Alex Rodriguez owns the rare distinction of winning the American League Most Valuable Player award with a first-place team and a last-place team. So he brings a unique perspective to the debate about the AL MVP.
Can a player from a non-contending team, such as Toronto's Jose Bautista, win the award? How about a pitcher, such as Detroit's Justin Verlander? And can they top the field when there are other excellent candidates such as Yankees centerfielder Curtis Granderson and Boston centerfielder Jacoby Ellsbury?
"It's a lot more fun to play for a team that's battling for first place," said Rodriguez, a three-time MVP who won the 2003 vote while playing for the last-place Rangers and then in 2005 and 2007 with the playoff-bound Yankees. "It makes it much easier to play. So there are different challenges."
Granderson, asked to define the award, pointed to his 2007 Tigers teammate Magglio Ordoñez as an example. He hit .363 with 28 home runs and 139 runs batted in and finished second to A-Rod (54 homers, 156 RBIs, .314) in the voting.
"I think it was the consistency," Granderson said of Ordoñez. "It seemed like whenever RBI opportunities were out there, he was getting them in, in some form or fashion."
And what are the thoughts of Bautista, who is battling Granderson for the home run title?
"I've looked up the history of it," Bautista said of the MVP, "and I don't see a pattern as to why people get picked or not. It's not necessarily the guy with the best offensive season who gets picked."
Indeed, the only noticeable pattern to the MVP award, season after season, is that it can always generate a good debate. This year's AL race appears particularly juicy because it raises some fundamental questions about the honor's nature.
The Baseball Writers Association of America began giving the award in 1931, and its ballot features explicit instructions that haven't changed dramatically since. Among the highlights are these two statements:
1. "The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier."
2. "Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and designated hitters."
Nevertheless, far more often than not, MVP winners come from teams that at least contend deep into September, if not make the playoffs outright, and they are position players.
Bautista, 30, emerged from virtual oblivion to lead the majors with 54 home runs last season, and he has followed up with an even better year. His .444 on-base percentage and .612 slugging percentage top the league, as does -- naturally -- his OPS (1.056). This season, he was hitting .301 with 42 home runs and 100 RBIs entering Thursday night's game.
The Blue Jays, however, entered Thursday night with a 78-77 record and reside in fourth place in the American League East. Hence the discussed notion of value: How valuable can a player be if his team doesn't contend?
"Say you have a team that only wins 50 games," said Granderson (41 homers, 134 runs, 119 RBIs, .270 entering Thursday night). "You take them out, a team only wins 25 games. Regardless of whether the team is in contention or not, the number of games that you won would be a lot less if that player wasn't in it, whether it's first place or last place. And I think that's where the argument always has to come back."
Said A-Rod: "A guy playing the caliber of baseball that Bautista is playing should always be considered, no question. He's playing at a very high level."
St. Louis' Albert Pujols won the 2008 MVP award after his Cardinals placed fourth in the NL Central, but that team contended for the wild card well into September. To find the last MVP from a true non-contender, you have to go back to A-Rod in 2003 (47 homers, 118 RBIs, .298).
Taking position on pitchers
If Verlander were to win the award, he would become the first MVP starting pitcher since Boston's Roger Clemens in 1986. The particular makeup of the Tigers could help Verlander, who with a 24-5 record and a 2.29 ERA could win the AL Cy Young Award unanimously.
For the first four months of the season, Detroit was a mediocre team with particularly bad pitching four out of five days. The Tigers were 57-51 on July 31, with a 2½-game lead over Cleveland. During that stretch, Verlander posted an 11-3 record on days he pitched after a Tigers loss.
Since Aug. 1, when the acquisition of Doug Fister from Seattle gave Detroit a second reliable starter, Verlander is 5-0 after a Detroit loss, making him 16-3 in those situations.
That's context-driven; an elite pitcher such as the Yankees' CC Sabathia (19-8, 3.00), for instance, won't come off looking as heroic because he had a better supporting cast. Yet voters often use such context to find a winner.
If Bautista's candidacy has considerable support within the baseball world, then Verlander's worthiness seems more open to discussion.
Farrell, a former pitcher, doesn't believe pitchers should win the MVP. "That's what the Cy Young is about," he said.
"It's tough, because they're going out there one out of every five days," Long said. "Position players are six out of seven, seven out of seven. Can a starting pitcher impact a ballclub and a team and be considered as an MVP candidate?
"I think we're seeing one now. [Verlander's] numbers are unbelievable. He should be recognized as an MVP candidate as well."
Verlander's manager, Jim Leyland, of all people, has said this year that he doesn't think a pitcher should win the MVP. Leyland added, though, "Under the current system, I'll push like hell for him to be the MVP . . . but, to this day, I don't believe a pitcher should be the MVP over a guy who plays 155, 160 games. I don't believe that. That's just my opinion.''
Other names will be in the mix as well. Sabathia and Robinson Cano (27 homers, 116 RBIs, .305 entering Thursday night) figure to get some votes lower on the ballot -- there are 10 spaces -- and Boston's Adrian Gonzalez (27 homers, 116 RBIs, .341) should join Ellsbury (28 homers, 98 RBIs, .319) as a serious candidate.
"I think the MVP is going to be a fun race," A-Rod said. " . . . It's coming down to the wire. It's a photo finish."