Tulowitzki lapping field in early NL MVP race; Bautista tops AL
After checking in on all three major player awards with last week's lightning round, Awards Watch takes its first in-depth look at a single honor this week by examining the Most Valuable Player races. While the American League field is more competitive, the National League's leading performances are far more compelling.
Note: All stats are through Wednesday, May 7. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics. The number in parentheses after a player's name reflects his rank on the previous list.
1. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies (1)
Season Stats: .414/.511/.755, 9 HR, 31 RBI, 34 R
On the Rockies' recent five-game homestand, Tulowitzki went 13-for-19 (.684) with multiple hits in every game and three hits in three of them. He reached base in 17 of his 23 plate appearances (.739 OBP) and, thanks to a pair of doubles and a two-homer game, collected 21 total bases in 19 at-bats for a 1.105 slugging percentage. He is now hitting a similar .608/.677/1.098 at home this season. This has all been done in a relatively small sample, but those numbers are so completely bonkers that he could fail to reach base in his next 50 plate appearances at Coors Field and still be hitting .307/.383/.554 at home on the year. Did I mention he has only struck out four times at home in those 65 plate appearances? He's has hardly been a slouch on the road, either (.250/.365/.500).
Simply put, Tulowitzki is on another planet right now. He leads the majors in batting average by 55 points, in on-base percentage by 27 points and in slugging by 156 points. He's also leading the majors in total bases and playing Gold Glove-worthy shortstop.
2. Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Marlins
Season Stats: .295/.384/.598, 10 HR, 38 RBI, 3 SB
Home/road splits aren't always a direct result of the nature of a ballpark. Sometimes hitters and pitchers are just more comfortable in familiar surroundings for any number of reasons, both on and off the field. Consider Giancarlo Stanton, who plays his home games in pitcher-friendly Marlins Park but thus far this season has a home OPS 491 points higher than his road mark.
Overall, Stanton, who had a disappointing 2013 campaign marked by a slow start and subsequent injury, has been replicating his extremely productive age-22 season of 2012 (.290/.361/.608 with 37 home runs in 123 games). His slight increase in on-base percentage is due to a rise in intentional walks; his next will tie his career high of nine set in 2012. At that pace, Stanton will be passed intentionally 38 times this season. Since 1955, which is as far back as records go for that stat, only Willie McCovey, Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols have been walked intentionally that many times in a season.
3. Charlie Blackmon, CF/RF, Rockies (3)
Season Stats: .359/.396/.602, 7 HR, 25 RBI, 8 SB
Blackmon has now hit .330/.369/.554 in 124 plate appearances since his six-hit game on April 4, with a completely sustainable batting average on balls in play over that span. Yes, his home/road split is significant, but it's comparable to Stanton's. Given that Blackmon is in his age-27 season and hit .309/.336/.467 last year and .309/.384/.493 in 835 career Triple A plate appearances, there isn't likely to be a major correction coming.
Also encouraging are Blackmon's radically different strikeout and walk rates in the early going. He is taking ball four roughly twice as often as he did last year and striking out almost one-third as often, resulting in a 10:7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Beyond his hitting, Blackmon is a strong fielder who will go back to centerfield full-time when Michael Cuddyer returns from his hamstring injury and has stolen eight bases in 10 attempts in the early going. He may stick around on this list for a while.
4. Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates
Season Stats: .321/.431/.519, 4 HR, 18 RBI, 4 SB
Nothing to see here, just last year's NL MVP doing almost exactly what he did last year. Oh, by the way, here's another hitter in a power-suppressing ballpark doing most of his slugging at home. Eleven of McCutchen's 16 extra-base hits, including all four of his home runs this season, have come at PNC Park.
