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sizing up the mvp candidates

those of you who read Reverend Redbird have heard by now that the blog will be discontinued. that's a loss for the card-blogosphere --- the rev will be missed. but he won't disappear entirely; erik manning, aka the rev, has agreed to write a weekly post here at VEB. i'm psyched to have him on board --- he's a great writer who knows the game, knows the organization, and knows the cardinal tradition. he does tend to overuse capital letters, but just let that go --- he'll do a great job anyway. erik's gonna be posting every sunday -- fitting day to hear from a reverend, no? -- starting this week. i'm really looking forward to his contributions. so welcome, erik, and thank you for adding your voice to the site.

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ken rosenthal opined on sunday that st louis native ryan howard ranks right up there with pujols and beltran as a leading contender for the nl mvp trophy heading into september. yesterday joe sheehan at baseball prospectus wrote (subscrip only) that the marlins' miguel cabrera belongs on the short list. and i'll add my own dark-horse candidate: lance berkman, a one-man offense who very quietly ranks among the league leaders in almost everything.

there's still a month left to play, so it's way too soon to be handing out the award --- but not too soon to size up the race. coming out of an off day, this morning seems a fine time to do some comparin' n contrastin'.

without further ado, then, i give you this table: the numbers in parentheses indicate the player's rank among nl hitters in that particular category:

pujols beltran howard cabrera berkman
HR 38 (t3) 38 (t3) 46 (1) 23 (t17) 36 (6)
RBI 107 (4) 108 (3) 121 (1) 97 (6) 110 (2)
R 94 (7) 104 (3) 79 (22) 92 (8) 75 (t27)
AVG .323 (5) .286 (34) .292 (26) .340 (2) .308 (12)
OBP .424 (2) .390 (11) .381 (17) .429 (1) .414 (4)
SLG .665 (1) .633 (2) .623 (3) .590 (6) .614 (4)
OPS 1.089 (1) 1.022 (3) 1.004 (5) 1.018 (4) 1.027 (2)

if you worship at the altar of OPS, then you like this quintet of candidates --- they're 1 through 5 in the nl in that category, widely used as a quick-dirty shorthand for overall offensive production. as i read these numbers, pujols currently has the strongest claim on the award, for a simple reason: he's the only one of these five players to rate among the nl's top 10 in all 7 of these categories. just scan down his column: he's a top-five player on 6 of the 7 leaderboards; his lowest ranking is 7th place (runs scored), and even there he has the 2d-highest total among these candidates. albert also leads the national league in two of the categories (slugging and ops); among the other candidates, only howard (hr, rbi) and cabrera (obp) are league leaders in anything.

let's turn now to some of the more popular sabermetric measurements and see how the contenders stack up. to the numbers:

pujols beltran howard cabrera berkman
VORP 65.4 (2) 62.8 (3) 48.5 (7) 66.0 (1) 54.6 (4)
WinSh 27 (t1) 27 (t1) 17 (18) 21 (5) 24 (3)
EqAv .337 (1) .321 (4) .312 (7) .330 (2) .323 (3)
RC/27 9.63 (1) 8.85 (3) 8.44 (6) 8.79 (4) 9.21 (2)
WPA 6.93 (1) 4.63 (3) 5.55 (2) 4.01 (4) 3.61 (5)

pujols' case burns even brighter by these lights. scan down his column again --- he holds or shares the national league lead in 4 of these 5 categories, and ranks a close 2d in the last one. while both beltran and cabrera also fare very well on these charts, it would appear that the award is albert's to lose . . . . well, that's too strong. let's put it this way: my 1st-place vote would be his to lose, if'n i had a ballot. but i don't, of course, and each of the men who do have a vote tends to have his own way of looking at things. some will find ry howard's gaudy hr and rbi totals irresistible; others will be persuaded by beltran's all-around excellence and his team's league-best won-lost record. beltran's point total will probably be goosed just a tad by virtue of his playing in the Center of the Known Universe; he also will (and should) get extra credit for playing a key defensive position and playing it well. but albert's got a high profile and is a likely gold-glove defender this season, so he may neutralize beltran's advantages. if the vote were held today, i think it would be a pretty close call between those two; the other three are all within striking distance, though, and with a hot september any of them could get in position to win the award. cabrera appears to have nearly as viable a candidacy as beltran, and berkman isn't far behind; if either guy's team wins 20 september games and makes the playoffs, one of them could sneak off with the award.

the stat that might represent pujols' strongest argument is also the one that's least understood: WPA, or win probability added. i've referred to it enough times that most of you know it by now; for those who don't, read up here. WPA puts players' production into context, reflecting how much it contributed toward actual wins. in this system, a walkoff three-run homer like the one pujols hit vs the reds easter sunday counts for infinitely more than a three-run homer that comes in the 9th inning of a 10-run blowout. pujols leads the major leagues in WPA; not even david ortiz, with all his walkoff hits, has directly improved his team's fortunes more than el hombre. voters are constantly groping for the essence of "valuable," looking beyond the numbers --- or deeper into them --- to sift through intangibles like which guy hits in the clutch, which guy executes the "little" things, which guy leads by example, which guy raises the game of the players around him, and so on and so forth. these are all valid considerations, imho, albeit completely subjective in most cases. most voters want to base their vote on more than what's in a guy's stat line; WPA gives them an excellent benchmark for doing so. it reflects not just how many hits a guy got but also how meaningful they were. evidently pujols has gotten a lot of meaningful hits --- more than any of his rivals for the mvp award; more, indeed, than any player in baseball.

remind me at the end of the season, and i'll re-run these tables with the full-year data. for now, suffice to say that albert is mounting a tremendous defense of his mvp trophy.