Braun, Fielder each have shot at NL MVP

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Tom Haudricourt, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
— What makes a most valuable player most valuable?

That argument arises nearly every year when the Baseball Writers Association of America announces its MVP awards in the respective leagues. The debate is sure to catch fire again today when the National League MVP Award is announced.

The general consensus is that the top three candidates are the Milwaukee Brewers’ Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Matt Kemp.

Though the offensive production of those three players was fairly even, Kemp produced the best numbers across the board, ranking first in four categories and second in four others.

Kemp was the recipient of the Hank Aaron Award in the NL, a formula-based honor given annually by MLB to the top offensive performers in each league. But voting members of the BBWAA often take into consideration how a candidate’s team fared, interpreting “most valuable” to mean the player served a key role in pushing his club toward the postseason.

And that’s where the fortunes of the Brewers and Dodgers diverged. Milwaukee won a franchise-record 96 games and captured its first NL Central crown, finishing six games ahead of St. Louis. Los Angeles finished third in the NL West with 82 victories, 11½ games behind Arizona.

The BBWAA ballot does not say a player’s team must be a playoff contender for him to be considered for MVP. In fact, instructions are somewhat vague: “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.”

In recent years, playing for a contender has been an obvious consideration. Since 2000, only one AL MVP came from a non-playoff team.

Texas finished fourth in 2003 with a 71-91 record, 25 games out of first place, but Alex

Rodriguez claimed the award by socking 47 homers, driving in 118 runs, scoring 124 times and compiling a .600 slugging percentage.

NL voting over that period was a bit more uneven. Four of the past 11 winners did not play on postseason teams—St. Louis’ Albert Pujols in 2008, Philadelphia’s Ryan Howard in 2006 and San Francisco’s Barry Bonds in 2001 and 2004.

The Giants were contenders in ‘01 and ‘04, however, finishing two games out each season. Bonds won four years in a row from 2001-’04, mainly by accumulating spectacular offensive numbers, though their validity has since been questioned by suspected steroid use.

Philadelphia finished second, 12 games out, in 2006, but first baseman Ryan Howard claimed MVP honors by blowing away the competition with 58 home runs, 149 RBIs, 383 total bases and a 1.084 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage).

Kemp would like a repeat of 2008, when Pujols won despite the Cardinals finishing in fourth place, 11½ games out. Pujols batted .357 with 37 home runs and 116 RBIs that season, comfortably topping Howard, who batted .251 with 48 homers and 146 RBIs for the first-place Phillies. The 100-point difference in batting average proved key for Pujols.

Braun and Fielder can only hope that the Brewers’ strong showing made them more attractive than Kemp in the eyes of voters.

“It’ll be interesting,” said Braun, who batted .332 with 33 home runs, 111 RBIs, 109 runs, 33 stolen bases and a league-leading .597 slugging percentage. “Playing for a team that went to the postseason should count for something, I think.

“Every team wants to win as many games as possible. The goal of every player is to have a good year, help your team be relevant at the end of the season and hopefully make the playoffs.

“Matt Kemp had a phenomenal year. But, from what I’ve heard, there’s no specific criteria for what you base your votes on. I’m glad I didn’t have to vote because there are multiple candidates deserving of the award. You can make an argument for a number of players. I’m just happy to be in that conversation.”

Kemp finished first in the NL with 39 homers, 126 RBIs, 353 total bases and 115 runs while also batting .324 with a .586 slugging percentage and 40 stolen bases. He and Braun were the only 30/30 (homers, steals) players in the league.

Batting behind Braun in the middle of the Brewers’ batting order, Fielder hit .299 with 38 home runs, 120 RBI, a .415 on-base percentage, .566 slugging percentage and 107 walks. He was the only player in the majors to play in all 162 games.

Because their numbers were equally impressive, it wasn’t easy to separate Braun and Fielder in terms of team MVP, much less league MVP. Some folks speculated that Braun and Fielder would take votes away from each other, paving the way for Kemp to win the award.

It certainly didn’t hurt Braun that he hit the decisive three-run home run against Florida the night the Brewers claimed their first NL Central crown. A few days later, he was named the NL player of the month for September. Stepping forward in the heat of a pennant race can make a difference if balloting is close.

Ballots were due before the postseason began and, unlike the other BBWAA awards, included 10 names instead of three. How voters align their ballots can be critical in a tight race because they are weighted with 10 points for first place, nine for second and so on. Two writers in each city vote, so 32 ballots were cast in the NL.

In past years, the BBWAA awards were announced beginning the week after the World Series. This year, the announcements were pushed back a week, making the wait for the MVP awards a bit agonizing for the top candidates.

“It’s crazy that it takes this long to find out, isn’t it?” said Braun.

Last updated: 6:52 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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