Saturday, August 16, 2008

Zen Dayley: AL MVP — the Morneau you know, the less you understand

The first impulse is to write that Justin Morneau could win the American League MVP award twice when he shouldn't have won it once.

It figures this would only come up once Morneau was in cooldown mode, mired in a 4-for-30 skid (can you ever be mired in something good, like an unending string of 80-degree days, a packed social calendar and free greens fees?). One New York City writer earlier this week used the Twins' Canadian slugger and Chicago's Carlos Quentin as a wedge when he took an ax to some of the sportswriters' totems about MVP voting.

It's understandable why baseball writers often go for the great RBI man on a playoff team. As with all journalists, it's easier when someone provides a good thumbnail sketch. This guy drove in a lot of runs in the heat of a playoff race. No one else need apply, unless of course you're Jimmy Rollins in 2007 and your team's fence-buster, Ryan Howard, was MVP the previous season. You don't play a corner position? You had a lot to do with your team's RBI leader getting so many opportunities to drive in runners? Your skill set is more across-the-board rather than being concentrated in one area of the game, like RBI or saves? Thank you, come again.

The columnist's argument was that by that tried-and-true criteria, it can only be Morneau or Quentin. They're as close in RBI (94-92 for the pride of New Westminster) as their teams are in the AL Central (tied). Meantime, while this will come off like more Massholiography, the campaign is underway for the Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis. Youk ... Youk!!!

The hell of it all is that is that Youkilis, whom The Tao of Stieb contends might be the most "detestable player in baseball," has a case.

Massholiography (the combination of Masshole and hagiography) is new made-up word to describe the process whereby Boston fans embellish the contributions of any player who's white, hard-working (quote, unquote) and a relatively modest physical specimen. One of its synonyms is "Welkerification," was workshopped but was poorly received. David Ortiz is having an off-season, Manny Ramírez was traded and most Sox fans would prefer to deny that J.D. Drew carried them for a couple months this season, so it's gotta be Youk. Yoooouk!

Youkilis is third in the AL in OPS, although he benefits from righty-friendly Fenway Park, where he's about 100 points more productive than he is on the road. Morneau, in contrast, loses a few points on his numbers while playing in the Metrodome in Minnesota, which is playing as a pitcher-friendly park. It's hard to hit in a place that's danker than a failing tavern.

Youkilis (update: note that he wasn't in the lineup vs. Roy Halladay tonight?) ranks favourably in stathead metrics such as Adjusting Batting Runs and Offensive Winning Percentage. He's also got a bit of a halo effect that can be used to override the fact that he's not a big-time home-run hitter at a power position, first base, since he's an atypical first baseman. He won the Gold Glove last season and spells off Mike Lowell at third base when needed, so ipso facto, he doesn't need to have 40 homers and 135 RBI.

The odd part is, the longer he's been at first base, the more Youkilis has started to take on the characteristics of the position. He never reached double figures in home runs in the minors, but he has 22 already this season. He earns fewer bases on balls than he once did. The fielding stats say he's living off his reputation, although most baseball people won't give that a first glance, let alone a second.

The Morneau argument would probably claim that the runs he creates matter more since the Twins are an offensively-challenged team, lacking home-run clout (second-last in the league) and not loaded with pitching. It is true that his numbers come in a pitcher-friendly home stadium (about a run less per game is scored at the Metrodome than at Fenway, 8.94 to 9.95 through Friday) which shaves points off his averages. Overall, though, fewer runs are scored in Red Sox games than in Twins' games, although it's unclear how much this is dictated by each team's pitching and the quality of its opponents.

(The unbalanced schedule in baseball plays hell with park effects. It would really take someone such as Nate Silver or Voros McCracken to do the heavy lifting and factor in the strength of each team's pitching and its schedule.)

Youkilis' chances might seem dubious, especially since there probably is the same kind of resentment toward the Red Sox that there was toward the Yankees in the late '90s (Derek Jeter probably should have been MVP in 1999, but wasn't anywhere close in the voting). The upshot is, though, that if you set aside the crazy numbers Milton Bradley and Josh Hamilton are putting up in a hitters' haven in Texas (on average, more than 12 runs are scored in a Rangers home game), who is there, really?

It's looking quite likely this will be a split vote, where the MVP will be someone whom most of the sportswriters didn't think was the best player in the AL. It's a weird season, maybe weird enough that a closer such as Francisco Rodríguez could win (although closer should never, ever get MVP votes; it would be like the NFL giving the MVP award to a kick returner).

Ultimately, one could root for Morneau out of shallow, patriotic reasons as a more ego-flattering alternative to rooting against Kevin Youkilis out of shallow, Red Sox-resenting reasons. A whiff of Pukilis, or sniffing Morneau glories. Tough call.


  • Yours truly has a piece up at, which might become a semi-regular thing.
  • John Brattain says the Jays could still make a playoff run, but picking up Richie Sexson to play first base vs. left-handers would be required.

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