You can beat the Cardinals...

...But you can't beat Pujols. It's a saying that started in Cardinals nation last year, gaining significant momentum in the playoffs when Albert crushed that game-winning home run against Brad Lidge. It's been true ever since then, including last night when Pujols collected his 23rd game-winning hit of the season -- 18 of which have been homers. Last night's was merely a two-run single in the bottom of the ninth against Lidge. With that hit, Pujols probably halted the Astros run at the postseason.

Talk of the MVP race is heating as usual in September. Ryan Howard has grabbed a bulk of the headlines with his barrage of home runs, and deservedly so. The kid is having a monster second half. If you look at his core stats -- 56 HR, 138 RBI, .316 AVG -- he's hard to argue against. I don't buy into the argument that if the Phillies miss the playoffs he shouldn't receive as much consideration in voting, because he's carried his team this far -- to the brink of a playoff spot. There are too many other factors that will ultimately decide if his team makes it or not. But we can be certain that they wouldn't be in the hunt this late in the season without his lumber.

However, I can't give him the nod over Pujols -- despite the traditional stats in his favor. Pujols only leads Howard by the slimmest of margins in OPS, and trails him by a considerable amount in homers and ribbies. But I can't get beyond those Major League-leading 23 game-winning hits. Where would the Cards be without even half of those? The answer is in second place -- or worse. I shy away from the term "clutch" because so much of baseball is pure luck. But in Pujols' case, I make an exception. The man is capable of willing his team to victory, and he's proven that fact time and time again this season. His typical Pujols numbers (he's on pace for a career-best 51 HR, 137 RBI, and 121 runs) coupled with his stellar play in the field (a Gold Glove is not out of the question) give him the qualities one looks for in an MVP candidate. And his name recognition alone will probably give him the slight nod. But this year, maybe more so than any other, he truly deserves it, with key injuries to Edmonds and Eckstein (his protection and lead-off hitter) and our pitching staff's ineffectiveness causing this team to stumble throughout the season. This is weakest Cardinals team of the Pujols era.

Of course, just because he deserves it doesn't mean that he'll get it. He'll have to battle Howard, set to break 61 homers, and fabulous seasons from Carlos Beltran, Lance Berkman, Alfonso Soriano, and Miguel Cabrera, the latter of which right now is what Pujols was to Bonds four years ago. But for my money, there's no one else in baseball that I want at the plate with the game on the line and runners on base. And that, to me, is one true way to measure an MVP.

I'll leave you with these splits, which illustrate that sometimes the numbers don't give you the whole truth. RBIs -- of which Howard leads Pujols by 18 at this point -- are a function in part of the effectiveness of the lineup around you. Anyone who has watched more than a handful of Cardinals games this season can tell you how poor our 7-8-9-1-2 hitters have been this year at reaching base. Pujols has simply had fewer opportunities to knock in runners than Howard: Albert's had 150 plate appearances with runners in scoring position; Ryan's had 197. What Albert has done with those opportunities, however, is why he gets my vote for MVP.

With runners in scoring position, Albert is hitting .383 and slugging .766 to Howard's .248 and .517. With runners in scoring position and two outs, Albert is hitting .405 and slugging .703 to Howard's .230 and .473. Howard narrows the gap in close and late situations -- Albert's at .306/.742 to Howard's .293/.646 -- but the fact remains that Albert does his damage when it counts the most. Hard to argue with that.

UPDATE: Apparently, I should write for ESPN. I noticed this article was posted today, but I had no advance knowledge of it before penning the above. Funny, we're making a lot of the same points.

No comments: