Does Josh Hamilton have an MVP nemesis?

November, 23, 2010
11/23/10
1:57
AM ET
The question isn't, "Who will win the American League's Most Valuable Player Award?"

That isn't remotely the question, because we already know that Josh Hamilton is going to win. If he's not the unanimous choice, he'll come very close.

And like Votto, Hamilton will be a fine choice.

The question is, "If not Hamilton, though, then who?"

In Votto's case, the answer to that question was easy: Albert Pujols, who once again posted MVP-type numbers while winning his second Gold Glove. If the Cardinals had won three more games and the Reds had won three fewer, Pujols probably would have been the MVP and he probably would have deserved it.*

* It's difficult to exaggerate Pujols' greatness. According to Baseball-Reference.com's version of Wins Above Replacement -- more about which below -- Pujols has now led his league in WAR in six straight seasons. The only other players who have done that were Babe Ruth and Willie Mays. Which seems about right.

Things aren't so clear-cut in the American League. Pujols picked up 21 second-place votes in the National League's balloting. I'll be surprised if any American Leaguer gets more than 10; essentially, there's a No. 2 candidate for nearly every taste.

No. 2 doesn't particularly interest me; nobody remembers the No. 2 unless he deserved to be No. 1. But in the course of figuring out if Hamilton has a legitimate challenger, we may come up with a clear-cut No. 2 ...

As you know, a good shorthand for these sorts of questions is Wins Above Replacement. As you also know, there are competing versions of WAR. This might be considered an inconvenience, except we're interesting in beginning a conversation rather than ending one. So having two versions -- FanGraphs' (fWar) and Sean Smith's (sWar, featured at Baseball-Reference.com) -- is actually a good thing, because it gives us more players to look at.

As it happens, there are exactly five players who score at 6.0 or better in both systems.*

Actually, there are six but one of them is Felix Hernandez, who barely clears the bar according to both fWar and sWar and isn't going to get any love from the voters anyway. He's not an unreasonable down-ballot choice, but he's really no match for the top candidate(s).

Here they are, fWar/sWar/Average:

Evan Longoria: 6.9 / 7.7 / 7.3
Josh Hamilton: 8.0 / 6.0 / 7.0
Adrian Beltre: 7.1 / 6.1 / 6.6
Miguel Cabrera: 6.2 / 6.9 / 6.6
Robinson Cano: 6.4 / 6.1 / 6.3

I should also mention that fWar really likes Jose Bautista (6.9) and Carl Crawford (6.9), while sWar really, really likes Shin-Soo Choo (7.3). In all three cases the other system likes them substantially less (particularly in Crawford's case), and in all three cases the difference is due primarily to the values assigned to their defensive contributions.

As you can see, the systems essentially agree about Cano, and they're pretty close on Cabrera. But they're a full win apart on Beltre, nearly that much on Longoria, and two wins apart on Hamilton ... which does wind up being pretty inconvenient, since Hamilton's the one guy about whom we'd like to wind up in agreement.

The "problem" is that Sean Smith's WAR -- which uses something called Total Zone Rating to measure defense -- just doesn't care for Hamilton's defense. Never has. Smith has Hamilton as a slightly negative defender in 2010, and remember that's not slightly below average; it's slightly below replacement, i.e. some nondescript center fielder from Triple-A. Smiths' got Hamilton as a replacement-level outfielder, covering his whole career.

Meanwhile, FanGraphs' WAR -- which uses Ultimate Zone Rating for defense -- shows Hamilton as one of the league's better defensive outfielders in each of the past two seasons.

There's definitely some uncertainty here. Do you believe Total Zone Rating? Ultimate Zone Rating? Your own eyes, if you saw Hamilton play a bunch of games this season? I've admitted a bias toward UZR, and it's become as close to an industry standard as we've got. You can make up your own mind (or split the difference, whatever).

What else? According to the Bill James Handbook, both players were outstanding baserunners in 2010. Hamilton just a touch better perhaps, but Longoria gets a touch of extra credit for being a third baseman.

Hamilton does have one big edge: clutch. He hit exceptionally well in those situations this year, and trails only Miguel Cabrera in win probability added (WPA). Longoria did well in that category, too, but no more than you would expect from a player with his statistics. Hamilton was brilliant.

And that's why I wound up voting for him, wherever I could. I don't know about using WPA to make an argument, but maybe it's useful when trying to settle one. Both Hamilton and Longoria played on first-place teams and Hamilton seems to have done slightly more to help his team finish in first place.

This time, the conventional Wisdom about the MVP in the American League seems to be actual Wisdom, and I believe that Longoria deserves the No. 2 slot. After that, you can put them pretty much however you like. Nobody's going to remember anyway.

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