UPDATE: CONGRATULATIONS Albert Pujols, 2008 NL MVP. Ryan Howard finished second, and Brad Lidge finished 8th overall, with two first-place votes. Details here.
On Monday at 2 PM Eastern Time, the results of the 2008 National League MVP balloting will be released. If you believe what you've been reading in the papers, it's more or less a two man race, with Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols versus Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard (with the occasional mention of Astros first baseman Lance Berkman thrown in). I'm not here to stump for or defend Ryan Howard as an MVP candidate -- I'm here to hang him out to dry.
In 2006, we had Howard vs. Pujols Part 1, with Howard winning the award. By lots of measures, Pujols had the better season, and his team made the playoffs (eventually winning the World Series). Howard, though, hit 58 home runs, and nearly single handedly put his team in the playoffs. Howard was a defensible choice, and despite Pujols getting sore about it, the Cardinals and their fans were more than happy to content themselves with a fresh, shiny World Series trophy.
We should be happy with the same thing. Ryan Howard is not a legitimate MVP candidate, and it's not even close.
Pujols is a victim of his own amazing consistency. His CAREER OPS+ is 170. His OPS+ in 2008 was a career-high 190. His defense at first base is stellar. He performs at an elite level in every single aspect of the game with the possible exception of baserunning. He doesn't shock and amaze anyone because he's always so damned good, that you just get used to it.
Howard outpaced Pujols in two categories -- Home runs and RBI. His RBI total was largely a function of the remarkable hitters in front of him. His OPS+ in 2008 was 124. To put that in perspective, Jayson Werth's OPS+ was 121, and Pat Burrell's was 125. Couple that with truly bad defense at first base, and you do not have an MVP -- you have a sweet dispositioned Dave Kingman in one of his better seasons.
None of this is to say that I don't like Ryan Howard as a player. When he's in a groove he's as good as anyone in the league. His September this year was mind-bogglingly remarkable. But over the course of the season, if you can make solid arguments for four players on your own team being more valuable than you (Utley, Burrell, Hamels, and Lidge), you should not be in the mix for league MVP.