The end of season awards are finicky little things. Major League Baseball sets forth criteria for them while leaving plenty of room for interpretation. This often leads, in the name of originality, to a few head-smacking votes. For instance, Jason Bartlett in 2008, a year during which he had just 494 PA and accumulated 1.7 WAR, received an MVP vote. In 1996 the BBWAA voted Juan Gonzalez, 2.8 WAR, the AL MVP*. In 2003 they gave Jim Edmonds, 7.3 WAR, just 1 percent of the vote while giving Juan Pierre, 1.6 WAR, 9 percent. This means, in essence, that the voters can interpret the term “value” in any number of ways. In many ways they mold it to fit their preformed opinions. This makes it difficult to predict who will win the award.
*To me, 1996 was the worst example of MVP voting in recent memory. You cannot making a convincing case for Juan Gone. You just can’t. A-Rod produced 9.4 WAR that year. He hit .358/.414/.631 in 60 more PA than Gonzalez, and while his HR and RBI numbers weren’t as large he did hit 36 and 123 of them. That’s also because he had this other guy in the lineup with him, a guy named Ken Griffey, who hit 49 homers and drove in 140. He also produced 9.7 WAR that season. Hell, even Albert Belle had a better season than Gonzalez. He hit 48 homers and drove in 148, both more than Gonzalez, and he had a better OBP (also 4.9 WAR). In fact, every single player who received an MVP vote that year had a higher WAR than Juan Gone. I can understand writers interpreting “value” differently, but in 1996 it was just out of control.
By the numbers, the AL MVP race comes down to two candidates: Josh Hamilton and Miguel Cabrera. Both are producing ridiculous numbers and stand above the pack in most major statistical categories. Barring injury or major slump they’ll probably end the season with the most impressive statistics. One of them will likely deserve the award of best AL player. But, since that pesky word value gets slipped in we’re going to see plenty of different interpretations. Cabrera could get a demerit for playing on a non-contender, for instance.
In his column today, Joel Sherman raises Robinson Cano’s interpretive MVP case. Cano clearly doesn’t have the best numbers, but we know that voters go on more than the numbers. Sherman’s case involves Cano filling in for the injured Alex Rodriguez and carrying the team in his absence. As Sherman says, “At the moment his team needs him most, Cano not only has avoided wearing down, but is also cleaning up.” This is essentially the same case as Sabathia’s for Cy Young. Cano is not the best hitter in the league, but he is the best hitter on the best team in the league. That will certainly garner him at least a few first place votes.
At this point Hamilton has the best case for AL MVP. He leads the league in BA, is second in OBP, SLG, and wOBA (all to Cabrera), and has the highest WAR. That WAR, 7.0, leads the second place hitter by a full win. That second place hitter: Robinson Cano. Even considering Cano’s votes for being the best hitter on the league’s best team, Hamilton should still finish ahead at this point. He is, after all, the best hitter on the AL West leader. He also stands out more among teammates. While the Yankees have Brett Gardner, Nick Swisher, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Derek Jeter among the top 35 in WAR, the Rangers have just Michael Young. Hamilton has been doing it all.
Plenty can change between now and October 4, and that’s precisely Sherman’s point. If Cano does continue producing in A-Rod’s absence, he’ll curry much more favor with the voters. Sherman brings up last year’s AL MVP award, where (he claims) Joe Mauer won it in the final weeks by carrying his team in Justin Morneau’s absence. But that ignores the overriding sentiment that Mauer had the award locked up by mid-August. The best example I can recall is in 2004, when there was no clear-cut MVP heading into September. Vladimir Guerrero, Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez, and David Ortiz were all producing excellent numbers, and even lighter hitting guys like Ichiro and Miguel Tejada were making cases. But in September Vlad went on a tear, putting up a .482 wOBA and leading his team to the playoffs. That was the tipping point in the voting. (Even though Ichiro had the best WAR in the league.)
We could certainly see a similar case this year. A-Rod won’t be back for almost two weeks, so Cano has plenty of time to make his case. If he hits anything near what he has in the six games A-Rod has missed — 9 for 24 (.375) with four walks (.464 OBP) and five extra base hits (.917 SLG) — he could certainly gain status in voters’ eyes. If the Yankees stay in first place during that stretch, all the better. And then there’s the rest of September, during which the Yankees will likely fight closely with Tampa Bay for first place in the East. Cano’s continued production combined with Yankees’ success could go a long way.
At this point, with 124 games in the books, Robinson Cano is not the AL’s most valuable player. Josh Hamilton owns that distinction. That leaves 38 games for Cano to make his case. He has and advantage now, since his production is magnified because of his team’s situation. A strong, April-like run could vault him from also-ran to MVP favorite. Sherman is right. Yankees fans should start breaking out the M-V-P chant. He might not be leading now, but Cano certainly has an opportunity to bring home the hardware.