Sunday, November 19, 2006

And the winner is ... Vet Writers Weigh In

Ryan Howard or Albert Pujols?
Mirror images of each other, these two players present a tantalizing dilemma as to which was the National League's Most Valuable Player in 2006.
"If I had to vote in this election, I would have had a very hard time deciding between Howard and Pujols," said Phil Rogers, baseball columnist of the Chicago Tribune.

Who walks away with the honor bestowed by the Baseball Writers of America will be revealed today.

As Howard and Pujols await the 3 p.m. announcement, we take a look at what how 17 esteemed writers - whose experience covering the game combines for over 420 years - wrestle with what constitutes an Mvp.

Here are the full transcripts of the BBWAA members' responses:

Don Burke, Newark Star Ledger: I had an MVP vote and cast it for Ryan Howard. I just thought he meant more to his team this season than any other player in the National League this season. While Albert Pujols was extraordinary, the Cardinals kept on going when he missed time with injuries. But I thought Howard carried the Phillies as they made their late-season push that ultimately fell short, a push they couldn't possibly have made without him.
Bob Nightengale, USA Today: "I think Ryan Howard epitomizes the MVP award. He carried the Phillies on his back, put up monster numbers in the middle of a playoff race, and was a first-class citizen. He is my MVP, narrowly ahead of Albert Pujols. To me, an MVP has to come from either a playoff team or a team in playoff contention.

If the Phillies weren't a factor in the race, the nod would go to Pujols, but since they stayed alive until the final weekend, the vote swings to Howard. I also believe he might be the classiest young player in the game today and should be baseball's next great role model.

Jayson Stark, I was an NL MVP voter this year, and I've never taken longer or thought harder on any award ballot I've ever filled out in my life. First, I make a list of every conceivable candidate, not just for the first spot on the ballot but for all 10. Then I narrow down the choices. I looked really carefully at six candidates -- Howard, Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran.

Then, when I got down to just Howard and Pujols, I spent way too much time over three days trying to separate the two. I even broke down the score before and after every one of their homers. I looked at every conceivable number. I weighed intangibles. And I still wasn't sure. It got to be so late in the afternoon on Monday, the day after the season ended, that Jack O'Connell of the BBWAA even emailed me to say, essentially, It's time to vote!

I decided, in the end, that the biggest argument people were going to use to vote for Pujols over Howard, besides the fact that there were compelling cases to be made for each of them, boiled down to these two factors: 1) Howard didn't hit 60 homers, and 2) Pujols' team made the playoffs and Howard's didn't.

On item 2, though, my standard is different than many voters' standard. If a player's team doesn't get eliminated until the next-to-last day of the season, that's very different than, say, what happened to Derrek Lee last year, or to Travis Hafner this year. Their teams didn't play a meaningful game in September.

Ryan Howard played in only one "meaningless" game all season -- the last one. So that was the context his numbers needed to be placed in -- the same as Pujols'. Every hit, homer, RBI, etc. meant something. So argument No. 2 didn't wash.

That left argument No. 1, which I felt wasn't just about the magic number of 60, but more revolved around the fact that Howard didn't hit a home run in the last nine games of the season, when, theoretically, his team needed him most. Pujols, on the other hand, hit a couple of huge homers in that time.

So I looked at each player in those final nine games to see if the theory that Howard had somehow let the Phillies down was true. What I found was that Howard reached base in every game and, even though he was obviously being intentionally walked and pitched around so he WOULDN'T hit any more big homers, he still drove in a run in five of those nine games.

But over the Cardinals' last nine games, Pujols drove in a run in only one of the games in which he didn't homer. So that wasn't as big an edge as most people perceived.If you want me to tell you how I voted in the end, I will. I voted for Howard. But even now, I'm still not convinced I was right. I can't ever remember a time when the case for two candidates was that close -- and that good. And I've filled out a lot of ballots in my life.

Pat Borzi, New York Times contributor: I've never had an MVP vote. But if I did I'd lean toward a guy on a contending or championship team unless someone had numbers off the charts (Andre Dawson 1987, for instance).

The Phillies were in it long enough at the end for me to consider them contenders, but Howard's year was so big it doesn't matter. I got to see Pujols more than Howard this year, though, and I'd probably vote for Pujols because of some of the big hits he had down the stretch that saved the Cards from total collapse.

Bob Elliott, Toronto Sun baseball columnist: Don't think I qualify as venerable but I am old.

1. Have not voted for MVP in a few years, but I always voted for people in the post-season. The award is not like the Cy Young award for the most outstanding pitcher ... it's for the most outstanding player.

You know the way you admire Don Baylor ... well my admiration for Andre Dawson, who I used to see getting helped off the plane and off the buses (when we flew the charters) and still was able to play - despite his bad knees.
Yet I did not agree he should have been the MVP with the Cubs in '87 when they finished last.

How valuable was he? Without him would they have finished in American Association. Same with [[Cal] Ripken when he won and the O's were 81-81.

I would have voted for Pujols, by the way.

Jeff Blair, Toronto Globe and Mail columnist: I didn't have an MVP vote in our chapter this year, but I voted in the past and I have a fairly liberal interpretation of things.

On one MVP ballot, when I was in Montreal, I voted for Greg Maddux simply because I felt he was the most dominant performer, in terms of helping his team win, in that particular season. To me, the player who is judged most valuable to his team must almost out of necessity play on a team that contends for a post-season spot, unless the weight of his statistics are so overwhelming.

Mark Whicker, Orange County Register columnist: I don't have an MVP ballot but in writing about the MVP Award, I hardly ever give a first-place vote for a player who isn't in the playoffs. It would have to be an extreme case with no other standout candidates, because the word "valuable" to me connotes value to a winner.

Andre Dawson won it when the Cubs finished sixth and they would have finished sixth with an average player in that position.

