Opinion: Bautista no longer MVP front-runner

If the race for the American League MVP award is a down-to-the-wire sprint, then Jose Bautista has already pulled up and is limping towards the finish line.

With just nine home runs since the All-Star break, one has to wonder if the Blue Jays single-season long ball record holder is still the front-runner for one of baseball’s highest honours.

Bautista’s September eight-game hitting stats — .179 batting averag, .324 on base percentage and .321 slugging average are atrocious, but can easily be jettisoned due to small-sample-size bias.

His 88 August at-bats,  however, are a much better barometer for highlighting the slugger’s concerning decline. In that month, he recorded a .261 batting average, while launching eight homers, but striking out 26 times, his highest monthly total of the season.

Most noticeably, the former-journeyman’s batting average is conspicuously waning, and is on the verge of dipping below the very-crucial .300 mark.

The last player to bat under .300 and take home the AL MVP was Alex Rodriguez, who did so in 2003, finishing at .298, with 47 home runs and 118 RBIs.

A-Rod might be the perfect comparison for evaluating Toronto’s aspirant.

In September 2003, the final month of the season, Rodriguez hit a pedestrian .264, adding seven dingers and 18 RBIs. But unlike Bautista, the three-time MVP was hot in August, belting 15 homers, to pair with a .340 average.

Are playoffs necessary?

Rodriguez’ ’03 campaign segues nicely into an alternative aspect of the contentious debate: Does the most valuable player need to play for a playoff-bound ball club?

At season’s end, A-Rod’s Rangers were 25 games back of Oakland for first place in the AL West division, making the current Jays look relatively like formidable contenders.

If you are one of the many who believe team record does matter (and this argument has been dissected ad nauseum) then you might be pulling for a different MVP hopeful, New York Yankees centre-fielder Curtis Granderson.

While the speedy Granderson trails Bautista in nearly all categories favoured by the sabermetric stat-heads, he does trump Toronto’s right-fielder in several of the more conventional performance measurements, including runs, RBIs and stolen bases.

And if that winning-team argument fuels your engine, you can add New York’s 16-game lead on Toronto for first place in the AL East to your pitch.

As it was for Bautista, early September has been a forgettable month for Granderson, but his 10 home runs and 29 RBIs in August did wonders on improving his MVP chances.

Nonetheless, the argument for Bautista is still a sturdy one.

Even if walked intentionally or pitched around, there is undeniable value in a player’s ability to consistently find a way to safely reach base. Only seven current major leaguers have an on-base percentage of .400, and Bautista leads the select group at .444.

Though his power stoke has stalled to a glacial pace, the Dominican Republic native still tops all major-league sluggers with 40 home runs, after tattooing a career-high 54 a year ago.

Bautista can go to war

And if you chose to enter the nerd-infested sphere of advanced baseball metrics, FranGraphs.com’s WAR measurement (wins above replacement), a statistic that attempts to summarize a player’s total contribution to their team in one all-encompassing figure, ranks Bautista second, behind only Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury.

He adds 7.9 wins more than a hypothetical replacement-level player would to Toronto’s bottom line.

Yet, while Bautista flounders, Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander remains as hot as a parked car on an Arizona mid-summer day.

If you will at least entertain the notion of a hurler taking MVP honours, one hasn’t since Dennis Eckersley in 1992, then there is no ignoring Verlander’s storybook season.

Boasting a league-best 22 wins, buttressed by a 2.44 ERA and a 0.91 WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched) through 31 starts, the veritable flame-thrower is garnering the highest volume of MVP support for a pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 1999.

Besting all major league pitchers, 26 of his 31 starts have been technically quality ones  — at least six innings pitched, while allowing no more than three earned runs.

Icing the cake, the 2006 AL Rookie of the Year ranks first in strikeouts, innings pitched, and is just weeks away from leading the Tigers to their first post-season birth since Verlander’s debut season.

Bautista may find solace in the wayward belief system of many baseball pundits, who will stand firm by the notion that most valuable players are just that, players, not pitchers.

So, is Bautista still the popular choice?

Returning to the sprinter analogy, Bautista had the alternate MVP candidates eating his dust before the Fall Classic, but suddenly, and mainly due to his own stumbling, Granderson, Verlander and Ellsbury are tailing in his rear-view mirror.

Ultimately, only the voting writers will have a say, but one aspect of the increasingly cloudy MVP picture is becoming crystal clear: Bautista is no longer the darling for the honour that he once was.