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Chris Sale puts himself into conversation for top MLB pitcher
2:40 | MLB
Chris Sale puts himself into conversation for top MLB pitcher
Thursday May 19th, 2016

Awards Watch gets underway in earnest this week with a full look at the Most Valuable Player races in the AL and NL. Last week, I went three deep in each league on the MVP front runners. This week, I pick my top five, as well as list multiple players who just missed but may crack the top five in their respective leagues when I revisit these races three weeks from now.

Note: All stats are through Wednesday, May 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. Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros (2)
Season Stats: .348/.437/.621 (190 OPS+), 9 HR, 26 RBIs, 38 R, 100 TB, 15 SB (94%)

It's clear that, seven weeks into the season, Altuve has been the best everyday player not just in the AL but also in all of baseball. He leads the majors in OPS+ and stolen bases, having been caught just once in 16 attempts, and is a capable fielder at an important up-the-middle position. He even turned up the production in the last week, going 12 for 24 and entering Thursday night’s series finale in Chicago with an active ten-game hitting streak and multiple hits in six of those ten games.

It remains to be seen how much of Altuve's early power surge he is able to maintain as the season progresses—over his last 11 starts, his only extra-base hits have been a trio of doubles—but to this point, he has clearly been the most valuable player in the AL.

2. Manny Machado, 3B/SS, Orioles (1)
Season Stats: .318/.374/.624 (166 OPS+), 11 HR, 25 RBIs, 30 R, 98 TB

Machado is just 1-for-his-last-22 heading into Thursday afternoon’s series finale against the Mariners, but that one hit was a home run, and he continues to play an outstanding shortstop in the absence of J.J. Hardy.

3. Mike Trout, CF, Angels
Season Stats: .320/.408/.567 (173 OPS+), 9 HR, 28 RBIs, 26 R, 85 TB

The man who should have won the last four AL MVP awards (and did take home one of them) got off to something of a slow start this season, hitting .220/.333/.340 with just one home run through the Angels’ first 14 games. In 26 games since then, he has hit .370/.447/.680 with eight homers. Not that anyone should have had any genuine concern about those first two weeks. Expect Trout to be in the thick of this race the rest of the way, and for the Angels’ poor showing to undermine his candidacy once again when the ballots are filled out in early October.

4. Chris Sale, LHP, White Sox
Season Stats: 80, 1.67 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, 8.0 K/9, 5.30 K/BB, 7.4 IP/GS, 2 CG, 1 SHO, 237 ERA+

Sale isn’t on this list because of his record (though that certainly hasn’t hurt). He’s here because he has been the most valuable pitcher in the league. The lefty has completed seven or more innings in seven of his eight starts and has yet to allow more than three runs in a game this year. Over his last six starts, he has allowed a total of just six runs (five earned) for a 0.99 ERA, only once allowing multiple runs in a game over that span. He’s leading the league in innings per start, WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio, and he’ll look to improve to 9–0 on Thursday night at home against Altuve and the Astros.

MORE MLB: How Chris Sale learned to do more (and be better) with less

5. Robinson Cano, 2B, Mariners (3)
Season Stats: .301/.345/.589 (158 OPS+), 12 HR, 36 RBIs, 26 R, 96 TB

There were numerous compelling candidates for this final spot this week, including nearly half of the Red Sox’ lineup (specifically Jackie Bradley Jr., David Ortiz, Xander Bogaerts and Travis Shaw, not necessarily in that order), White Sox rightfielder Adam Eaton (who has generated some very impressive fielding ratings that I don’t fully trust) and Tigers infielders Ian Kinsler and Nick Castellanos, the latter of whom leads the league with a .350 batting average. Cano edges all of them, however, when you look at his production in the context of his home park and factor in his position and how well he plays it. Still, this is shaping up to be a deep MVP race.


National League

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers
Season Stats: 6–1, 1.67 ERA, 0.70 WHIP, 11.3 K/9, 22.00 K/BB, 7.8 IP/GS, 2 SHO, 225 ERA+

Given that Kershaw won this award in 2014, a season in which he missed a month due to injury, I don't need to explain how a player who only appears in one out of every five games can be the most valuable in the league. What I will do, however, is show you how some of Kershaw’s key rate stats this season compare to that MVP campaign:

year 2014 2016
ERA 1.77 1.67
ERA+ 197 225
FIP 1.81 1.35
WHIP 0.86 0.70
K/9 10.8 11.3
BB/9 1.4 0.5
K/BB 7.71 22.00
IP/GS 7.3 7.8

Kershaw has pitched at least seven full innings in every one of his nine starts this season and has only once allowed more than two earned runs. He has walked four men in 70 innings on the season, struck out ten or more in each of his last six starts, and since allowing five runs in seven innings on April 26 (his only non-quality start of the season), he has allowed just three runs in his last four turns for a 0.82 ERA in May.

