Thursday, September 25, 2008

High gas prices and a split MVP? Is it 1979?

With pennant fever raging, who wants to talk about the National League MVP race? One problem: there is no pennant race without Ryan Howard and his monster September, which brings us back around to … the MVP balloting.

Plus, it’s the Phillies' off-day, so why not?

If you’ve followed baseball since the emergence of two recent plagues—steroids and fantasy baseball—you know that one is a bad addiction corrupting the games we follow and the other is a banned substance.

Which is why the current arguments over the MVP race include a few too many arguments by numbers geeks. One writer says plainly, “There is no good statistical argument that could possibly favor any other player in the league as more valuable this season.”

Could he be referring to the major-league leader in home runs and RBIs—by a wide margin in both categories—whose team is in first place? Or is he talking about a player who missed a month of the season to an injury but whose stats are impressive even if his team is in fourth place?

The thing is, baseball is not solely about statistics, or else it’d be hard to argue with the writer’s push for Albert Pujols for MVP. The guy, once again, is having a great season in what is almost surely a Hall of Fame career. His numbers across the board are impressive, he’s a good guy, and he likes puppies—what’s not to love about the guy?

But in sports, a little thing called winning actually matters. And when one player gets hot, boosts his own and his teammates’ productivity, carries them into first place, and leads the league in several categories, that’s the very definition of a most valuable player. And this season, that person has been Ryan Howard.

First off, let’s make it clear: there are just two legitimate MVP candidates, with apologies to fans of Carlos Delgado and Chipper Jones. Delgado rebounded from a lousy start to produce a very good season on a wild card-hopeful team, and Jones, when healthy, has hit for a high average—though low power numbers—on a fourth-place team 18 games out of first place.

But neither stands out the way Pujols and Howard have. That’s why it’s time to break out the Sister Sledge, pretend it’s 1979 all over again, and let first basemen from St. Louis and Pennsylvania share the award. 1979 co-MVPs Willie Stargell and Keith Hernandez, meet proposed 2008 co-MVPs Ryan Howard and Albert Pujols.

The similarities are eerie. In 1979, Stargell was the power-hitting anchor on a playoff team that would ultimately win the World Series. Hernandez was a high-average hitter and all-around team leader. In 2008, Howard is the ball-crushing fulcrum of Philly’s most likely playoff-bound offense, while Pujols provides a .350 average and solid defense.

Granted, Howard, at .248, would be the first NL MVP with a lower batting average than Marty Marion’s .267 in 1944. But if baseball rewarded numbers only, A-Rod would have seven MVPs instead of three. Again, winning actually matters in baseball.

Pujols and Howard already each have one MVP award, so why not a shared one, just like old times? At the ceremony announcing the award, MLB can even break out the “We Are Family.”

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