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Albert Pujols and the 2008 MVP race

In one of Albert Pujols’s greatest seasons, he nearly lost a deserved MVP award thanks to a problem which persists in award voting today.

St. Louis Cardinals v San Diego Padres Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images

They say that hot takes are the way to get ahead in the baseball blogging game, so here it goes. *Cracks knuckles, clears throat, snaps suspenders I purchased specifically for this occasion*

Albert Pujols was a really, really good baseball player for the St. Louis Cardinals.

According to both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference, Albert Pujols ranks fourth in franchise history in Wins Above Replacement behind bona fide legends Stan Musial, Rogers Hornsby, and Bob Gibson. In eleven incredible seasons, he was an All-Star nine times and an MVP three times, and each total arguably should have been higher.

Pujols finished in the top five in MVP voting in St. Louis in a remarkable ten out of eleven seasons. The one exception was 2007 (he finished 9th), despite leading the NL in bWAR and finishing 2nd, behind David Wright (who finished 4th), in fWAR.

In 2008, Albert Pujols led National League position players in bWAR for the fourth of six consecutive seasons—valiant as his efforts in his first four seasons were, he ran into the buzzsaw known as peak Barry Bonds. And his 9.2 bWAR and 8.7 fWAR were enough to lead both metrics not just among National League position players but all players in both leagues. Appropriately enough, Pujols was rewarded with the NL MVP award.

In the end, it was a no-harm-no-foul situation—Albert Pujols deserved the award, he won the award, and we all went on about our lives. But it was nearly a calamitous, utterly indefensible MVP election, evocative of an era from which the Baseball Writers’ Association of America allegedly had escaped in their voting patterns.

Of the 32 first-place votes for 2008 NL MVP, Albert Pujols received 18 of them. Brad Lidge, whose career Pujols had allegedly ended three years earlier, was one of the two non-Pujols players to receive first-place votes (two of them). He only finished 8th overall, and many in the sabermetrics community immediately dismissed his candidacy as absurd—he was very good, yes (a 1.95 ERA, a 2.41 FIP, and as contingent upon context as such an accomplishment might have been, a 41-for-41 save conversion rate is undeniably impressive), but this was all in 69 13 innings. Certainly, when averaging less than half an inning per game, a player can only be so valuable.

And yet, Brad Lidge was a more valuable player by WAR than the third recipient of first-place MVP votes—his Philadelphia Phillies teammate, Ryan Howard.

Ryan Howard actually won an MVP award which probably should have gone to Albert Pujols just two years prior. To be clear, in 2006, Ryan Howard had a tremendous offensive season, belting a league-leading 58 home runs and 149 RBI while holding his own by batting average (.313).

While Pujols was the better player (he struck out during only 7.9% of plate appearances as opposed to Howard’s 25.7%; he was the better overall hitter by OPS and wRC+; he was the vastly superior fielder and a better baserunner), this is more of a positive commentary on how good Pujols was than it was degradation of Howard. That Howard won MVP primarily on the grounds of context-heavy results (RBI totals tend to be higher when you’re batting behind prime Chase Utley than when you are batting behind David Eckstein or So Taguchi) is perhaps a bit irritating, but with newer metrics, he still had a very good season.

It was in 2008, however, that Howard’s ability to hang in the conversation about who was truly the preeminent first baseman of the National League of the era became ridiculous. Because unlike in 2006, when Ryan Howard was a premium hitter (probably the second-best in the league), the 2008 version subsisted mostly on a solid reputation and, more importantly, a persistent narrative.

In 2008, the Cardinals were a fourth-place team and the Phillies were NL East champions on their way to winning just the second World Series in franchise history (that the Phillies are tied with the Chicago Cubs in World Series titles and have nine fewer pennants is a shockingly under-reported fun fact). That the Cardinals finished a mere six games back of the Phillies (86 wins vs. 92 wins) in a loaded NL Central is largely irrelevant—the Phillies were an ascending team and the Cardinals were not viable threats and this was all there was to that.

In 2008, 72 hitters qualified for the batting title. Of those 72, Howard finished 35th in fWAR. He finished 48th in bWAR. Relative to full-time MLB position players in 2008, one could make the argument that Ryan Howard was below average. And yet he received 12 first-place MVP votes. Howard’s .881 OPS, though adequate, was hardly spectacular for a first baseman with limited fielding or running ability. He ranked just one spot ahead of Brad Hawpe on the OPS leaderboard.

In fact, the eventual World Series champion Phillies did have an MVP-caliber player in Chase Utley. Utley trailed only Pujols in WAR, of both the Baseball Reference and FanGraphs persuasion, and had a .915 OPS—surpassing Howard’s OPS while also playing a superb defensive second base (as opposed to a mediocre defensive first base) and serving as an efficient base runner, stealing 14 bases while only being caught twice, and ranking by Baserunning Runs as a solidly above average runner.

So how did Ryan Howard, 6th in fWAR and 9th in bWAR on his own team, nearly usurp one of the greatest Albert Pujols seasons as MVP? Because he felt like an MVP.

Ryan Howard hit a lot of home runs and drove in a lot of runs (again, Chase Utley helps the latter). He had a paltry .251 batting average and a pedestrian .339 on-base percentage, but it was a firmly established part of the story of the Phillies and of Howard that he was the powerful behemoth which brought a World Series title to Philadelphia.

In cases such as 1996, when the vastly inferior Juan Gonzalez won MVP over Mariners superstars Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr., there is an actual questionable outcome as opposed to the near-miss of 2008, but by 2008, baseball was supposed to be more enlightened. Moneyball was released over half a decade earlier, the fundamentals of the sabermetrics movement were firmly established in the public consciousness, and still, we almost had an NL MVP that was closer to bad than he was to MVP-worthy.

And this mindset persists to this day, even if to a somewhat lesser degree. At this point, both the AL and NL have clear-cut, deserving MVPs by player value metrics. The latter league’s top player, Kris Bryant, will probably win it, because he also fulfills the conventional checklist—he hits a ton of dingers, drives in many runs, and plays for the Chicago Cubs, the league’s best team throughout the regular season.

The former’s best player, perennially and in 2016, is Mike Trout, who faces a much more uphill climb because despite being MLB’s best hitter, one of its best hitters, and an above-average defensive center fielder, the Los Angeles Angels are not very good. Never mind that the currently 4th place Angels would be fringe contenders for Worst Team In MLB status without him; that he cannot transcend the inherent limitations of an individual player on a baseball team is held against him.

For the sake of fairness, I am pulling for Mike Trout and Kris Bryant to win their league MVPs this season for the same reason I pulled for Albert Pujols to win his—because greatness deserves to be rewarded, even when the fierce tug of an intriguing narrative pulls voting results in another direction.