Only three pitchers have ever won multiple Most Valuable Player awards: Walter Johnson, Carl Hubbell and Hal Newhouser. All of them won two, all prior to the creation of the Cy Young award, with Newhouser winning his two awards during World War II, when many of the game’s best players were enlisted in the armed forces.

MORE MLB: Picking this coming off-season's top 10 free agents

2. Aledmys Diaz, SS, Cardinals (3)
Season Stats: .376/.403/.648 (176 OPS+), 6 HR, 20 RBIs, 26 R, 81 TB

Diaz has graded out as an average-at-best fielder and had to earn playing time in early April, so he trails most of his direct competitors in plate appearances. Those two things keep him out of the top spot on this list, but his production from the shortstop position has been so robust and consistent that I couldn’t list him any lower than second.

What remains to be seen is how long Diaz can keep this up. A 25-year-old Cuban defector who signed with the Cardinals in March 2014 and didn’t reach Triple A until late last year, Diaz needed St. Louis to lose three players to injury—Jhonny Peralta, Ruben Tejada and Tommy Pham—just to get a spot on the 25-man roster. He has never hit like this over a full season on either side of the Straits of Florida, batting .276/.336/.444 in the minors and .307/.397/.439 in four-plus seasons in Cuba’s Serie Nacional, so some degree of correction is coming. That could range from mild to one that finds Diaz back in Triple A by August.

3. Bryce Harper, RF, Nationals
Season Stats: .254/.455/.585 (173 OPS+), 11 HR, 29 RBIs, 25 R, 69 TB

On May 5, the Nationals arrived in Chicago for a four-game series against the Cubs, who proceeded to walk Harper 13 times in those four games, including six times (three intentional) in the 13-inning finale. Since then, Harper has been walked 15 more times in just eight games. Dating back to the start of the Cubs series, he has walked 28 times, seven intentional, in 12 games, giving him a .630 on-base percentage despite the fact that he has gone just 5 for 24 (.208) over that span. This is Barry Bonds territory, and it’s very disturbing. The Nationals’ opponents are not letting a 23-year-old superstar hit, and it’s bad for baseball. In those last 12 games, 54% of Harper’s plate appearances have ended with a walk or a hit-by-pitch.

The Nats are 5–3 since leaving Chicago, but they beat the Mets on Wednesday night with Harper drawing four walks in five plate appearances and downed the Marlins on Saturday with Harper drawing three walks, one intentional, in five trips. Let's hope that will convince teams that walking Harper in half of his plate appearances isn’t a sound strategy. I, for one, would like to see Bryce Harper get some pitches to hit. I’ll even wear this hat if I have to (with thanks to The Washington Post).

MORE MLB: Happy and healthy, Hanley Ramirez is positive force for Sox

4. Nolan Arenado, 3B, Rockies (1)
Season Stats: .305/.374/.617 (142 OPS+), 13 HR, 33 RBIs, 30 R, 95 TB

Defensive metrics are tricky business, particularly this early in the year when the data sample is so small, and the defensive component of my evaluations for this list is as dependent upon established levels of play as early-season metrics. Arenado checks both boxes. He is well established as one of the game’s elite fielders and is once again grading out as exactly that. That lands him on this list despite an OPS+ that might otherwise make him seem unworthy: Arenado is 14th in the NL in OPS+, behind the likes of Gregory Polanco, Brandon Belt and Joc Pedersen, none of whom received serious consideration for this week’s list. Arenado’s raw production, however, is right there with that of the best players in the league, and his play in the field is so valuable that it more than compensates for the park correction that undermines his defensive numbers.

After a down week (4 for 20 with no extra-base hits), I’m not quite willing to keep Arenado in the top three, which is where most of the Wins Above Replacement statistics still have him, but I am also not willing to drop him out of the top five entirely.

5. Daniel Murphy, 2B, Nationals (2)
Season Stats: .395/.424/.612 (170 OPS+), 5 HR, 25 RBIs, 22 R, 90 TB

As in the AL, the competition for the final spot on this list was fierce, with Murphy edging former teammate Yoenis Cespedes (who is undermined by his play in centerfield and relatively poor on-base percentage), a trio of Cubs (Dexter Fowler, Ben Zobrist and Jake Arrieta) and the rejuvenated Ryan Braun. I’m not particularly optimistic that Murphy will remain on the list three weeks from now, however. As I wrote last week, he has maintained his increase in power in the early going, but his MVP candidacy has been heavily dependent on an unsustainable batting average. Murphy fell below .400 on Tuesday and has hit “just” .300 without an extra-base hit since last Friday. The correction is taking hold, but for what he has done on the season to this point, he manages to stick in my top five.

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