11/19/10 10:00 AM EST
Valuable or best? Which should decide MVP?
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
"Nobody knew where I was," said Larkin, then a great Cincinnati Reds shortstop and now an analyst for MLB Network.
"I knew there was no way I'd win MVP, because I didn't have the power numbers. So when I got the call, I wasn't just surprised ... I was really hard to find. It took them a while."
As Larkin explains, his upset victory over Colorado Rockies slugger Dante Bichette and Atlanta Braves ace Greg Maddux was a big one for the proponents of the "V" word that sits right in the middle of the famed abbreviation.
That word is back in focus -- as it is every November -- as we await the selections for the MVPs of both leagues, which will be announced next week. The NL winner will be revealed on Monday, followed by the American League winner on Tuesday.
In the AL, will Josh Hamilton's net worth to the Texas Rangers -- not to mention his .359 batting average, 32 homers, 100 RBIs and league-leading 1.044 OPS -- be enough to make up for the 29 games he missed because of injury? Or will the numbers of Detroit's Miguel Cabrera (.328 average, 38 homers, 126 RBIs, 1.042 OPS, .420 on-base percentage), Toronto's Jose Bautista (MLB-leading 54 homers, 124 RBIs) or the Yankees' Robinson Cano (.319 average, 29 homers, 109 RBIs) tell the story, despite the Tigers falling out of contention in the AL Central, Bautista's .260 average and Cano's power tailing off a bit late in the season?
In the NL, will voters go for the across-the-board dominance of Cincinnati first baseman Joey Votto (.324 average, 37 homers, 113 RBIs, league-leading .600 SLG, .424 OBP and 1.024 OPS), Colorado outfielder Carlos Gonzalez (league-leading .336 average and 197 hits, 34 homers, 117 RBIs, 26 stolen bases, Gold Glove) or Mr. MVP himself, the Cardinals' three-time winner, first baseman Albert Pujols (.312 average, league-leading 42 homers and 118 RBIs, 1.011 OPS, Gold Glove)?
Well, maybe the letter of the law will give us some clues.
The MVP ballot from the Baseball Writers' Association of America, from which two writers from each Major League city (resulting in 28 ballots for the AL, 32 for the NL) list their top 10 choices to determine the winners, says the following:
"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. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier."
After that, there are voting rules, which, according to the ballot, "remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931."
These include three tenets: "1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense; 2. Number of games played; 3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort."
When Larkin took the award in 1995, he was benefiting from a combination of those three, but the majority of the oomph came from the last one, which is probably the most difficult to define.
"I think it's pretty well-described in the title of the award," Larkin said.
"Most Valuable Player. That doesn't necessarily mean the guy with the best numbers, although a lot of times the most valuable and the one with the best numbers happens to be the same player.
"But in my case, it was nice to know that the writers were looking beyond the numbers a little bit."
And that's the essence of the arguments baseball fans find themselves embroiled in at this time of year, especially now that even more advanced statistics -- such as OPS, WAR and UZR -- have been developed and are gaining traction with each ensuing year.
Granted, Larkin did have some numbers on his side.
He only hit 15 homers and drove in 66 runs, but he was sixth in the NL in batting (.319) and second in stolen bases (51). He also won a Gold Glove Award at shortstop and became the first at his position to nail down the NL MVP since Maury Wills of the Dodgers in 1962.
So when he beat Bichette, who hit 40 homers and drove in 128 runs while helping Colorado to its first postseason appearance, and Maddux, who went 19-2 with a 1.63 ERA for the team that went on to win the World Series, there had to be something else that pushed him over the edge.
"Honestly, I think it might have come from me being a team leader, from me possessing some of those intangibles that all great teams need," Larkin said.
"Early in the year, we had lost a bunch of games, and I really dressed down my teammates in the locker room a few times, and the media outside could hear me yelling.
"I know that stuck with them, because they wrote about it. So when you add that with the numbers, maybe that's how it happened."
A similar phenomenon might have occurred in 1988, when Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers won the NL MVP with a .290 batting average, 25 homers, 31 stolen bases and 76 RBIs for a first-place club that went on to win the World Series, although that Fall Classic -- and his legendary pinch-hit homer off Dennis Eckersley that won Game 1 -- did not factor in the voting, which does not include the postseason.
Gibson might very well have locked up the award before the season began, when he notoriously called out his teammates' lack of professionalism during Spring Training, setting a tone for a team-chemistry turnaround.
"His numbers that year were good, but it was more about what he did to a team that made such progress from where it had been the previous two seasons," said Fred Claire, the team's general manager in 1988.
"What was known when the votes were cast was that here was someone who had impacted a team in such a significant fashion that they had gone from a non-contender to a winning team. Leadership and a passion to win as a team were the constants of what Kirk brought."
This year, the main contenders have numbers and classic "value," which makes it tougher on the voter. But in the case of the AL candidates, one BBWAA voter told MLB.com that his choice, Hamilton, was an easy one.
"When Hamilton got hurt, it opened the door for a few other guys [to take control in the MVP race]," the voter said. "But none of them took advantage of it. Hamilton had one of the most dominant three-month stretches I've ever seen. On June 1, the Rangers were tied for first place. When he got hurt in early September, they were 9 1/2 games up. That was Hamilton."
Surprises can happen, of course.
Few could predict that Ted Williams would hit .406 in 1941 and not win the MVP, but then again, few could predict that Yankees great Joe DiMaggio would set a record by hitting safely in 56 consecutive games the same year, capturing the imagination of the country and media and the award many thought belonged to Boston's "Splendid Splinter."
And Larkin had no way of predicting his own victory 15 years ago, although he said he sees the wisdom behind it now.
"You certainly have to have numbers," Larkin said. "But a guy who had a great year on a last-place team is just a guy who had a great year.
"The word 'valuable' takes into account a lot more than that."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.