In that light, Pujols beat out Howard for me. In a year when the Cardinals were savaged by pitching injuries, lineup injuries and general inconsistency, Pujols basically took them to the NL Central title. The fact that he has made himself a Gold Glove first baseman cannot be diminished either.

Howard's numbers speak for themselves and he would be the Player of the Year if such an award existed. But the Phillies didn't get the deal done.

Ray Ratto, San Francisco Chronicle columnist: I don't have an MVP vote, but I think you do it a bit by feel. I find it hard to imagine that Ryan Howard was more important to the Phillies than Albert Pujols was to the Cardinals, but it is close enough that I would be willing to break down some numbers as a tiebreaker. It also helps to be on a winner, because you can more easily point to value on a winning team.

Murray Chass, New York Times columnist: When I was allowed to vote for the award once upon a time I tried to decide who the player was without whom his team could not have done what it did (usually finish first or contend seriously for first). I have always felt that the less help a player has had in helping his team get where it finished the more valuable he was. The opposite of that - is the more good players a team has the less valuable each is.

Bill Madden, New York Daily News: My MVP selection process is to first look at the teams that made the postseason for candidates that in my opinion had the most impact. After that, I look at players (such as Howard) who had the most impact in getting their teams to the brink of the postseason.

If a guy leads the league in both homers and RBI he would get top consideration from me unless it was for a team that went nowhere (such as A-Rod with Texas a couple of years ago.) I put the heaviest emphasis on winning or contending for the postseason.

Hal McCoy, Dayton Daily News: I'm fairly wide-open on my MVP considerations. First I consider the stats, of course, and mix in the value of his contributions to his team. Ryan Howard qualifies mightily on both counts, although his late fade and the Phillies late fade in the face of the Albert Pujols and what he did for the Cardinals weighs heavily.

Rick Hummel, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: I generally vote for the best player on the best team, if at all possible. The Cardinals weren't the best team on Oct. 1, but they were in the playoffs. Howard's team wasn't in the playoffs.
Pujols' average with men in scoring position was startingly higher than Howard's and he is also a Gold Glove first baseman, compared to Howard's sub-standard play at first base.

I'm not caught up by who hits the most home runs although this is not to discredit Howard as a legitimate candidate.

Phil Rogers, Chicago Tribune: For me, playing on a playoff team is not an absolute for MVP worthiness, but it comes pretty close. With four post-season teams in both leagues, it's hard to ignore players who helped a team get to October to honor someone whose team fell short.

With that said, a player with Ryan Howard's performance - particularly as he pushed a team toward the playoffs, albeit eventually falling short - challenges me to defend that position. If I had to vote in this election, I would have had a very hard time deciding between Howard and Albert Pujols.

Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated: The MVP is about assigning a personal value to the production of a player in the context of his team and the league. Statistics are enormously helpful, especially as the foundation to each player's case, but they are the not the be-all and end-all. If they were, we could just run the numbers through a computer and hand the trophy to the name the machine spits out on top.

I lean toward players on teams that contended and, with slightly more emphasis, those that reached the playoffs. I lean toward position players, and taking into account the value of their position on the defensive spectrum and how well they play it, but do not rule out pitchers. I have only one iron-clad rule: there are no iron-clad rules.

Marty Noble, One factor makes me question Howard's credentials for the MVP award - Chase Utley. No question Howard was the Phillies' most valuable player, and Utley was the team's second most valuable commodity. Here's the snag.

The MVP ballot awards 14 points to the player for each first-place vote. The second-through-10th places are awarded 9-8-7 etc. To me, that five-point difference means No. 1 has to be a clear-cut choice over No. 2, and really, more clear cut choice than any other entry on the ballot. And I cam make a better case for Howard being a clear cut choice than I can any other candidate.
But Utley is one of the leading candidates, too, along with Pujols, Reyes, Beltran, [David] Wright and [Carlos] Delgado (in that order among the Mets).

My question becomes this: Is Howard's relative value within the league worth five more points than the next candidate -- Pujols, in my mind -- and six more than Reyes when when he had a teammate providing as much as Utley did and his team didn't win either of the two postseason berths available?

What saves Howard is that the Cardinals faded and had two fewer victories than the Phillies, that Pujols played in fewer games - 143 to Howard's 159 and the ballot says number of games played is to be considered - and that Reyes, the best defensive player on the ballot, had more help from Beltran, Wright and Delgado that Utley provided.

And all that aside, 58 home runs and 149 RBI, are remarkable totals for an era and in any ballpark, even Citizen Bandbox. And, without precise measurement and comparison, what Howard did felt like an MVP performance.

Bob Dutton, Kansas City Star: I am a frequent voter for MVP because, well, it's a small chapter in Kansas City. My overriding priotity in voting is pretty simple: Based on this year alone, if I was picking up sides, whom would I pick first and so on.

I rarely penalize a player for playing for a poor team because, as Bill James contends, why should a player be penalized because he has lousy teammates?
The only exception is if players are virtually even in my eyes, then I'll tend toward the player on the better team -- assuming he performed down the stretch.

Similarly, I don't penalize a DH unless it's a dead heat, and then only if the other player is a superior defensive player.

I'm not opposed to voting for a pitcher for MVP, but his numbers would have to be overwhelming.

Jerry Crasnick, I haven't actually had an MVP vote for at least 10 years, but I'm like most writers, I'm sure. I try to assess a player's impact through statistics and intangibles, and determine who was the most indispensible to his club.

All things being equal, I'm going to favor the guy who played for a winner. But I wouldn't penalize someone like Howard, whose team fell just short of the playoffs for reasons entirely unrelated to him. For what it's worth, I would have taken Howard over Pujols, even though Pujols was far superior in some important categories (like batting with runners in scoring position).