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Awards Watch: Mike Trout takes over AL MVP lead, NL race tightens

Mike Trout now leads the American League in slugging percentage and OPS and is second in on-base percentage. Photo:

Mike Trout now leads the American League in slugging percentage and OPS and is second in on-base percentage.

Awards Watch checks back in on the Most Valuable Player races, where a familiar face takes a commanding lead in the American League and the National League race tightens up behind the top spot.

Note: All stats are through Wednesday, June 18. 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.

American League

1. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (3)

Season Stats: .311/.397/.610, 16 HR, 54 RBI, 9 SB, 47 R

Last Three Weeks: .414/.486/.879, 6 HR, 19 RBI, 4 SB, 14 R, 15 G

Trout has hit .410/.475/.819 since May 20, opening up a huge lead in this race. He leads the league in slugging, OPS (at 1.008, he’s the only player in the league with a four-digit figure), OPS+ (184), is second in on-base percentage and total bases (155), third in triples (5), fourth in RBI, fifth in runs, and has stolen those nine bases without being caught. If you add net steals to total bases, Trout leads the majors with 164. That’s all without getting into his play in centerfield or the fact that the Angels are tied for the third-best record in the league. Of course, the last of those facts should be irrelevant here, but, sadly, it may be as crucial to his hopes of finally winning this award as everything else that preceded it above.

2. Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, Yankees

Season Stats: 11-1, 1.99 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 10.2 K/9, 7.06 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 2 CG, 1 SHO, 204 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 4-0, 1.24 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 10.6 K/9, 5.67 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS, 1 CG

Like I said, Trout has a huge lead in this race, so Tanaka is currently in no danger of winning this award, particularly given that pitchers are typically treated as second-class players in the MVP voting. Still, other than Trout, no player in the American League is having as sensational a season as Tanaka, who at this point has clear leads in the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year races. No player has ever won all three awards in the same season, and it would be a monster of a story if Tanaka, who is both a $175 million Japanese import and a 25-year-old rookie, became the first. However, history tells us that pitchers only win MVP awards in seasons that fail to produce clearly deserving hitting seasons, so Trout would have to cooperate for Tanaka to gain serious consideration.

3. Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays (4)

Season Stats: .312/.432/.540, 15 HR, 48 RBI, 51 R

Last Three Weeks: .343/.425/.571, 3 HR, 12 RBI, 12 R

Bautista, who leads the majors with 53 walks, has two more unintentional passes than strikeouts on the season. Over the last three weeks, he got on base at a .425 clip and his on-base percentage actually went down. Despite that, he still leads second-place Trout in that category by 35 points. Bautista’s avoidance of outs is the crux of his MVP case given how important that is and how much better he has been at it this season than anyone else in the league, but it’s not his only virtue. He’s seventh in the league in slugging, third in OPS, second in OPS+ (166), and trails only Yoenis Cespedes in all of baseball with seven assists from the outfield.

4. Nelson Cruz, LF, Orioles (1)

Season Stats: .299/.367/.602, 22 HR, 58 RBI, 44 R

Last Three Weeks: .282/.342/.437, 3 HR, 10 RBI, 6 R

From April 20 to June 3, Cruz hit 19 home runs on 40 games. In the 14 games that followed, however, he failed to hit another one. When Cruz homered off Rays rookie Kirby Yates in the eighth inning of the Orioles’ 2-0 win over Tampa Bay on Wednesday, he snapped a streak of 55 at-bats and 59 plate appearances without a home run, during which he had managed just one extra-base hit (a double on June 7) and hit .236/.288/.255. Despite that slump, Cruz is still leading the majors in home runs and RBI and the AL in total bases (159).

A defensive profile that finds Cruz splitting time between playing a sub-par (but not as awful as his reputation would have you believe) leftfield and being a designated hitter does Cruz no favors. But his bat has been so productive on the season as a whole that he’s still holding tight as the third-most valuable hitter in the league despite that power outage.

5. Michael Brantley, LF, Indians

Season Stats: .323/.391/.519, 11 HR, 46 RBI, 9 SB, 49 R

Last Three Weeks: .364/.432/.545, 2 HR, 7 RBI, 17 R

A former centerfielder with speed and a strong arm (he is tied with Bautista and Red Sox rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. for second among outfielders with seven assists), Brantley surprisingly grades out as below average in leftfield according to the three major advanced fielding metrics (Defensive Runs Saved, Ultimate Zone Rating, and Fielding Runs Above Average). That undermines his candidacy somewhat and keeps him behind Cruz despite Brantley’s robust batting line and more athletic profile. Like Trout, Brantley has stolen his nine bases without being caught. Add those to Brantley’s total bases and recalculate his slugging and you get .553, still nearly 50 points shy of Cruz.

