Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 5, 1999
BASEBALL: My 1999 AL MVP Ballot
This is an email I sent to friends on October 5, 1999, reformatted for publication
The AL MVP race, to my mind, is one of the easiest in memory. There are many fine hitters, including several who play key defensive positions, but no one of them towers over the others. The one irreplaceable commodity in the American League this season was Pedro Martinez.
Pedro: 23-4 .852
There you have it -- the rest of the Red Sox weren't good enough to catch the wild card, and were only slightly over .500 without him. Take out Pedro and Gil Heredia -- an average pitcher, close to the league average in ERA, who was in the A's rotation all year -- and the race is too close to call. I thought last year that Martinez meant more to his team than any other player, and last year was an off season next to this one. I mean, look at the Red Sox, seriously -- they're basically the late-50s Cubs, one great shortstop and a whole lot of nothing else special. Want Nomar as your MVP? Explain why Pat Rapp, with an ERA half a run below the league, went 6-7. Why Brian Rose, with exactly the league ERA, went 7-6. Why Bret Saberhagen, with a 2.95 ERA, had a lower winning percentage than David Wells (4.82 ERA), Orlando Hernandez (4.12 ERA), Freddy Garcia (4.07 ERA) or Gil Meche (4.73 ERA). Remember how well the Sox played while Martinez was on the DL? Not.
Pedro: 2.08 ERA
Just try to tell me any AL hitter dominates like that -- probably the most lopsided major category is RBI, and Manny Ramirez led that by 17, or 11.5% over the number two guy. Cone's ERA, the major measure of a pitcher, is 65% higher than Pedro's (Granted that Saberhagen and Tim Hudson didn't qualify). He led in wins by 27.8%, strikeouts by 56.5%, winning percentage (among those with 15 decisions) by almost 9% over a guy whose team scored 6.2 runs per game. How the hell do you beat a guy with 312 K and 37 BB? Hope the catcher drops a lot of third strikes? He did this while laboring in hitter-friendly Fenway -- his ERA on the road was 1.88.
Martinez had the 32nd season in which a pitcher had an ERA less than half the league. He became the sixth to do it twice, joining Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux (Johnson accomplished the feat an astonishing four times, the others twice each). As a percentage of the league, his ERA ranked ninth all time. Here's the top 10:
[I'll compile the full list if somebody wants it] So Pedro only pitched 213.1 innings, not near the totals of starters to win the MVP award in the past. That still means he faced over 800 batters -- far more plate appearances than any everyday player. The award shouldn't go to a starter who had a very good year if the best everyday player had a great one, but a completely dominant pitcher in a season where good pitching is so hard to find is obviously the most valuable player to his team.
The others? Well, clearly the best hitter in the AL was Manny Ramirez. Ramirez drove in the most runs since the 1930s, was a close fourth in runs scored, led the league in slugging by 33 points, and was a close second in on base percentage and fifth in batting average. Ramirez does deserve substantial credit for his RBI, though of course he had tremendous opportunities. But he does have two big negatives: he's an awful fielder, and he missed 15 games including a suspension. He also may have cost the Indians a game by failing to read the lineup card, resulting in Charles Nagy having to bat for himself. He hit better early in the season, but is that a negative? Hey, who are we kidding? For Cleveland, April and May are the most important months because that's when you bury the rest of the division. He's still a serious candidate, but the negatives are enough that I could justify rating another player higher if they had non-batting positives.
Rafael Palmiero, the second-best hitter in the league, didn't miss as much time but he's a DH -- the difference is negligible. Palmiero rates behind Manny. Nomar Garciaparra was a comparable hitter and plays a great shortstop, but Nomar missed 27 games, plus he hit 40 points higher at Fenway than on the road (Ramirez did not apparently benefit from hitting at the Jake) so you have to discount his stats just a bit. Pudge is a great catcher and plays more games than most catchers, but he still missed 18 games, and with just 24 walks his on-base percentage was barely above the league average. People think his baserunning is valuable but he was caught stealing 12 times, so you have to wonder.
On the subject of Pudge:
Player A: Ivan Rodriguez, 1999, having a career year
And Piazza has done that in Dodger Stadium and Shea, both tough pitchers parks. If the voters give Pudge the award after all those screwings of Piazza, based solely on Rodriguez' throwing arm (yeah, you know how dependent most AL offenses are on the stolen base these days) it will be a serious injustice.
There is just one player other than Martinez that I'd have to rate higher than Manny -- Derek Jeter. Jeter played in all but 4 of the Yankees' games, scored more runs than Ramirez with almost as high an OBP, had enough power that he matched Ramirez in total bases, helped hold together a Yankee team that listed at times from age and pitching slumps (and that beat the crap out of Manny's Tribe head-to-head), had a higher batting average, led the league in hits, and played a fine shortstop compared to Ramirez' awful outfield. It's close, but I'd rather have Jeter. Roberto Alomar gets credit from people because he improved the Indians, and he was certainly an offensive force, plus he made fewer errors at 2B than Ramirez did in the outfield. But Alomar trails Jeter in all relevant categories except steals, and the power disparity with Ramirez is huge. I'd put him narrowly behind both Ramirez and Jeter.
Here's how I'd rate the candidates: