Jayson Stark
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Thursday, September 21
Giambi instrumental to Oakland's success

Frank Thomas leads the league in home runs and RBI. But does that make him the American League MVP?

Carlos Delgado has heard Carl Yastrzemski's name for two months. But does that make him the MVP?

Alex Rodriguez has 30 more homers than errors (38-8). But is he the MVP?

Jason Giambi
Jason Giambi ranks among league leaders in HRs, RBI, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

Without Pedro Martinez, it would be tough to tell the Red Sox from the Cubs. But should a pitcher who has played in 28 games be the MVP?

And then there's Oakland's Jason Giambi. As the A's head into their humongous four-game series in Seattle this weekend, we want you to look again at all these MVP contenders and think about this:

If the A's make the playoffs, is there really any everyday player on any of these teams who is more valuable to his team than Giambi is to Oakland?

Here's one way to measure his value: When Giambi plays, the A's are 80-60 (through Wednesday). That's a better winning percentage (.571) than the Mets. When he doesn't play, they're 2-8. That's a worse winning percentage (.200) than the '62 Mets.

"He means as much to us as any of those other guys people are talking about," says his manager, Art Howe. "Look at our record when he's out of the lineup. That tells you just what he means to our club."

It might help if some MIT professor would come up with some set formula to measure what an MVP means. But half the fun of this is that there is no formula. So in the absence of one, a vital stat we've always looked at when voting for this award was a team's record with and without that player.

Delgado hasn't missed a game. That's to his credit, but it renders this factor inapplicable in his case. Thomas has missed one game (a White Sox victory, by the way), so ditto. Pedro is a pitcher, so double-ditto.

That leaves Giambi and Rodriguez. A-Rod has missed 14 games this year. Amazingly, the Mariners actually have a better record when he doesn't play (9-5, .643) than when he does (77-61, .558 through Wednesday). Since Rodriguez returned from his sprained knee, Seattle has gone just 26-23.

That doesn't mean A-Rod isn't one of the greatest shortstops ever. It obviously doesn't mean he's not a legitimate MVP candidate, either.

But it does tell you a little about how geared the Mariners are to surviving without him. Likewise, Giambi's numbers speak volumes about how the Athletics' whole chemistry is different when he's MIA.

"There isn't a team in baseball who wouldn't miss a guy like that," says GM Billy Beane. "Well, maybe the Yankees. But we're more affected than most teams because we don't have the depth that the Yankees have. We depend more on Jason, because of a lot of these guys around him are so young, they aren't ready to be the go-to-guy. They will be some day, but not now.

"Seattle played well without A-Rod, but that's a veteran club. We're not. ... We have a young team, and Jason's someone we lean on. He takes the pressure off our younger players. But the bottom line, the biggest reason we miss him, is: He's our best player."

The Big Four
Stats through Wednesday of the four leading hitting candidates for the AL MVP:
  A-Rod Delgado Thomas Giambi
G 138 151 149 141
AB 515 536 550 479
R 125 112 112 96
H 167 191 183 158
HR 38 40 42 38
RBI 122 136 142 126
BB 95 113 104 119
SO 111 97 92 91
OBP .428 .476 .437 .464
SLG .614 .685 .642 .630
AVG .324 .356 .333 .330

Of course, he'd be just about any team's best player. He's in the top five in the AL in walks, on-base percentage, slugging, home runs, RBI and grand slams. He's hitting .348 with men in scoring position. And over the last couple of weeks, it's almost a shock any time he makes an out (since he's 27 for his last 64, with eight homers and 21 RBI over a mere 16 games).

"I'll tell you what," says teammate Randy Velarde. "He's what makes this team go. It's one thing for a guy to be a power hitter. But this guy's a disciplined hitter. He knows the strike zone. He knows how to hit. He's the total package. He's left-handed. And he's still young (just 29)."

With a week and a half left in the season, Giambi has already broken Oakland's franchise record for RBI in a season -- on a club that has employed a few hitters you may have heard of (such as Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Reginald Jackson). "And I think," Howe chuckles, "he's going to get a few more before the season ends."

But in Giambi's case, you measure his value in more than records or numbers. You measure it by taking a gaze at what he has around him in the lineup. And what he has around him is a lineup so young, you could see these guys spending more time watching Nickelodeon than ESPN Classic.

"It's scary the numbers he's going to put up," Velarde said. "No disrespect to Ben Grieve, but if we had a legitimate production guy behind him, there's no telling what he might do. Ben Grieve is a talented player. But if you're the opposition, who would you want to beat you -- Jason or Ben Grieve?"

Of the seven men around Giambi in the lineup, only two -- Velarde and Matt Stairs -- are in their 30s. So Giambi is accutely award of his sense of responsbility to be a leader and a stabilizer on a team that desperately needs one.

"The biggest thing for me," Giambi says, "was, I got lucky, having McGwire take me under his wing when I was a young player. I got to see what it meant for a guy like that to take a leadership role on a team, right from the beginning. And now the way for me to make a difference on this team is to pass that on to these young kids.

"It's only my sixth year in the big leagues, and I'm not much older than they are. But he was there to pass that on to me. And now it's up to me to pass that on to them."

When Giambi arrived in the big leagues midway through the '95 season, McGwire was just coming out of the worst period in his career -- a two-year, injury-plagued funk in which he compiled just 219 at-bats and 18 homers in the '93 and '94 seasons combined. But McGwire's ability to maintain his composure and his presence on a team in its own period of flux left its mark on Giambi.

"It sped up my learning curve," Giambi says. "This is a guy who has been through as many ups and downs as you could go through, and I don't think he gets enough credit for that. He hit 49 homers as a rookie. He hit .201. He was hurt. He hit 70. He went through every different experience you could go through. And now he's come through it to be a better player at 37 than he was at 27. But the reason is, his mental game is unbelievable."

Now the same could be said for Giambi, who has turned into one of the rare people in the game who rise up when the games and the at-bats mean the most. Like the series against Seattle.

"You dream about playing in games like this," he says. "This is what every player plays for. People say we make a lot of money, and that's what we're all about. But the truth is, everyone wants to win. I look back now, and I can't imagine how I played those other Septembers when we were practically losing 100 games."

Matter of fact, in his first two Septembers, when the A's would have had trouble winning in the Pacific Coast League, Giambi hit a combined .151 (13-for-86). But in the last two Septembers -- his first two with a contender -- he was hitting a combined .345 (61-for-177) through Wednesday.

"I love the challenge," Giambi says. "I love the competition. I love being in that role. I can accept it. I understand that you don't get it done all the time, but I love having everyone say, 'Hey, that's our guy.' I want to be at the plate with men in scoring position and the game on the line. I love being that guy."

That may not make him much different from Thomas or Delgado or Rodriguez. That may not be enough to make him a surefire MVP. But no team has played more pressure games this month than Oakland. And no hitter has met that pressure better than Jason Giambi.

"I don't know how people vote," Stairs says. "But usually, if you're looking at MVP, you say, 'Would this team be there without him?' And the answer, for us, is no. Without Jason Giambi, we wouldn't be in this situation. It's as simple as that."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

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