The American League MVP race is closer than it may appear to be at first glance. Magglio Ordonez was actually a more productive hitter than Alex Rodriguez on a rate basis, although the difference (9.40 to 9.35 RG) is not meaningful. In terms of RAR, not considering position, I have ARod ahead 91 to 87. Including the fact that third base is essentially a neutral offensive position while right field is a hitter’s position, ARod moves ahead +91 to +80.
However, the gap is closed again when you consider defense. Rodriguez seems to be slightly above average at third base, while Ordonez +14 UZR per 150 games in right. The difference of ten or twelve runs makes the MVP race a dead heat. However, Rodriguez is still my choice, for any number of reasons. I don’t particularly care if a player’s team made the playoffs, but it certainly doesn’t hurt, and the Yankees made it. Past performance really doesn’t have a lot of place in a MVP discussion, but being one of the great players of your generation against a good but not great player certainly doesn’t hurt either. Offensive and defensive contributions are equally valuable, but we have a better handle on measuring offense, so it doesn’t hurt when it is offense at which you have a clear edge. Ordonez’ season is also much more of a fluke from a shape perspective, as his value is driven by a .368 BA; Rodriguez betters him .497 to .363 in SEC.
Rodriguez and Ordonez tower above the other candidates; Ordonez leads the next hitter by 7 RAR, even before accounting for his excellent defense.
The four hitters in the middle of my ballot include two guys who are there on the strength of their defensive contributions--Curtis Granderson and Grady Sizemore. Both had excellent years at the plate, with Granderson +61 RAR and Sizemore +50. Defensively, UZR pegged Granderson at +18 runs/150 and Sizemore at +26. Even if you regress the defense a bit, it’s enough to put them in the mix.
Jorge Posada had an outstanding year, 45 runs better than an average AL hitter, good for fifth in the league despite being a catcher. David Ortiz, considered to have had a down year, was actually outstanding once again. His 9.31 RG essentially makes him the equal of Ordonez and Rodriguez at the plate; the only reason he is not in the mix for the top spot is he has zero defensive value. It’s enough for another top five finish, though:
1) 3B Alex Rodriguez, NYA
2) RF Magglio Ordonez, DET
3) C Jorge Posada, NYA
4) CF Curtis Granderson, DET
5) DH David Ortiz, BOS
6) CF Grady Sizemore, CLE
7) SP C.C. Sabathia, CLE
8) SP Josh Beckett, BOS
9) RF Vladimir Guerrero, LAA
10) SP John Lackey, LAA
My nimrod fan at BTF will be happy to see that there are no first basemen on the ballot. This is not because I have an inherent bias against first baseman or because my analytical system has a bias against first baseman; it is because the first baseman in the American League are just not very good. If you look at hitting RAR without considering position, the top five players are a third baseman, a right fielder, a designated hitter, a first baseman, a right fielder, a catcher, a center fielder, a center fielder, a center fielder, and a first baseman. Can we agree that a first baseman who was not among the top ten hitters in the league in all likelihood is not an MVP candidate and focus on those two? Good. Actually, even if you don’t agree, we’d have to go all the way down to number thirty to find another first baseman. By contrast, in the NL, the number two, six, eight, thirteen, fourteen, seventeen, and twenty rankings in HRAR are held by first baseman.
Of the two first baseman in question, we can eliminate the tenth-ranked Mark Teixeira right off the bat since he spent much of the year in the NL. That leaves Carlos Pena, who ranks fifth in position adjusted RAR as well, at +64. However, his UZR is -5 runs/150 games, dropping him to +59, which is still an excellent figure, but does not crack the top ten. If my ballot kept going, he would definitely be between 11-15.
Moving on to the Neanderthals, the race is seemingly more wide open. Jimmy Rollins and Matt Holliday have been popular media names, while Hanley Ramirez is tops in position-adjusted offensive measures, and names like David Wright, Chipper Jones, and Miguel Cabrera do well on those lists as well. Jake Peavy and Brandon Webb were both outstanding starting pitchers.
Let’s start weeding it down to the serious contenders. Hanley Ramirez led the NL with +66 RAA and +85 RAR. While this incorporates the fact that he is a shortstop, this does not account for the fact that he is by all accounts a dreadful shortstop. UZR puts him at -20, Chone’s metric at -20, and the RZR-based approach of Jin-AZ at -15. He’s flat out not good. This drops him out of consideration for the top of the ballot, but he was still one of the ten most valuable players in the league.
His teammate Miguel Cabrera, +73 RAR, has much the same problem. -28 UZR, -18 according to Chone…enough to drop him out of the running entirely.
Jimmy Rollins had a fine season at +68 RAR; the metrics see him as a slightly below average shortstop, so if we are generous and leave him at +68, he’s not the MVP either. Matt Holliday’s offensive stats are obviously inflated from playing at Coors; nonetheless, he was +63 RAR and is rated very highly defensively +13 according to UZR and Chone, making him a top five candidate.
Another player whose defense propels him to the top is Rollins’ double play partner, Chase Utley. +61 RAR coupled with a fairly conservative (he was +16 in UZR, +21 by Chone) fifteen runs in the field make him Holliday’s equal. Jose Reyes was +54 at shortstop, but his +23/+13 defensive performance lifts him into Rollins territory, despite the fact that his season has been portrayed as a disappointment by many.
Surprisingly, Albert Pujols also gets a huge defensive boost. +67 RAR is impressive enough, but add in his +14/+15 fielding, and he is leading the pack so far. I am a little skeptical of that high of a defensive contribution at first base, but Jin-AZ’s RZR-based metric puts him at +30! While that seems impossible, it does lend credence to the idea that he could have saved a "mere" fifteen runs in the field.
In the end though, my choice comes down to a pair of third baseman. One a longtime star and former MVP, the other a young member of the ill-fated Mets. Compared to replacement level regardless of position, Chipper Jones was +77 while David Wright was +82. Compared to an average hitter, Chipper was +60 and Wright +61. Despite having 103 less PAs, Jones was able to keep pace with Wright by leading all NL hitters other than Barry Bonds in RG.
It really is a close race between these two; Jones got the edge in WPA, +4.23 to +4.09. I don’t give this a lot of weight, but it’s another one of those factors that certainly is not a negative. It is in the defensive metrics where things get interesting. Neither made the top three at the position in UZR, so we don’t know how they rate there. By the RZR approach, Wright was ahead 24 to 8, but by the Chone approach, it was 7 to 1 in Jones’ favor. I am very skeptical of RZR, but not enough to just discount it completely and give Jones a six run defensive edge. Also, Jones’ defensive reputation has not been great throughout his career, and that is a reason for some skepticism about his showing this season.
Since Wright is slightly ahead in the main offensive measures and isn’t clearly inferior defensively, he is my choice for top NL third baseman and the MVP. Jones would be worthy of the award as well, though. Behind them, since the next wave of candidates all rely on their defensive value to differentiate themselves, I am more comfortable with those who had the edge offensively and play left defensive spectrum positions. In the end, I voted:
1) 3B David Wright, NYN
2) 3B Chipper Jones, ATL
3) 1B Albert Pujols, STL
4) 2B Chase Utley, PHI
5) LF Matt Holliday, COL
6) SP Jake Peavy, SD
7) SS Hanley Ramirez, FLA
8) SS Jimmy Rollins, PHI
9) SS Jose Reyes, NYN
10) SP Brandon Webb, ARI