Two very different races are emerging in this year's Most Valuable Player chase. In the American League, three primary candidates are beginning to separate themselves from the pack and should generate a heated debate about the relative value of each as the season progresses. In the National League, a lack of break-out candidates has resulted in a great deal of turnover with five new names making the list, one of them debuting at number-one, plus a sixth returning after falling off the list last week. The comparatively weak NL field makes one wonder if this might be the first time in 18 years that an MVP award is won by a pitcher.
NOTE: All stats through Sunday, June 20; League leaders in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics. The number in parenthesis after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list (HM stands for honorable mention).
1. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers (2)
Season Stats: .328/.409/.632, 19 HR, 60 RBIs, 34.6 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .265/.363/.529, 5 HR, 12 RBI
The race for AL MVP is quickly boiling down to three players: Cabrera, Robinson Cano and Justin Morneau. To this point in the season, Cano is the most deserving, as I explain below, and Morneau has the top rate stats of the trio, but I don't believe that the voters as a whole will see past Cabrera's superior counting stats, particularly his major league best home run and RBI totals. Were the season to end today, Cabrera wouldn't be an egregiously poor pick, just the wrong one given the quality of his competition.
2. Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees (4)
Season Stats:.367.416/.607, 14 HR, 49 RBI, 44.1 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .378/.446/.608, 4 HR, 12 RBI
The case for Cano is based primarily on the position he plays. The average AL first baseman this year is hitting .258/.350/.442, while the average AL second baseman is hitting .262/.329/.386. Cano thus represents a much larger upgrade over an average second baseman than Cabrera or Morneau represent over an average first baseman, making Cano more valuable. If you prefer to use replacement level, the level of production a team can expect to acquire (via a minor league call-up or waiver wire addition, etc.) in the event of an injury to their starter, you can head straight to VORP (Value Over Replacement Player, in which value is measured in runs and the replacement-level baseline is adjusted for position). VORP tells us that Cano has been worth nearly five runs (roughly equivalent to half a team win) more than Morneau and nearly 10 runs (or an entire team win) more than Cabrera. Add in the fact that Cano not only plays second base but plays it well (VORP does not account for the quality of a player's defense) and his advantage is even greater.
One argument against Cano might be that he plays for a powerful Yankee team with an All-Star lineup, but the Yankees' big-name hitters are all underperforming to this point in the season: (Mark Teixeira: .226/.344/.410, Alex Rodriguez: .277/.349/.459, Derek Jeter: .283/.336/.423, Curtis Granderson missed a month with a groin injury and is hitting .240/.322/.442, and Nick Johnson is out indefinitely with another wrist injury having hit .167 in 24 games). Cano has thus been the primary run producer in the second-best offense in baseball for the team with the best record in the game and has done it while playing strong defense.
3. Justin Morneau, 1B, Twins (1)
Season Stats: .340/.448/.622, 15 HR, 47 RBI, 39.4 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .269/.333/.507, 4 HR, 11 RBI
Morneau leads the majors in the single most important batting statistic: on-base percentage (which should really be thought of as the rate at which a hitter avoids making outs) and is second in the majors in batting average (to Cano) and slugging percentage (to Cabrera). He's also a better defensive first baseman than Cabrera and plays for the first-place team that leads Cabrera's by 1 1/2 games in the AL Central, which suggests that Cabrera is actually the third-best candidate for AL MVP. The difference between Morneau's homer total and Cabrera's is Morneau's new home park, which swallows up long drives and has allowed just two of Morneau's to clear the wall (Morneau leads Cabrera in road home runs 13 to 11 in the exact same number of plate appearances). The difference between Morneau and Cabrera's RBI totals, however, does break down to performance. Cabrera has driven in 19.2 percent of the runners on base ahead of him to Morneau's 14.6 percent. Cano, incidentally, comes in at 17.1 percent.
4. Kevin Youkilis, 1B, Red Sox (HM)
Season Stats: .312/.435/.591, 14 HR, 47 RBI, 32.0 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .348/.405/.636, 4 HR, 18 RBI
Since May 3, the Red Sox have gone 32-14 (.696) to thrust themselves into the AL East race. They now stand tied with the Rays, a single game behind the major league-best Yankees. Over that same span, Youkilis, who leads the majors in run scored with 58, has hit .336/.478/.650. With Adrian Beltre in place at third base, the Red Sox no longer need Youkilis's defensive versatility, but they still benefit from his superlative play in the field at first base. Youkilis finished third and sixth in the MVP voting the last two years and is having by far his best major league season this year.
