The problem with voting for a league MVP is that there’s no clear definition of what “valuable” means. Each voter is instructed to decide for themselves what it means to them. Should it mean the most irreplaceable player? Is it the player who enjoyed the best season? Or should it be the best player who also played for a playoff team?
It’s no secret that voters tend to give weight to a player playing for a playoff team, but that doesn’t mean an outstanding player from a mediocre team can’t win the award. Alex Rodriguez won the 2003 AL MVP award despite playing for a sub-par Rangers team. Barry Bonds won the NL MVP from 2001-2004, even though the Giants only made the playoffs in two of those years.
So our short list will focus on players likely to still be playing in October, but we won’t ignore two guys who clearly deserve to be here, even though they’ll be watching the playoffs from home. Consider the following:
The middle three on that list are all likely to make the playoffs. The other two? Not so much. Let’s run through them one at a time.
In a season full of injuries and disappointment for the Colorado Rockies, Carlos Gonzalez has been a bright spot. Along with closer Huston Street, he came to Colorado in 2009 as part of the trade with Oakland for Matt Holliday, and even if you ignore Street’s considerable talent as a closer, it looks like the Rockies got the better end of the deal. CarGo is already contending for the triple crown, leading the NL in batting average and only a few homers and RBIs away from the lead. If he wins the Triple Crown, he’s pretty likely to take home the MVP, too.
The only blemish on his record, apart from his negative UZR rating, are his home/road splits. At Coors Field he has a slash line of .386/.431/781 (yikes), but on the road, he’s hitting just .275/.296/.437 (yikes, but the other way). Voters may have a hard time overlooking that, especially considering Denver already has a reputation as an offensive wonderland.
Despite playing for the best team in the NL, Adrian Gonzalez has somehow slipped under the radar this year. He’s “only” hitting .299 with 27 homers, after all. Nothing remarkable, right? Gonzalez hasn’t put up the eye-popping numbers that CarGo, Pujols, and Votto have, but he’s consistently been the only source of offense for the Padres this season. If you consider an MVP as the player most important to his team, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better fit than this Gonzalez.
Unless, of course, you were to consider Albert Pujols. The Cardinals haven’t exactly been world-beaters this year on offense outside of him. He currently holds the HR lead in the Triple Crown race, but doesn’t appear likely to overtake Gonzalez and Votto in the batting average category (currently trailing by 16 points). His WAR is “only” at 5.8 this year, which is actually his second-lowest in his career (he’s averaged about 7.0 WAR over the last few seasons). By his own standards, this is a down season, which makes it scary that he’s still in the hunt for his fourth MVP. Imagine if he were to get it going like the last couple of seasons again.
If you’re looking for a good underdog story, Joey Votto is probably your man. The Reds weren’t supposed to be good this year, and Votto certainly wasn’t supposed to be this good. To make things worse, he was snubbed from the NL All-Star team and had to be voted in by the fans. He’s inches away from being the leader in all three Triple Crown categories, which would make him a lock for MVP. He’s also a solid defensive player, racking up a 5.0 UZR.
But if you’re looking for otherworldly defense, you have to go with Washington’s Ryan Zimmerman. He didn’t get a lot of attention this year, what with the Stephen Strasburg circus, but he’s quietly put together an insane season on defense. Take a look at his UZR again. That’s right, it’s an otherworldly 23.3. That’s more than twice as much as our other four guys combined. His WAR is just barely less than Votto’s, too (6.2). If the Nationals were headed to the playoffs, Zimmerman would be a lock for this award. He’d be a lock if the award was for defense, too. Unfortunately, they already have an award for that (hello, Gold Glove), so he’s not likely to gain much traction here.
At this point, I think this race is still too close to call. Adrian Gonzalez isn’t likely to win the award simply because he’s not likely to win the Triple Crown. If any of the other three snags it, the award is theirs, easy. If not (and I don’t really expect any of them to), I have to give this to Votto. CarGo won’t make the playoffs, and Pujols has already won the award. Votto is the best story here, and that’s what puts him over the top.