Monday, August 07, 2006

From Mendoza to MVP Candidate

In the middle of May, Justin Morneau was struggling. He was hitting for mediocre power, he was striking out too much, and -- as he was for the entirety of the 2005 campaign -- he was helpless against left-handed pitchers. This blog had taken to playfully calling him Justin Mendoza, in honor of his batting average which sat just a few points above the dreaded .200-mark.

To say Morneau has turned his season around would be quite the understatement. Not only has Justin reversed all the aforementioned negative trends, but as a 25-year-old he is putting together one of the great offensive seasons in club history, and also putting himself in position to be a serious contender for the American League MVP honor, which a Twins player has not captured since Rod Carew in 1977.

With his three-run jack on Saturday night, Morneau is now just one homer away from breaking the Twins' nearly two-decade 30-HR drought. That he is hitting for good power is not particularly surprising (this is what most people were expecting last year), but the high average is. While Morneau has shown ability to hit for power in the big leagues, the batting average has never really been there. He entered the 2006 campaign with a .248 career average in 876 major-league at-bats. Even though he went 1-for-5 yesterday (with one of those outs just inches short of becoming HR #30), he's still hitting .321/.376/.599 on the season.

Morneau would have a very difficult time overcoming David Ortiz for the MVP award, for a number of reasons. Ortiz leads the majors in home runs and RBI and has delivered about 50 game-winning hits for the Red Sox this year. Also working in his favor are the facts that he plays in a large market in Boston and that many people believe he should have won the award last year. A couple other names that have frequently popped up as AL MVP contenders are Derek Jeter and Jermaine Dye, but both are great hitters in incredibly stacked lineups. If you want to talk about truly valuable players, Ortiz and Morneau are the guys who carry the load for their teams.

If it comes down to Morneau and Ortiz, Justin does have a few things going in his favor. For one thing, he plays a defensive position. Voters tend to value that quite a bit; a full-time designated hitter has never won the MVP award and it is probably the reason that Alex Rodriguez took home the honor rather than Ortiz last year. Also, Morneau has powered the Twins' lineup this season in a big way. He has nearly twice as many home runs as any other player on the team, and he has 98 RBI in a lineup that has only one other player with more than 60. Ortiz has been great, but he's also got Manny Ramirez and his .319/.429/.633 line hitting behind him in the lineup. In fact, Ramirez has arguably been a better hitter this year than Ortiz, he just doesn't receive the same type of media glamour because he doesn't deliver the dramatic hits. And while Ortiz does have an impressive collection of walk-off home runs, let's not forget that Morneau has delivered quite a few game-winning hits himself this season.

Of course, I don't expect the voters to see it that way. If things continue to go the way they are, Ortiz will probably win the MVP this year. With the 58 HR and 161 RBI he's currently projected to produce, I wouldn't be too upset about it. Still, the fact that Morneau can legitimately put his name in the conversation when he was hitting .206 on May 9 is pretty remarkable.

Meanwhile, the Twins continue with their unbelievable run. Once totally incapable of winning games away from home, the Twins have won nine of their ten road contests since the All-Star break after sweeping the Royals in four games in Kansas City. Their road recent success will now be put to the test big-time as they head into Detroit where they have been outscored 47-8 in six losses this year.