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the mvp candidates

cubs lost; brewers lost; cards didn’t lose. life is good.

pujols is 0 for his last 13 or something, so it’s probably the wrong time to ask this question, but i’ll do it anyway: does he have a shot at the winning the mvp award? it’s a question that comes up annually; even last year, his weakest since 2001, he had a strong case. as AZ noted a couple of weeks ago, pujols is so consistently awesome that it’s easy to take it for granted, and that probably costs albert votes; the mvp usually goes to a great player whose greatness spikes one year, but pujols’ spikes every year, which dulls the effect. i honestly believe he’s one of the most underrated players in the game.

ok; so is he the 2008 mvp? he’s got to be a candidate. the team is doing well, and so is he: 2d in the league in obp, 3d in slugging and batting avg, 2d in ops. he’s also way up there in sabr categories such as VORP (2nd), win shares (4th), and WPA (3rd). he’s got unimpressive counting stats this year, which will hurt him --- mvp voters like counting stats, witness their fondness for jimmy rollins last year. albert is not in the top 10 in homers, rbis, runs, or total bases, and this alone might cost him the award. however, most of the counting-stats leaders this year have glaring holes in their game. the two league leaders in homers (dunn and howard) are both hitting south of .250; the top rbi men are howard (low batting average) and carlos lee (plays in a small market for a bad team). another oddity this year: nobody on the best team in the league, the cubs, is having an mvp-type year. well, actually there’s one --- alfonso soriano --- but he’s been out of the lineup so much he probably won’t win the award. incredibly, only one cub player currently ranks among the top 10 in avg, obp, or slugging --- ryan theriot (he’s 6th in avg and 10th in obp). they have nobody in the top 10 in homers, and only 1 on the rbi leaderboard ---- aramis ramirez, who ranks 10th.

so it’s a wide-open field, and albert is definitely in the running. let’s compare him to his main competition and see how it shapes up. [update: it turns out derrick goold did a very similar exercise yesterday at Birdland; didn't see it until somebody posted a link in the comments to this thread. read my take, then head over to derrick's site to read his.]

to my eye, his main competitors for the award would appear to be lance berkman, chipper jones (who, like soriano, will lose votes due to lack of playing time), ryan braun, chase utley, and ryan ludwick. (yes, ryan ludwick --- keep reading.) lesser contenders would seem to be ryan howard (lots of hrs), david wright (plays in new york, has piled up a lot of rbis), and matt holliday (gaudy numbers, albeit park-inflated). there are no pitchers who merit serious consideration for the award. these are not necessarily players i would vote for myself, but they’re players who i think will be popular among the actual voters, the members of the bbwaa --- an electorate that tends to be as fickle (and, at times, illogical) as the one that chooses public officeholders. there’s no consistent set of criteria; they change from year to year, which also tends to work against pujols (whose excellence is almost unvarying).

likewise, in the discussion that follows i am not attempting to determine which player actually is the most valuable in any objective sense; indeed, i don’t buy into the premise (widely held among many people who share my love of sabermetrics) that it’s possible to arrive at an objective conclusion. thanks to sabermetrics, we can calculate players’ value with far more precision than we used to, but the degree of precision is still short of 100 percent. it’s still an eye-of-the-beholder award, and i’m comfortable with that. my goal here today is to gauge how "mvp"ish these guys might look to voters’ eyes.

let’s start where the voters generally do, with the traditional stat categories. the chart below lists the top contenders’ totals and (in parentheses) nl ranks, through sunday:

hr rbi runs avg obp slg
pujols 21 (19) 67 (19) 65 (26) .344 (3) .454 (2) .597 (3)
berkman 22 (15) 76 (9) 88 (1) .337 (4) .438 (3) .609 (2)
braun 29 (3) 82 (5) 61 (32) .296 (18) .335 (55) .581 (6)
utley 28 (4) 77 (8) 77 (5) .290 (24) .371 (25) .574 (8)
chipper 18 (29) 55 (39) 58 (37) .369 (1) .466 (1) .596(4)
ludwick 27 (6) 78 (7) 75 (7) .306 (11) .384 (13) .614 (1)

to the extent that the voters consider league leaderboards, utley and berkman would seem to present the best arguments. each ranks in the top 10 in both counting and rate categories, with berkman lodged in the top 5 in both types. however, ludwick isn’t far behind them; he currently leads the league in one major category (slugging) and is likely to surpass some key mvp-like thresholds (.300 average, 30 homers, 100 rbis). braun is just 4 batting-average points shy of doing the same. albert’s poor standing on the rbi chart is highly context-dependent ---- teams pitch around him (denying him rbis) --- and voters tend to get that; they voted bonds the mvp several times despite so-so rbi totals. but a low home-run total will be held against albert. if he piles up 15 or so in the final 48 games and can get himself into the league’s top 10, it’ll make his resume look a lot more attractive to the voters.

now let’s take a look at some of the sabr categories, which are gaining some traction among the voters as they become more widely understood:

pujols 57.5 (2) .363 (1) 19 (4) 4.51 (3) 100 (3)
berkman 63.0 (1) .348 (3) 24 (1) 5.30 (1) 107 (1)
braun 39.3 (11) .304 (20) 17 (T8) 2.64 (8) 87 (T9)
utley 46.3 (7) .316 (11) 18 (7) 1.03 (34) 95 (4)
chipper 55.8 (3) .358 (2) 17 (T8) 2.63 (9) 91 (6)
ludwick 37.7 (8) .334 (5) 15 (T19) 1.79 (21) 87 (T9)

this is where albert shines --- but lance berkman outshines him, leading the league in VORP, win shares, WPA, and runs created. his margins over pujols are fairly slim, and they owe much to albert’s trip to the DL, but berkman's still ahead, and that's what counts. couple that with lance's good showing in the traditional categories, and you’ve got the current leader in the race imho; he is the very best, or one of the best, hitters in the league via a broad range of measurements, both old school and new school. you get the sense that this might be his year; he’s a perennial candidate who is having one of his best seasons ever and pacing the field in some of the pivotal categories.

ludwick acquits himself very well in this table --- top 10 in 3 of the 5 sabr categories listed. he’s at least as serious a candidate as braun, and that’s without even taking defense into account. indeed, the whole exercise has elided defense, which is a major exclusion. i’m not gonna go there because i don’t have the time, and because there are still 50 games to go in the season. and, as i said at the outset, i’m not attempting to measure the mvp in any objective sense, just to eyeball the race and see where things stand. utley and pujols will gain points among anyone who factors defense into the equation, but most voters ignore defense. if you do count the glove, then albert probably makes up more than enough runs to trump berkman in terms of raw value. to the extent that we can derive an objective measure that accounts for everything, then albert probably has been more valuable than any other player in the league so far this year --- ie, he’s probably been worth more runs to his team than anyone else.

but that’s not how they pick the award. if he wants to win it this year, he's got plenty of work left to do.