Albert Pujols would win a fourth MVP Award if he were to be the upset winner when the results are announced at 1 p.m. CT on Monday. Joey Votto is the favorite to win the award for the first time, but the case for Votto isn't as cut-and-dried as the conventional wisdom would have it.
For one thing, the Cardinals' finish in some ways magnifies Pujols' contributions rather than minimizing them. St. Louis did without Ryan Ludwick and David Freese, often its No. 5-6 hitters in the first half, for the vast majority of the second half of the season. Felipe Lopez, projected as a key contributor, absolutely cratered. Brendan Ryan, Skip Schumaker and Yadier Molina all took steps back at the plate. And yet the Cardinals still finished in second place, and sixth in the league in runs scored.
Without Pujols, that doesn't happen. Without Pujols, the season is over long before the final week for the Redbirds. Without the three-time MVP, St. Louis almost assuredly finishes in the bottom half of the NL in runs scored. And it's not as though the Cardinals were an also-ran. They were contenders, and Pujols helped them be so.
But here's the thing: nowhere in the instructions for voting on the MVP Award does it say even the first word about team success. Voters are advised to consider "actual value of a player to his team, that is strength of offense and defense," but not where the team finished.
So, about the offense. The truth is that it's as close to a draw as you'll ever see -- though for what it's worth, coaches and managers voted Pujols the better hitter, giving him the Silver Slugger Award. His manager can't even point to a single best trait at the plate.
"I think the most impressive thing about him is his combination of power and a great stroke, producing a .300 average and his total cool in RBI situations," Tony La Russa said late in the season. "His batting average with men in scoring position is just off the chart. That's why we try so hard to get runners on base ahead of him. Which one of those is the most important? I think it's his stroke, and his smartness and his toughness, and they produce 100 runs or 30 home runs or .300. But those are just numbers to try to understand how great he is."
Pujols had the advantage in counting stats, leading the NL in home runs, RBIs and runs scored, while Votto paced the league in on-base percentage and slugging percentage and finished ahead of Pujols in batting average. Votto did that, though, while playing in hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park, while Pujols played half his games in the more pitcher-oriented Busch Stadium.
Pujols amassed more doubles, and so obviously more extra-base hits, since neither man is a triples machine. Pujols had more walks and struck out fewer times. Votto hit for a higher average with runners in scoring position, while Pujols had a higher OBP and hit for more power in those situations. Votto had the edge in clutch situations, out-hitting Pujols in close-and-late scenarios, tie games and with two outs and men in scoring position, and that's not to be ignored, but it's also not the only thing.
In short, the offense is practically a wash. Pujols played more, allowing him to amass more total value in some ways, while Votto maximized his chances to a slightly greater degree. Even the advanced numbers can't really tell them apart at the plate -- Baseball Prospectus' True Average measure gives Votto the advantage, .350 to .344, while the same site's Runs Above Replacement favors Pujols.
"General character, disposition, loyalty and effort" are also listed among the criteria, and by all accounts, both players certainly rate well in that area.
But when the other criteria are considered, Pujols has some advantages.
The instructions specify that voters should consider number of games played, and that's an edge for Pujols. He played 159 games to Votto's 150, picking up 52 more plate appearances. In a close race, that's not insignificant.
As for defense, it's once again close -- where is it not? But most of the indicators favor Pujols. The Cardinals star won his second Gold Glove this year, and although that award has lost some of its luster, it's not nothing.
Pujols also finished well ahead of Votto in voting for the Fielding Bible award at first base, garnering the most points in the voting of any NL first baseman. Votto had the slightest of edges in Fangraphs' controversial UZR defensive metric, but Pujols topped him in the Fielding Bible's video-based plus-minus system as well as Baseball-Reference.com's total zone fielding runs.
They're both good defenders, but Pujols was better this year. And, again we're looking for small edges here.
And really, that's the key to consider. Whoever wins this award will be a deserving winner. It's as close a race as you're likely to find, two players who faced virtually the same competition while playing the same position and performing with not only similar value but getting there with similar skill sets.
The fine edges, though, may well favor Pujols once again.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.