The short answer is, um, sotra but not really. I think the whole "whose team would be the most screwed without him" analysis can be a helpful thought experiment, but it has its limitations in picking the MVP. For one thing, as someone -- maybe Yogi Berra, but maybe not -- once said, if you truly looked at things that way, you'd be giving the MVP to the catcher every year because without him you'd have a lot of passed balls.
More seriously speaking, that approach requires us -- if we're being truly honest as opposed to engaging in hyperbole -- to think about what would actually happen if, say, Albert Pujols wasn't there. Isn't it possible that for every MVP candidate, there is some Gehrigsque player behind him just waiting to Pipp him? Sure, no one is likely to step in for St. Louis and rake like Albert Pujols does, but then again, when Pujols came up nobody thought he'd hit as well as Bobby Bonilla. The point is that looking at things through the prism of "whose absence would hurt his team the most" is a tough thing to do if we're really being serious, because we simply can't know the full answer to that question. At least without engaging in an even wider-range analysis. I don't know about you, but to me, analyzing potential minor league replacements or potential trade scenarios when thinking about the MVP is mission creep.
Because of that, I prefer to look at both that amorphous "replaceability" analysis and winning. Yes, the Cards will be screwed if Albert Pujols' injury turns out to be serious, but they could be screwed anyway. What if they lost 70% of the rest of their games because the pitching staff explodes? If Pujols is healthy and keeps raking like he has been, he's still probably the guy whose team would have been the most screwed without him because he's still, relatively speaking, the most important guy on that team. I'd have a hard time giving him the MVP, however, because relative value or not, I feel like the stakes still have to matter. Simply put, I'd prefer the MVP to go to a guy whose team won something or came close most of the time.
It's kind of a messy, hybrid approach to it, but I have a hierarchy in mind when I think about the MVP that sort of goes like this:
1. Identify the top couple of statistical performers from the season. Yes, pitchers count;Most of the time, the MVP will show himself via that process. Sometimes he won't, though, either because the best teams are made up of many, many high performers, none of whom stand out among league leaders -- think the 1998 Yankees of 2008 Cubs so far -- or because there is a league leader type who puts up a historic or semi-historic season for a team that didn't do so well. That last group of people gets talked about a lot -- you'll hear it about Josh Hamilton and Lance Berkman this year -- but I want to be clear: I'm not just talking about the RBI leader here. I'm talking about a transcendent or record setting kind of year from someone on a losing team. That simply doesn't happen very often because truly historic seasons tend to help teams win a lot of games. When it does, you'll probably know it.
2. Separate the ones that are on contenders;
3. Of those, make a quasi qualitative judgment -- a gut call really -- based on who did better late, who was the better all around player, etc. Basically, who, among the top performers on the contenders, just sort of feels like the MVP. The statheads are cringing now. That's OK, though, because they're cute when they're outraged;
4. Qualitative stuff like that can be hard, of course, so if it's really close, get out your spreadsheet and really break down who of the two or three contender candidates was truly better. Some prefer to do this earlier in the process, so that they're only discussing the best players in the league. Maybe that makes more sense. I just don't like to do it that way.
Two additional rules:
5. Barring odd things like war service, career-threatening injuries, or fighting cancer or something, I give no credit to anything anyone did the year before or the year before that. What I mean is, I don't subscribe to the idea that Player X shouldn't win the MVP because he won it last year or that Player Y should win it because he had a "break out" year, even if he wasn't the best. Basketball is awful about that, but it happens in baseball too. I only care about the season in front of me. And now that I think about, it I'm reluctant to even count the cancer or the war service. There are other honors which cover those things.So that's my super duper highly original system. I'm guessing that about 80% of the people who actually vote on the thing approach it that way. We just notice it more when a small handful of guys vote for some crazy person.
6. I don't sweat it as much as most people do. Every fall there are 10 million words written about who should or shouldn't be the MVP. There are years using my system, such as it is, in which I'll get it wrong. Guess what? Four months later Spring Training starts again and it really doesn't matter.