Breaking Down the AL MVP Race


If 2010 was known as the year of the pitcher, then it would be a mistake to think of 2011 as anything but the year of the hitter. Want some verification? Just take a look at the AL MVP race. This year’s race features both quantity and quality, and it’s been quite some time since this particular award has been so closely contested. This might come as a surprise given the plethora of offensive talent in the American League, but the first and second place finishers have been separated by at least 60 votes in each of the last four seasons. It’s probably a pretty safe bet that this streak will come to an end this year.

Before getting into the details of the race itself, perhaps it’s best to start by determining what exactly makes an MVP player. This is much easier said than done, but I’ll do my best. First, you have to be consistent. MVPs must bring their A-game each and every time they step onto the field. Not only must there be consistency in performance, there must be consistency in health. Rarely do MVPs miss more than about 10 games in a season. Next, an MVP must display superstar production in all facets of the game. Now obviously many MVPs haven’t been prominent base-stealers, but they are often Gold Glove caliber fielders. MVPs also must be players who lead their team to victory and make a difference in the win/loss column. Finally, the numbers must be MVP caliber. The numbers separate the superstars from the stars, great from the good, MVPs from the all-stars, and it goes without saying that all MVPs put up incredible statistics that are unmatched for a given season.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at the five players who figure to be the most likely candidates for the 2011 AL MVP Award.

5. Curtis Granderson, NYY

The Grandy Man can (and will) do everything in his power to bring New York yet another World Series championship. Granderson has always been one of the most talented players in the league, but his inability to hit left-handed pitching has been an extreme downfall of his over the course of his career. That was of course until this season. The career .224 hitter against lefties is now hitting .277 against southpaws in 2011, which is actually better than his .272 average against right-handers.

Overall, Curtis is hitting .275/.367/.579 with 28 home runs, 91 RBIs, 22 stolen bases, and a league-leading 104 runs scored. He has scored 16 more runs than anyone in all of baseball and ranks 12th in MLB with a 5.2 WAR. He does strike out 24.4% of the time which is unusual for a player having this much success, but he is also seeing more pitches out of the zone than ever before. He is nothing special defensively (-8.0 UZR), which is the main reason why he is ranked last on this list. Look, whether he wins MVP or not (he won’t), Granderson is putting together the best season of his career. With the shaky New York pitching, the injuries to Jeter and A-Rod, and the terrible slump of Jorge Posada, Curtis has in many ways kept this team in contention for the AL East title.

4. Dustin Pedroia, BOS

For what it’s worth, Pedroia is the only guy in this group who has already won an MVP Award (2008). For whatever reason, I still think Pedroia gets slightly overlooked in comparison with the other big names in the American League, but his MVP candidacy is no joke. He is coming on strong here late in the season, giving the Red Sox three, yes three, legitimate MVP candidates. Batting .309/.401/.479 with 15 homers, 60 RBIs, 76 runs, and 22 steals, Dustin isn’t out-performing the other candidates in a basic statistical sense. So how does he have a 6.7 WAR (2nd best in MLB)? Defense. It’s as simple as that. Pedroia’s 14.6 fielding rating is second only to Brett Gardner in all of baseball, and he has already saved 12 runs defensively.

The guy is arguably the best defensive second baseman in baseball, and he runs the bases exceptionally well. In fact, Dustin has been successful more than 80% of the time on stolen base attempts. He doesn’t have the greatest speed in the world, but he knows how to use it. Might I add that he has struck out in only 10% of his at-bats this year, which is tops among players on this list. What can’t be measured or evaluated by voters is Pedroia’s heart and energy. He is as intense of a competitor as you’ll find in the game today, and as far as I’m concerned, he is the leader of the AL’s top team.

