Jayson Stark uses the concept of Most Valuable Player that I dislike the most in his latest column over at ESPN.com, that being the argument for "team X wouldn't be where they were if not for player Y." You could say that about any team with an impact player -- or a truly bad one. Another problem that this presents is that the award can only go to a player on a contending team, because no one cares about impact players on last place teams...well, outside of 2003 anyways. Before I go much further, let me say that I'm a huge fan of Jayson Stark's work, I just really, really dislike this type of argument for MVP.
This also makes it so that players on the very best teams -- read, those players with help -- are virtually ignored in the voting. Why should Carlos Beltran be penalized because Omar Minaya had the brains to put Carlos Delgado, David Wright and Jose Reyes around him in the lineup? Is this a compensation award for Albert Pujols because Walt Jocketty screwed up this offseason? Or does Ryan Howard get the MVP because the Phillies are accidentally in contention after dealing Bobby Abreu?
I understand Albert Pujols and Ryan Howard have both been phenomenal this year, but if you're going to use the incredibly lame argument that a team wouldn't be in contention without a certain player, then why don't you vote for Miguel Cabrera? He's been as good with Howard with the stick, and if you want some more meaningless points in his favor, the average age of the Marlins is much lower than that of the Phillies, and we all know that it's impossible to compete without that veteran presence.
Let's take a look at the four players seasons using positionally-adjusted Net Runs Above Average, which combines offensive and defensive value together into one shiny number. Last time I looked at this, Beltran was ahead of Pujols by a very tiny bit.
Stark's pick of Ryan Howard is last in the rankings among the four, with Pujols and Beltran only a few runs above average apart. If I wanted to nitpick -- and I do -- Beltran's home park is dragging down his offensive value a great deal, as his splits are still an odd .224/.360/.487 at Shea and .335/.410/.729 on the road. On a side note, Miguel Cabrera has steadily improved his defense as the season has progressed; he was dead last -- by a longshot -- at about the midpoint, and now he finds himself just a few runs below average at his position.
For those who prefer their stats to be WARP flavored, here's a quickie table:
Pujols is a little further ahead this way ---- Baseball Prospectus' defensive stats like Pujols more than the ZR based ones I used do -- and Beltran and Cabrera are closer together, while Ryan Howard lags behind.
So there you go really; if you want the best overall player, you can't be faulted for picking either Albert Pujols or Carlos Beltran. If you prefer to use the convoluted "best player on a fringe contending team that wouldn't be where it was without the help of said star", then you have Miguel Cabrera. What you don't have is the guy leading the league in RBI and homeruns, and I don't think I really should have to get into why that doesn't matter. What really doesn't matter though is who is in the lead for overall value on September 14. There's a few weeks of baseball left to play, and just a few weeks ago, Carlos Beltran led the value race. I don't expect Howard or Cabrera to put together 20-plus runs of above average value in two weeks of games (although I'd love to see it happen, I'm pretty sure the laws of probability and physics will conspire to keep it from happening), but the race between Beltran and Pujols should be exciting. Until Ryan Howard wins the award for leading the league in RBI anyways.
By the way, I do technically have a vote for NL MVP this year. Fellow SB Nation'er Martin Gandy from Talking Chop put together a ballot and organized a voting system for the entire network, so look for those results to come a short while before the BBWAA announces their results. My hope is that we do a better job with it, but we'll see. We luckily have four votes to work with at this site, due to our general baseball nature, so after a great deal of bribery and violent threats, I should convince the other voters here to do the right thing.