Breaking down the AL MVP race

Updated: August 20, 2011, 2:51 PM ET
By Keith Law

When it comes to the MVP award, I prefer to set aside my scouting hat and focus just on performance measurement -- and we have plenty of tools available to help guide us to the right answer to the question: "Who produced the most value for his team this year?" And the stat that best gets at that question, in my opinion, is Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Here's a table of the top candidates for the American League MVP award, showing their WAR totals to date using two methods, one from FanGraphs (fWAR) and one from Baseball-Reference (rWAR). I typically keep both sites open in browser tabs from the moment I turn on the computer in the morning until I shut it off at night.

The various types of WAR calculations share a common goal: to measure each player's individual value as accurately as possible. For a position player, that means totaling up the value of everything he produced as a hitter (and the value he destroyed every time he made an out); plus the value he produced or destroyed on the bases; plus the value he produced or destroyed on defense. For a pitcher, it means adding up the value of the outs he generated and subtracting the value of the hits and walks he allowed; it may also mean adjusting the value of the balls he allowed into play to try to back out any help received from his defense. In all contexts, the statistics should be adjusted for ballpark, although they're not adjusted to reflect the unbalanced schedules big leaguers face.

The defensive numbers bundled into WAR are somewhat controversial, of course, in part because they're new, in part because they're opaque, and more than anything else because there are multiple stats purporting to measure the same thing but give us different results. I respect the statistics even with their limitations, because when we're trying to get a reasonable measurement of defensive value, these statistics are better than a scout's eyes in a small sample of games, which is in turn better than a divining rod, which is in turn better than fielding percentage, which is the worst thing to happen to baseball since Bowie Kuhn finished trying to run the game into the ground.

With all of that in mind, here's a rundown of the leading candidates, including some more qualitative arguments about their cases, starting with the obvious -- or should-be-obvious -- MVP to date.