The sun is setting earlier. There’s a slight chill in the air. You can just feel the seasons beginning to turn, which can only mean one thing: it’s time for the media to turn its attention to baseball’s award season. We’ve noticed a definite uptick in activity lately on this front. There’s an article in this week’s Sports Illustrated discussing the candidates for the various post-season awards. It’s a topic that has received plenty of airtime from the gamut of local yahoos to folks like Dan Patrick on ESPN Radio.
Perhaps because the National League is awful, top to bottom, this year (which probably means its team sweeps the American League representative in the World Series) that most of the MVP talk has centered around a veritable whose who of American League candidates. For awhile it was David Ortiz until the Boston Red Sox swiftly fell out of contention after being swept in five straight games a few weeks ago by the Dark Star New York Yankees. Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins is becoming a media favorite even as Jermaine Dye of the Chicago White Sox starts his leg kick.
We can’t help noticing, though, that the Indians Travis Hafner hardly garners a mention, except in a “isn’t it too bad” sort of way. Which tells you everything you need to know about the MVP award. This year, like most other years, the award is not for the most valuable player in the league. It’s for the most valuable player on a really good team that will end up in the post season. Which explains why Hafner is, as we said, hardly garnering a mention except in a “isn’t it too bad” sort of way.
There is much good to document about Hafner’s season. Without question, he is the league’s top slugger. He is at or near the top in every meaningful hitting category, from average, to RBI, to home runs, to slugging percentage, to on-base percentage. But will he finish in the top 10 in voting? Probably. But in the top 5? Unlikely. In fact, Jim Thome, will probably get more votes. Which also tells you everything you need to know about the MVP award.
If the award indeed had any meaning, Hafner would get it by acclimation. While most everything else has gone wrong with the Tribe this year, either by design (the refusal of the cheapskate owners Larry & Paul Dolan to deliver to the fans what they promised—a competitive budget, forcing GM Mark Shapiro to scrape the B and C free agent levels and otherwise trade serviceable players) or by chance (the mysterious decline of Jhonny Peralta, the inability of Victor Martinez to throw out a baserunner), Trafner has been consistently good. His slumps have been so minimal that it’s unfair to even call them slumps. He started hitting on day 1 and is still hitting through the abyss that surrounds him. Stated differently, take him off the team and see how far the Tribe sinks into the muck.
But that’s not the issue, is it? The issue is the performance of this team relative to the expectations heaped upon it before the season started that actually becomes a major factor in who will be named MVP. If, for example, the media, the same media that votes on the award by the way, had accurately assessed this team’s chances at the beginning of the year, the season would not look like a failure, relatively speaking, and Hafner would be getting some serious press. You don’t think so? Look at the Florida Marlins. They were pegged for a hundred-loss season and the fact that they are bubbling near but not at .500 is making Manager Joe Giraldi look like a genius and will get him serious consideration for manager of the year. Given what the Dolans have been doing to this franchise, an appreciation of Hafner and the season he is having is suffering from unreasonable and outsized expectations heaped on the team. In other words, how valuable can Hafner or anyone be on a team expected to win 90 games and compete for the top spot in the tough Central Division if that team only wins 70 games. But the truth is, a 70-win season was about the best anyone should have expected. With this late season surge, the Tribe will probably exceed that win total by a few. And the fact that they will is attributable in large measure to Hafner. He has single-handedly kept this franchise afloat despite the best efforts of the Dolans to sink it.
Take it a step further. Is there a team in contention in either league that wouldn’t give up half their pitching staff to acquire Hafner? Cleveland fans look fondly at Thome, but the truth is that at equivalent points in their careers, Thome’s numbers, for average and for power, pale in comparison to Hafner. (Note: we’ll break this down for you in another posting Hafner is young, injury free, and quickly becoming the most-feared batter in the league. In meaningless August and September games, notice how many times Hafner still gets intentionally walked, even with a runner on first base.
But Hafner, unfortunately, will not get serious MVP consideration. Just another in a growing list of things we can fairly blame on bad ownership.