Since we're experiencing a September slumber in Major League Baseball, there probably will be even more discussion than usual of the Most Valuable Player races.
Which is fine. Any subject that gets people so fired up is good for business.
Many media folks have checked in on this subject, most recently Tyler Kepner with this thoughtful piece, which features the words on the actual ballot that allow us to have such a spirited debate:
“There is no clear-cut definition of what most valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the most valuable player in each league to his team.”
To me, there are at least three approaches you can take to tackling this award with some intellectual honesty, and you can even throw in a fourth condition on occasion:
1) Treating it as the "Best Player" award
Whether you want to go old-school with homers and RBI or new school with WAR, making your selection regardless of where each player's team can be found in the standings.
2) Incorporating team results
Because if the definition of "value" is wide open to interpretation, and then you factor in how much money a team makes from either qualifying for the postseason - or at least filling its ballpark for a September playoff run - then you can contend that a great player on a contending team brings more value to his club than a great player on a bad team.
3) Incorporating players' salaries
Matt Kemp is making $6.95 million this season. Ryan Braun is making $4 million. Roy Halladay is making $20 million. Can't value mean "bang for your buck"?
3.5) This is a tricker one, but there clearly are cases in which an individual player can be credited for significant revenue boosts for a team. I'm thinking of examples such as Manny Ramirez's arrival with the Dodgers in 2008, or Randy Johnson's brief stint with the Astros in 1998. Or even Stephen Strasburg's time with the Nationals last year. That represents "value," no?
I don't have an MVP vote this year -- I'm part of the committee to select the NL Cy Young Award -- but my approach toward this award has evolved from number two to number one. Ultimately, I don't think it's fair to penalize players such as Kemp or Toronto's Jose Bautista because their teams didn't seriously contend for a playoff spot.
After all, it's not like these players double up as general manager. The only player with that sort of juice was Alex Rodriguez during his Rangers days, when A-Rod actually had considerable say in player personnel matters with team owner Tom Hicks.
Ultimately, though, I think it's good for both the award and for the game that there's so much discussion of it, both during the season and when the award is actually announced.
Now, because of the broad room for interpretation, I do think we have to be careful when utilizing this award in a larger discussion about players' greatness - their Hall of Fame candidacies, for instance. Just as it's ridiculous to denigrate a player for never having won a World Series, you probably don't want to question a player because he didn't receive an MVP honor.
If you look at the history of the award, it tells the story of each season as often as it does the story of each player. More often than not, in other words, the winners have come from playoff teams.
It's not my ideal approach, but I think it's legitimate. And besides, in the absence of good pennant races, what's better than a good debate?
--I'll check in tonight from the Stadium.