MVP Race Coming Down To The Wire

• The can't-drive-them-in-if-they're-not-out-there factor: Then there's this fascinating stat. Plate appearances with runners in scoring position: Howard 197 (and 73 RBI), Pujols 150 (and 72 RBI). It tells you all you need to know about the top of the Cardinals' lineup that Howard has gone to the plate 47 more times with runners in scoring position than Pujols has. It tells you something about Pujols' ability to rise to the moment that those trips have produced virtually the same number of RBI.

• The leatherwork factor: Defense rarely becomes a hot subject in MVP debates. But it could be a difference maker in this one. Howard is tied with Nick Johnson for the most errors in the league by a first baseman (14). Pujols, on the other hand, has the third-best fielding percentage in the league and ranks first among all NL first basemen in range factor.

• The we-have-a-winner-factor: Finally, 18 of Pujols' 45 homers have resulted in the Cardinals' game-winning RBI. And that's a more imposing number than you might think. Retrosheet's Dave Smith reports it's the most "game-winning homers" by any player in any season since Willie Mays had 19 in 1962. Howard, for the record, is second in the league this year -- with half that many.

Before we conclude this discussion, it wouldn't be right to ignore Those Other Candidates. Logically, this is a two-man race. Rationally, we can't bring ourselves to close three other names out of the conversation until everyone reaches the finish line:

Miguel Cabrera

Has anybody noticed Cabrera is having a spectacular year? He keeps bobbing in and out of the league lead in average, on-base percentage and multi-hit games. He's hitting .387 with runners in scoring position. He has been responsible for a higher percentage of his team's runs produced (16.0 percent) than any regular player in the league. And according to the stat gurus at Baseball Prospectus, the only player in the NL who has had a "more valuable" year than Cabrera, as measured by his value over an average replacement player (VORP), is Pujols. And Cabrera was actually No. 1 in those rankings until Pujols' game-winning double Tuesday against the Astros.

Lance Berkman

Try leading the league in RBI while hitting in that Astros lineup. It isn't easy. But Berkman is No. 2 in the league, even though he has 31 fewer plate appearances with runners in scoring position than Howard and 17 fewer home runs. But when you hit .387 with runners in scoring position, as Berkman has, almost anything is possible. Berkman is also hanging around the league leaders in homers, average, slugging and on-base percentage. So if the Astros somehow make the playoffs and he has a big finish, he'd be an incredibly credible candidate for a guy whose name has barely shown up in an MVP conversation so far.

Carlos Beltran

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