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Friday, November 18, 2011

The (MVP) Case for Ellsbury

As the Red Sox managerial search continues, the American League MVP race has been largely pushed to the back-burner in New England. But now seems an appropriate time as any to put in a last good word for Jacoby Ellsbury before the decision of media voters is announced next Monday.

According to the experts, the AL MVP is likely going to be one of three front-runners: Ellsbury, Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista, and Tigers ace Justin Verlander. Since Verlander already (and appropriately) copped the Cy Young Award in a unanimous vote this week, his stock has risen. But so has the discussion about whether pitchers should even be eligible for the MVP, or if it should be reserved for everyday players.

The way I look at it, the pitchers have their award, and the non-pitchers should have dibs on this one. Maybe they should just rename the Cy Young the "Most Valuable Pitcher Award," to help voters understand this logic. But for now, at least, Verlander and his 23-5 record are very much in the mix.

This brings us to Bautista and Ellsbury. While there is no mistaking that Bautista has had another outstanding power year -- his 43 home runs led the league, as did his .608 slugging percentage and 1.056 OPS -- he doesn't compare to Ellsbury as an outfielder or all-around player. Ellsbury won his first Gold Glove Award with a Fred Lynn-esque year in center, and while much was made of his near-miss in one of the season's final critical games at Baltimore (here it is in case you forgot: http://mlb.mlb.com/video/play.jsp?content_id=19704805&topic_id=&c_id=mlb&tcid=vpp_copy_19704805&v=3), the fact is that most outfeilders would never even have gotten their glove on the ball, nonetheless held on as they smashed against the fence. Bautista? No chance.

As for the "MVPs make those plays" talk, well, it's true that they often do. But MVPs also hit game-winning 14th-inning home runs in the heat of the pennant race, as Ellsbury did against the Yankees in the waning days of the Red Sox collapse. In fact, one can make the argument that no Boston player did more to prevent the September swoon than Ellsbury -- who hit  .358 in September with 8 homers, 11 doubles, and a 1.067 OBP.  Batusita hit .259 in September, but nobody really cared about that since the Blue Jays weren't even in the playoff hunt.

Yes, the Red Sox blew it. But when you combine defense, offense, speed, athleticism, and general excitement, there was no better player on an everyday basis in the American League this year than Jacoby Ellsbury. He was a threat to steal every time he got on base, and certainly would have swiped far more than 35 bags in another lineup (he had 50 and 70 in 2008-09). The impact this had on pitchers can't be measured; Bautista (9 steals) made no hurlers nervous once the bat was out of his hands.

Many times they never let Jose swing it anyway, as he was walked a league-best 132 times. Even so, Ellsbury scored more runs than Bautista (119 to 105) while igniting the Red Sox offense from the top of the lineup. In fact, Ellsbury's own power numbers (32 homers, 105 RBI) were among the best ever garnered by a lead-off man. For an apt comparison, see Nomar Garciaparra, circa 1997.

Voters may not be able to get past the historical Boston collapse, but they should. Ellsbury did his best to prevent it, and when you throw in the fact he lost almost the entire 2010 season to injury, and was batting leadoff, there was no more impressive performance by an American Leaguer this season. Bautista was this year's George Bell, another Jays slugger whose 1987 MVP year is largely forgotten today. Nobody is going to forget Ellsbury's breakout season anytime soon.

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