5. Johnny Cueto, RHP, Reds
Season Stats: 3-2, 1.31 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, 9.8 K/9, 4.00 K/BB, 7.9 IP/GS, 2 CG, 1 SHO, 277 ERA+
Cueto has been the best pitcher in baseball this season. Consider: he has pitched at least seven innings while allowing two runs or fewer in each of his first seven starts; he has gone at least eight innings in his last four starts; and in his final three starts in April he fell just one inning shy of three straight complete games while giving up a total of one run in 26 innings. He leads the majors in most key pitching categories, adding innings pitched (55) and hits per nine innings (4.1) to those highlighted above. As that latter number suggests, he has been as lucky has he has been good, with opposing hitters batting .154 on balls in play, but, for our purposes here, it's the performance, not its sustainability, that matters.
Off the list: Chase Utley
1. Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays (1)
Season Stats: .300/.458/.583, 9 HR, 21 RBI
While Tulowitzki may be lapping the field in the NL MVP race, the AL competition lacks any particularly outsized performances. Bautista's season thus far looks a lot like his 2011 campaign, the follow up to his breakout 54-home-run season of 2010. In '11, Bautista led the majors in home runs (43), slugging percentage (.608), OPS (1.056) and walks (132) while hitting .302/.447/.608, finishing a deserving third in the MVP voting in a similarly underwhelming race. After two years shortened by injury, Bautista is back to his old tricks with a 43-homer pace, a major league-leading 34 walks, a very similar slash line and the AL's best OPS.
2. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (2)
Season Stats: .287/.373/.535, 6 HR, 20 RBI, 4 SB
By his own standards, Trout has been merely good so far this season, hitting and stealing bases below his career rates. Still, the total value of his hitting, running and fielding continues to make him one of the most valuable players in the league. In fact, both the Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs versions of wins above replacement say he has been the best player in the AL this year. Despite that, he can't overcome the 85 points of on-base percentage and 48 points of slugging he concedes to Bautista, even after park-factor adjustments close those gaps, but his overall game is enough for him to out-rank the rest of the league.
3. Shin-Soo Choo, LF, Rangers
Season Stats: .354/.484/.531, 3 HR, 10 RBI
Choo went 11-for-16 with six walks and a hit-by-pitch in the first five games of May, good for a .688 batting average and .783 on-base percentage over that span. Those are Tulowitzkian numbers, albeit without Tulo's power or defense. Perhaps not coincidentally, the last two of those five games came against Tulowitzki's Rockies in Denver.
Choo's rate stats suggest he should be even higher on this list, but he missed a week with an ankle sprain in late April, and a week at this early date is comparable to a month over the entire season. That is to say that, given his poor defensive ratings and low-percentage basestealing (3-for-5 on the season), missing those games was enough to prevent Choo from surpassing Trout despite Choo's recent hot hitting.
4. Albert Pujols, 1B, Angels
Season Stats: .293/.358/.579, 10 HR, 26 RBI
White Sox rookie Jose Abreu is grabbing more headlines (and magazine covers), but fellow first baseman Albert Pujols is having the better season, one comparable to his 2010 campaign, when he led the NL in home runs, RBIs and OPS+ as a Cardinal and finished second in the NL MVP voting. Not only is Pujols leading Abreu by 31 points of batting average, and, largely as a result, 33 points of on-base percentage, but when you adjust for their home ballparks, he is hitting for more power, as well. Pujols is also the stronger fielder and has struck out 22 fewer times in just six fewer plate appearances.
5. Max Scherzer, RHP, Tigers
Season Stats: 4-1, 1.72 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 11.5 K/9, 5.00 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS, 247 ERA+
As he was last year, Scherzer has been the American League's best pitcher this season. Look no further than the bold type above for evidence. He struck out 10 men in five innings in his only non-quality start of the year and has allowed a total of just five runs in his other six starts combined, twice holding his opposition scoreless for eight full innings. What's more, unlike Cueto, his success has come with a sustainable .276 opponents' batting average on balls in play, a mark 16 points higher than in his Cy Young season of a year ago.
Off the list: Alexei Ramirez