If this was for an Oscar, there's no question they'd be calling out David Ortiz's name when they opened the envelope. No one in the major leagues made a more dramatic impact on the 2005 season than Big Papi.
He had three walkoff hits, including two home runs. He led the American League with 34 RBIs that put his team ahead, and was first in game-winning RBIs with 21, eight of which came from the seventh inning on. Nineteen of his 47 home runs came in the seventh inning or later, eight from the ninth inning on. In the last month of the season, when the Red Sox were trying to win the division against the Yankees, Ortiz hit 11 home runs, the most ever by a Sox player in the season's last month, and drove in 30 runs. His numbers for August were the same, 11 and 30.
But the award at stake is the American League Most Valuable Player award, one that will be announced this afternoon by the Baseball Writers Association of America, whose membership (two writers per AL city) cast its ballots at the end of the regular season. The Boston voters for the MVP were Bill Ballou of the Worcester Telegram and Steven Krasner of the Providence Journal, both veteran reporters who take their voting responsibilities seriously.
And for all of his late-game heroics, Ortiz probably rates no better than a 50-50 chance against New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who is bidding to win his second MVP award in the last three seasons.
Ortiz is trying to become the first Sox player since Mo Vaughn in 1995 to win the award, while Rodriguez, who won with Texas in 2003, is attempting to become the first Yankee since Don Mattingly in 1985 to win.
Ortiz faces a considerable handicap. No full-time designated hitter ever has won the award. Don Baylor, who won in 1979 for the California Angels, was a DH for 65 games, but played 97 games in the outfield. The closest a DH ever came to winning was in 2000, when Frank Thomas of the White Sox finished second to Jason Giambi of the Athletics. Thomas drew 10 first-place votes to Giambi's 14 (the other four went to A-Rod), and lost by 32 points overall (it's 10 points for a first-place vote, 9 for second, etc., with voters required to fill in all 10 spots on their ballot).
Consider the case of Edgar Martinez, who retired after 18 seasons with the Seattle Mariners and is generally considered the best DH of all time. In 1995, the year that Vaughn won, Martinez like Vaughn played for a playoff qualifier. He won the batting title with a .356 average, 56 points higher than Vaughn, led the league in runs scored (121) and doubles (52), had an on-base average almost 100 points higher (.479 to .388), and a slugging percentage more than 50 points higher (.628 to .575). Vaughn had more home runs (39 to 29) and more RBIs (126 to 113).
And yet Vaughn and Albert Belle of the Indians split the majority of first-place votes (12 for Vaughn, 11 for Belle) while Martinez received four and finished a distant third overall. Martinez was done in by two things: Playing for a team far from the Eastern media centers, and playing a position that some still maintain deserves a half-a-player designation. Some of those same people, of course, have no compunction about voting for a pitcher for MVP, a seeming contradiction, while also ignoring the fact that most MVPs have won on the basis of their offensive contributions, not with their glovework.
Ortiz received one first-place vote for MVP last season (the same number as Manny Ramírez), when Angels outfielder Vlad Guerrero blew open a close race with a spectacular September. In 2003, Ortiz received four first-place votes.
But there is another reason Ortiz may lose that goes beyond the anti-DH bloc. A compelling case can be made that A-Rod had a better year, and not only because he played Gold Glove-caliber defense at third (just 12 errors and a .971 fielding percentage).
Consider the following checklist:
Batting average -- A-Rod 2d, Ortiz 16th.
Runs -- A-Rod 1st, Ortiz 3d
Hits -- A-Rod 6th, Ortiz 13th
Doubles -- A-Rod 49th, Ortiz 8th (tied)
Home runs -- A-Rod 1st, Ortiz 2d
Walks -- A-Rod 3d, Ortiz 2d
On-base percentage -- A-Rod 2d, Ortiz 4th
Slugging -- A-Rod 1st, Ortiz 2d.
OPS (on-base plus slugging) -- A-Rod 1st, Ortiz 3d
A-Rod played in all 162 of his team's games. He set a record for home runs by a righthanded hitter in Yankee Stadium.
A-Rod had his moments of high drama, too -- a game-winning home run off Curt Schilling in Fenway Park, a game-tying ninth-inning home run off Bob Wickman of the Indians, a walkoff single to win a game against Kansas City. He had just one fewer game-winning RBI than Ortiz.
Ortiz's supporters point to Big Papi's clear advantage in batting with runners in scoring position (.352 to .290), RISP with two out (.368 to .302), and batting in ''close and late" situations (.346 with 11 HRs and 33 RBIs, to .293 with 4 and 12). But it's also foolish to suggest most of A-Rod's production came when it didn't matter. Using one arbitrary comparison, their batting against the other playoff qualifiers, A-Rod hit .325 with 13 home runs and 30 RBIs, Ortiz .273 with 9 home runs and 33 RBIs.
There is also the matter of the position they played. Ortiz trailed other DHs in several categories. He was second in batting average to Travis Hafner of the Indians, and second in OPS to Giambi. Rodriguez, meanwhile, obliterated the competition at third base. He had 21 more home runs, 29 more RBIs, 32 more runs scored, an OPS 210 points higher, an on-base percentage 52 points higher, and a batting average 26 points higher than the runner-up in each category. What does that matter? Well, if your DH goes down, you usually can find another good hitter to stick in there and shuffle another position. Your third baseman goes down, you're not going to find another player who comes close to A-Rod.
Those numerous huge hits at the end of the game by Ortiz, his tremendous clubhouse presence, his unflappability in the toughest of situations? They define what MVP is all about.
But producing runs, whether they were early or late, playing every day, making all the plays afield, and overcoming the artificially induced pressure of having to prove himself worthy of being considered a Yankee great, those are qualities that should not be denigrated, either. They're MVP worthy, too.
Who should prevail? Call it a copout, but I'm glad I didn't have to vote.