After running through the analysis for this year's Baseball Bloggers Alliance Stan Musial Award, my two biggest dilemmas were:
2) Where should Justin Verlander go in the Top 10?
In the end, I filled out my ballot in this order.
1) Jacoby Ellsbury (732 PA, 32 HR, 105 RBI, 39 SB, 119 R, .321 BA, .376 OBP, .552 SLG)
2) Jose Bautista (655 PA, 43 HR, 103 RBI, 9 SB, 105 R, .302 BA, .447 OBP, .608 SLG)
I went back and forth on this a few times and after I post this I'm sure I'll have some regrets, but I would have had regrets if I went the other way too. In the end, I decided that while Bautista had the better offensive season, the positional difference, Ellsbury's defense at his position, and Ellsbury's speed all mattered. Since it was close, I also gave Ellsbury some brownie points for playing for a contending team and also for the extra 77 plate appearances over Bautista. This is hardly a knock on Joey Bats. Not only did he have a great season, but did what most thought he wouldn't or couldn't do, which was improve upon his overall performance coming off a 54 HR season. But Ellsbury was a more complete player, and nearly carried the sagging Red Sox into the playoffs despite their pitching struggles in September (he was second in the Majors with a 2.1 fWAR in September, trailing only Ian Kinsler). Ellsbury gets my 1st place vote.
3) Miguel Cabrera (688 PA, 30 HR, 105 RBI, 2 SB, 111 R, .344 BA, .448 OBP, .586 SLG)
While Verlander's season was justifiably praised, he might not have even been MVP of the Tigers. For the second year in a row, Cabrera put up a monster year with the bat. While he had a somewhat better supporting cast this year, Miggy was clearly the straw that stirred the drink for the 2011 Tigers and their A.L. Central division title. Cabrera's below average defense and the position he plays are the only things keeping him from shooting up to the top of this list.
4) Dustin Pedroia (731 PA, 21 HR, 91 RBI, 26 SB, 102 R, .307 BA, .387 OBP, .474 SLG)
As great as Ellsbury was, Pedroia put up a pretty fine season as well. fWAR says that Pedroia was better this year than he was during his 2008 MVP campaign, and I'd agree. If you're wondering if I penalize multiple players who had great years on the same team, my answer is an emphatic no.
5) Justin Verlander (24-5 W/L, 251 IP, 250 K, 57 BB, 24 HR, 2.40 ERA, 0.92 WHIP)
The question here isn't "how strong was Verlander's season?" but rather "how does a pitcher fit into the MVP discussion?" Since a starting pitcher can only have an impact on 33-35 games during the regular season, my admittedly subjective criterion is that a pitcher must be so dominant that he's clearly head and shoulders above everyone else. Verlander was clearly the best pitcher in the American League. However, it's not clear that he was the best player in the American League...and there have been more dominant pitching seasons in recent memory that have not received the same level of MVP buzz that Verlander's has. I don't want to sell Verlander short here. He had a great season. But a good portion of this MVP consideration is driven by those shiny, pretty wins. We wouldn't be having this discussion if Verlander pitched for the Mariners and had received poor run support. Verlander belongs in the Top 10, but I don't think he should win the award.
6) Adrian Gonzalez (715 PA, 27 HR, 117 RBI, 1 SB, 108 R, .338 BA, .410 OBP, .548 SLG)
Gonzalez completes the trio of Red Sox on this list. He had a great year, but a merely above average August puts him at the top of the second tier as opposed to the first tier. The Gonzalez acquisition worked out about as well as Boston could have hoped, though, and he provided plenty of value to Boston over the course of the season. The fact that he wasn't quite as good as Cabrera is more of a positive for Cabrera, not a knock on Gonzalez.
7) Ian Kinsler (723 PA, 32 HR, 77 RBI, 30 SB, 121 R, .255 BA, .355 OBP, .477 SLG)
Fangraphs puts Kinsler fourth overall in WAR. Baseball Reference has him tied for 9th. I'm sort of splitting the difference here, but also going with the traditional slugger in Gonzalez over Kinsler. The .255 batting average hurts a little bit. While OBP is more important than batting average, it's harder to drive in a run with a walk than with a hit. Still, this was Kinsler's best season by far no matter how you slice and dice and in terms of production he was the Rangers MVP. The number of real ballots that will have Michael Young ahead of Kinsler are going to drive me to drink.
8) Curtis Granderson (691 PA, 41 HR, 119 RBI, 25 SB, 136 R, .262 BA, .364 OBP, .552 SLG)
Yankee fans may take issue with the fact that I listed three Red Sox ahead of Granderson. But while Granderson had a strong year - and the Rotisserie numbers are incredible - he doesn't quite measure up to the top 5 hitters on this list. Like Kinsler, Granderson's BA hurts him a little bit, and Granderson's defense is rated as below average by both Baseball Reference and Fangraphs. But Granderson appearing this low is less of a comment on Granderson's year and more a comment on how many American League players had strong seasons as well.
9) Evan Longoria (574 PA, 31 HR, 99 RBI, 3 SB, 78 R, .244 BA, .355 OBP, .495 SLG)
Longoria's numbers definitely don't match up to anyone else that is in my Top 10, but he put up a ridiculous 300+ ISO from August on and his numbers in high leverage situations back up the fact that Longoria was simply clutch. More sabermetrically inclined voters will put Ben Zobrist ahead of Longoria - and I can certainly see why - but Longoria's timely hitting puts him ahead of Zobrist on my ballot.
10) Alex Gordon (690 PA, 23 HR, 87 RBI, 17 SB, 101 R, .303 BA, .376 OBP, .502 SLG)
As noted above, I'm not averse to including players on losing or .500 teams on my MVP ballot, but this year saw the happy accident where there weren't too many great players on bad teams - J.J. Hardy, Yunel Escobar and Alexei Ramirez were the only other hitters besides Gordon on .500 teams or worse to crack the Top 20 in fWAR or rWAR besides Gordon. But what a year Gordon had. Gordon more than doubled his career WAR and with the exception of May was pretty consistent month over month. Here's hoping Gordon does it again next year...for MY team.