In the last few days I’ve heard several broadcasters who do not seem to be on any sort of mind-altering substances talking seriously about people not named Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez winning baseball’s Most Valuable Player awards, and my friends, I’m wondering if my fellow media professionals have lost their pea-pickin’ minds.
Is there a virus racing through press boxes, destroying announcers’ gray matter? Mad microphone disease?
Saying that Barry Bonds deserves the National League MVP this year is like saying Michelangelo could paint a little. It’s so ridiculously obvious that you feel silly uttering the words.
In the American League, Rodriguez is not quite as clear-cut an MVP as Bonds. I’m not sure there’s been anyone as clear-cut as Bonds since Babe Ruth was out-homering the entire American League in the early ’20s. But the only A.L. players who can come close to matching A-Rod offensively are first basemen (Jason Giambi, Mike Sweeney and Jim Thome), plus part-timer Manny Ramirez, who plays left field after a fashion and sometimes runs out ground balls, but can hit a ton. Rodriguez is a very good shortstop, the most important defensive position. He’s the best player in the league. By a lot.
The problem here is that Rodriguez plays for the Texas Rangers, a last-place team. Bonds plays for the San Francisco Giants, who look like they’re going to make the playoffs, but only as a wild card. The argument for, say, Albert Pujols over Bonds, or Miguel Tejada or Alfonso Soriano over A-Rod, is that they play for division champions, or likely ones at this point, in Tejada’s case. (The argument for Soriano over his Yankees teammate Giambi escapes me, except that Soriano, a wonderful player but not Giambi’s equal, is young and charismatic and fun to watch. He’s this year’s Ichiro.)
It’s all about the word “valuable,” you see. The argument goes like this: How valuable can you be if your team finishes last, or even second? If you didn’t lead your team to the championship, you must not have been valuable enough.
But parsing the name of the award to that degree is silly and renders it pointless. Why not put all the emphasis on the word “most” and give the award to Mo Vaughn every year?
How valuable can you be on a last place team? Very valuable. The best player in the league is the most valuable player in the league, even if he plays for a losing team. A great player has the same value no matter who he plays for, just as a $100 bill has the same value whether it’s in Bill Gates’ pocket or mine. My C-note can’t help me buy an island, but that doesn’t make it any less valuable than the C-note Gates has.
I’ve heard several broadcasters talking up the candidacy of Pujols, of the St. Louis Cardinals. Pujols is a hell of a player, just tremendous. I don’t mean to pick on him here. But comparing Bonds to Pujols is like comparing Pujols to Terry Shumpert. Seriously. That’s how far ahead of the rest of the league Bonds is.
Remember that stuff about how baseball is designed to break your heart, how even the best players fail seven times out of 10? Actually, the best players, guys like Pujols and the fellows I’d put on my MVP ballot ahead of him — Brian Giles, Lance Berkman, Vladimir Guerrero and Sammy Sosa — fail more like six times out of 10, if you consider failure to be making an out. Bonds fails about four times out of 10.
Going into Tuesday night’s games he had an on-base percentage of .580. The major league record for on-base percentage is .553, by Ted Williams, who did it in 1941. That means that record is exactly as old as Joe DiMaggio’s supposedly unassailable 56-game hitting streak, one of baseball’s most revered marks. But a hitting streak is a flukey thing, involving a lot of luck and swinging at a lot of bad pitches to avoid walks. On-base percentage measures sustained success throughout a season at one of the two most important aspects of the offensive half of the game: getting on base.
Bonds is not only going to break that 61-year-old record — a mark that’s five years older than Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-game streak was when Cal Ripken Jr. broke it — he’s going to dynamite it. Another of baseball’s magical numbers is Williams’ .406 batting average in 1941, the last time anyone hit .400. If someone were to surpass .406 by the rate at which Bonds is besting the on-base percentage record, he’d hit .427. Think that guy would win the MVP? Even if he played for the Rangers?
Here is a list of all the people who have had an on-base percentage over .500 since Williams did it in 1941: Mickey Mantle (.512 in 1957) and Barry Bonds (.515 in 2001). Let me say this again: This year, Bonds’ on-base percentage is .580.
The other half of the offensive game, after getting on base, is moving runners along. This is, after all, how you score runs. You get runners on base, and you move them along. Moving them along is measured, mostly, by slugging percentage. Bonds is really slacking here, slugging only .795. That’s merely the fourth best season of all time, behind his own .864 last year and Babe Ruth’s .847 in 1920 and .846 in 1921. After Bonds and Ruth (who also slugged .772 in 1927), the highest slugging percentage anyone has ever had is .765, by Lou Gehrig, also in ’27.
If a couple of MVP candidates are having comparable years, then sure, give the award to the guy who’s playing for the better team. It’s as good a tie-breaker as any. But Bonds has lapped the field.
In the American League, Giambi beats out the similarly valuable Jim Thome of Cleveland for second place behind Rodriguez on my ballot because he plays for a winner. Mike Sweeney of the Royals is fourth, Nomar Garciaparra of Boston fifth. Tejada, who’s having a breakout year with Oakland and whom I’ve heard talked up as an MVP candidate by ESPN’s announcers, among others, is sixth.
Sorry, Tejada boosters. The Heisman Trophy is a joke because it rewards the best offensive back who plays for either a good team in a major conference or Notre Dame. That’s such a narrowly defined field that the award becomes trivial. Limiting the MVP to division winners or even just contenders does the same thing. It should go to the best player in each league. This year, that’s Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez.
They give out other awards for being on a good team. They’re called championships.