As much talk as the race for American League Most Valuable Player has generated, it’s not finished yet. It has barely begun.

Three years ago, Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia won his first MVP trophy without any traditional slugger numbers. He hit only 17 home runs and drove in just 83 runs, and he slugged just .493. He became the first American Leaguer to win the honor with a sub-.500 slugging percentage since Ichiro Suzuki in 2001 — and Suzuki had been the first non-pitcher in the AL to do so since Thurman Munson in 1976.

Pedroia didn’t bludgeon his way to his MVP. He earned it with a sizzling finish.

Pedroia finished July of his MVP year in 2008 getting on base at a .359 clip and slugging just .451, but he compiled a .410 on-base percentage and .585 slugging percentage the rest of the way. The Twins’ Joe Mauer missed all of April of his MVP year in 2009, but he got off to a terrific start in May and sealed the deal with a .460 on-base percentage and .570 slugging percentage in August and September.

The field of MVP contenders in the American League this season — Jose Bautista, Jacoby Ellsbury, Adrian Gonzalez, Curtis Granderson and Pedroia again — seems set. The winner likely will be the player who has the best August and September.

But unless voters still expect their Most Valuable Player to come from a first-place team, Bautista still has a healthy lead on the rest of the field.

The slugging outfielder — who has played more than two dozen games at third base to boot — hit 31 home runs in the first half and still leads the league with 33. He leads the majors on-base percentage and slugging percentage by a hefty margin. He’s been walked a major league-high 88 times, in large part because he doesn’t have hitters like Kevin Youkilis or David Ortiz hitting behind him.

There are those who will insist that the Most Valuable Player can’t be valuable unless his team goes to the playoffs. If Bautista replaced J.D. Drew in the Red Sox outfield, so the thinking goes, he’d inherently be a more valuable player than he’s been while singlehandedly keeping Toronto over .500. He’ll certainly lose votes if the Blue Jays finish in fourth place.

But Bautista still could win the award if he catches fire down the stretch the way he did earlier in the season. An argument will be made that his games won’t have playoff implications and thus will carry less pressure — but they won’t have any less pressure than the games played by the Red Sox and Yankees, who already have all but wrapped up playoff berths.

And if he hits 45 or 50 home runs, voters might have no choice but to ignore the standings the way they did with Alex Rodriguez, who hit 47 home runs for the last-place Rangers in 2003.

But if Bautista fades — he’s only hit two home runs since July 10 — he’d throw the field wide open. A hitter on a fourth-place team with 50 home runs is one thing, but a hitter on a fourth-place team with 35 home runs is something else entirely.

Pedroia won his MVP award in a season without a slugger in the field who had the type of season that locks up an MVP award. Justin Morneau, the only other player to receive more than two first-place votes that year, hit 23 home runs and drove in 129 runs. Youkilis hit 29 home runs and drove in 115 en route to a third-place finish. Carlos Quentin hit 36 home runs, but he missed all of September with a broken wrist and faded from contention.

Miguel Cabrera hit 37 home runs and Rodriguez had 35, but neither garnered serious consideration — likely because neither of their teams made the playoffs. Cabrera’s Tigers finished in last place, 14-1/2 games behind Quentin’s White Sox.

If Bautista fades, he could open the door for Granderson — who has hit 28 home runs and scored a major-league-best 110 — or one of the three Red Sox players to make a run.

Gonzalez is hitting .351 and is on pace to drive in 130-plus runs while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense at first base. Pedroia could finish with a .400 on-base percentage to go along with 20-plus home runs and 20-plus stolen bases, and he has played tremendous defense at second base.

Ellsbury has an outside chance at a 30-30 season and has the type of comeback story and highlight-reel moments — he delivered back-to-back walk-off hits last week — upon which MVP campaigns are built.

If Pedroia had his way, the hardware would go to someone in the same clubhouse as him.

“I’d vote for Gonzo and Ells,” he said. “They’re having great years, man. From start to finish, they’ve produced and played great. Either one of them will do.”

By the time the season ends, the field could be completely reshaped — and few know that better than Pedroia.

 


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