2006 AL MVP Contenders
This year's AL MVP Award looks to be about as wide open a race as we have ever seen for such an award. The "experts" are predicting that Derek Jeter will win it, and so am I, but then both the experts and I thought that the Cardinals would get beaten in the first round of the playoffs, and look how that turned out. There's a distinct possibility that something wacky could happen with the voting, like we saw in 1999 when Pedro Martinez's AL MVP Award went to Ivan Rodriguez, and nobody saw it coming. I hope not, but then stranger things have happened.
There are essentially four guys who can lay some kind of claim to being the American League's Most Valuable Player in 2006, maybe five.
One of the early favorites for the award was White Sox OF Jermaine Dye, who had his best year ever, with a .308 average, 44 homers, 120 RBIs, and 103 runs scored. But that was before the defending champs faded in September and finished in third place in the AL Central, six games behind the Twins. ChiSox DH Jim Thome deserves a mention as well, with 42 homers, 108 rins, 109 RBIs and 107 walks (the 8th time in his career he's cracked the century mark in all three of those in a single season), and a .288 batting average that is the best he's had since he hit .304 in 2002, his last year in Cleveland. But third place and no defense makes Thome a fifth-place candidate for AL MVP, at best, though he'll likely win the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award.
If you like the new-fangled statistical measures of Baseball Prospectus and their ilk, then you have to at least allow Indians' DH Travis Hafner into the discussion. (Heck, even if you don't like those stats, you should consider him simply because he has the best first name in the history of mankind!) Travis had a .355 EqA, best in the major leagues, almost ten points better than Albert Pujols, who's generally considered the best player in the major leagues right now. Unfortunately for Hafner, he got hurt and missed the last month of the season, and his team finished 78-84, well out of contention in the AL Central Division. It's tough to get serious MVP consideration when you only play 129 games, no matter how good you are in them, so Pronk, you're out of the running too.
Speaking of Designated Hitters with cool nicknames, there's Big Papi. Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, last year's AL MVP runner-up to Alex Rodriguez, looks like he'll probably place second once again to a Yankee infielder. Ortiz was phenomenal in 2005, and was even better this year, setting a Red Sox record for home runs in a season, and with a team that has boasted the likes of Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Jim Rice, Carl Yastrzemski and Manny Ramirez, that's really an impressive feat. Unfortunately for Big Papi, his teammates came up pretty small in 2006, finishing with a respectable 86-76 record, but 11 games behind the Yankees and, for the first time in a decade, in third place, behind the Toronto Blue Jays. Ortiz finished first in Equivalent Runs, second in Eq. Runs Above Replacement Position (RARP), and third in EqA, but it's tough to vote for a guy who doesn't play defense and whose team finished 11 games behind their division winner.
As I mentioned, of course, the Yankee infielder who will probably win the AL MVP is Shortstop Derek Jeter. He was only 7th in the AL in EqA, with a .316 mark, behind Hafner, Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Jermaine Dye, Jim Thome, Jason Giambi and Joe Mauer. However, because he got more playing time than almost everybody in line in front of him, he's third in Equivalent Runs, with 119.5 (behind Ortiz with 130 and Grady Sizemore with 125.5), and third in RARP, with 68.7, behind Hafner (70.7) and Ortiz (69.1). RARP is the most telling of the numbers because it adjusts for the relative strength of the position they play and shows how much the player was really worth to his team, above a replacement-level guy (say, Nick Green, for example), and two runs are essentially statistically insignificant. So if you've got three guys who are basically a statistical wash, but one of them plays for the best team in the AL and the other two play for teams that finished WAY out of contention, I think you have to give the vote to the guy who plays for the winner.
But that's not the only thing to consider. Since Hafner and Ortiz don't play defense, they neither contribute to nor detract from their team's success with their gloves, so that's the end of their contribution. Jeter, however, is an everyday shortstop, and depending on your perspective, is either one of the best or one of the worst defensive shortstops in the league.
Yankees Chick argued, about a month ago, for Jeter to win it, in part based on his defense, but I'm very reluctant to give him much credit in that department. If you look at traditional fielding stats, he's 4th in the AL in fielding percentage among nine qualified shortstops, he's 9th in double plays turned, 7th in Zone Rating (among 9 qualified SS candidates) and is dead last in range factor. I was at a game this year in which Jeter missed two easy grounders to his right, somehow managing to STEP ON HIS OWN GLOVE while trying to field the latter of the two. This is not a good fielding shortstop. The only reason he didn't make more than 15 errors is that he never gets to anything, so there's rarely a ball to bobble or throw away. Baseball Prospectus measures defense in Fielding Runs Above Replacement, and Jeter's a +7 in that area, a little better than average, which seems generous to me. He won another Gold Glove, but that's essentially a popularity contest, as Michael Young (+20 Fielding Runs Above Replacement) and Jhonny Peralta (+24 FRAA) both had much better cases for that. Nevertheless, the fact that he plays defense, and the fact that he's not a total disaster at it, only helps his case.
In addition, stealing a career-high 34 bases in 39 attempts sure adds to his offensive value. Not like, say, hitting 35 more home runs would, but a lot.
So overall, I'm inclined to give the AL MVP to Derek Jeter, by the slimmest of margins, over Big Papi and Pronk. My ballot would look like this:
1. Derek Jeter
2. David Ortiz
3. Travis Hafner
4. Jermaine Dye
5. Johan Santana
6. Justin Morneau
7. Frank Thomas
8. Grady Sizemore
9. Joe Mauer
10. Jim Thome
Check out my take on the other 2006 American league Awards at Double Play Depth...