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Awards Watch: Giancarlo Stanton takes top spot in NL MVP chase

Awards Watch: Giancarlo Stanton takes top spot in NL MVP chase Photo: Gene J. Puskar/AP

Awards Watch returns to the Most Valuable Player awards this week to find a new leader in the National League race for the third time in our last three looks at the award and finds things tightening up in the American League as well. Programming note: This is the last single-award Awards Watch of the season. The column will return in two weeks with the lightning round, looking at the top three contenders in both leagues for all three awards (MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year) every week for the remainder of the season.

Note: All stats are through Wednesday, August 20. 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.

National League

1. Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Marlins (2)

Season Stats: .295/.400/.561, 32 HR, 89 RBI, 79 R, 10 SB

Last Three Weeks: .303/.434/.682, 8 HR, 17 RBI, 11 R

​Six weeks ago, Troy Tulowitzki led this list. Soon after, he suffered a season-ending labrum tear in his left hip. Three weeks ago, Andrew McCutchen led this list, only to suffer a fractured rib that may have resulted from being hit in the back by a Diamondbacks pitcher. That hit-by-pitch was retaliation for the fact that a Pirates pitcher had broken Paul Goldschmidt’s hand the night before, an injury which, incidentally, ended the season of yet another MVP contender. Here’s hoping Stanton, who has played in all 126 of the Marlins' games this season, can dodge the NL MVP jinx, as he’s now the clear choice for this award.

2. Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates (1)

Season Stats: .305/.404/.526, 17 HR, 67 RBI, 64 R, 17 SB

Last Three Weeks: .286/.386/.381, 0 HR, 4 RBI, 4 R (6 G)

McCutchen missed only 14 games due to his rib injury, technically an avulsion fracture involving the costochondral cartilage of the left eleventh rib. However, he is 0-for-8 in two games since returning on Tuesday, so the degree to which he is back in this race remains to be seen.

CHEN: Pirates need to right sinking ship in a hurry

3. Jonathan Lucroy, C, Brewers (5)

Season Stats: .303/.368/.490, 13 HR, 59 RBI, 61 R

Last Three Weeks: .290/.338/.478, 1 HR, 9 RBI, 10 R

Lucroy has started the Brewers’ last 21 games and appeared in their last 33, starting all but one, which tells you how valuable they think he is. This is Milwaukee’s starting catcher, after all, but Ron Roenicke has been spotting him at first base once a week to keep his bat in the lineup. Of course, a huge part of Lucroy’s value is his work behind the plate, as he is one of the best pitch-framers in the league. He also happens to be tenth in the league in OPS+ (137), eighth in batting average, sixth in Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference version), and have 47 walks against just 57 strikeouts.

4. Yasiel Puig, CF/RF, Dodgers (4)

Season Stats: .312/.393/.512, 13 HR, 59 RBI, 69 R

Last Three Weeks: .288/.342/.370, 1 HR, 5 RBI, 10 R

​Puig homered and doubled against the Braves on July 31, the night after Awards Watch last checked in on the MVP races. Since then, he has collected just two more extra-base hits, both doubles, in 75 plate appearances over 18 games. That power outage is confounding, as it’s not part of a full-blown slump. Puig has hit safely in his last six games and has five multi-hit games on the month. His groundball rate hasn’t changed significantly; he’s just not hitting for power. He’s also not playing a particularly strong center field, despite a few highlight-worthy catches, but the mere fact that he’s out there and holding his own is valuable. Also, after being successful in just half of his first 14 stolen base attempts this year, Puig hasn’t attempted a steal since June 15, eliminating that drag on his overall value.

Still, add that all up, and Puig isn’t doing much right now that’s going to keep him on this list. That means this could be his last appearance in this column this year as, come September, I’ll only be listing three candidates for each award.

5. Carlos Gomez, CF, Brewers

Season Stats: .287/.352/.496, 21 HR, 64 RBI, 82 R, 27 SB

Last Three Weeks: .250/.333/.542, 6 HR, 11 RBI, 17 R, 7 SB

Gomez is the beneficiary of Tulowitzki finally falling off the list, though he has also helped himself with three home runs in his last four games. I’m tempted to rank Gomez even higher, but the advanced metrics all agree that the quality of his play in centerfield has declined significantly this season. His five times caught stealing this month, meanwhile, have undermined his previously excellent work on the bases (he was 23-for-27, 85 percent, two weeks ago, but 4-for-9 since, dropping his season success rate to 75 percent).

