The Washington Times - November 19, 2008, 12:01AM

I have been a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America for eight years now, and I can honestly say there is very little about my job as a sportswriter that matters more to me than that.

Being a member of the BBWAA, an organization that was founded 100 years ago, is a privilege I do not take lightly, and having the opportunity to vote for MLB’s postseason awards (MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year and Manager of the Year) is a responsibility I accept and cherish. When I submit a ballot for one of those awards, I do so only after spending countless hours examining all the viable candidates, comparing their stats and intangibles in all sorts of different categories. And then I recheck my list. And recheck it again. And again, making sure I am confident in my selections before hitting the “Send” button.


I say all this because it seems a sizeable portion of baseball fans in Philadelphia is convinced I am either: 1) a moron, 2) an idiot, 3) biased against the Phillies, 4) unworthy of being a BBWAA member or 5) all of the above. Why? Because I gave Ryan Howard a 10th place vote in this year’s National League MVP race. Howard, who finished second to Albert Pujols in the final tally, was listed higher on the ballots of 30 of the 31 other writers who voted with me (two from every NL city). The lone exception was my colleague and friend Rich Campbell of The Free Lance-Star of Fredericksburg, who did not have Howard in his top 10.

According to Phillies fans, and even one Philadelphia Inquirer columnist, Campbell and I clearly must have been working together in an attempt to deny Howard his rightful MVP victory because we hate the Phillies and love the Nationals. I’m here to tell you unequivocally that is not the case. Frankly, it’s insulting for anyone to even suggest it, because it questions the very integrity that we as journalists strive to maintain every day.

Let’s get something straight: I am not a Nationals fan. I cover them for a living. I don’t root for them to win or lose. I root for them to produce interesting stories (which for the last four seasons have mostly involved losing). Likewise, I am neither a fan nor a hater of the Phillies. Actually, I was happy to see them win the World Series. Not only because I predicted they would beat the Rays, but because Philadelphia sports fans deserved to celebrate a championship after 25 years of heartache.

Let’s get something else straight: Rich Campbell and I never talked to each other about where we were going to place Ryan Howard on our MVP ballots. I had no idea how he felt about Howard until the vote came out Monday, and vice versa. That Howard’s two lowest MVP rankings both came from the Baltimore-Washington chapter of the BBWAA was nothing more than a very strange coincidence.

So why did I have Howard 10th on my ballot? Certainly not because I dislike him as a player or a person. I voted him No. 1 on my MVP ballot in 2006, and I voted Jimmy Rollins No. 1 last year. Because in each case, I felt the player deserved to be the league’s MVP. I didn’t feel the same way this season. The case for Howard essentially comes down to two factors. First, he led the majors with 48 homers and 146 RBI. Second, he had a fabulous September that helped carry the Phillies to the NL East title.

Those are two compelling arguments in his favor. But there were far more arguments that hurt his candidacy.

It’s pretty well-established now in baseball circles that home runs and RBI only tell a fraction of a player’s true offensive production. The numbers that matter more to GMs, managers and stat geeks these days are on-base percentage and slugging percentage (which are combined into the all-inclusive OPS stat). How did Howard do in those departments? His OBP was .339, which ranked 48th in the NL (five spots below Felipe Lopez). His slugging percentage was .543, which ranked a strong sixth (though lower than you would expect for the league home run champion). And his OPS was .882, which ranked 14th.

There’s also the matter of Howard’s defense, which was atrocious this season. He committed 19 errors, sixth-most in the majors and the most by any first baseman. He didn’t help the Phillies in the field. He hurt them. He also hurt them by striking out 199 times, or in 32.6 percent of his at-bats.

But enough about the new-age line of baseball thinking. Let’s look at the one stat that has consistently held up for more than a century as an evaluation of offensive production: batting average. Howard hit .251 this season. The lowest batting average ever by a league MVP? .267, by Cardinals shortstop Marty Marion in 1944. There hasn’t been an MVP with an average lower than .281 since 1972. And on top of that, Howard needed a spectacular September to even get his final batting average up to .251. His average stood at .204 on June 12, .227 on August 26 and .248 heading into the final weekend of the season. Should one big month at the end of the year negate everything that happened in the five months that preceded it? No, an MVP should play to some level of consistency over the long haul.

Which is not to diminish what Howard did down the stretch. He helped the Phillies win their division, and I recognize that. I also recognize that Chase Utley was considered by many to be the Phillies’ team MVP this season. Some even felt Brad Lidge was. Not Howard.

So when it came time to finalize my MVP ballot, I took all of that into consideration. And I decided that Howard deserved my 10th place vote, behind Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez, Lance Berkman, Ryan Braun, Hanley Ramirez, Matt Holliday, Chipper Jones, Carlos Delgado and Chase Utley.

In retrospect, could I have moved Howard up a couple of spots? Sure, it wouldn’t have been far-fetched. But in my mind, he simply wasn’t a top five or six MVP candidate this season. There is no one way to determine a player’s “value” as it relates to this award. Generally, I prefer that an MVP have played for a team that made the postseason. But with no clear-cut winners from this year’s pack of playoff participants, I decided to reward some players who had fabulous seasons on teams that didn’t make the playoffs (though in almost all of these cases, still were in the pennant race). Let’s not forget that Pujols had an absolutely dominant season and was most certainly a worthy MVP.

You have every right to disagree with me on that. This is a purely subjective exercise, and I enjoy the debates that come out of these votes. Just like the athletes I cover, I am accountable for my performance. But please keep your disagreements to matters that pertain to baseball, and only baseball. To suggest my vote was influenced by anything else is to question the integrity I strive to achieve every day as a journalist and the reverence I have for the BBWAA and these awards.

- Mark Zuckerman