The American League MVP race this year is a little more complicated than the competition for the prize on the Senior Circuit. Using the same framework as with the NL to evaluate which players are or are not deserving candidates for the award, I’ll run through the top contenders and give you my pick for the best player in the AL this season.
Looking at the AL WAR leaderboard, the first obvious observation is that each of the top three producers in the AL are currently enjoying cold drinks and tee times. For Jose Bautista, missing the playoffs was no surprise. For Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia, the realization that they wouldn’t be playing October baseball came at the end of the Red Sox September meltdown that has been well-documented elsewhere. At 9.4 WAR, Ellsbury was the biggest producer in the league by a full win. He certainly can’t be blamed for the team’s collapse; his September wRC+ of 176 was his second best of any month in 2011.
Ellsbury and Pedroia are in the mold of candidates I prefer, as they provide value on both sides of the ball. Both play premium defensive positions, play well above-average defense at those positions, and are offensive forces. Though Pedroia’s 2011 was better than his 2008 MVP campaign, Ellsbury was the best player on the Red Sox this season.
As recently as the All-Star break, Bautista would’ve been my choice for the MVP. However, he’s taken a step back during the second half, and while he’s still the best hitter in the AL, the gap between Bautista and the rest of the pack closed somewhat. Since he provides very little value on defense and plays for a team well outside the playoff picture, I’m gonna say this isn’t Bautista’s year.
After Pedroia, a trio of playoff bats populate the league’s WAR leaders. Ian Kinsler’s impressive 7.7 WAR paced the Rangers to a division title, as he put together one of the quietest 30/30 seasons in the history of baseball. Kinsler’s UZR of 15.0 may be somewhat suspect (as all single-year UZR numbers are), especially considering his 2010 mark of only 2.1. My guess is that his true defensive value is somewhere in between. As a second baseman with power and speed, that’s incredibly valuable.
Miguel Cabrera’s 7.3 WAR led the Tigers to the playoffs, and his 177 wRC+ was second only to Bautista’s. Cabrera’s always had prodigious power, but over the past two years he’s done a great job pairing that power with patience. After large increases in his walk rate in both 2010 and this season, Cabrera’s .448 OBP led the American League, which may come as a pretty big surprise to anyone who has followed his career up to this point. However, Cabrera plays bad defense at a position where the expected levels of offensive output are incredibly high. Though he’s one of the most impressive offensive forces in the league, a one-dimensional player isn’t going to be my MVP in a year with as many two-way contributors as this season.
The final position player I’ll discuss is Curtis Granderson. Granderson had a breakout year with the bat, producing the best power output of his career while bumping his walk rate to a career high as well. Granderson’s defense in centerfield graded out five runs below average, but his three-year average UZR is exactly league-average, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and call him a scratch defender. Granderson’s 146 wRC+ is second only to Ellsbury among AL players at premium defensive positions, and his 41 homers were second in the league.
It’s very rare that I see a pitcher as an MVP contender. When you only play in one out of every five of your team’s games, it’s difficult to have the kind of impact that everyday players can produce. However, Justin Verlander has spent all of 2011 forcing the issue. Verlander led the league with 250 strikeouts in 251 innings, putting up 7 WAR in the process. Verlander was the perfect combination of lucky and good. Along with his league-leading strikeout total, Verlander had a top-10 walk rate, and his 2.84 SIERA led the league. In addition, his .236 BABIP and 80.3% strand rate padded his numbers, creating a perfect storm of ridiculous awesomeness. Living in Ann Arbor, it’s tough not to hop on the “Verlander for MVP” bandwagon.
Unfortunately for the large majority of my peers at the University of Michigan, I’m going to go with the numbers and pick Jacoby Ellsbury as the deserving recipient of the AL MVP. Although the Red Sox missed out on the postseason, Ellsbury produced all year, and even more so when it counted. He put up some incredible numbers down the stretch, during the team’s most important games of the season, and although the team’s pitching fell apart, he provided a ton of value that really should have led the team to a playoff berth. Ellsbury produced a full win more than any other AL player, and nearly two full wins more than any player participating in the postseason. He played world-class defense at a premium defensive position, while putting up incredible offensive numbers across the board. Though Boston won’t have a shot at a championship this year, their centerfielder was good enough that I believe he should take home some hardware anyway.
I unfortunately got somewhat swamped at the beginning of the playoffs, and wasn't able to put together a playoff preview. When the divisional series are completed, I'll take a closer look at the championship series for both leagues. For what it's worth, I would've picked the Rays, Tigers, Brewers, and Phillies to advance to the ALCS and NLCS.