The sadly inevitable has finally happened: Troy Tulowitzki’s fragility has knocked him out of the top spot in the National League Most Valuable Player race. The result is that a tight field of contenders has become even tighter, with a big name re-joining the fray and Tulowitzki still in the mix. In fact, I could have used six spots for each league this week, as both races find an ascendant All-Star forcing his way into the middle of the list while things continue to tighten up on both ends of my top five.
Note: All stats are through Wednesday, July 30. 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. Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates (2)
Season Stats: .306/.406/.534, 17 HR, 63 RBI, 60 R, 17 SB
Last Three Weeks: .250/.352/.500, 3 HR, 8 RBI, 11 R, 4 SB
Heading into Thursday’s action McCutchen has come to the plate 96 more times than Tulowitzki, who has been out since July 19 with a hip flexor strain and has no projected return date. Given how close this race had become before Tulowitzki’s injury, that gap in playing time is enough to propel McCutchen into the lead. In Baseball-Reference’s neutralized batting stats, which attempt to translate all players’ numbers into the same scoring environment, McCutchen’s line translates to .324/.426/.568 against Tulo’s .333/.426/.587. Factor in McCutchen’s 17 steals in 18 attempts and the difference in slugging evaporates, making McCutchen the clear leader here.
2. Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Marlins (3)
Season Stats: .293/.394/.541, 24 HR, 72 RBI, 68 R, 10 SB
Last Three Weeks: .259/.385/.500, 3 HR, 9 RBI, 7 R
Stanton and McCutchen, both of whom play in pitcher-friendly home ballparks, have made almost the same number of plate appearances (Stanton is at 467, McCutchen 471) and posted very similar unadjusted slash lines. McCutchen, though, has the edge in the most important of the three slash stats (on-base percentage), as well as in stolen bases and park-adjusted OPS+ (163 to 156). Meanwhile, Stanton's neutralized batting line, according to B-Ref, is .304/.405/.558. The Miami star has received very high marks for his fielding this year, but I’ll take an average centerfielder who can put up those kind of numbers at the plate over an outstanding rightfielder doing the same.
3. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies (1)
Season Stats: .340/.432/.603, 21 HR, 52 RBI, 71 R
Last Three Weeks: .167/.286/.389, 1 HR, 3 RBI (5 G)
This is how far Tulowitzki’s hip injury has dropped him on this list. With no signs of progress in his rehabilitation and no projected return date, he’s likely to drop further by the time we check back in three weeks from now.
4. Yasiel Puig, OF, Dodgers
Season Stats: .316/.402/.541, 12 HR, 54 RBI, 59 R
Last Three Weeks: .390/.479/.707, 0 HR, 4 RBI, 8 R
Puig is the big gainer in the NL MVP race at the moment. He stormed back on to the list for two major reasons: a red-hot performance at the plate, highlighted by his three triples and 11 total bases against the Giants on Friday, and what looks like a permanent move to centerfield in that same game, which raises the value of everything he does at the plate going forward. There are three reasons, however, for why Puig remains behind Tulowitzki: his advantage in playing time (427 PAs to Tulo's 375) isn’t as great as those of McCutchen and Stanton; his base stealing has been detrimental (he has been caught in half of his 14 attempts); and he has spent most of the season as an erratic rightfielder and has made just five starts in center.
5. Jonathan Lucroy, C, Brewers (4)
Season Stats: .306/.374/.492, 12 HR, 50 RBI, 51 R
Last Three Weeks: .194/.254/.387, 3 HR, 6 RBI, 8 R
The fifth spot on this list is a virtual tie between Lucroy and the Diamondbacks’ Paul Goldschmidt, the latter of whom has largely replicated Stanton’s season, except as a first baseman in a hitter’s park. I’m breaking the tie in favor of Lucroy, who also plays in a hitter’s park, because the things he does behind the plate are likely even more valuable than we can measure. The fact that Lucroy’s team is in first place and Goldschmidt's is in fourth, 14 games below .500, is not relevant. This is an individual award. Team performance should never factor into it.
