NL MVP: Pujols vs. Ramirez vs. Lincecum

JESSICA BADER: Mainstream discussion of MVP candidates usually makes me want to throw the nearest inanimate object against the wall, as it most often relies on criteria no more sophisticated than “highest RBI total among guys whose teams made the postseason.” The more stat-heavy, bloggy discussions tend to be better, with incorporation of more advanced statistics and the recognition that a player can be valuable even if his teammates stink, but blind spots and biases still play a role. One of the more frustrating blind spots is the widespread aversion to seriously considering pitchers. No pitcher has finished in the top five since 2000, and while I’m not confident that we’ll see that streak broken this year, I think it should be.

The most prominent argument against pitchers as MVP candidates is that “they already have their own award,” an argument that I find silly. The last time I checked, pitchers were players too, and if you look at the game of baseball as a series of batter/pitcher confrontations, it’s hard to ignore that top starting pitchers often face more than 900 batters over the course of a season while no batter has ever had more than 778 plate appearances. If the player who provides the most value over the course of the season happens to be a pitcher, I see no reason why he shouldn’t receive both the Cy Young and MVP awards. I don’t remember anyone complaining about Ichiro being named MVP in his first season in the US “because there’s already an award for rookies.”

Moving from the general case that pitchers should be seriously considered as MVPs to the more specific case of one pitcher, Tim Lincecum is having another fantastic year. The Freak leads the majors with 247 strikeouts and a strikeout rate of 10.52 per nine innings, and his 2.33 FIP is best in the National League. How can we compare that to some of the top position players in the league? Lincecum has accumulated 7.8 WAR, behind only Albert Pujols (8.3) and Chase Utley (8.0).  He’s likely to get two more starts before the end of the season to boost that number, with an outside shot at a third depending on how long the Giants remain mathematically alive. Meanwhile, his main competitors are on teams whose postseason status has already been determined, likely resulting in days off/being pulled early for a pinch-runner over the final week and a half of the season.

Tim Lincecum is not the no-doubt, slam-dunk best player in the National League, but he’s at the same level as the other serious candidates. He should not be excluded from consideration simply because his job is to throw nasty pitches instead of hitting them.

CHRIS PUMMER: It will be hard for anyone to wrestle the award away from Albert Pujols, who’s having maybe his finest offensive season. He’s also no slouch with the glove for a first baseman.

Still, Florida’s Hanley Ramirez and Philladelphia’s Chase Utley deserve consideration. Even though both are puting up OPSes almost .200 points below Pujols’ unreal 1.114 (through Wednesday), both play premium defensive positions for contending teams.

Ramirez in particular is putting up the best offensive numbers by a shortstop since Alex Rodriguez played the position for Texas. Most observers would probably agree that Rodriguez only won one MVP trophy with the Rangers because his teams were never in contention.

That’s not an excuse for voters who would look the other way on Ramirez.

Ramirez is playing in Pujols’ ballpark in terms of value to his team. But even positional adjustments between first base and shortstop might not do Ramirez’ value to the Marlins’ justice.

For instance, Fangraphs estimates Ramirez to be worth $33.9 million. The next most valuable shortstop in the NL? Troy Tulowitzki at $20.9, a difference of $13 million. Third among shortstops is Yunel Escobar, who at $16.3 million is giving his team less than half the value Ramirez is this season.

Pujols is worth $37.3, higher overall than Ramirez. But two other NL first basemen are at above $26 million (Prince Fielder and Adrian Gonzalez). Derrek Lee is at $22.7, while Ryan Howard is just below the $20 million threshold ($19.4).

In other words, when comparing Ramirez and Pujols to other players at their positions, Ramirez is doing a better job of blowing his competition out of the water. Even more simply, Ramirez — who plays one of the hardest defensive positions on the field — would be harder for the Marlins, or any team, to replace.

That’s why Ramirez deserves to be in the conversation, even if Pujols is having a season for the ages.

HOWARD MEGDAL: Jessica and Chris make great points. Certainly, pitchers do deserve consideration for this award, and in ordinary seasons, Tim Lincecum could well be that top choice. I feel sorry for Hanley Ramirez, having an MVP-quality season, and especially Chase Utley, who despite being the best player on his team, will not receive an MVP award, unlike both Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard.

But Albert Pujols is a living god, and merely giving him the MVP award doesn’t do him justice. However, it will have to do.

I’d simply point out that by all of these measures referenced above, Pujols does, in fact, lead the pack. He’s managed a season of Ruthian proportions: .330/.447/.676 to date- while actually seeing a huge drop in his BABIP from 2008: .340 to .298.

Interestingly, that may not be luck. His line drive rate reduced from 22.4% to 15.4%, with most of those line drives becoming fly balls. But while that would be problematic for most other players, it isn’t for Mr. Pujols: see, 21.5% of his fly balls become home runs this year. And that is no fluke- he is at 20.3% for his career.

Pujols’ UZR is down in 2009, but I have seen little evidence that he is merely an average fielder, and his previous seasons of high UZR ratings argue against this as well. Indeed, his range is such that I believe, subjective as this is, that Pujols would more than hold his own at second base, even at shortstop.

There’s this trope that is thrown out there for MVP: who would you most want hitting for your team in a big spot? The reason it is so flawed is that many writers use it to make the case for a lesser hitter, because of some kind of intangible.

But I’ll use it, with the understanding that who I want is the best hitter in the National League by far. And that, of course, is Albert Pujols. And it is by enough of a margin that even playing first base, giving away all the positional adjustment to 2B and SS, and keeping in mind that Tim Lincecum is a fantastic starting pitcher, Pujols has to be the MVP choice.

When I visit synagogue on Kol Nidre, asking God for inscription into the Book of Life, chances are I will be wasting my time. Really, I should be in St. Louis, asking the same thing from Albert Pujols.

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