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MVP debate: What does 'MVP' mean?

Matt Kemp ranks first in RBIs, second in home runs and third in batting average in the NL. Harry How/Getty Images

Over the course of the 2011 season "most valuable" has been defined many ways.

On a summer evening at Miller Park, Prince Fielder hit a deep fly ball to left field. His home run in the bottom of the second on July 27 put the Brewers up 1-0 against the Cubs and they went on to win 2-0. This "valuable" at-bat by Fielder helped put the Brewers in first place in the National League Central, where they have remained.

Most valuable can also be seen on paper, with a little math and statistics. Ryan Braun, with his National League-leading .330 batting average and .584 slugging percentage, looks every bit as good as Matt Kemp and his league-leading 8.2 Wins Above Replacement.

And then there are the ballplayers having the most valuable seasons of their careers. While Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista is enjoying a major league-leading 42 home runs, it is hard to imagine where the Yankees would be without Curtis Granderson, the majors' top RBI guy. Bautista’s team will be watching the playoffs from home and Granderson is hitting only .270. Maybe Justin Verlander’s magical year outshines both of them?

Back in August the MVP voters received their ballots. The voters were told the same thing that fans and bloggers and columnists have argued all season, that there is "no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means."

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America does give some guidelines to its voters. Only regular-season performances are eligible for the MVP and they request the ballot be turned in "by the end of the season." Many years tight division races come down to the last day. If a ballot is turned in well before the season ends, could a voter miss the late-season performances?

"Most voters turn in their ballots after the last game," Jack O’Connell, the BBWAA secretary-treasurer said via email. "The majority of ballots arrive the day after the season ends."

The ballot also explains how voters should consider the actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense. The number of games played, general character, disposition, loyalty and effort are to be considered as well. Voters are told to remember former winners are eligible and members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.

Jimmy Rollins, the 2007 MVP winner with the Phillies, evaluates the honor this way: "It's an award that says you had the greatest impact on the outcome of your team's success, and without you for that season, the team would not have had the success that it did."

Historically, voters place a huge importance on playing for a team that reaches the postseason, yet the BBWAA states on the ballot "the MVP candidate need not come from a playoff contending team." Why would the association not define this more clearly?

"How much clearer can it be?" O’Connell said. "If voters place more emphasis on players from contending teams, it is because those players' impact is considered greater because of their team's success. That is one way value is measured. It is still a subjective process."

In a baseball world filled with advanced statistics like WAR and FIP (fielding-independent pitching), a subjective process will always stir debate.

"Unless it is somebody who is so far ahead of everybody else, it is really hard to go out every year and say one guy is so deserving of the Most Valuable Player Award," said Jack Clark, the former major league All-Star first baseman and now a radio host in St. Louis.

Clark finished third in the 1987 MVP vote, a year Andre Dawson was considered a questionable winner. Teammate Ozzie Smith placed second. At the time, there weren't defensive metrics that evaluated play-by-play data to rate Smith's value in the field, but everyone knew Smith was special.

"As many home runs as myself or Andre Dawson could hit, Ozzie Smith would take the hits and runs away from the other team," Clark said. "He would crush them defensively like no one in the game has ever seen. He’s 'The Wizard.' He did something magical that you paid to watch and he elevated his teammates because the pitchers are not afraid to throw a strike. He not only could get one out, he could get two outs."

Moving away from traditional statistics like home runs, RBIs and batting averages, many voters now take into consideration statistics like WAR -- a statistic that, if around in 1987, would undoubtedly have helped Smith or Clark beat out Dawson.

"For batters, all WAR really is, is a combination of batting, fielding and replacement-level by position, that's it," Dave Studenmund, editor for the "Hardball Times Annual 2012" said. "The last two things are new and people aren't used to them. What's more, we ought to be questioning them frequently."

One of the main complications with WAR is the fielding component and how to measure it. Just how much does a ballplayer's fielding skill impact a team’s win total?

"I think it depends on what position they play," former major leaguer John Mabry said. "Obviously, there is more weight to shortstop, catcher and center fielder, but at the same time you can be the best at your position, like a corner position. For example, Albert Pujols makes plays no other first basemen will try to make. The stuff he is willing to do when the game is on the line is what separates him from other first basemen."

Mabry believes the best fielders have a measurable skill they add to their team’s win totals.

"They are always positioned right," Mabry said about the best fielders. "They always stop the runner from advancing in crucial situations, they always get the double play, they know when to throw to a base and they know when to throw to a cut off. There are all kinds of things throughout all different positions that make a player a really good fielder."

Mabry believes evaluating outfielders is a complicated process. An outfielder’s skill in being able to get into the right position on the field is extremely important.

"The outfielders move as a unit," Mabry said. "They know how their pitcher is pitching the hitter. Another example, back in the day, Jimmy Edmonds would look at the signs from the catcher and he would know what pitch the pitcher was going to pitch to the hitter."

Mabry described Edmonds as being able to position himself perfectly. Edmonds would also communicate to the other outfielders and tell them when the ball was potentially coming their way.

"He would make all the outfielders better as well," Mabry added. "There’s a guy that lifts his teammates up as well."

The new defensive metrics attempt to evaluate all of this. Voters who consider defense might consider some of the new metrics as a rationale to put Granderson or Braun lower on their ballots. Baseball Info Solutions' Defensive Runs Saved rates Granderson as 16 runs worse than an average center fielder, while fellow MVP candidate Jacoby Ellsbury rates as 11 runs better than average. Braun rates as five runs worse than an average left fielder, compared to Kemp's two runs better than the average center fielder.

At the bottom of the MVP ballot the BBWAA voters are given one last gentle reminder, "Keep in mind that all players are eligible for MVP, including pitchers and designated hitters."

Clark believes the MVP should be reserved for "the most valuable player, the most valuable person, the most valuable product on the field every day."

The complicated process of choosing the most valuable player is difficult because it is an award evaluating just one year. In baseball, several years of statistics and observations give us a much better evaluation of true talent.

But, the beautiful part of baseball is every year any player has a chance to shine, a chance to rise above their true talent level and add valuable wins to their team. This is what the MVP award measures.

Maybe they help their team into the playoffs, like Justin Verlander. Maybe, like Bautista, their performance separates them from other players, and maybe, as in the case of the Dodgers' Kemp, they help bring a dying team back to life.

The bottom line: Who came through the most when the game and season were on the line, played above and beyond their ability and brought their team the farthest? Measure it by what is seen at the ballpark or what is calculated on paper -- or both -- but ultimately, the MVP should answer the question, which ballplayer had a season we should never forget?

"The Dodgers have hung in there," Clark said. "They are not going to win anything. They are not going to the playoffs. Looking at the individual players, what they are doing, where they had to come from and the pressures they’ve been under, I really believe the Dodgers have the MVP, CY Young and manager of the year. And I played for the Giants. I never was a Dodger fan."

Anna McDonald is a contributor for ESPN's Page 2 and covers the Yankees for the It's About the Money, part of the SweetSpot Network. You can follow her on Twitter at @Anna__McDonald.