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Is Jacoby Ellsbury the leading man? A look at the American League MVP field

11.21.11 at 10:48 am ET
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The American League MVP field is incredibly competitive this year, with strong cases to be made for no fewer than five candidates, all of whom impacted the game in a variety of ways.

The top candidates include a pair of center fielders who combined power and speed to serve as game-changing, multifaceted contributors, a starting pitcher whose season was so great as to put him in position to become potentially the first starter to take home MVP honors in 25 years, when Roger Clemens won Cy Young and MVP honors for the Red Sox in 1986.

There is a traditional middle-of-the-order slugging first baseman, and the single most ferocious hitter in the league, but one who happened to play for a team that was never really in contention.

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Here’s a look at the top five AL MVP candidates (in alphabetical order):

JOSE BAUTISTA, BLUE JAYS, THIRD BASE/RIGHT FIELD

Bautista was no one-hit wonder. For the second straight year, the Blue Jays thumper delivered a monster season. He led the AL with 43 homers and an astonishing 132 walks, the foremost combination of power and patience in the game. Bautista hit .302 with a .447 OBP, an AL-leading .608 slugging mark and 1.056 OPS, continuing a mid-career transformation like few others in recent memory (his two best seasons came at age 29 and 30).

Bautista did fade down the stretch. Through the All-Star break, he had across-the-board video game numbers: .334/.468/.702/1.170 with 31 homers and 65 RBI. In the second half, he was human: .257/.419/.477/.896 with 12 homers and 38 RBI. He will also get knocked down in the eyes of some voters for the fact that he played on a team that went 81-81, landing in fourth place in the AL East.

That seems a bit of a shame, since Bautista is unlikely to get bonus points for an underappreciated element of his game, namely his defensive versatility. The ability of a lineup centerpiece to play multiple positions well (in Bautista’€™s case, right field and third base) is of enormous significance to a team, allowing clubs immense flexibility in constructing their teams. The Sox have been the beneficiaries of the phenomenon in recent years with Kevin Youkilis, and the Rays have had Ben Zobrist to give them all kinds of roster flexibility.

The fact that Bautista has carved out a niche as one of the great mashers in a game, while playing multiple positions, is invaluable when it comes to roster-building.

MIGUEL CABRERA, TIGERS, FIRST BASEMAN

One can make a strong case that the Tigers had not only the best pitcher but also the best pure hitter in the American League. Cabrera led the AL with a .344 average (sneaking the batting title away from Adrian Gonzalez) and .448 OBP while delivering 30 homers, 105 RBI, a .586 slugging mark, a 1.033 OPS and playing in an American League-best 161 games.

Through the end of July, Cabrera was having a very, very good season, hitting .311/.426/.553/.979. Then, over the final two months, he went bananas, hitting .408 with a .491 OBP, .648 slugging mark and 1.139 OPS along with eight homers and 37 RBI in the season’€™s final 53 games. In September, he hit .429/.532/.758/1.290 with six homers and 21 RBI.

Cabrera was no Gold Glover, and he is occupies a position where numerous sluggers reside (in the AL, Adrian Gonzalez and Mark Teixeira come to mind). But Cabrera still separated himself in that category, throwing himself into the mix for the MVP down the stretch.

JACOBY ELLSBURY, RED SOX, CENTER FIELD

You might have heard about Ellsbury’€™s season. Let’€™s see’€¦ Played 158 games (that’€™s 140 more than in 2010), hit .321 with a .376 OBP, .552 slugging mark, .928 OPS, 32 homers, 105 RBI, 39 steals (albeit in 54 attempts), all while playing Gold Glove-winning defense in center field, one of the premium defensive positions on the field. In short, he impacted the game in just about every way imaginable. He was everything that the Red Sox hoped to get when they signed Carl Crawford and so very much more.

He was an All-Star in the first half, when he hit .316/.377/.490/.867 with 11 homers and 28 steals. Then, he kicked into gear with a transcendent second half, hitting .328/.375/.625/1.000 with 21 homers and 56 RBI in the final 69 games of the year, numbers that are simply ridiculous for a leadoff hitter.

And, while the Sox spiraled into Hades in September, Ellsbury’€™s play remained in the clouds. He hit .358/.400/.667/1.067 with eight homers and 21 RBI in the last month of the year.

CURTIS GRANDERSON, YANKEES, CENTER FIELD

In a year when the Yankees endured the absence and/or uneven production of several of their aging core players, Granderson was a force. Despite a modest .262 batting average, he displayed a combination of power (41 homers, .552 slugging, AL-leading 119 RBI), patience (85 walks, .364 OBP, which helped him significantly en route to an MLB-high 136 runs) and speed (25 steals in 35 attempts).

Like Ellsbury, he plays a premium middle-of-the-diamond defensive position, though advanced defensive metrics (UZR, plus/minus) ranked him as a far worse defensive center fielder than Ellsbury.

Moreover, unlike Ellsbury and Cabrera, Granderson did his best work early and then faded down the stretch. He went from .269/.361/.575/.935 with 25 homers before the All-Star break to marks of .254/.368/.523/.892 with 16 homers in the second half. That largely reflected a September in which he hit .205/.300/.375/.675 with three homers, at a time when the Yankees were pulling away from the fading Sox.

Even so, it was Granderson who propped up the Yankees for much of the first five months, and the broader context of his year suggests that he will merit consideration for the award.

JUSTIN VERLANDER, TIGERS, STARTING PITCHER

OK, last year’€™s Cy Young voting, in which Felix Hernandez took home the hardware with a 13-12 record, demonstrated that the baseball world had moved beyond wins and losses as the measure of a pitcher’€™s performance. But it’€™s certainly difficult to look at Verlander’€™s 24-5 record with anything but awe.

He led the American League in wins, ERA (2.40), strikeouts (250), innings (251), starts (34), WHIP (0.92), and ERA+ (170). He pitched more than seven innings 19 times on the year, or one more than the entire Red Sox staff (and, indeed, more than 12 teams). And he was nearly unbeatable down the stretch, going 12-0 with a 2.59 ERA in his last 13 starts as the Tigers pulled away in the AL Central.

He was unquestionably the best pitcher in the American League. The question is whether his amazing season was so outstanding that he could be more valuable than someone who played in about 120 more games than Verlander pitched.

Read More: al mvp, Curtis Granderson, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jose Bautista
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