at the All-Star break Howard was hitting .278 and ranked 12th in the league
in OPS while playing for a team 12 games out of first.
Pujols was the
more consistent producer, his average dropping below .300 only four days all
year. His biggest edge on Howard was that he clearly outperformed the
Philadelphia slugger in situations that called for a key hit--while his weak
St. Louis supporting cast made such moments more critical. For instance, Howard
batted with 509 runners on, which was 82 more than Pujols and the second most
in baseball. (The Yankees' Alex Rodriguez came to the plate with 534 runners
on.) Pujols blew away Howard in batting average with runners in scoring
position (.397 to .256) and RISP with two outs (.435 to .237), as well as
average in the late innings of close games (.319 to .286). Bottom line: Hitting
.256 with runners in scoring position for a team that didn't make the playoffs
isn't good enough to take the MVP away from a playoffs-bound clutch hitter with
better on-base (.431 to .425) and slugging percentages (.671 to .659), and a
better VORP (value over replacement player), the sabermetric stat that measures
a hitter against the average backup player at his position (84.6 to 80.6).
Morneau was nowhere to be seen on the MVP radar for much of the season. On June
8 he was hitting .235 with 38 RBIs. An even greater obstacle to his candidacy
was that he wasn't even the MVP of the Twins. That would be catcher Joe Mauer,
the batting champion (.347) who had the better OPS than Morneau (.936 to .934)
and better VORP (65.4 to 51.6) while playing the more critical position. Mauer,
however, cooled just when Minnesota took off (he hit .284 in July and August)
and has fewer hits, runs, home runs, RBIs and stolen bases and a worse VORP
than his chief competition, Jeter.
Moreover, if his
team needed to get runners in from scoring position or a hit in the late
innings of close games, Jeter did so at better rates than Mauer or Morneau.
While Rodriguez slumped through the summer and injuries took Hideki Matsui,
Gary Sheffield and Robinson Cano out of the New York lineup for large chunks of
time, Jeter was at his reliable best. He never let his average drop below .333
or his OBP below .411 after the first two weeks, and he reached base in all but
nine of the 148 games he was in the starting lineup.
Should Jeter get
the most AL votes, he would become only the fourth positional player in the
past 30 years to win an MVP with a slugging percentage lower than .500, joining
the Dodgers' Kirk Gibson (1988), the Reds' Barry Larkin ('95) and the Mariners'
Ichiro Suzuki (2001). He may be a less traditional choice, but as the
clutch-hitting shortstop and pillar of reliability for the best team in the
league, despite its injuries, Jeter is every bit the MVP that Pujols is.