- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Uh-oh. It's September. And you know what that means.
No, not your fantasy-football draft. Sorry, friends. September is a month when the initials we have on our minds are not T.O. They're M-V-P.
Because now, more than ever, September is the month when MVPs are made.
Once, there was a time in baseball when MVP awards were decided in those other months, from April to August. But recent history tells us those pre-September months apparently aren't as MVP-worthy as they used to be.
We live now in a world of three divisions and wild-card derbies. We live now in a world that gives us eight races a year to follow, instead of two or four. And since baseball dragged us into that world, we've noticed a new trend in MVP elections.
Increasingly, we've been handing out those awards to players whose teams were mixed up in one of those races right down to the final week of the season. And for the most part, those MVPs all had big Septembers for clubs that had to sprint to the finish line.
It's a scenario that makes perfect sense, too. Nowadays, September brings us three or four or six great races. Once, we'd be lucky to get one dramatic race. And all those races frame out the perfect plot for some MVP candidate or other to have his signature SportsCenter moment in a game, or series, the whole continent is watching.
Vlad Guerrero had that moment last year. Miguel Tejada had it in 2002. Chipper Jones had it in 1999. Sammy Sosa had it in 1998. They all got an MVP trophy out of it. And that's no accident. Voters almost wait now for those moments to materialize in front of their eyes.
Oh, there have been exceptions -- A-Rod winning for a last-place team in Texas in 2003, Barry Bonds winning for a 2003 Giants team that wiped out its division by 15½ games. So stuff still happens. Just not much.
Want more evidence? We looked at all the MVP winners since 1998. Here's what we found:
Just three of 14 came from teams that won their division by 10 games or more.
Ten of the 14 played for teams that finished first or won the wild card -- six of those 10 clinching in the final week.
Three more came from teams that weren't eliminated until the final weekend.
And 12 of the 14 hit .300 or better after Sept. 1. The two who didn't: Sosa (who at least had 11 homers and a .969 OPS) in 1998 and, surprisingly, A-Rod (.264) in 2003.
Now it may seem as if that isn't all that different from the way MVPs have always been determined. But history says otherwise:
Of the last 14 MVP awards handed out before the three-division/wild-card era (i.e., from 1987-93), only two went to players whose teams clinched a playoff spot in the final week.
So as we head into a September in which it feels as if every team except the Royals has a chance, there are MVP awards out there just waiting to be won. But if these recent voting patterns mean anything, the guys most likely to rise up and win them are Miguel Cabrera or Andruw Jones -- even if the numbers might say that Albert Pujols and Derrek Lee have had better years.
Since September is an MVP script still waiting to be written, it's way too early to pronounce a winner yet. But it's not too early to look at the top candidates, rank where they stand now and analyze what recent history says their chances are. So here goes:
ALBERT PUJOLS: Rolling another outrageous year off his assembly line for a Cardinals team that has had to stuff everyone except the hot-dog vendors into the trainer's room. Top three in the league in all three Triple Crown categories -- plus runs, hits, slugging, on-base percentage, OPS, multi-hit games, total bases and extra-base hits. But his team wrapped up its division around Memorial Day. And only two of the last 40 MVPs (Bonds in '03, Ichiro in '01) have come from clubs that won their divisions by margins as large as the Cardinals' current lead (14 games).
DERREK LEE: According to the stat gurus at Baseball Prospectus, no player on any team has had a better year, as measured by value over an average replacement player (VORP), than Lee. And that Triple Crown isn't out of the question, either -- since Lee still leads the league in hitting and is barely off the pace in homers and RBI. Oh, by the way, Lee also ranks No. 1 in hits, extra-base hits, slugging, on-base percentage, OPS and doubles. But as the Cubs' season gurgles down the drain, he'd probably have to win the Triple Crown to win an MVP election. Only three of the last 93 MVPs (A-Rod in 2003, Cal Ripken in 1991 and Mike Schmidt in 1986) came from teams that finished 20 games or more out of first place.
ANDRUW JONES: It isn't true that everyone else around him in that Braves' lineup has been in the big leagues for about three weeks. But it seems like it. So as Jones steams toward 50 homers, with the Braves' playoff reservations still not guaranteed, we're sensing major MVP momentum in Andruw's neighborhood. Leads the league in homers and RBI, but Baseball Prospectus ranks him only ninth in VORP. Nevertheless, as one NL assistant GM put it, "When you think about where the Braves would be without Andruw, it's a lot worse off than the Cardinals would be without Albert Pujols."
