The latter group tends to win out, especially in the American League. Since 1995, the National League MVP has come from a non-playoff team five times. In the AL in that same period, it's happened just once, when Alex Rodriguez won it despite playing for a Rangers team that won all of 71 games.
This brings us to the sensational season Miguel Cabrera posted for a not-so-sensational Detroit Tigers team in 2010. Cabrera's season is over, due to the ankle sprain he suffered on a pickoff play earlier this week. It was an inglorious ending to Cabrera's year, and it could cost him in the voting, which might already be stacked against him.
But with Josh Hamilton missing the bulk of September with two broken ribs, it appears the AL MVP race has lost a great deal of whatever predictability it once possessed. And it will be interesting to see how much attention gets placed on what Cabrera has done while hitting in a somewhat lackluster lineup.
"I'm not going to try to talk anybody into anything, because that's not my job," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "It all depends as an individual what you feel is an MVP. All I know is when the managers are talking the way they've talked to me about him, I believe that he's the MVP."
Do the numbers agree? Well, judge for yourself.
On the day the Tigers announced his season was over, Cabrera ranked third in the AL in batting average (.328), behind Hamilton (.361) and Joe Mauer (.331). He was tied for second in home runs (38) behind Jose Bautista (52), second in OPS (1.042) behind Hamilton (1.049), first in RBIs (126), tied for first in runs scored (111), first in total bases (341), first in on-base percentage (.420), second in slugging percentage (.622), second in extra-base hits (84), fifth in doubles (45) and fifth in walks (89).
Cabrera was intentionally walked 32 times this season, just two shy of the AL record set by Ted Williams in 1957. Had he not suffered the ankle injury, he would have been in much better position to become the first AL player to lead the league in both intentional walks and RBIs since Ken Griffey Jr. in 1997.
As it stands, Cabrera runs the risk of being overtaken in the RBI department by Alex Rodriguez (121) or Bautista (119). But when you consider that A-Rod and Bautista had, entering Wednesday, been intentionally walked just once and twice, respectively, Cabrera's RBIs total is all the more impressive.
It's quite obvious why Cabrera has drawn so many free passes. Opposing pitchers have had no reason to give him anything in the strike zone the past two months. When Magglio Ordonez fractured his ankle on July 24, Cabrera lost his protection in the lineup. Yet he managed to hit 14 homers, drive in 40 runs and post a .985 OPS in the 58 games that followed.
The Tigers, trying to at least salvage an above-.500 season, don't want to know where they would have been without Cabrera this season. Those who believe the MVP should come from a contending club would argue the Tigers didn't get very far with him, either. Perhaps the only other blemish on Cabrera's MVP candidacy is the fact he has committed 13 errors, the highest total among AL first basemen.
With so many MVP-worthy numbers for a team that barely treaded water, Cabrera, even more than Bautista or Paul Konerko, has presented an intriguing award argument -- one made all the more intriguing by Hamilton's September sit-down. It looks to be a three-way race between Cabrera, Hamilton and Robinson Cano.
Cabrera has put up numbers that could make him the first Venezuelan-born player to win the MVP. But overcoming that historical hurdle is nothing compared to overcoming longstanding voters' views on value.