TORONTO - The American League has a number of worthy MVP candidates likely to garner consideration, but the real race is between two players whose teams did not make the playoffs -- Jose Bautista and Jacoby Ellsbury.
But before anything else, to clear up any confusion over the definition of the MVP, here is what the Baseball Writers' Association of America says on its official website:
"There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier."
With that out of the way, here is what someone without a vote has to say about this year's MVP candidates.
Last season, out of nowhere, Bautista took the baseball world by storm after hitting a major league-leading 54 home runs. Some thought it was a fluke, and some thought the Blue Jays made a risky investment by locking him up for five years at $65 million after one good season. Well, he has proved both of those parties wrong, and has had an even more impressive season despite hitting "only' 43 home runs, also the major league lead.
Bautista finishes the season as the major league-leader in homers, walks (132), slugging (.608), on-base plus slugging (1.056) and at-bats-per-home run ratio (11.9), while finishing second in on-base percentage (.447). Among AL players, he finished in the top-10 in RBI (103), runs scored (105), walk-to- strikeout ratio (1.19) and total bases (312). The slugger also hit .302 after hitting a pedestrian .260 in 2010. And for the sabermetric crowd, according to baseball-reference.com, Bautista was worth 8.6 wins above replacement (WAR), which is a tool that encompasses offense and defense into a single number to represent how many wins a player adds to his team compared to a replacement- level player.
It's hard to argue that Bautista hasn't been the best player in the AL this season, at least from an offensive standpoint. He has gone from a journeyman to a power hitter to a superstar in two years, and is an extremely disciplined hitter (132 walks to 111 strikeouts). He's also been valuable defensively, as he's shifted from right field to third base and back seamlessly, and flashes one of the games best arms from right field.
With that said, will Bautista's gaudy power numbers be enough to topple Ellsbury for the MVP Award?
Like Bautista, Ellsbury's jump in statistical production is thoroughly impressive, as is his bounce back from a 2010 season that was almost entirely wiped out -- he played 18 games last year. In the only two full seasons he played before 2011, Ellsbury had never hit more than nine homers, driven in more than 60 runs and his single-season career highs in slugging and OPS were .415 and .770 respectively. He was a good hitter, with plus speed who played a superb center field. But this year, he has added power.
The Red Sox's dynamic center fielder had 32 home runs, 105 RBI, a .552 slugging percentage and an OPS of .928. He's still running (39 stolen bases), hitting for average (.321) and playing great defense at one of the game's premier positions. And now, he's one of the games premier players, who does everything.
Ellsbury was the best player on a star-studded Red Sox team, and flashed the best combination of power and speed in the AL this year. The 28-year-old was the only player in the majors this season to hit at least .300 with 200 hits, 100 runs scored, 30 homers, 100 RBI and 30 stolen bases. He's also the first player since Alfonso Soriano and Vladimir Guerrero, in 2002, to accomplish the feat.
The fact Ellsbury didn't lead in as many offensive categories as Bautista shouldn't hurt his MVP bid. This award doesn't go to the player who leads in the most meaningful offensive categories, although it helps, and isn't handed to the player with the highest WAR. Ellsbury did however, lead the majors in total bases (364) and extra-base hits (83), and finished with the second highest WAR (7.2) among position players in the AL.
He was among the top-five leaders in the AL in hits (212), batting average, OPS, runs scored (119), doubles (46), home runs and stolen bases. Ellsbury was also a top-10 leader in RBI and slugging percentage. Like Bautista, Ellsbury did a lot of everything and played some of his best ball of the season when the Red Sox needed him most. In the end, it didn't matter, as the Red Sox, like the Blue Jays, won't be playing baseball again until 2012. And Ellsbury shouldn't win this award based on the highlights that he provided in September, but he should win the award for his across-the-board-production throughout the entire season.
Bautista came back down to earth after an otherworldly first half of the season. His second half wasn't anything to sneeze at, but his slugging percentage and OPS were over 200 points lower post All-Star Game, largely due to a rough September.
Ellsbury did the opposite, and had a massive second half, hitting .328/.375/.625 with 21 homers and 56 RBI, including a .358/.400/.667 line with eight homers and 21 RBI in September. What's even more remarkable about Ellsbury's season is that he's a leadoff hitter. He set the pace for the Red Sox game in, game out, and provided more power than just about any middle-of- the-order bat in the game, while still acting like a true leadoff hitter -- he had the second best OBP (.381) when hitting out of the leadoff spot among players who took more than half their at-bats in the top spot of the order.
From start to finish, there wasn't a better or more dynamic player in the AL than Ellsbury. If this award was handed out in the first half, Bautista would have won in a landslide, and the fact that he should finish as the runner-up, only solidifies the type of season he had. Bautista has truly become one of the game's most feared hitters, the AL version of Albert Pujols.
Traditional and advanced statistics might show that Bautista was the most impressive offensive player in the AL this season, but just like last year, it won't be enough for him to win the award.
Jacoby Ellsbury is your 2011 AL MVP.
Honorable mention goes out to former teammates Curtis Granderson and Justin Verlander, who are both likely to get first-place votes as well.