The two most frequently debated points in baseball's annual Most Valuable Player voting are (1)Should a pitcher ever be chosen over an everyday player? and (2)What, exactly, do the words ``most valuable'' mean? No wonder, then, that we've been hearing plenty of discussion about this year's selections: a pitcher (Roger Clemens) and the star of a non-contending team (Mike Schmidt). But neither of these choices is going to get any argument from this quarter. All things being equal, I agree with the position that an everyday player deserves the nod over one who performs every fourth or fifth day. And so do most of the people who vote for these awards. The pitchers have their own Cy Young Award, and it's only when one of them has a truly spectacular season that the MVP question even arises. This year, though, Clemens had that sort of season.
The fireballing young right-hander went 14-0 before finally sustaining his first loss on July 2, and compiled an overall 24-4 record. Clemens's early brilliance, climaxed by a record-breaking 20 strikeouts in one game, powered Boston into a commanding American League East Division lead that it never relinquished. And he continued to be the league's dominant hurler all season, finishing with a 2.48 earned-run average and 238 strikeouts. He was there when his team needed him most, too, as indicated by the 14 times he won games following a Red Sox loss to forestall any chance of a serious losing streak.
The second part of the equation is what kind of years the top everyday players had. In 1978, New York Yankee pitcher Ron Guidry turned in a season much like that of Clemens but still lost out in the MVP voting to Boston's Jim Rice, who hit .315 with 46 home runs and 139 RBIs. All things being equal, in other words, the voters went for the everyday player - as they should have.
Ironically, Rice was in contention again this year (he finished third in the voting), but even Jim admitted beforehand that his 1986 statistics (.324, 20 homers, 110 RBIs) didn't really measure up to those that won him the award eight years ago. So all things weren't equal this time; Clemens had a much bigger year for a pitcher than Rice did for a slugger.
The case for Don Mattingly, who finished second, was a bit stronger. The Yankee first baseman, seeking to become the first back-to-back American League MVP in 25 years, hit an eye-catching .352, with 30 homers and 113 RBIs. Not quite as explosive in the power department as Rice in 1978, but that batting average has to count for something.
Indeed, I make it a tossup between Clemens and Mattingly - and when it is that close, rightly or wrongly, the voters generally give the nod to the player whose team won its division championship.
Which brings us to the second question: Is this award supposed to go to the outstanding player in the league or to the one who contributed the most to his team's victorious (or at least near-victorious) season?
The logic of this latter theory has always escaped me. A great player is valuable to any team, no matter where it finishes. He has no control over his teammates - and obviously no one can keep a team in contention single-handedly. Maybe - just maybe - if a voter is having trouble making up his mind between two equal candidates, he might be justified in giving a tiny nod to the one whose team did better. But if somebody hits 40 or 50 homers and drives in a ton of runs, or wins 25 games, it goes without saying that his team would have been a lot worse off without him - wherever it happens to wind up.
Mike Schmidt was clearly the best player in the National League this past season, hitting .290 with league-leading totals of 37 home runs and 119 RBIs, tying for second in runs scored with 97, and leading the league in slugging percentage at .547. It was no contest statistically between him and runner-up Glenn Davis of Houston, or Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez of the New York Mets, who finished third and fourth.
These latter three all played for division winners, though, while Schmidt's Philadelphia club finished a distant second to the Mets in the NL East. Furthermore, those who supported Carter and Hernandez cited their defensive skills and leadership along with the statistics. But Schmidt, who won this award for a record-tying third time, is also an excellent fielder with plenty of leadership qualities, and he too has played on pennant and World Series winners. Was he less valuable to his team this year just because the Phillies didn't have the pitching staff to match Dwight Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, and Bob Ojeda of the Mets, or Mike Scott, Nolan Ryan & Co. on the Astros, or the superior supporting casts of hitters and fielders those other teams had?
Of course he wasn't. He was the outstanding player in the league, and thus the Most Valuable Player. Nowhere in the wording for this award does it say ``most valuable to a team that won.'' That interpretation is just in the heads of some writers - but fortunately not enough of them to have affected the outcome this time.