Accolades aside, can Ells win MVP?

11/21/2011 - MLB Jacoby Ellsbury Boston Red Sox + more

In 2011, Jacoby Ellsbury became the first player in Boston Red Sox history to record 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases in a single season. He was the first AL player to hit .320 during a 30-30 season. Ellsbury even captured a Gold Glove and led the league in total bases.

But will that be enough to bring the MVP award back to Boston when the winner is announced Monday?

Ellsbury looks to become the 12th MVP in Red Sox history, and the first Boston outfielder since Jim Rice in 1978. He'd join Fred Lynn (1975) and Tris Speaker (1912) as the only Boston center fielders to take home the prize.

So can he provide a respite of joy in this tumultuous offseason? The competition is stiff, with no runaway favorite.

Miguel Cabrera led the league in batting average and on-base percentage. His Detroit Tigers teammate Justin Verlander captured the pitching Triple Crown. The Toronto Blue Jays' Jose Bautista led the majors in home runs and OPS. Curtis Granderson of the New York Yankees became just the third player in AL history with 40 home runs and 25 stolen bases.

All make for worthy candidates, but a strong case can be made for Ellsbury. Let's examine some key factors that will impact the voting.

The pro-WAR candidate

According to wins above replacement (WAR), Ellsbury's season wasn't just the best in the AL in 2011 -- it was the best in the past four years.

According to FanGraphs.com, Ellsbury accounted for 9.4 wins more than a replacement level player (think Darnell McDonald) would have provided. Bautista (8.3) had the AL's second-highest WAR, followed by Dustin Pedroia (8.0).

WAR indicates that Ellsbury's season was perhaps more historic than he's given credit for.

Ellsbury's WAR is the highest in the AL since Alex Rodriguez's 2007 campaign (9.8). In fact, in the wild-card era (since 1994), only two AL players have posted a higher single-season WAR: A-Rod (four times) and Ken Griffey Jr. It's worth noting that the two highest WARs in that time -- 10.2 for Griffey in 1996 and 10.0 for Rodriguez in 2002 -- didn't bring home the MVP.

Among AL outfielders, the history is even more eye-opening. Over the past 40 years, only Griffey and Rickey Henderson have had a higher WAR in a season.

The only Red Sox outfielders to post a higher WAR in a single season: Ted Williams (six times), Carl Yastrzemski (twice), Babe Ruth and Tris Speaker. That means no Jim Rice, no Fred Lynn, no Manny Ramirez.

Of course, the reward for having a high WAR is merely the admiration of stat geeks. The MVP isn't just handed to the player with the highest WAR.

Since 2000, the AL position player with the highest WAR has won just four of 11 MVP awards. In each of the past four seasons, the eventual winner did rank in the top two in WAR. However, 2006 shows how little credence the statistic is given among voters. That season, Justin Morneau won the award despite ranking tied for 20th among AL position players.

Will the collapse foil Jacoby?

Ellsbury's biggest obstacle may not be another candidate. Boston's late-season collapse and failure to make the postseason will certainly have a negative impact on his candidacy.

On a team in which the blame fell on nearly everyone, Ellsbury cannot be faulted for the collapse. During Boston's 7-20 September, Ellsbury hit .358 with eight home runs and a 1.067 OPS. Over the final 30 days of the season, his 2.4 WAR was the highest in the AL.

History suggests that merely missing the playoffs can be enough to destroy worthy candidates. Since 1980, only six AL MVPs played on teams that fell short of the postseason. In each of the past three cases, there simply weren't adequate candidates from playoff teams.

When Alex Rodriguez (47 HRs, 118 RBIs, .995 OPS) won the award in 2003, the top vote-getter from a postseason team was Jorge Posada (30 HRs, 101 RBIs, .922 OPS). Similar circumstances surrounded Cal Ripken in 1992 and Robin Yount in 1989.

You have to go back to 1987 to find an instance in which the runner-up made the postseason, while the winner didn't. That's when Jays OF George Bell (.308 BA, 47 HRs, 134 RBIs) beat out Tigers SS Alan Trammell (.343 BA, 28 HRs, 105 RBIs). Interestingly, WAR says Wade Boggs (.363 BA, 24 HRs, 108 RBIs) had by far the best season in the majors that year, but he finished ninth.

Some of the best seasons by a modern AL player fell short of the MVP because of his team's failings.

In 1998, Rodriguez had a 40-40 season at shortstop, while teammate Griffey hit 56 homers with 146 RBIs. Neither finished in the top three or even received a first-place vote.

In 2002, Rodriguez had 57 homers, 142 RBIs and a 1.015 OPS. He also took home the Gold Glove. However, Miguel Tejada won the award with 34 homers, 131 RBIs and an .861 OPS. Tejada played for the 103-win A's, while A-Rod's Rangers finished last in the AL West.