As for Clayton Kershaw, who many might think belongs on this list, at this point in the season, he and Tulowitzki have both missed roughly a month of the season and thus both fall just short of the top-five. The difference between the two, of course, is that the time Tulowitzki misses will only increase from here on out. Still, Kershaw remains a long shot to crack the top-three, never mind win the award.

Off the list: Troy Tulowitzki

American League

1. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (1)

Season Stats: .288/.374/.556, 27 HR, 89 RBI, 84 R, 12 SB

Last Three Weeks: .233/.310/.438, 3 HR, 13 RBI, 10 R, 2 SB

Mike Trout’s second-half slump stems largely from a dip in batting average, which in turn would seem to stem from another spike in his strikeout rate. Trout has struck out 42 times in 30 games since the All-Star break, getting rung up in 30 percent of his plate appearances over that span. Coming into the season, his career strikeout rate was 20.5 percent, and in the first half of this season, it was 23 percent. Trout’s all-around abilities, continued power and patience, and strong first half (.310/.400/.606) are keeping him atop this list, but if he doesn’t cut down on the whiffs and pull out of his current slump, he could prove to be the runner-up for this award for the third straight year.

CORCORAN: How long can Angels hang on to first in AL West?

2. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners (2)

Season Stats: 13-4, 1.99 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, 6.16 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 187 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 2-1, 1.80 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, 19.00 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS

​Hernandez’s record streak of 16 starts with at least seven innings pitched and no more than two runs allowed was snapped on Saturday due to a tight strike zone and a comebacker off the right hip that forced him to take a shower after five innings (though he still allowed just two runs). Still, that streak has likely already earned him his second Cy Young award and made him a legitimate MVP contender, as well.

Though he hasn’t completed a game all season, Hernandez is third in the majors in innings pitched and innings per start (behind David Price and Johnny Cueto). He hasn’t allowed more than two runs in a game since May 12, has allowed more than four runs in a start just once all season, and has allowed as many as four earned runs in a start just once. On the season, he leads the majors with 19 starts in which he has gone at least seven innings and allowed no more than two runs, two more than runner-up Adam Wainwright and eight more than Kershaw. With one more such start, he’ll tie his career high of 20 such starts (set in 2009 and tied in 2012). The last pitcher with more than 20 starts of that description in a single season was Randy Johnson in 2002, when he had 22.

3. Robinson Cano, 2B, Mariners

Season Stats: .329/.397/.469, 11 HR, 69 RBI, 66 R, 10 SB

Last Three Weeks: .338/.438/.574, 4 HR, 11 RBI, 15 R, 3 SB

​We’re a long, long way from Cano's ten-year, $240 million deal being worth it, but the impact of his move from the Yankees to the Mariners this season is undeniable. The Yankees are on their way to their worst season since 1992, while the Mariners currently boast their highest winning percentage since 2007 and their best run differential since 2003. Cano isn’t responsible for all of that, and this is an individual award, making team performance irrelevant. Still, those changes in fortunes are illustrative of just how valuable Cano, who has finished in the top-six in the MVP voting in each of the last four years, is.

Given that track record, Cano has been conspicuously missing from this list this season. However, he has improved his OPS in every month of the season and has as many home runs as strikeouts in August (4). His 10 stolen bases, which have come in 12 attempts, are a career high, as is his .397 on-base percentage, and his .329 average is his best since 2006.

4. Michael Brantley, LF/CF, Indians

Season Stats: .316/.376/.507, 18 HR, 80 RBI, 78 R, 15 SB

Last Three Weeks: .333/.390/.565, 3 HR, 15 RBI, 8 R, 4 SB

With Michael Bourn activated from the disabled list, Brantley is back in leftfield, but the fact that he has been able to fill in with 40 starts in center this season adds to his already significant value. His 15 stolen bases have come in 16 attempts, and he is third in the league in offensive WAR, behind only Trout and Cano.

JAFFE: Which managers are on the hot seat as season wraps up?

5. Jose Abreu, 1B, White Sox (3)

Season Stats: .303/.361/.594, 32 HR, 90 RBI, 66 R

Last Three Weeks: .324/.425/.412, 1 HR, 7 RBI, 10 R

Abreu spent the first half of the season hitting for tremendous power (29 home runs, .630 slugging) and has thus far spent the second half hitting for average (.333) and getting on base (.412), but without the power (just three homers in 30 games). If he ever does all three at once, he’ll be in the discussion about the best hitter in baseball. For now, he’ll have to settle for being a top-five MVP candidate in his first major league season.

Off the list: Jose Bautista, Jose Altuve

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