By Joe Christensen
I’ve been wrestling with this question off-and-on for weeks.
I had a Cy Young vote, not an MVP vote, so I didn’t go through the long process of picking my top 10 AL MVP choices. But I was asked about the MVP award several times in September, on XM radio, and by various writers who were honing their own ballots.
(BBWAA members are advised not to reveal our official ballots until after the awards are announced in early November. So check back then to see my top 3 AL Cy Young picks.)
Originally, I thought Morneau sealed the Twins’ MVP award on Sept. 13, when he played first base in both ends of a doubleheader at Baltimore. It was a hot, muggy night, and Morneau had gone 4-for-5 with two doubles, a walk and two RBI in Game 1.
Manager Ron Gardenhire planned to have Morneau DH in Game 2, but Morneau insisted on playing first base again and delivered a two-run single in the first inning that helped finish the doubleheader sweep.
That night, I wrote a postgame blog about two impressive base running plays Morneau made in Game 2. I was struck by his resilience.
“I had the option to DH, but I wanted to go out there and show everybody you’ve gotta play hard,” he said. “If we don’t get into the playoffs, there will be plenty of time off, so grind it out as much as we can.
“We’ve gotta get in. If that means I play first every game, so be it. If that’s the best lineup we can put on the field, I’ll run out there until I can’t run any more.”
Well, we all know how the season ended. After Sept. 13, Morneau finished on a 10-for-59 slide. In those 15 games, he notched just three extra base hits (all doubles) and five RBI. Gardenhire said Morneau was banged up, but the big slugger refused to make excuses, and the Twins wound up losing a one-game playoff to Chicago.
Morneau Avg. OBP SLG
Through 9/13 .314 .387 .528
Season totals .300 .374 .499
Meanwhile, as Morneau stumbled down the stretch, Mauer continued to flourish as he wrapped up his second AL batting title.
Mauer Avg. OBP SLG
Through 8/25 .318 .412 .445
Season totals .328 .413 .451
So, factoring in the finish, who was the team’s MVP? Let’s review the three main criteria the BBWAA lists for league MVP selections.
1. Actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense
2. Number of games played
3. General character, disposition, loyalty and effort
Going in reverse order, I’ll start by saying No. 3 is practically a wash. Mauer and Morneau both have tremendous character. *Both lead by example. They’re all about winning. They love being Twins, and they push themselves to their limits.
(* I’d give a slight leadership edge to Morneau for the way he handled the media, getting to his locker, win or lose, as a team captain would. Not saying Mauer ducks the media, but if you need a quote from him, you usually have to wait through his strict training room regimen. That’s true whether Mauer gets the game-winning hit or grounds out to end the game.)
Number of games played
Morneau and Seattle’s Raul Ibanez were the only MLB players to start all their team’s games. To me, the importance of this can’t be overstated. Baseball-Reference.com has a wonderful feature called Stat of the Day, and it recently noted that Morneau was the first player since 1956 to bat cleanup in 163 games. Only six others had batted cleanup in 162.
When the Twins take Mauer or Morneau out of the lineup, they have a huge hole. Mauer plays the most demanding position. But Morneau never missed a game, and that helps ease pressure on other hitters, knowing they’ve got a big run producer in the cleanup spot.
A closer look at Mauer’s playing time shows he ranked with the top catchers, however. Here are the major league leaders in innings caught, according to The Hardball Times:
1) Jason Kendall 1,328
2) Russell Martin 1,238
3) Kurt Suzuki 1,215
4) Joe Mauer 1,203
5) Geovany Soto 1,150
6) Brian McCann 1,143
7) A.J. Pierzynski 1,134
Morneau played 1,363 innings at first base. Eight of his starts came as a DH, compared to four for Mauer. (Mets 3B David Wright led all MLB position players with 1,433 innings in the field.)
