Debunking the Reasons Against Pujols for MVP


Posted Aug 11, 2005


Brian Walton digs into reasons why some voters think Albert Pujols shouldn’t be MVP and shoots them down, one by one.

Listed here are some of the prevailing arguments used by others against Albert Pujols’ Most Valuable Player candidacy in recent seasons. See how many notes it takes you to recognize each tune.

 

Year

Pujols’ rank in NL MVP vote

Reason to not win MVP

Argument

2004

Third place

Didn’t stand out enough

Canceled out by MV3. Can’t decide among Rolen, Edmonds and Pujols.

2003

Second place

Team not good enough

Can’t select a player whose team missed the playoffs.

2002

Second place

Team too good

Cards won NL Central by 13 games while Bonds’ Giants took the Wild Card the last week of the season.

2001

Fourth place

Too young

“Your chance will come soon enough, kid.”

 

I find it amazing how different arguments are used to try to explain away inconsistencies in the voting results. That is precisely what I am going to explore here.

 

Right up front, I am specifically going to set aside statistical comparisons among the top MVP candidates and make a not-very bold assumption that all of the top MVP candidates each year put up numbers that can be considered MVP-caliber.

 

Let’s start with analyzing the easiest one of the four cited reasons not to vote for Albert.

 

2001 – Pujols is too young

 

This is the only one of the four arguments that I can easily understand and accept. At that point, in his 2001 rookie season, Pujols had virtually come from nowhere and while having a great debut season, had not yet established a track record of success.

 

Some voters, such as Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch, do not take past performances into account when casting their MVP ballots. I can understand that. But, I would have a hard time voting for a one-hit wonder.

 

I have to admit that this is one big reason I don’t support Derrek Lee’s current MVP candidacy. I still remember Lee's .248 batting average in the second half of 2004 and cannot overlook the fact that he has never driven in 100 runs in any season, despite having had numerous chances. (Lee first come up way back in 1997.)

 

By 2005, Pujols has proven that he is consistently excellent, which I assert has significant value.

 

2004 – Pujols didn’t stand out enough

 

I have already covered this topic in significant depth on Monday in my story, MVP and Cy Young – Cancellation and Coexistence. Also, note that P-D columnist Bernie Miklasz’ subsequent comments are listed in our Reader Mail area of the website.

Suffice it to say that Pujols has no serious NL MVP competition on the 2005 Cardinals.

 

2003 – Pujols’ team is not good enough

 

There is no doubt that the Cardinals faded near the end, painfully missing the 2003 NL Central crown, finishing three games behind the Cubs. That failure was commonly referenced at the time as a reason not to vote for Pujols as NL Most Valuable Player.

 

Sounds sort of reasonable - on the surface, at least. However, recent history shoots a mile-wide hole in that contention. Specifically, in three of the last four years, one of the two MVPs has come from a team that did not make the playoffs, including in the other league the very same year when Pujols was slighted by some for the very same reason.

 

In other words, three of the last eight MVPs have watched the playoffs on television.

 

Year

League

Team missing playoffs

MVP winner

Games out of division lead

2004

National

San Francisco Giants

Barry Bonds

Two

2003

American

Texas Rangers

Alex Rodriguez

25 (last place team)

2001

National

San Francisco Giants

Barry Bonds

Two

 

So, someone tell me why did this argument worked against Albert, but not Barry Bonds or A-Rod? I don’t get it.

 

2002 – Pujols’ team is too good

 

In a year when the Cardinals took the NL Central by a comfortable 13 games, that was used against Albert in the voting. Since his team was so consistently good, goes the logic, Albert was not all that crucial to the Cardinals’ success compared to at least one other player and his contribution to his team.

 

In this line of thinking, being a great player on a team that is barely good enough to win seems to be the magic MVP criteria. Bonds’ Giants took the Wild Card the last weekend of the season. Apparently, that suspense was enough to tip the scale for a significant number of voters.

 

It is bad enough that this happened to Pujols once recently, but it could very well occur again here in 2005.

 

2005 – Is Pujols’ team too good again?

 

Miklasz tipped me off to an Insider chat held at ESPN.com earlier this week (subscription required). During the session, writer Buster Olney was asked to name his MVP candidates.

 

Olney credited Lee with having put up the best stats and noted Miguel Cabrera’s "monster season" might propel the Florida Marlins into the playoffs. He closed with a testimonial for the Atlanta Braves' Andruw Jones’ clutch hits and broad shoulders, used to carry his team this season. The latter seemed to be Olney’s favorite, in my interpretation.

 

OK, all those guys are candidates, but what about that other guy from the Midwest? He was not mentioned. Bernie was rightfully miffed; in fact, he found Pujols’ omission “preposterous on so many levels” that he was “virtually speechless”.

 

With that strong pronouncement, I had to check out Olney’s session myself. In fairness to Buster, he was probably under the gun during the chat, and as a result, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he initially just forgot Albert.

 

In fact, a subsequent chat questioner specifically asked Olney about Pujols. This is the part that got me at least as lathered up as Bernie was about Olney’s initial comments. Olney acknowledged his omission, but used the fingernails on chalkboard argument that Pujols’ MVP chances may be hurt because the Cardinals are running away with their division.