3. Jacoby Ellsbury, BOS

So much for Comeback Player of the Year, Jacoby Ellsbury has his sights set on the Most Valuable Player Award. With a 5.7 WAR, he ranks fifth in baseball, although he’s not especially close to the top two. Ellsbury, who had to fight to prove he could hit leadoff in Spring Training, has now developed into a 5-tool superstar right before our eyes, and it’s been a beauty to watch (unless you’re a Yanks fan). The 27-year-old center fielder is hitting.319/.374/.516 with 19 home runs, 72 RBIs, 84 runs, 31 steals (5th best in MLB), and has played in 113 games to this point (more than anyone on this list). He only walks 7.3% of the time which isn’t great, but he sets the table for the most prolific offense in baseball, which is quite impressive.

Ellsbury has saved 13 runs defensively, and he has a quality 7.5 UZR. He’s not quite a Gold Glover defensively, but there’s no doubt he has great range in center. He has an 89.0 runs created rating, and I think the thing that impressive me the most is his versatility. Finally, Ellsbury’s seventh-best-in-the-league 1.27 clutch factor rating should be noted. His recent late-game heroics have been crucial for the Red Sox and have not gone unnoticed. Add that to his career-high six RBI outburst against the rival Yankees, and you are looking at Mr. August folks. Is there anything this guy can’t do? If he doesn’t win MVP this season, I expect him to be in the mix for the award for the next several seasons as he continues to get better.

2. Adrian Gonzalez, BOS

Adrian Gonzalez has been everything Red Sox hoped he be and then some. Many predicted him to be right at the top of the MVP debate in Spring Training, and he hasn’t disappointed. Boston’s first baseman is leading the league with a sky-high .348 batting average, 163 hits, and 92 runs driven in. On a normal year, that alone might be enough to crown Gonzalez MVP. His 5.1 WAR is tops among all first basemen in baseball, and he’s scored 78 runs, making him by far the slowest guy near the top of the runs scored list. He also ranks second in doubles with 35. Adrian also leads everyone at his position with a 7.4 UZR. If he doesn’t win MVP, he will probably win yet another Gold Glove. I wrote an article earlier this summer about the incredible hitting mechanics of this guy, and I just continue to be amazed.

While Gonzalez has been nothing but a run producing machine for the BoSox, there are a few reasons why he isn’t in the top spot on my MVP list. First of all, he isn’t walking this year. His 8.8% walk frequency is his lowest since 2006. I know that drawing walks, or the lack thereof, isn’t all that important when you’re hitting over .350, but it would be nice to see a raise in his OBP. Secondly, Gonzalez has had a bit of a power outage here recently. His 46.7% ground ball rate is by far the highest of his career, and you’d like to see more than 18 home runs out of a guy with this much power at this point in the season. Finally, with a with a league-leading .389 BABIP, Gonzo is getting a bit lucky this year. In all honesty, I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if Gonzalez wins AL MVP, but right now I don’t think he deserves it more than the next guy on this list.

1. Jose Bautista, TOR

What can I say that hasn’t already been said about this guy? Jose Bautista leads MLB with a 6.8 WAR and 33 home runs, and his 76 RBIs, 82 runs, and .312 BA are all top 20 in baseball. He also boasts the best on base (.447) and slugging (.637) percentages in MLB. Ok so he’s got power like no other player in the game today, but wait, there’s more. Bautista’s 19.4% walk percentage is by far the best in baseball, and he has the game’s third best BB/K ratio (1.25). Jose also leads MLB with a 6.13 win probability added. Let’s not forget that Bautista has played multiple positions this season for the Blue Jays. He isn’t especially fast and isn’t an exceptional fielder, but he is unquestionably the greatest all-things-considered hitter in the game this year.

There no doubt that Joey Bats is having a historic season, but I think some people don’t realize just how rare it is to see the kind of season that he is putting together. Whether he’s getting an advantage at home games or not, Bautista deserves the 2011 AL MVP. The fact that he’s essentially come out of nowhere to post two straight MVP-caliber seasons makes this all the more impressive. Simply put, if baseball was to start from scratch and have a fantasy draft right now, Jose Bautista would (or should) be the first player off the board.