If a player should be rewarded in the most valuable player voting for enabling his team to overcome his teammates’ performances, should a player be penalized for not enabling his team to overcome his teammates’ performance?
The short answer is yes, and that’s why I think the wrong player was named the National League most valuable player earlier this week.
The results gave the award to Albert Pujols, whose team, the St. Louis Cardinals, finished in fourth place in the N.L. Central, over Ryan Howard, whose team, the Philadelphia Phillies, finished first in the N.L. East.
The fact that the Phillies went on to win the World Series doesn’t matter because voting is done before the post-season begins. On second thought, the Phillies’ World Series triumph would not have been possible without Howard putting them in position to win the World Series.
If not for Howard, the Mets would have won the N.L. East title. Just think of the ramifications of that development. Most important, come next September, the Mets would not have to hear and read about the possibility of a third straight self-immolation. Club officials and players would not have to spend the winter explaining why they didn’t win.
General manager Omar Minaya might still have had to search for a closer and a starting pitcher, but there would be a lot less pressure.
As for Pujols, the Cardinals didn’t win the World Series, or even play in it, because they weren’t good enough to make the playoffs and Pujols wasn’t valuable enough to carry them there the way Howard carried the Phillies.
The problem with or the beauty of the m.v.p. voting is there are no hard and fast rules by which the voters, two members of the Baseball Writers Association from each city in each league, have to abide. Outsiders occasionally misunderstand the voting.
Many non-voters mistake the m.v.p. for player of the year. There’s a difference in the two distinctions. If the award were for player of the year, the voters would simply look at the statistics and see which player drove in the most runs and hit for the highest average or had the highest OPS.
Oops, there I’ve said it. OPS. It’s a relatively recent term that still has to be explained because most fans over 35 probably don’t know what it means. It happens to be one of the acceptable new statistics because it easily demonstrates a player’s offensive value.
But it’s not really a new statistic. It’s just a new name. Some of us have been adding on-base percentage and slugging percentage for years; we just didn’t call it by a particular name. Now we have one: OPS.
But I digress. Writers voting for m.v.p. consider a player’s OPS, but they don’t automatically give the award to the player with the highest four-digit, one-decimal-point number. That’s because the award goes to the player who was most valuable, not the player with the best statistics.
My own definition over the years has been to designate the player without whom his team could not have done what it did. That doesn’t mean a key player who suffers a disabling injury and misses half the season. It’s a player whose contributions are critical to the team’s success. The more contributing players on a team, I have always felt, the less valuable each one is.
In this instance, Pujols vs. Howard, I suspect many of the voters were attracted by the gaudy OPS numbers Pujols registered – 1.115 to Howard’s .882. That would make Pujols player of the year but not m.v.p.
In September, when the Phillies won the division title, Howard’s OPS was 1.274 to Pujols’ 1.129. With monthly season highs of .352, 11 homers and 32 r.b.i., Howard powered the Phillies to a 17-8 September record that brought them from one game behind the Mets to three games ahead.
Two years ago, when Howard won the award even though the Phillies didn’t reach the playoffs and Pujols finished second, the runnerup was quoted as saying he thought the winner should come from a playoff team, which the Cardinals were. On the day he won this year’s award, he said his remarks had been misinterpreted, that he meant a contending team.
The Cardinals, Pujols said, were in contention for the wild card this year until the last two weeks of the season. But were they?
With two weeks left in the season, the Cardinals were four games behind wild-card leaders Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Houston was third in the wild-card standings, only two games behind the co-leaders. In the previous three weeks the Cardinals got no closer to the lead than three and a half games.
Were they ever really in the race? Mathematically only, as it turned out. They certainly weren’t in the division race. They lagged 11 games behind the Cubs before the end of August.
So as good a season as Pujols had and as much as he meant to the Cardinals, they and he fell short. Howard and the Phillies did not. You want a player of the year? Pick Pujols. You want a most valuable player? Hail Howard. Too bad too many voters might not have understood the difference.