Monday, November 27, 2006

More MVP Thoughts

Reactions to Justin Morneau's winning of the 2006 AL MVP have ranged from subdued excitement from Twins fans to unabashed disgust portrayed by the national media. For my part, I certainly can admit that Morneau probably was not the most deserving candidate, but I do believe he was closer than a lot of people (even Twins fans) are giving credit for.

When it comes to MVP consideration, I think the best metaphor is this:

Pretend that immediately following the 2006 season, every American League team released all of their players and put them into one big pool, and each team was forced to draft all their players from scratch. Imagine that you are the general manager of the team with the No. 1 pick, and you must choose a player to build your team around. Keep in mind that your team's objective is only to find success in the first season following the draft, so the age of the player is inconsequential.

Who would you select with that pick? Would you take Justin Morneau or Jermaine Dye? Perhaps; those are probably the most desirable players at their respective positions, but the fact is that both first base and right field are deep in offensive talent, so you could probably find a pretty good hitter at either position in the later rounds. Would you use the pick on a DH like Frank Thomas, Travis Hafner or David Ortiz? Well, it would be difficult to justify using that top pick to take a player who can't even play a defensive position. Would you select Derek Jeter? He might be a good choice; you can count on him to hit for great average and he gives you good speed on the basepaths. He also plays a highly important defensive position (albeit not particularly well). However, Jeter will provide very little power, and it's certainly worth questioning whether you'd really want to build your team around a table-setter type. A similar argument surrounds Joe Mauer. He hit for the best average in the league and he has excellent plate discipline, yet he lacks power. In his support, he plays the most important defensive position on the field and he plays it extremely well. Mauer would not be a bad pick by any means. Neither would Grady Sizemore, who is the complete package. He plays a position that is not deep in offensive talent, and he plays it well. He hits for good average and great power, and he can draw walks (he is, however, quite strikeout-prone). The fact that he played in all 162 of his team's games in the 2006 season is a testament to his durability.

If it were me picking, I personally would use that top draft pick on Johan Santana. He may play only once every five games, but his impact in those games is great enough that I feel he is more valuable than any of the offensive players listed above. Still, I don't think this is a year where one player set himself apart to the degree that any one of the players listed above would be a ridiculously bad selection. And I certainly see the sound logic behind choosing Morneau.

Sure, Morneau plays first base, and there are a number of good offensive first basemen around the league, which inherently reduces Morneau's overall value. Still, when you look at the season he had, there are a lot of things which scream of high value. His overall line was terrific: .321/.375/.559 with 34 home runs and 130 RBI. I'm not sure that I buy into the hype about his "greatest four-month stretch in modern history." He had a great span, to be sure, but you have to look at the year as a whole and you can't ignore the fact that he was pretty awful for the first month-and-a-half or so.

Morneau came through when it counted though. He hit .323/.401/.575 with runners in scoring position, .389/.364/.667 with the bases loaded, and .299/.343/.540 in "Close and Late" situations. He was well-rounded, hitting well both before and after the All-Star break, both at home and on the road, and against both left-handed and right-handed pitching. And his defense at first base was at least sufficient.

The points mentioned above all paint a picture of Morneau as a sweet-hitting slugger and who got the job done when he needed to. He provided some of the most memorable moments in the 2006 Twins' season, including his walk-off, two-run single against Mariano Rivera and the Yankees and his dramatic eighth-inning home run off of flamethrowing Joel Zumaya of Detroit. If those aren't the types of qualities that make a player among the most valuable in the league, then I don't know what are.

While I'd certainly be inclined to agree that Morneau was not even the most valuable player on his own team, I think it's outrageous to claim that it was "one of the worst MVP selections in history." This wasn't a year where one player was outright spectacular and separated himself from the pack to the degree that choosing anyone else is indefensible. While Morneau might not have been the best choice, I can certainly live with his selection and I'm happy to see him win the award.