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The AL MVP Debate

With the trade deadline in the rear view mirror and a million baseball journalists needing something to talk about, the AL MVP discussion has been pushed front and center this week. It doesn’t hurt that there are about 14 Red Sox players in consideration for the award, either – the Boston media is notoriously loud, and interesting news stories about their team often tend to filter down to the national level.

In some ways, the current field of candidates is crowded; there are legitimately a lot of guys having seasons that can justify MVP votes in a normal season. In other ways, though, the various candidates are segregated into bins of candidate types that are not all that alike, and make it fairly easy for most people to pick a favorite based on their own perspective of what the MVP is.

Are you a traditionalist? Adrian Gonzalez is hitting .356, leads the league in RBIs, and plays for a first place team. He’s the classic model of what a league MVP has traditionally been. If you like RBIs and team win totals, you don’t have to look far to find your obvious candidate.

Did you grow up reading Bill James? Then you’re probably in the “best player should win” camp, and you prefer to reward a guy for what he did and not what his teammates helped him do. Jose Bautista is probably your guy, since he’s having one of the great offensive seasons in baseball history, and is far and away the best hitter in baseball this year.

Do you have a strong preference for positional scarcity? Your pool is a little more crowded since there are a lot of up-the-middle guys having strong seasons this year. Dustin Pedroia could be your candidate – depending on your feelings about defensive metrics – but Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson, and Asdrubal Cabrera could also work their way into the mix depending on just what kind of offense/defense ratio you prefer to look at.

I fully expect the members of the latter group to each get some votes, but in reality, there are probably too many guys with similar resumes for any one of them to stand out. Even with Pedroia being close to Bautista in WAR, a lot of that value is tied up in defensive value. The people who factor WAR into their voting are also the people are more likely to be in group two, and will likely be casting their votes for Jose Bautista anyway.

So, despite the fact that the crowd is superficially crowded, there are still really only two guys who look like they may gain a lot of traction when the final votes come down – Gonzalez and Bautista. And really, that means we’re headed for the same argument we have every year; best player or most RBIs on a winning team guy. You’ll hear arguments about all kinds of other variables, but in the end, those are basically the two camps.

It’s too bad, actually. If you take away the historic patterns of voters, this really should be an unpredictable MVP race, with the winner likely not receiving the majority of the first place votes. There really are a lot of qualified candidates, and you can make a legitimate case for at least half a dozen guys this year, depending on where you stand on the various arguments about individual versus team performance and how that performance should be measured.

In reality, though, we’re looking at another year just like every other, rehashing the same tired arguments that are held every year. And that’s too bad, because there’s a varied pool of players who could raise some interesting questions that are different than most years. But, with Bautista and Gonzalez around representing the two stereotypical MVP arch-types, their candidacies are probably going to overwhelm everyone else’s.

Since I think that’s something of a shame, I’m probably going to write up pro-MVP arguments for all the other guys at some point over the next few weeks. Just because Gonzalez and Bautista exist doesn’t mean that everyone else should get ignored, and there are quite a few players who deserve some of the spotlight.