In a bit of an upset, Justin Morneau, first baseman for the Twins, won the AL MVP today in a close vote over Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. Morneau, who hit .321 with 34 HR and 130 RBI is probably the most improbable, and for the moment, the most anonymous league MVP of this generation. A native of British Columbia, Canada, Morneau won the award in only his second full season as the Twins starting first baseman. What makes it all the more impressive is that his huge year came after a season in 2005 in which he fell well short of lofty expectations that were heaped upon him.
For Morneau to break through and win the award meant he had to overcome a lack of name recognition that comes his lack of experience and his status as member of a smaller market team in the Twins. And the players he finished above in the voting are about as big-name as they come: Derek Jeter, David Ortiz, and Frank Thomas. Usually in baseball, big names like that end up walking away with the award. The only leauge MVPs in the last 15 years that are comparable in terms of their surprise emergence are Ken Caminiti who won for the Padres in 1996, and Terry Pendleton for the Braves in 1991. But even those two players were more firmly established when they won the honors than Morneau is now.
Maybe the most comparable example to Morneau is Miguel Tejada, who won the AL MVP for Oakland in 2002. His numbers that year are eerily similar to those of Morneau this year - he also had 34 HR with 131 RBI. Both players were the top offensive threats on teams that were not star-studded but were full of good players. And the key thing is that both players played their best during remarkable winning stretches by their teams. You may remember that the A's won 20 games in a row in that 2002 season, and this year's Twins overcame a mediocore April and May to become the hottest team in baseball over the final four months of the season. Both teams won their division in tight races, and as a side note, both teams were upset in the first round of the playoffs - the A's in 2002 by Minnesota, and Minnesota by the A's in 2006 ironically enough.
If anything the MVP results in both leagues this year show that you need a torrid stretch in the back half of the season in addition to solid production throughout the year in order to win the award. This year's two second-place winners, Jeter in the AL and Albert Pujols in the NL, had great overall seasons, but did not have the signature late-season stretch that gave the MVPs to Morneau and Ryan Howard of the Phillies in the NL.