Off the list: Paul Goldschmidt
1. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (1)
Season Stats: .299/.388/.582, 24 HR, 76 RBI, 74 R, 10 SB
Last Three Weeks: .279/.347/.544, 4 HR, 12 RBI, 14 R
Trout, who is third in the AL in both on-base percentage and slugging, leads the majors in OPS+ (174) and is one behind Jose Abreu for the major league lead in total bases with 230. He has been in a mini-slump of late, however, hitting .147/.256/.265 in his last nine games (5-for-34). He also hasn’t stolen a base, or even attempted to steal one, in his last 31 games. Despite all of that, he’s still the clear choice for the top spot here based on his overall season numbers, but his lead is shrinking.
2. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners (3)
Season Stats: 11-3, 2.01 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 9.7 K/9, 5.74 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 184 ERA+
Last Three Weeks: 1-1, 1.55 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 10.2 K/9, 4.13 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS
With his hard-luck loss to Cleveland’s Corey Kluber on Wednesday night, Hernandez set a modern major league record for the most consecutive starts with at least seven innings pitched and no more than two runs allowed. Hernandez’s still-active streak, the longest since 1900, is now at 14, one better than the run by Hall of Famer Tom Seaver in 1971. With three more such starts in April, 17 of Hernandez's 23 starts this season fit that description. Only David Price has thrown more innings than King Felix this season, and only Chris Sale, who has thrown 53 fewer frames, bests him in ERA, ERA+ and WHIP in the American League.
3. Jose Abreu, 1B, White Sox
Season Stats: .299/.348/.628, 31 HR, 83 RBI, 56 R
Last Three Weeks: .371/.420/.629, 3 HR, 13 RBI, 8 R
Abreu is proving that he’s more than just a slugger. He has an active 19-game hitting streak during which he has hit .385/.430/.654, and he has hit safely in 36 of his last 37 games dating back to June 15. All of that hitting is bringing up Abreu’s on-base percentage, which was the main thing keeping him off this list earlier in the year. He still is not drawing walks, with just 16 unintentional passes on the season, and six in the last 37 games. But walks aren't as important when your batting average alone would be a solid on-base percentage, as has been the case for Abreu for the last month and a half.
4. Jose Bautista, RF/1B, Blue Jays (4)
Season Stats: .293/.415/.512, 20 HR, 61 RBI, 68 R
Last Three Weeks: .298/.431/.526, 3 HR, 9 RBI, 11 R
There are many different ways to go with the last two spots on this list. Park adjustments and defensive ratings contribute heavily to the high wins above replacement figures of third basemen Josh Donaldson and Kyle Seager. In terms of raw numbers, sluggers Nelson Cruz, Edwin Encarnacion and Victor Martinez continue to catch the eye. I keep coming back to Bautista, however, in large part because of that on-base percentage, which is 26 points higher than that of anyone else in the league.
5. Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros (5)
Season Stats: .342/.378/.447, 4 HR, 33 RBI, 56 R, 42 SB
Last Three Weeks: .364/.382/.500, 2 HR, 6 RBI, 9 R
Altuve was caught in three of his four steal attempts over the last three weeks and the only walk he drew was intentional, but he also doubled his season home run total and moved into the major league lead in batting average. Altuve’s 151 hits this season are 12 more than the next highest total in the majors. If you fold his steals and times caught stealing into his batting line (adding steals to total bases and recalculating slugging, then subtracting caught stealing from times on base and recalculating on-base percentage), he’s “hitting” .342/.370/.494 on the season.
That line is a near match for what Michael Brantley has done, without counting the Cleveland outfielder's 11 stolen bases in 12 attempts. Brantley’s steals-inclusive line is .313/.372/.512, but given that Altuve has made his contributions as a second baseman while Brantley has been primarily a leftfielder, Altuve gets the edge. Still, Brantley’s work in center in the absence of Michael Bourn makes this battle almost as close as the one for the fifth spot in the NL.
Off the list: Michael Brantley