Few seasons produce this many legitimate MVP candidates. Five American League position players are worthy, but a 5-foot-11, 170-pound pitcher towers above the field.
Pedro Martinez is the MVP.
If there was any doubt, it should have been erased Sept. 10, when Martinez delivered one of the great pennant-race performances in recent memory, a 17-strikeout, one-hit victory in the opener of a three-game series at Yankee Stadium.
Some in Boston suggested that Martinez's domination of the defending world champions was more impressive than Roger Clemens' two 20-strikeout games -- Clemens overpowered a 95-loss Seattle team in 1986, and a 109-loss Detroit team in '96.
This much is certain -- Martinez set the tone for a pivotal series, inspiring the second-place Red Sox to a three-game sweep that solidified their wild-card chances and reduced the Yankees' lead to 3 1/2 games in the AL East.
True, only seven pitchers have won AL MVP, most recently Clemens in 1986. But the Red Sox are 22-5 in games started by Martinez, 63-57 with everyone else. Never mind that the Cy Young Award exists for the best pitcher. What player is more valuable to his team?
In any other season, a case could be made for each of the following:
Roberto Alomar. The Good Robbie is back, just like he always is in his first year with a new club. Alomar is the first player in Indians history to record 20 homers, 100 runs scored, 100 RBIs and 30 steals. His defense at second base -- a valued up-the-middle position -- is a nightly revelation.
You could argue that no Indian should be MVP because the team runs unopposed in the AL Central. You could argue that Manny Ramirez's 96 RBIs in the first half made him more valuable to the club. But it's impossible to demean Alomar's all-around magnificence this season.
His Orioles replacement, Delino DeShields, has scored 81 fewer runs.
Rafael Palmeiro. The best free-agent signing in Orioles history, and maybe the best in Rangers history, too. Palmeiro is fifth in the league with a .335 batting average, tied for second with 44 homers and second with 139 RBIs. Four more RBIs and a final average above .322 would give him career-highs in all three categories.
The knock on Palmeiro is all but 23 of his starts have come as a DH due to two off-season knee operations. All right, what if Palmeiro wins the Triple Crown? The Rangers last night began a 12-game homestand, and Palmeiro was batting .355 with a club-record 25 homers and 75 RBIs at the Ballpark in Arlington.
His Orioles replacement, Will Clark, has driven in 110 fewer runs.
Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter. Garciaparra leads the league with a .353 average, Jeter is second at .347. Garciaparra has made 14 errors, Jeter 13. Their power numbers are nearly identical, but injuries have limited Garciaparra to about 75 fewer at-bats.
Jeter is the Yankees' MVP, and his first half was astonishing. Still, his errors have risen from nine to 13, and this is his fourth straight season of 100 strikeouts. We're nit-picking, but Garciaparra has more walks (46) than strikeouts (38), and carries greater offensive responsibility for a lesser club.
Ivan Rodriguez. Some with the Rangers believe he is even more valuable than Palmeiro, citing his Gold Glove defense, strong second half and historic production for a catcher. Rodriguez's 34 homers tie the AL mark at his position. He's the first catcher in major-league history to record 20 homers and 20 steals. And he's the second to score 100 or more runs in a season twice.
Still, how can he be MVP when he might not deserve that honor on his own team? And how can any of the above be MVP when Martinez has almost single-handedly made the Red Sox a contender?
Let's get right to the principal argument against Martinez -- that by making only 30 starts, he will appear in less than one-fifth of his team's games.
The reality is that Martinez affects games the day before he pitches (when the bullpen can be extended) and the day after (when the bullpen is again fresh). Thus, his total impact extends to nearly 90 games.
Martinez leads the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts, a feat accomplished by only two other AL pitchers (Clemens and Hal Newhouser) in the last 50 years. He also leads in two equally important if less familiar categories -- opponents' batting average and opponents' on-base percentage leading off innings.
Where would the Red Sox be without him? They lost closer Tom Gordon to a season-ending injury on June 11. They've played long stretches without Garciappara and No. 2 starter Bret Saberhagen. But every fifth day -- except during Martinez's first-ever trip to the disabled list -- they've unleashed the biggest weapon in the game.
Martinez is so good, no one ever questions whether he's worthy of his six-year, $75 million contract. He excels at a time when quality pitching is scarce, on a team with only one other legitimate star.
It doesn't matter that he's a pitcher, or that five position players are enjoying MVP seasons. Pedro Martinez warrants an exception. Pedro Martinez is the American League MVP.