The AL MVP race is shaping up to be a race between Joe Mauer, Derek Jeter and several power hitting first baseman including Miguel Cabrera, Kevin Youkilis and Mark Teixeira. Because there are at least three of these first baseman with nobody emerging as a clear cut favorite, it is unlikely that any of them will win the award. Zack Greinke, who should be the AL Cy Young Award winner, may also be something of a dark horse candidate for MVP.
If none of these first basemen is able to stand out from the rest, the race will, Greinke notwithstanding, be between Jeter and Mauer. Voters will have to choose between two great, but dissimilar players. Jeter is a first ballot Hall of Famer who after a couple years of decline is having what may turn out to be one last great season. Mauer is just entering his prime and is having a better offensive season than Jeter. While Jeter has been one of the game’s great players over the last dozen years, if you could have one player around which to build a team for the next five years or so, Mauer would be a pretty good choice. Jeter is, at least this year, a reasonably solid defender at a key defensive position. Mauer is sort of a better defender at another key defensive position.
As a top defensive catcher with outstanding offensive numbers, Mauer should be a shoo-in for the MVP, except that is not really what Mauer has been in 2009. By the time the season is over he will have been a catcher in two thirds of his team’s games, and a DH in about twenty more games. The defensive advantage Mauer has over Jeter or any of the slugging first baseman is substantially lessened because, this year, he did not catch all that much. The defensive question is not whether Mauer is in general more valuable than Jeter with the glove; of course he is. In 2009, the question is whether 110 games or so of excellent defense behind the plate is more valuable than, in the case of Jeter, 150 or so games of about league average defense at shortstop. That is a different question with an answer that is far less clear.
In that equation, Jeter may have been the more valuable defender this year, but Jeter’s offensive numbers are nowhere near Mauer’s. Jeter’s .329/.399/462 are impressive, but Mauer’s .374/.442/.611, all good enough to lead the league, are much better. The offensive numbers are pretty clear. By almost any measure Mauer, when he has been in the lineup has been the far superior hitter. Mauer is putting up a season of historic greatness for a catcher, even one who only plays that position two thirds of the time.
Jeter is putting up a very good year for a shortstop, but certainly not the best in recent memory from that position. For this reason, Mauer is likely to, and probably should, win the MVP. If Mauer had spent 130 games or so as a DH, while missing a few weeks with injuries, the Jeter-Mauer question would be an interesting one, but Mauer would still be my choice. The 110 games or so Mauer spent behind the plate this year only make it an easier choice.