Mauer did not catch or DH Game 2 of the Twins’ doubleheader at Baltimore on Sept. 13. But he was back at catcher the next day, in that 95-degree heat. He started the final 15 games, including 14 at catcher, and continued hitting even with the player behind him suddenly slumping.
Actual value of a player to his team
Here are some basic offensive numbers:
Morneau 47 (ranked 5th in AL)
Morneau 129 (2nd in AL)
Mauer 84 (7th AL)
Mauer .328 (led AL)
Mauer .413 (2nd AL)
On-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS)
Mauer .864 (20th AL)
Morneau .873 (15th AL)
Adjusted OPS+ (factors league and park averages, courtesy Baseball-Reference.com)
Mauer 134 (tied 9th AL)
Morneau 134 (tied 9th AL)
Grounded into double play
Mauer 21 (9th in AL)
Morneau 20 (10th AL)
Digging deeper, let’s delve into some sabermetrics.
Runs created (invented by Bill James, modified by The Hardball Times)
Mauer 103 (15th AL)
Morneau 122 (led AL)
Runs created/per 27 outs (Runs a lineup of 9 Mauers or 9 Morneaus would average per game, as listed by ESPN.com)
Mauer 6.82 (11th AL)
Morneau 6.50 (18th AL)
Value over replacement player (VORP, courtesy Baseball Prospectus)
Mauer 55.5 (8th AL)
Morneau 45.5 (14th AL)
Win probability added (WPA courtesy of FanGraphs)
Mauer 4.88 (led AL)
Morneau 3.87 (3rd AL)
Win shares (courtesy The Hardball Times)
Mauer 31 (led the AL)
Morneau 29 (3rd in AL)
Win shares is another Bill James measure that helps compare players from different generations. Mauer gets a huge boost from his defense in this category, as 9.2 of those win shares come from fielding. He is considered one of the best defensive catchers in baseball.
Morneau gets only 1.9 of win shares from fielding. I believe first base defense in general is underrated, which hurts Morneau here, though Baseball-Reference.com lists his range factor (9.06) well above the league major league average for first base (6.45).
About those RBI totals
Before the final 15 games, Morneau was on pace to shatter his career high of 130 RBI from 2006, when he won the MVP award. His 129 RBI were still the third highest total in Twins history.
As Aaron Gleeman* noted, Mauer broke his own club records for catchers with 85 RBI and 96 runs scored.
(* In that same post, Gleeman noted that Mauer’s career 127 OPS+ ranks first among AL catchers with at least 1,500 plate appearances through age 25. That list is astounding: 1. Mauer 127, 2. Yogi Berra 123, 3. Bill Dickey 119, 4. Mickey Cochrane 115, 5. Thurman Munson 114. Another reminder that Mauer’s career is on a Hall of Fame path.)
A player’s RBI total relies heavily on the players getting on base in front of him, of course. According to Baseball Prospectus, nobody in the majors came to the plate with more runners on base than Morneau, at 558. Mauer was a distant 55th on that list with 407.
Batting average with runners in scoring position (courtesy Twins)
Mauer .362 (7th AL)
Morneau .348 (9th AL)
Mauer likely got better pitches to hit with Morneau batting behind him. With Morneau entrenched in the cleanup spot, the Twins had the 10th best OPS in the majors from their No. 4 hitters, at .864.
But behind Morneau, in the No. 5 spot, they ranked 29th in OPS, at .690. That helps explain why Morneau was intentionally walked 16 times with RISP.
The envelope, please…
(This was the longest post in Around the Majors history, so thanks for bearing with me, and a special thanks to the sources listed above.)
I would have picked Morneau as team MVP on Sept. 13, and he might have kept that honor had he righted himself before the season ended. But after studying each player’s impact over 163 games, I believe Mauer was the Twins’ 2008 MVP.
To me, Mauer and Morneau both deserved places on the AL MVP ballot (each writer’s top 10 choices), but as for how they stacked up with the others — Dustin Pedroia, Josh Hamilton, Carlos Quentin, etc. — I’ll leave that to the voters.