By Michael Parente
As antiquated as it can be at times, and as clueless as it is regarding the Steroid Era, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America has shown remarkable progression in recent years when it comes to using new statistical evidence to vote for postseason award winners.
Three years ago, the BBWAA voted Seattle’s Felix Hernandez as the Cy Young Award winner despite his 13-12 record because he led the American League in ERA, innings pitched and quality starts while finishing second in strikeouts. Hernandez’s 13 wins were the fewest by a Cy Young Award winner in a non-strike shortened season, signaling an epic change in philosophy by a governing body often stereotyped as a group of grumpy, cigar-smoking curmudgeons that overvalues negligible statistics, such as wins and batting average.
If Alfonso Soriano continues his torrid pace and somehow finds a way to lead the New York Yankees to the playoffs despite their constant battle with injuries – and the distraction otherwise known as Alex Rodriguez –the BBWAA will face its toughest decision yet in the Most Valuable Player voting, having to decide whether to crown baseball’s most prolific hitter, Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera, or baseball’s best story, Soriano, whose improbable resurgence has reenergized a team that looked dead on arrival less than a month ago.
Statistically, Soriano can’t touch Cabrera’s output. The league’s reigning MVP and Triple Crown winner is on the verge of another historic season, leading the American League in batting average (.358) and RBIs (130) while trailing Chris Davis (47) for the league lead in home runs by only four. A second consecutive Triple Crown season would make Cabrera a shoo-in for another MVP award, but anything short of that makes Soriano a legitimate candidate to steal the crown based on his sheer value, which is what this award is supposed to be about in the first place.
The Tigers are running away with the AL Central, leading second-place Cleveland by 7 ½ entering Sunday, but as important as Cabrera has been to the cause, so has Tigers’ ace Max Scherzer, who leads the league with 19 wins in 27 starts and is second in strikeouts with 201, trailing Texas’ Yu Darvish, while sporting an impressive 2.90 ERA, well below the league average of 4.01. Scherzer is the odds-on favorite to win the Cy Young award, so how does a writer decide who has been more valuable to the Tigers’ success? If anything, Sherzer and Cabrera might take votes away from each other, unless Cabrera passes Davis in the home run race and becomes baseball’s first two-time Triple Crown winner since Ted Williams.
As for Soriano, all he’s done is blast 12 home runs and slug .579 in 33 games since the Yankees reacquired him from Chicago in July, including a ridiculous stretch earlier this month in which be belted eight home runs in 14 games. The Yankees won 11 of those games and pulled to within four games of the second Wild Card spot in the playoff race.
Soriano has hit 11 of his 12 home runs with the Yankees in August and the team is 18-15 since the trade, averaging 4.36 runs per game during that stretch after averaging just 3.87 prior to his arrival. Ironically, only Cabrera has as many home runs and RBIs this month as Soriano, but Soriano has scored more runs and stolen more bases, providing an undeniable spark to a team on the verge of falling out of contention last month.
Although they trail the Wild Card race by more games now (4) than they did before the trade (2 ½), they only trail one team now as opposed to three; the Yankees have successfully passed the division-rival Orioles and the Indians in the standings and trail only Oakland for the second Wild Card spot. The Athletics, meanwhile, only trail Tampa Bay by ½ a game for the top Wild Card spot, which means the Yankees, despite injuries to Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and Rodriguez and the horrific pitching of C.C. Sabathia and Phil Hughes, who’ve combined for 24 losses, could be the top Wild Card team at the end of the season if they maintain their current pace.
Soriano’s impact, despite the relatively small sample size, shouldn’t be ignored in the postseason voting. Not since David Justice in 2000 has a midseason acquisition meant this much to the Yankees. That year, Justice hit 20 home runs and drove in 60 in 78 games down the stretch. The Yankees led the AL East by only three games at the time, but won 46 of Justice’s first 67 games to open up a nine-game lead over Boston and held on to win the division despite a near-epic collapse in which they lost 15 of their final 18 regular-season games. Justice barely sniffed the Top 10 in MVP voting that year (he finished 13th while Jason Giambi won it with 47 home runs and a .333 batting average), but was as dominant as any player in baseball down the stretch. Though it had no bearing on the voting process, Justice’s postseason performance that year was equally impressive; he drove in eight runs in the ALCS against the Mariners and his three-run bomb off Arthur Rhodes in the seventh inning of Game 6 lifted the Yankees to their third consecutive league championship.
Soriano was just an afterthought back then, a 24-year-old part-time player with only 53 plate appearances. The following year, Soriano burst onto the scene with 18 home runs, finishing third in the Rookie of the Year voting, and drove the Yankees to the brink of their fourth consecutive World Series title. His walk-off home run in Game 4 of the ALCS gave the Yankees a 3-1 series lead over Seattle and his eighth-inning solo blast off Curt Schilling in Game 7 of the World Series in Arizona would’ve been the clincher had Mariano Rivera not blown the save in the bottom of the ninth.
Twelve years later, Soriano is as dominant as ever. He hit only 17 home runs in 93 games with the Cubs prior to the trade, perhaps proving the change of scenery and return to familiarity was all it took to rekindle the magic that made him a budding star in the Bronx before the Yankees shipped him to Texas for A-Rod in 2004. The Yankees have clearly benefited, too; Soriano’s resurgence has brought the Bronx back to life. Against all odds, the Yankees are in the playoff race, and Soriano’s red-hot bat (he homered again in the fourth inning last night to erase a 2-1 deficit against the Orioles) might be enough to get them over the hump.
Chances are Cabrera wins the MVP again without much resistance, but the case can be made for Soriano based on what he’s done and what he’s meant to the Yankees since his return last month. Sample sizes be damned, Soriano might just be the most valuable player in baseball right now. If the Yankees pull off the improbable, it’ll present the BBWAA with the ultimate conundrum and perhaps force it to make another historic conclusion.
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