MIGUEL CABRERA: In case you're wondering, Cabrera (who turned 22 in April) can't become the youngest MVP in history (since he's about two months older than Vida Blue was in 1971). But he can still become the youngest position player (since he's four months younger than Johnny Bench was in '72). And with the Marlins' fate yet to be determined, Cabrera is in prime MVP position. He's second in the league in hitting, tied with Lee for first in multi-hit games and up there among the leaders in RBI, total bases, runs scored, doubles, slugging, OPS and extra-base hits. And Baseball Prospectus ranks him behind only Lee and Pujols in the VORP standings. So if he has a Vlad Guerrero September and his team is still playing in October, look out.
MORGAN ENSBERG: Six months ago, when he was coming off a season with more errors (16) than homers (10), Ensberg wouldn't have made anybody's top-50 MVP list. But 33 homers later, Ensberg has been the only offensive constant for an Astros team that has been shut out more times (16) than the Cardinals, Braves, Red Sox and Yankees combined (14). Outside of home runs, Ensberg has cracked the top five in the league in only OPS and slugging. But how many runs would this lineup have scored without him? About 300?
DAVID WRIGHT: In case you hadn't noticed, no player in the National League has had a better second half than Wright -- who is first since the break in average, OPS, hits and RBI. Now consider that Mets team he plays for. They didn't even get to five games over .500 until Aug. 23. But suddenly, they look as if they might steal the wild card. If that happens, voters will be looking for reasons this team suddenly got hot. And those reasons start with David Wright. Period.
ALEX RODRIGUEZ: Would an MVP award make him a true Yankee? We might find out. Statistically, nobody has had a better season than A-Rod -- a man leading the league in homers, slugging, OPS, total bases and VORP, and lurking just off the lead in batting, runs scored and on-base percentage. But we still hear his critics pointing out that his numbers with men in scoring position (.267, with just six homers) are eminently mediocre, and that Mariano Rivera is the Yankees' real MVP. Well, all we know is that this is a huge September for his franchise, so A-Rod has every chance to prove he's MVP-worthy (among other things).
DAVID ORTIZ: His team and his fans feed off him. He's leading the AL in RBI and extra-base hits. He's heating up (first in his league in RBI and runs scored in August). And those Red Sox will need all the Big Papi Mania he can ignite in September. But Ortiz faces the same problem this year that kept him from winning the last two MVP races (when he finished fourth and fifth): Too many attractive candidates on his own team.
VLADIMIR GUERRERO: It's sure been a bizarre year for the ever-dangerous Vlad: .351 in April, .224 in May, .443 in June, .208 in July, .348 in August. But if he can ever climb off that roller coaster, and if the Angels can just get Garret Anderson healthy and rolling to complement him, there's no reason to think the Vlad Man isn't just as capable of heavy-lifting his team into the postseason this year as he was last year (when he had a .371, 10-homer September). It tells you something that he was intentionally walked almost as many times in August (12) as he was all last season (14).
MANNY RAMIREZ: Has any player ever won an MVP award a couple of months after his team worked nonstop for about 70 consecutive hours to try to trade him? Uh, not that we can recall. But that could be a whole new category of Manny Being Manny-dom. Ramirez has his usual scenic numbers -- hanging with those league leaders in RBI, homers, slugging, OPS and average with men in scoring position (.360). But how monstrous a September would he need to overcome his defense and other assorted misdemeanors in the court of Red Sox Nation? Got us. But one of these years, he might make us all figure that out.
TRAVIS HAFNER: If Hafner hadn't gotten conked on the head by Mark Buehrle in July, and if he hadn't gotten off to that slow-mo start (waiting until the last day of April to hit his first homer of the year), he might be the MVP favorite right now. But even with all those games he missed, he's still in the top five in slugging, on-base percentage, OPS, batting and VORP. So with the Indians in prime position for a big September run, in a season in which they almost buried themselves by losing 18 of their first 30, Hafner is in a perfect spot to leave his prints all over the MVP debate.
MIGUEL TEJADA: Meet the Derrek Lee of the American League. It's been another terrific year for Tejada, who has as many hits as Ichiro, more extra-base hits than A-Rod and more total bases than Ramirez. But the Orioles sabotaged his MVP campaign last year, and they're doing it again this year. So while Baseball Prospectus places him second in the VORP rankings behind only A-Rod, Tejada will be lucky to sneak into the top five in an MVP race with plenty of candidates whose Septembers will actually be relevant to more than just the number crunchers.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Recent MVP winners had big Septembers for clubs that had to sprint to the finish line. Jayson Stark looks at the top candidates.