Big Papi was more clutch than A-Rod

Originally Published: November 14, 2005
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

The MVP award wasn't about defense the year Jose Canseco won it.

The MVP award wasn't about defense the years Juan Gonzalez won it.

The MVP award wasn't about defense the years Frank Thomas won it.

But suddenly, this year, defense mattered. And Alex Rodriguez will be eternally grateful, we're sure.

A-Rod had himself another spectacular season, all right. Nobody denies that. But is there any doubt that the only reason he just won his second MVP trophy was that he's a member of the leatherworkers' union and David Ortiz isn't?

Red Sox and Yankees finishing
1-2 in AL MVP voting*
Won Runner-up
2005: Alex Rodriguez, NYY David Ortiz, Bos
1986: Roger Clemens, Bos Don Mattingly, NYY
1978: Jim Rice, Bos Ron Guidry, NYY
1958: Jackie Jensen, Bos Bob Turley, NYY
1957: Mickey Mantle, NYY Ted Williams, Bos
1950: Phil Rizzuto, NYY Billy Goodman, Bos
1949: Ted Williams, Bos Phil Rizzuto, NYY
1947: Joe DiMaggio, NYY Ted Williams, Bos
1942: Joe Gordon, NYY Ted Williams, Bos
1941: Joe DiMaggio, NYY Ted Williams, Bos
1939: Joe DiMaggio, NYY Jimmie Foxx, Bos
1938: Jimmie Foxx, Bos Bill Dickey, NYY
* -- Since 1931 (when BBWAA named the award)
How else, after all, would we justify this choice?

The overall offensive numbers of these two men were amazingly close. Their teams finished with exactly the same record (95-67). And they both made the playoffs. So there wasn't much justification for using the standings as a means to separate them -- not unless you're a devoted fan of tiebreaker formulas.

What, then, did it come down to? If it wasn't about defense, then the wrong man won.

We know this can't have been about leadership, because that derby was no contest.

The Red Sox fed off Big Papi in a way that the Yankees never did off A-Rod. Ortiz had the presence of King Kong, inspired more smiles than Chris Rock and cast the follow-me aura of the Dalai Lama. A-Rod is the better all-around baseball player -- but let's just say he's no Derek Jeter in his ability to inspire those mortal humans around him.

But we know some people think that part of this argument is 100 percent irrelevant. So no problem. Let's set aside what happened off the field and concentrate on what happened when these two men just played baseball. That's where this debate ought to start, anyway.

If you really look closely at what happened in the batter's box when the biggest games of the year were on the line, it becomes clear that that can't be why A-Rod won, either -- because that, too, was a Big Papi landslide.

Alex Rodriguez had 24 more at-bats with runners in scoring position than David Ortiz this season -- and still drove in 18 fewer runs. That ought to tell you something. But if it doesn't, we'll spell it out for you.

Ortiz hit 62 points higher than A-Rod did with runners in scoring position (.352 to .290) overall. And that's an awfully large gap in a race this close. But that's in all games, in all RBI situations. If you keep looking, you find that as the games got tighter, that gap just kept getting bigger.

In the late innings of close games, A-Rod hit .176 with men in scoring position; Ortiz batted .313. That's a humongous, 137-point difference. But why stop there?

David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez
Ortiz (right) came close to being the first full-time DH to win the MVP, but A-Rod prevailed thanks to his defense.
Ortiz's OPS (on-base plus slugging) in those situations was 1.224 -- to A-Rod's .813. That's a 411-point chasm.

But hold on. We're still not done. If you keep breaking down their numbers in tight games, the case for Rodriguez only gets worse.

On the admittedly partisan, Red Sox-oriented Sons of Sam Horn site, frequent contributor Eric Van has laid out some truly startling evidence. He found that A-Rod was vastly more productive in the Yankees' blowout wins than he was in games where a hit either way was the difference between winning and losing.

In the 20 games each of their teams won by six or more runs, A-Rod hit .549, had an OPS of 1.793 and racked up 46 of his 130 RBI (35 percent). Ortiz, on the other hand, batted .277, had an OPS almost 800 points lower than A-Rod's (.999) and drove in only 33 runs (22 percent of his overall total).

But in close games (games that either went to extra innings or were decided by one or two runs in regulation), the numbers look a whole lot different.

In those games -- and each team played exactly 65 of them -- A-Rod batted only .243, had an OPS of .805 and drove in just 38 runs (29 percent). Ortiz, meanwhile, clearly tapped some mysterious force that made him even better in moments like that -- batting .321, running up an OPS of 1.116 and knocking in nearly a run a game (62 -- or 42 percent of his overall total).

Roll that info around your brain for a second. Think about what you make of it. All we know is that, when it came time to make our MVP pick at season's end, we had a tough time ignoring figures that staggering.

Not everyone agrees, apparently. And that's fine. They're allowed. That's what makes sports -- and sports fandom -- the compelling force it is in our lives.
It sure seemed at the time as if Ortiz was stomping up there and driving in the winning run about four nights a week. But these were stats that clearly proved it wasn't a figment of some highlight editor's imagination. David Ortiz really was the best clutch hitter in the sport -- lugging his team into the playoffs like a human tow truck.

The trouble was, there was only one way he could do that -- by waving his magic bat. Alex Rodriguez, on the other hand, had other ways.

With the glove, A-Rod committed just two errors after June 23. He ripped off a 61-game errorless streak at one point. We have no way of knowing how many games he won with his glove. But we know exactly how many Ortiz won with his glove.

That, of course, would be none.

And it wasn't as if A-Rod was exactly Neifi Perez with the bat, either.

He did thump more home runs (48) than any right-handed hitting Yankee has ever hit. He did mash more homers at Yankee Stadium (26) than any right-handed hitting Yankee had ever hit. And it had been more than four decades since even a left-handed hitting Yankee had reached those plateaus -- since Roger Maris in 1961.

If you just stacked up Rodriguez's overall numbers versus Ortiz's, A-Rod did lead in homers, runs scored, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS. So if you wanted to justify voting for him, it was easy to do.

What it came down to, then, was what these voters learned in philosophy class.

Our philosophy about MVPs is that it's about offense first and intangibles second. Defense is one of those intangibles, obviously. But it isn't bigger than leadership. And there's no quality we find more valuable, when we're voting for these awards, than the ability to rise to meet those pivotal moments when games, and seasons, get decided.

Not everyone agrees, apparently. And that's fine. They're allowed. That's what makes sports -- and sports fandom -- the compelling force it is in our lives.

In the end, there's nothing embarrassing about handing an MVP trophy to the best all-around player of our time. We're just wondering how defense got to be such an important part of this MVP equation -- because if it always has been this important, then Mike Greenwell now has another reason to ask how his pal, Canseco, ever beat him in that '88 MVP race.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com