In 17 years of covering Major League Baseball, most of them as a full-fledged beat reporter and a few as a frequently utilized backup, I have borne witness to just one Most Valuable Player season. I went into Tuesday fairly convinced it was about to become two before Matt Kemp ultimately fell short, losing out to Milwaukee's Ryan Braun by 56 points, but it got me thinking about what really constitutes an MVP performance.
The memory not quite what it used to be, I went online to look up the numbers from that long-ago, and all-but-forgotten, MVP that I covered. That player, a power-hitting outfielder, played for a team that finished an eyelash above .500 and in third place in the National League West. He also won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger that year. He played with a flair, a certain charisma, that made him beloved by his fans, belying a relationship with the media that wasn't always warm and fuzzy. And he had become a serious baseball player relatively late in life, his first love having been another sport.
So what was so different about Larry Walker, the frustrated hockey player who in 1997 hit .366 with 49 home runs, 130 RBIs and a league-leading .452 on-base percentage for the Colorado Rockies in one of baseball's most hitter-friendly ballparks, and Matt Kemp, who in 2011 hit .324 with league-leading totals of 39 homers, 126 RBIs and a .399 OBP for the Dodgers in what is undeniably, at least in the vast majority of games that are played at night there, a ballpark that favors pitchers over hitters?
It is a question that really can be answered only by the 32 voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, of which your humble correspondent wasn't one this year. But as best I can recall, Walker's aggregate numbers far surpassed everyone else's that year, and while his home-road splits were typically glaring, they were even enough -- he hit 29 of his 49 homers on the road -- to mitigate the fact he played at Coors Field.
The difference for Kemp was that while he put up a season for the ages -- one that earned him an eight-year, $160 million contract extension and one he may be hard-pressed to duplicate -- he didn't blow away the competition. Kemp's complete package of offensive numbers simply wasn't so much better than those of Braun to offset the fact Braun's Brewers reached the playoffs while Kemp's Dodgers never came close. And that, ultimately, may have been the deciding factor here.
On the other hand, it is worth noting Walker's MVP season came when he was part of the Rockies' famed Blake Street Bombers, the middle of their lineup consisting of one masher after another. Typically, Dante Bichette would bat third, Andres Galarraga (who led the NL in RBIs that season with 140) fourth, Walker fifth and Vinny Castilla sixth, and the park they played in only enhanced their legend. In short, Walker was never lacking for protection in the lineup, nor was he ever short on RBI opportunities.
For the Dodgers, this year, it was pretty much Kemp and pray for rain. And that might be the most impressive thing about his performance.
Oh, a case can be made that the All-Star break acquisition of Juan Rivera provided Kemp with some protection. But Kemp's 24 intentional walks were split evenly before and after Rivera's arrival, so that's a tough sell. Andre Ethier, who typically hit just ahead of Kemp in the three hole, had an off year, which surely affected Kemp's RBI chances even in a year when Kemp led the league in that category. James Loney, who had by far the most games hitting behind Kemp, also was subpar for most of the year, limiting Kemp's protection.
For those of us who take the words Most Valuable Player literally -- meaning those who subscribe to the notion the award goes not necessarily to the best player but to the most valuable player, even though in many years they are one and the same -- the question has to be asked: Where would the Dodgers have been without Kemp? If you put any stock in WAR, that newfangled stat that is supposed to measure how many wins a player is worth to his team, they would have been 72-89 instead of 82-79. Hard to be much more valuable than that.
But the flip side of that argument is that if the Dodgers missed the playoffs, Kemp couldn't have been that much more valuable than any other player in the league, especially if his numbers are similar to those of a player like Braun whose team won its division.
The last Dodger to win the MVP award was Kirk Gibson in 1988 -- the same man who, coincidentally, was named this year's NL Manager of the Year. Gibson, to me, has always epitomized what the MVP means. His numbers that year were well short of earth-shattering -- he hit .290 with 25 homers and 76 RBIs and didn't lead the league in anything -- but the Dodgers won a division title that year that no one in his right mind could even begin to claim they would have won without Gibson, whose take-no-prisoners mindset completely changed the culture of the Dodgers' clubhouse when he arrived just before that season. (They also won a World Series largely on the strength of Gibson's famous home run, but that is irrelevant to the MVP debate because the ballots must be submitted before the playoffs begin).
To that end, I was surprised Justin Upton, the right fielder and most important offensive player for Gibson's Arizona Diamondbacks this year as they rolled to an unlikely NL West title, received just one first-place vote for MVP. Had I been an MVP voter this year, I would have strongly considered Upton despite the fact his .289 average, 31 homers and 88 RBIs didn't come close to matching up with the numbers Kemp and Braun put up. The fact is, when you're talking about a valuable player, it is difficult to imagine anyone was more important to his team than Upton was to the Diamondbacks. The Brewers, after all, had Prince Fielder to complement Braun, and Kemp ultimately didn't lead the Dodgers anywhere.
In the end, though, what really matters to the Dodgers isn't that Kemp didn't bring home the MVP. As he himself said, there will be plenty more chances for that. What mattered most was that Kemp, whose 2010 season had been a true test of character and ultimately may have been the springboard for what happened in '11, has become the player team officials, fans and those of us who chronicle this team on a daily basis always felt he could be.
Not that we necessarily felt he would be. Just that he could be, if he ever got things together.
Kemp clearly has it all together now. He spent six months proving it to the world, and maybe even a little to himself as well. He got his hardware, winning another Gold Glove and Silver Slugger even if he didn't bring home the big one. But when his long career is over, it won't be about hardware. It will be about his overall body of work. And if he continues to produce over the next several years at the level he did in 2011, we can all point back one day and say we were fortunate enough to witness that watershed season that gave rise to what is potentially a Hall of Fame career.
By that time, Kemp might have a whole shelf full of MVP awards.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.