 

Olney went on to draw a parallel to the AL 1995 MVP race. In that contest, only eight points (308 vs. 300) separated Boston’s Mo Vaughn and Albert Belle, whose Cleveland Indians won the AL Central by an amazing 30 games. Olney closed by suggesting that Jones could play the spoiler’s role at Pujols’ expense in 2005.

 

What a crock. Where would the Cardinals be without Albert’s MLB-leading 99 runs scored? Certainly not with a double-digit, runaway lead.

 

Pujols is on pace to set a personal record of 140 runs, which would also be the most by a Cardinal in over 80 years. Assuming he maintains his substantial MLB runs scored lead, Pujols will be only the sixth player in the history of the game to lead the majors in scoring for three consecutive seasons.

 

Taking the initiative and breaking down the numbers

 

Not knowing Olney personally, I asked his ESPN cohort, Jayson Stark, about the situation. I was pleased that Stark isn’t buying the 1995 Belle argument, either. “I personally think there's a difference between Pujols' candidacy and, say, Albert Belle's candidacy in 1995 on another runaway winner. Belle piled up most of his numbers after the division was already essentially won. Pujols has been the constant on a team that built this lead despite a staggering array of injuries.”

 

But, Stark isn’t calling it a one-man race. “As the Cubs kill Derrek Lee's chances, this would be Andruw Jones vs. Pujols for me right now. But guys like Morgan Ensberg and Miguel Cabrera could have a lot to say about this before it's over.”

 

That seemed fair to me, until we got to this point. Said Stark, “Ultimately, I think there's a good chance Pujols could even win this MVP, except that the wild card has skewed MVP voting toward players on wild-card teams, because big finishes for teams like that (when they win or come close) have the appearance of making a bigger difference than players whose teams have already locked up their spot. That's not fair, but check the last 10 years of results.”

 

Being angry as well as a stubborn, inquisitive sort, I accepted Stark’s challenge. What the data tells me is that all those rationalizations are sometimes accepted and other times ignored, with no discernable logic or pattern.

 

Conveniently, the ten years starting in 1995 is the perfect sample size because ’95 was the first Wild Card season. So, from then through 2004, I looked at the MVPs in each league and where their teams finished.

 

League

# years

MVP on divisional winner

MVP on wild card team

MVP missed playoffs

American

10

9

0

1

National

10

5

2

3

 

As you can see, the Junior Circuit voters seemed to behave pretty well, with nine out of ten AL MVPs coming from post-season participants. After all, isn’t that what you’d expect and hope to see? Still, the AL voters aren’t completely clean.

 

They must have saved up all their lunacy for one season, with that sore thumb being the Alex Rodriguez case when he was voted MVP on a last-place team that limped home a whopping 25 games out of first. Most valuable for what? Keeping the Texas Rangers from losing the division by 30 or 35 games?

 

On the other hand, the National League is a more consistent mess. It is clear that winning a division crown in the Senior Circuit is the kiss of death for an aspiring MVP candidate. Despite the fact there are three division-winning teams each season from which to select a winner, the most valuable player from any one of the best teams is not recognized half the time. I find that unbelievable and patently unacceptable.

 

Clearly, exciting Wild Card races helped a pair of winners secure MVPs, including Bonds in 2002 and Sammy Sosa in 1998. Joining A-Rod on the non-October-playing MVP roll are Bonds twice (2001 and 2004) and Larry Walker (1997).

 

Risking going too far astray here, I have now added one more to my list of reasons why the Wild Card is out of balance in comparison to its importance and needs to be devalued. First, we have a Wild Card team receiving only one fewer home game than division winners in every round of the playoffs. And now, we have these second-place teams getting almost a third of the MVP winners as a result of a contrived, made-for-marketing, second-rate pennant race.

 

If that is what the voters want, let’s add a new award. Call it the Wild Card MVP or Second-Chance MVP. Just don’t make the darned trophy the same size as the ones that the real MVPs who play on teams that actually end up in first place receive. Maybe MLB could get Avis to be the sponsor. Call it the “Avis Second-Best But We Try Harder Almost-MVP Award”.

 

But, enough ranting. Let’s get back to the analysis. I broke down the standings for those same ten seasons in each league to identify the winning margin for each MVP’s division-winning team. The results were quite surprising.

 

League

# years MVP on division winner

Largest MVP team’s division lead at end of season/Team/Year

Second-largest MVP team’s division-winning lead/Team/Year

MVP team’s average winning lead

American

9

14/Seattle/2001

8/Texas/1999

5.3 games

National

5

15.5/San Francisco/2003

11/San Francisco/2000

8.7 games

 

There you have it. In the National League since Wild Card play began, on the average, a division-winning team with an MVP was ahead of their next closest competitor by almost nine games when the season ended!

 

Three different times, MVPs were crowned from runaway (greater than ten games) division winners – Bonds in 2003, Ichiro Suzuki in 2001 and Jeff Kent in 2000. Instead, if you consider a six games or greater to be a considerable margin, you can add five more names – Ivan Rodriguez and Chipper Jones in 1999, Ken Griffey, Jr. in 1997, and Barry Larkin and Mo Vaughn in 1995.

 

Conclusion: Don’t come to me using the size of the division lead as a reason not to vote for an MVP candidate. It has been proven on multiple occasions to be ignored.

 

Simply put, it is either time to recognize Albert Pujols as the National League Most Valuable Player or come up with a new excuse not to. The old arguments just don’t hold water.

 

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

 

 

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