Ellsbury may have the best numbers of the MVP candidates. However, the difference between him and the other candidates may not be enough to overcome his team's failings.

Ellsbury wasn't just on a team that missed the playoffs. The Red Sox suffered a historic collapse.

There is some precedent that supports Ellsbury's case. Just look at Boston's previous most famous collapse.

Rice won the 1978 AL MVP despite Boston's blowing a nine-game August lead. With 46 home runs and 139 RBIs, Rice was certainly deserving of the award. Like Ellsbury, he starred down the stretch, hitting 22 home runs in the final 60 games of the season.

Oddly enough, given Verlander's current MVP candidacy, Rice was the beneficiary of bias against pitchers winning the award. The runner-up that year was Ron Guidry, who finished 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA.

The Verlander wrinkle

It's easy to compare the accomplishments and impact of position players. But what happens when a pitcher enters the fray?

It's been 25 years since a starting pitcher won the MVP in either league. In 1986, Roger Clemens grabbed the honor with 19 of 28 first-place votes, beating out Rice and Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly.

Could Verlander end that drought for starters? His numbers are strikingly similar to those of the Rocket in '86.

Clemens finished 24-4 with a 2.48 ERA and 238 strikeouts on a 95-66 team. Verlander finished 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA and 250 strikeouts on a 95-67 team.

Verlander's numbers are unquestionably impressive, and he already took home the AL Cy Young award. But can someone who doesn't play in four out of five games really be the MVP?

That's been a heated debate among voters, particularly since the Cy Young Award was introduced in 1956. In the 25 years before that award existed, 11 pitchers won MVP. In the 55 years since, only nine have won.

The last AL pitcher to even finish in the top five was Pedro Martinez in 2000. At 18-6 with a 1.74 ERA, it goes down as one of the greatest seasons by a modern pitcher. His plus-291 adjusted ERA+ is the best for any pitcher since 1900. But in 2000, Martinez didn't even garner a first-place vote.

Starting Pitchers to Win MVP Past 50 Seasons

It was the previous year when it truly appeared Martinez would be the first starter since Clemens to win MVP. At 23-4 with a 2.07 ERA and 313 strikeouts, his numbers were almost incomprehensible in that high-scoring era. Martinez received the most first-place votes in 1999, but finished second to Ivan Rodriguez. Pedro would have won the award had two writers not left him off their ballots altogether.

By comparison and factoring in the era, Verlander's 2011 campaign hardly measures up to those two seasons from Martinez. However, voters' failure with Martinez shouldn't be held against Verlander if he's deemed worthy.

It's hard to ignore that Verlander went 22-2 with a 2.08 ERA in his final 27 starts of the season.

Ironically, the last three Tigers to win the award were pitchers: Willie Hernandez (1984), Denny McLain (1968) and Hal Newhouser (1944-45). The last Detroit position player to win was Hank Greenberg in 1940.

Does defense matter?

Ellsbury's defense helps explain his high WAR, and should set him apart from the other worthy candidates. Like Pedroia in 2008, Ellsbury capped a great offensive season with a Gold Glove award.

Meanwhile, Cabrera and Bautista were both below-average defensive players at less challenging positions. Granderson's defense should (but won't) eliminate him from any real consideration. He was the second-worst outfielder in the majors according to defensive runs saved, ahead of only 40-year-old Raul Ibanez.

Defense is often overlooked in the MVP voting, and sometimes outright ignored. Tejada was statistically one of the worst shortstops in the game when he won the award in 2002.

Certainly, no one wins the award because of their defense. Omar Vizquel will one day garner strong Hall of Fame consideration courtesy of 11 Gold Gloves. He received MVP votes only once in his career, a 16th-place finish in 1999. Arguably, the last AL MVP for whom defense played a decisive role was Ichiro Suzuki in 2001.

.320 BA, 30 HR, 30 SB and Gold Glove, Single Season

Of course, the Gold Glove itself is subjective. Though Ellsbury had the highest UZR among AL center fielders, he finished sixth in defensive runs saved. A very good case could have been made for either Austin Jackson or Peter Bourjos for the Gold Glove.

If Ellsbury wins the MVP award, it will be because of his offensive impact, though certainly the defense will help. Entering this season, there had been only three players who hit .320 with 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases while winning a Gold Glove: Willie Mays (1957), Larry Walker (1997) and David Wright (2007).

In 2011, both Ellsbury and Matt Kemp pulled it off, and each could take home MVP awards. However, of the previous three, only Walker won the MVP. Mays finished fourth in the voting, hindered by the Giants' 69-85 finish. That was the year Hank Aaron, despite having a lower OPS than Mays, won his lone MVP while leading the Braves to the World Series.

Once again, a worthy candidate undone by a failed team.

Jeremy Lundblad is a senior researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.