Pujols carried injury-laden Cards all season

Voters needed to look past the obvious numbers to elect the proper NL MVP. And they did -- choosing Albert Pujols.

Originally Published: November 15, 2005
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

MVP voters aren't allowed to consider the fascinating events of October before they cast their esteemed votes. But anyone who watched the Cardinals in the NLCS should know exactly why Albert Pujols deserved to be this year's National League MVP.

The Cardinals batted .209 as a team in that series. They got exactly one home run from hitters not named Albert Pujols. And their team slugging percentage, if you subtract Pujols from the mix, was a terrifying .262.

Albert Pujols
Pujols lived up to the definition of valuable in every which way imaginable.
In short, this wasn't a real good offensive team by the end of this season. But Albert Pujols' gift was that he often made them look like one through his sheer, relentless greatness every time he showed up at home plate.

We're not so sure the masses actually paid much attention to that through much of the season, as the Cardinals rampaged through the NL Central. But that wasn't Scott Rolen hitting behind Pujols for most of this year.

In fact, for nearly one-fourth of the season, it was somebody like Yadier Molina. Or Mark Grudzielanek. Or John Gall. Or a banged-up Larry Walker.

So behind him, Pujols had less protection than he has ever had. And in front of him, the top of the Cardinals' order -- pesky and lovable as David Eckstein might be -- was just inefficient enough that Pujols got 44 fewer at-bats with men in scoring position this year than Andruw Jones.

Which is why this was one year when voters needed to look past the obvious numbers to elect the proper MVP. And whaddaya know -- they did.

In a sport full of men who zigzag from hot streak to cold streak, Pujols is the single most dependable offensive force on the planet.
Jones was, in fact, tremendous in many ways. And -- in a season in which his team's roster was populated by guys young enough to play in the College World Series -- the Braves wouldn't and couldn't have won without their man Andruw.

But as dazzling as Jones' 51 home runs may have looked, and as impressive as it may have seemed that no one in the National League was within 11 RBI of him, it's hard to argue he was really more valuable to his team than Pujols was to the Cardinals.

We would never dispute that Jones is anything but one of the most spectacular defensive center fielders ever to pass in front of our eyeballs. But defensively, Pujols wasn't doing any Jason Giambi impressions at first base, either. He has made himself into one of the best glove men in the business. So he loses very few points on that end.

And offensively, the big argument for Jones is that he practically hauled the Braves into the playoffs single-handedly, in a year when his team's preseason blueprint turned practically irrelevant.

How I got the Atlanta vote
OK, full disclosure: I'm not from Atlanta. I've never lived in Atlanta. I've never run for elective office in Atlanta. But due to circumstances way beyond my control, I wound up casting one of the Atlanta BBWAA chapter's two Hall of Fame votes this year.

Who knew?

That didn't obligate me to vote for Andruw Jones, just because he happens to play in Atlanta -- just as I never felt obligated to vote for any Phillies when I was casting votes as a member of the Philadelphia chapter.

The fact is, I never even knew I was casting that Atlanta vote until the last few days. Now that I work for ESPN.com, I'm part of a national pool of voters which is called upon to vote when there aren't enough members of a local chapter to fill all the allotted spots.

I was never told, at any point, I was filling out a ballot normally assigned to an Atlanta writer. All I knew was that, in September, BBWAA secretary-treasurer Jack O'Connell asked if I would be willing to be a voter in the NL MVP election. I gladly accepted the invitation and researched my vote with as much professional diligence as possible. Meaning I never once considered voting for Cristian Guzman.

As it turned out, I voted for Albert Pujols instead of Jones. Sorry about that, Andruw.

I'm glad, in retrospect, that my vote didn't cost Jones an MVP trophy. But even if it had, it wouldn't have been my "fault."

I never set out to be an Atlanta voter. I never applied for the job. I never even knew that was my lot in life until after I'd cast my vote. And you know what? If a writer is casting a vote for any player because he plays in the writer's home town, that's the wrong reason, anyway.

So if Andruw Jones didn't win, it had a lot more to do with his .207 batting average with men in scoring position than the zip code of the men casting the votes.
Jayson Stark

But the Cardinals didn't exactly give their trainer the summer off, either. About the only Cardinal who wasn't hurt at some point this year was general manager Walt Jocketty. Count up the wounded: Rolen. Molina. Walker. Reggie Sanders. Missing for weeks at a time. That's half the lineup, according to our calculator.

So how did this team ever finish third in the league in runs scored? Because it had the best hitter alive, Albert Pujols, holding it all together in the middle of that lineup. That's how.

In a sport full of men who zigzag from hot streak to cold streak, Pujols is the single most dependable offensive force on the planet.

He batted .300 in every month but one (dipping to .287 in August), reached base 40 percent of the time in every month but one (slipping to .396 in April), and slugged .500 or better in every month, period.

He finished in the top three in the league in 11 major offensive categories (essentially, everything but squeeze bunts). And he led Jones in every one of those departments except homers and RBI.

In fact, Pujols' batting average was 67 points higher than Jones' (.330 to .263). And even though batting average isn't the fashionable stat it used to be, Jones' average would have been the lowest by any MVP in history.

No non-pitching MVP has even been under .280 since 1972 (Johnny Bench). And only two MVPs in history have ever been under .270 -- Roger Maris (.269) in 1961 and Marty Marion (.267) in 1944.

But the case for Jones completely disintegrated when it came time to consider what happened when he and Pujols came to bat with men in scoring position.

Pujols hit .329 in those situations. Jones hit .207. And that is one incomprehensible number -- that .207. In fact, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, it would have been the lowest average by any MVP with runners in scoring position since Elias began computing that stat about a quarter-century ago.

Had things transpired a little differently on the North Side of Chicago, in fact, Jones wouldn't even have been the second-best candidate -- because Derrek Lee actually had a better statistical year than either Jones or Pujols.

But there's a reason they call this the Most Valuable Player award. And history shows that men who play on teams like Lee's are almost inherently incapable of being considered true MVPs.

Only three of the last 95 MVPs have come from teams that finished 20 games out of first place or more. And this year's Cubs were 21 games back of Pujols' Cardinals. That finish wasn't Derrek Lee's fault. But it was still a reality no voter could dismiss.

So after three straight years of top-three finishes that didn't get him to the winner's press conference, Albert Pujols finally -- and deservedly -- has himself an MVP trophy. Why do we think it won't be his last?

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com