I'm not going to tell you how to vote for the American League Most Valuable Player Award, because, let's face it, you don't get to vote. Actually, neither do I. Unlike, say, the current struggle in Washington over the federal budget and the debt ceiling, we don't even get to vote on the guy who gets to cast the vote. I'm also not even going to tell you who I think it should be, because I don't know and, when you get right down to it, I'm not sure I care. As objective records of excellence go, the MVP award has long been a failure. As I wrote last month, RBI are the dog-whistle of MVP voting, with a disproportionate number of Juan Gonzalez types claiming the hardware over the years instead of rounded players who contributed in all phases of the game -- starting trouble (getting on base), finishing it (driving runners in), and preventing it (playing defense).
For every RBI-man there is an OBP-guy who created him, sometimes several OBP-guys. Yes, Hack Wilson had a great year in 1930 when he drove in a single-season record 191 runs, but he also hit fourth in a lineup that listed four other hitters with .400 on-base percentages. When Manny Ramirez drove in 165 runs in 1999, he also had four teammates reach base 40 percent of the time (and a preferred customer account at Walgreen's). Not every big RBI guy has had a deep lineup around him, but with the exception of a solo home run, every RBI takes two. That's something the voters have too rarely considered.
A colleague once told me that though the MVP Award has historically been a combination of hot air and high-fructose corn-syrup, it was worth fighting over because it is one of the criteria by which players are judged when it comes time to put them in the Hall of Fame, and as such we have a duty to history to protest when the Baseball Writers Association voters go off on some tangent in picking a winner. The problem is, I don't think the Hall of Fame is particularly worth arguing about either, because (A) it's not the last word on anything, just one of many words; (B) a lot of its selections are similarly flawed, and (C) it's as much sepulcher as museum. A player goes in, he's sealed away, and then no one thinks about Elmer Flick anymore. There is no such thing as immortality (that's what the famous poem is about), and given the speed at which our culture now moves, I don't know that anyone cares about history -- it's hard to care about last week or last month, never mind what happened in all three of John Ford's movie cavalry trilogy. Or that there was a cavalry. Or that giant horses once stampeded the primitive American plains in the days before the buffalo. ("What," you ask, "is a buffalo?")
"Do I understand your question, then? Is it hopeless and forlorn?" Not completely. Forget posterity; we have an obligation to ourselves to get right what it is we're seeing. Let's start with the idea that Miguel Cabrera is the presumptive frontrunner for the award and that he is the AL MVP despite the following:
- Poor defense.
- No baserunning component.
- He basically vanished in September (hitting .246/.380/.308 with one home run in 19 games) -- and his team kept on winning anyway.
The latter half of the final point, "His team kept winning anyway," doesn't disprove Cabrera's value, it just means we typically overestimate the value of a great player. No one player really carries a team. If they did, guys like Wally Berger and Ernie Banks would have gotten to be regular postseason heroes. This also suggests that players in the opposite situation, being the best on a contending team, shouldn't earn them any extra credit -- they're all part of a machine.
If you can answer, "Yes, in spite of all this, Cabrera is the MVP!" then you have your choice and I'm not going to argue with you. You are a very forgiving and generous sort, and I admire you. Those that say, "Those seem like real deficits and they force me to reconsider my choice," you live in a complicated world delineated in gradations of grey. I pity you. I am also one of you. Cabrera's injury-preempted stretch-drive matters to me, as does Josh Donaldson's season-long defensive excellence and .370/.474/.654 rates in nearly 100 plate appearances this month. Mike Trout's September .289/.454/.482 (108 PAs), fielding, and baserunning matter too (along with the rest of his season), even if his team isn't "in it."
Had Cabrera not gotten hurt, the picture still would have been complicated by the value metrics like WAR, which still would have shown a gap between he and Trout, or perhaps he, Trout, Donaldson, and Robinson Cano (.337/.356/.520 in September, 101 PAs). It would have been easier, though, for those who would have been content to just look at his hitting stats, so much better than last year's, and say, "That's all I need; I'm satisfied." Now, though, it's every man for himself, and one wonders if we'll have an election like that of AL 1961 (Roger Maris over Mickey Mantle) or NL 1966 (Roberto Clemente over Sandy Koufax) when the second-place finisher got more first-place votes than the winner. More recently there was the AL 2003 vote, which I'm pretty sure is still undecided -- Alex Rodriguez got six first-place votes, but Carlos Delgado and Jorge Posada got five apiece and David Ortiz got four, but someone finished fifth.
All of this Hamlet-ing about will come to a merciful end on Sunday, at which point we'll sit around wondering until the results are announced in November. I'll still feel blasé about the results, but the Cabrera and Trout factions will rumble one more time, like Charles Darwin wrestling a greased-up Bishop Ussher (they had to grease Ussher, you see, because he had had been 250 years' dead at the time), to a similarly inconclusive outcome. That is to say that people will believe what they want to believe, never mind the buffalo. In the end, Juan Gonzalez will still have two MVP awards and we'll do it all again next year, so keep those weapons sharpened.