Still, Brantley’s break-out age-27 performance thus far deserves acknowledgment here. Sadly, he’s unlikely to remain on this list three weeks from now. Brantley suffered a concussion when he hit his head on Angels shortstop John McDonald’s knee while trying to break up a double play on Monday. If that sounds familiar, that’s because that’s the same way Justin Morneau suffered his concussion in 2010, and the same shortstop.

Off the list: Josh Donaldson, Victor Martinez

National League

1. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies (1)

Season Stats: .356/.445/.653, 18 HR, 45 RBI, 56 R

Last Three Weeks: .324/.370/.529, 4 HR, 8 RBI, 11 R

Tulowitzki’s batting line peaked at .421/.522/.794 on May 6 after 134 plate appearances. Since then, he has hit .302/.374/.535 in 147 plate appearances. The latter line is a near-perfect match for his career line since his first full major league season in 2007 (.301/.375/.525). Of course, given his typically elite play at shortstop, which has continued this season, Tulowitzki would be an MVP candidate even at his established level. So with those first 134 plate appearances in the bank, it’s no surprise that he still holds a comfortable lead on this list.

2. Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates

Season Stats: .321/.432/.546, 11 HR, 41 RBI, 9 SB, 38 R

Last Three Weeks: .338/.424/.757, 7 HR, 18 RBI, 13 R

The defending National League MVP has had an outstanding June thus far, hitting .391/.466/.875 on the month with seven home runs in 16 games and multiple hits in ten of those 16 games. From June 8 to June 15, McCutchen had two hits in eight straight games, the longest streak of multi-hit games in the majors since the BravesChris Johnson had eight in a row last July.

But McCutchen isn’t just having a better season to date than he did a year ago when he won this award; he’s having a significantly better season overall. McCutchen is now out-hitting his 2013 self by 28 points of on-base percentage (thanks to his league-leading 51 walks) and 38 points of slugging despite a batting average just four points higher. McCutchen is also on pace for more home runs and more RBI than he had last year and for a career-high 50 doubles. Oh, and he has stolen those nine bases without being caught once.

3. Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Marlins (3)

Season Stats: .299/.394/.593, 20 HR, 57 RBI, 5 SB, 51 R

Last Three Weeks: .243/.338/.514, 5 HR, 8 RBI, 13 R

Stanton’s power is so impressive that it’s easy to think of him simply as a slugger and take his numbers above at face value, but doing so ignores the fact that he’s actually an excellent all-around athlete. The advanced metrics all indicate that he has been playing an outstanding rightfield this year, and he has five steals in as many attempts on the season. Then there’s the matter of Marlins Park, which for the rest of the league is one of the hardest places to hit a home run in the majors. You wouldn’t know it to watch Stanton, who has hit 13 of his league-leading 20 taters over those gaudy lime-green walls.

4. Jonathan Lucroy, C, Brewers

Season Stats: .341/.405/.536, 8 HR, 37 RBI, 35 R

Last Three Weeks: .378/.427/.676, 6 HR, 15 RBI, 15 R

I might be underrating Lucroy here given that he is consistently rated as one of the best pitch-framers in the game and has caught more innings this season than all but two other catchers (Miguel Montero and Yadier Molina). Lucroy is actually leading the NL in hits thus far this season (tied with Paul Goldschmidt, who just missed this list), which is notable because no catcher has ever led his league in hits. Lucroy is unlikely to change that, but it’s still remarkable that he’s in that position in late June. Over the last month, Lucroy has hit .395/.449/.684 with 45 hits including 13 doubles. He second in the majors (to Goldschmidt) in the latter category with 25 doubles on the season. And, of course, he deserves extra credit for following the Diamondbacks' deliberate plunking of Ryan Braun on Tuesday with a first-pitch grand slam. Kirk Gibson may have ordered the hit on Braun, but it was Lucroy who was straight-up gangsta.

5. Carlos Gomez, CF, Brewers (4)

Season Stats: .313/.381/.544, 12 HR, 38 RBI, 11 SB, 46 R

Last Three Weeks: .284/.342/.403, 1 HR, 8 RBI, 1 SB, 11 R

Gomez’s maturation from a speed-and-defense guy into an elite hitter continues, something the Brewers acknowledged by moving him from leadoff to cleanup in their order on May 23. Gomez has thus far responded by hitting .341/.394/.516 from his new lineup spot. Gomez’s isolated power (slugging minus batting average) has improved in every one of his major league seasons, and has done so again this year, reaching a career high .232.

A newer development this year is the improvement in the formerly hacky Gomez’s walk rate, down to an unintentional walk every 13 plate appearances from one UIBB every 16.8 PA last year. Gomez isn’t contributing as much with his legs and glove as he has in past years, but he’s making up for it with his bat.

Off the list: Yasiel Puig, Adam Wainwright

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