Alex Rodriquez or Miguel Tejada? Is there any other choice? The two American League shortstops appear to be the frontrunners for this season’s Most Valuable Player award. A-Rod has put up astronomic numbers this year (.305, 57 HR, 140 RBI), while Tejada has been huge for Oakland all season, especially during the team’s 22-game winning streak which spanned August and September. But because the criteria for the honor are a bit ambiguous, it is nearly impossible to determine a clear-cut favorite, let alone a winner.

Instead of toiling away in Webster’s Dictionary searching for the true meaning of the word “valuable,” I suggest the voters take a slightly different approach. Stay in the AL West, but forget Rodriquez, forget Tejada and take a look at the little guy from Disneyland wreaking all sorts of havoc. No, not Pinocchio. Instead, examine the portfolio of Angels shortstop David Eckstein.

Eckstein, whose media guide headshot looks like it came from a high school yearbook, is a breath of fresh air when compared to the hulking specimens that pass for infielders these days.

At 5′ 7″, 170 pounds Eckstein is all hustle when he steps on the field. The team leader in runs and triples, Eckstein is constantly looking to take an extra base whenever he can. His coaches contend that he is the most fundamentally sound player on the club, and possibly in all of baseball. Respecting his tenacity and appreciating his contributions both on and off the field, teammates say they perform better knowing he’s around. Eckstein squeezes every last drop of talent from his tiny frame, and the Angels are reaping the benefits.

Eckstein is the ideal leadoff hitter. He is extremely effective at working the count, routinely fouling off pitches while laying off of anything outside the strike zone. Once on base, Eckstein constantly draws numerous looks and throws from the pitcher, averting attention away from the other Anaheim hitters. Also known for his wonderful bunting ability, Eckstein has been co-conspirator in a number of successful “squeeze” plays this season. These combined elements make Eckstein one of the best at manufacturing runs, keeping the defense guessing and single-handedly shifting the momentum of a game.While homeruns continue to fly out of major league stadiums in absurd quantities, Eckstein does most of his damage inside the park. He is a master at the game of “small ball.” Much more concerned with on-base percentage than he is with power numbers or even batting average, Eckstein has been hit by a pitch a whopping 27 times this season ? tops in the majors. And unlike many of baseball’s heavy hitters, Eckstein does not don any protective armor or additional padding when he digs in at the plate. Leading the American League with 14 sacrifice hits this season (8 flies, 6 bunts) Eckstein, without a doubt, understands the concept of giving up oneself for the good of the team. Whenever there is dirty work to be done, the scrappy Eckstein is more than willing to take things into his own hands.

But don’t think that Eckstein’s lack of raw power production implies he isn’t capable of knocking one out. He also leads the majors in another surprising category this season ? grand slam homeruns, with three. Turns out there is some pop in Eckstein’s bat after all, he just keeps it tucked away for the right moments.

To watch Eckstein throw runners out at first base, it is clear that his arm would better suit him at second base. But shortstop is where Angels manager Mike Scioscia needed him to play at the start of the season, and Eckstein readily accepted the new role. Because he does not have a cannon attached to his right shoulder like other fellow shortstops, Eckstein focuses on mechanics and positioning to gun runners down. This allows him to make difficult plays that might be otherwise impossible given his arm strength.

It would be preposterous to suggest that Anaheim’s surprising season can be solely attributed to the play of its shortstop. Great starting pitching, solid defense and a dependable bullpen have all played roles in the Angels’ winning ways. But if you don’t think Eckstein is as indispensable to his club as Rodriquez, Tejada and the other MVP candidates are to theirs, it is probably because you haven’t seen the following statistic.

Since his rookie year in 2001, Anaheim has won 45 more games than they’ve lost when Eckstein starts in the leadoff spot, and is 22-43 when he doesn’t. Alex? Miguel? Forget modern day inflated power numbers and misleading percentages for a minute ? that is a stat that doesn’t lie.

To say the Angels, who need one more win to clinch their first playoff appearance since 1986, struggle without their diminutive shortstop in the lineup is an understatement. Eckstein is a true headlight illuminating the basepath for a lineup that boasts big bats Garrett Anderson, Tim Salmon, Troy Glaus and Brad Fullmer further down the order.

Most likely Eckstein will garner no serious attention for the award. If anyone in Anaheim is to receive any votes at all, it will probably be Anderson, who is having a career year in leftfield. But what the voting committee has yet to grasp is that just because Eckstein is not as statistically extraordinary as some of his peers at shortstop, it does not render him any less important to his team’s success.

After all, you can’t explode into a higher gear without good spark plugs.

Gerton can be reached at mgerton@campustimes.org.



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