5. Josh Hamilton, LF, Rangers (N/A)
Season Stats: .337/.381/.600, 16 HR, 52 RBI, 34.1 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .474/.500/.846, 7 HR, 25 RBI
The biggest gainer on our charts this week, Hamilton has been out of his mind in June, as evidenced by the second stat line above. Entering this week with an active 16-game hitting streak, Hamilton has reached safely in all but one game this month, had multiple hits in 10 of his last 19 games, and six times collected three or more safeties in a single game, including a 5-for-6 performance against the Astros on Sunday afternoon. He homered in five games over a seven-game stretch in the middle of the month, and he has driven in a run in 13 of the 16 games of his current hitting streak. The only thing Hamilton hasn't been doing this month is walking (just three free passes, none intentional), but one imagines he'll stop seeing good pitches pretty soon. With rookie Justin Smoak coming on strong as well this month (.318/.416/.576 with four homers and 20 RBIs) the middle third of the Rangers' order -- Vladimir Guerrero, Hamilton, and Smoak -- is suddenly devastating and a large part of the reason why the team is starting to pull away in the AL West, having gone 15-4 thus far in June.
Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays (3): An under-appreciated aspect of Longoria's game is his ability to steal a base. In his major league career, he has stolen 26 bases in 28 attempts and he has a career-high 10 this season at an 83 percent success rate.
Vladimir Guerrero, DH, Rangers (HM): Guerrero's been surpassed in value on his own team by Hamilton and is primarily a designated hitter, which historically has been a serious blow against any MVP candidacy, even one that involves the second-highest RBI total in the majors (57).
Paul Konerko, 1B, White Sox: After a blistering start, during which he jumped to the major league lead in home runs, Konerko slumped badly in late May, but he's turned it on in June, hitting .409/.500/.621 since May 29. He's done it by hitting for a high average, which is particularly surprising given that he hit just .260 over the last three seasons. That disparity suggests that his current hot streak won't last, either.
Alex Rios, CF, White Sox (HM): Rios has an impressively three-dimensional skill set that includes not only a career year at the plate (.317/.377/.558) at age 29, but also excellent defense in center field (after being stuck in right field while with the Blue Jays) and a rapid stolen base pace. He has already swiped 20 bags at a solid 77 percent success rate (his previous career high in steals was 32 in 2008).
Adrian Beltre, 3B, Red Sox (N/A): The Red Sox signed Beltre for his glove and his power stroke and are reaping the rewards of not only a return to form following an injury-plagued 2009 season, but also an unexpected surge of batting average (.336) that has nothing to do with their hitting-friendly ballpark. Beltre is hitting .366/.390/.598 on the road and remains one of the best defensive third basemen in the game.
Off the list:Nelson Cruz (5), Vernon Wells (HM), Jose Bautista (HM)
1. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Padres (N/A)
Season Stats: .310/.409/.552, 15 HR, 47 RBI, 31.4 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .431/.494/.806, 6 HR, 19 RBI
It's evidence of how comparatively weak the competition is in the NL that Gonzalez was able to propel himself straight to the top of this list on the basis of a Hamilton-like three week surge, while Hamilton himself, who has been even hotter, only made it to fifth on the AL list. Indeed, each of the top five AL candidates listed above has accumulated more VORP than NL leader Gonzalez. Three weeks ago, Gonzalez was hitting .261/.377/.450 and failed to make my top 10 NL candidates for the second time. Since then, he's been the league's best hitter. Gonzalez's role on the major leagues' most surprising team has been key to his ascension. The Padres continue to sit atop the NL West standings despite a severely lopsided team whose overperforming pitching staff remains the stingiest in the majors, but whose expectedly inept offense continues to be among the game's worst. Of course, you can't win a game 0-0. Enter Gonzalez, who is a man among boys in the Padres' batting order (thus his 13 intentional walks, which are second in the majors to Albert Pujols). Mix in his solid defense and correct for the production-stifling effects of his home ballpark (Gonzalez has hit .348/.411/.652 on the road and leads the NL in the park-adjusted OPS+ as well as the park- and position-adjusted VORP) and you get an out-of-the-blue MVP frontrunner.
2. Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals (2)
Season Stats: .306/.426/.548, 15 HR, 50 RBI, 30.5 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .295/.436/.475, 3 HR, 12 RBI
Surprise, surprise. In a year without a breakout performance by a National League hitter, the King of Consistency continues to lurk near the front of the MVP race. Pujols is actually having one of his weaker seasons, primarily due to a drop in power relative to his career (he has a .624 slugging percentage) and especially his last two seasons (.656 SLG combined), both of which ended with him taking home NL MVP honors. Yet, despite that and the fact that he has had Matt Holliday as protection in the lineup for 53 of his 68 games, he is on pace for a career-high in intentional walks having already received a major league best 20. That is why he's leading the majors in walks and the NL in on-base percentage. When not being intentionally walked, Pujols OBP drops to .385, which is still good, but would drop him to ninth in the NL in that category.
3. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (4)
Season Stats: .311/.409/.546, 14 HR, 43 RBI, 7 SB, 26.0 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .309/.413/.529, 4 HR, 10 RBI
Votto is the best hitter for the league's best offense on a team that not only surprised many by rising to the top of the NL Central standings, but has remained there in a dog fight with Pujols' Cardinals since mid-May. He's also a solid defensive first baseman (as are Pujols and Gonzalez), and has mixed in a career-high in steals (albeit at a poor 64 percent success rate). Votto was every bit as good last year, but he missed time due to an inner-ear infection and depression. Still, some voters noticed and he picked up a few down-ballot MVP votes. If he stays healthy this year (he did miss six games at the end of May due to a stiff neck), he'll have the counting stats to turn those honorable mentions into legitimate contention.
4. Andre Ethier, RF, Dodgers (1)
Season Stats: .318/.382/.582, 12 HR, 43 RBI, 22.0 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .197/.259/.316, 1 HR, 5 RBI
Ethier was hitting .392/.457/.744 on May 14 when he broke a finger on his right hand. As the second line above shows, he has yet to get his groove back since returning from the resulting disabled list stay, and he enters this week's action in an 0-for-17 slump. Ethier is this high on my list entirely on the strength of his performance over the first month and a half of the season, which is a testament to just how otherworldly his performance over that span was.
5. David Wright, 3B, Mets
Season Stats: .283/.371/.506, 12 HR, 53 RBI, 12 SB, 23.4 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .361/.410/.597, 4 HR, 19 RBI, 4 SB
If you believe in the old-school method of using team performance to measure player value, as many MVP voters do, Wright is your man. On May 5, Wright was hitting .286/.413/.571 and the Mets were in second place in the NL East, just 1 1/2 games behind the Phillies having spent five days in first place the previous week. Over the next two weeks, Wright hit .196/.279/.333 and the Mets sank to last place, seven games out. Since then, Wright has hit .324/.375/.529 and the Mets have gone 19-6 to climb back to second place, just 2 1/2 games behind the surging Braves. Of course, those parallels are a bit forced. The big picture is that Wright is experiencing a nice recovery from his peculiar power-outage last year, and David Wright with his power stroke intact is a fantastic all-around player and a perennial MVP candidate who finished in the top 10 in the voting from 2006 to 2008.
Scott Rolen, 3B, Reds (N/A): Rolen's 14 homers this season are already his most since 2006, and he's been even more productive on the road than in the Reds' hitting-friendly ballpark, making him a key bat in the NL's top offense.
Troy Glaus, 1B, Braves (N/A): Glaus missed nearly all of the 2009 season due to setbacks following January shoulder surgery and got off to a slow start this year. On May 29, he was hitting just .266/.359/.396, but he's been tearing the cover off the ball since, hitting .311/.424/.716. In that three week span, Glaus has connected for eight of his 14 home runs and pushed across 23 of his now-league-leading 55 runs batted in. Glaus will have to stay hot to overcome those slow first two months and get to the top of this list, but he's a shoo-in for NL Comeback Player of the Year.
Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, Rockies (HM): I keep mentioning that no pitcher has won an MVP award in either league since Dennis Eckersley in 1992, but no starting pitcher has won an MVP since Roger Clemens in 1986, and no National League pitcher has won the MVP award since Bob Gibson in 1968. If not for that history, Jimenez would top my list. The key to his candidacy might be the fourth-place Rockies' ability to thrust themselves into the race in the NL West. The last pitcher to win an MVP for a team that didn't finish in first place was Bobby Shantz of the fourth-place Philadelphia A's in 1952.
Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Nationals (N/A): There are some 10 to 20 players on the cusp of this list, any of whom could have claimed one of these last two spots with a particularly good showing over the weekend. I went with Zimmerman here in large part because of the additional value offered by his defense. Zimmerman has been one of the best defensive third baseman in baseball for several years, but wasn't recognized with a Gold Glove until his breakout season at the plate last year. An All-Star, Gold Glove winner, Silver Slugger and down-ballot MVP candidate last year, the 25-year-old Zimmerman is having an even better season this year, and with all of those eyes on his teammate Stephen Strasburg, people will start to notice.
Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates (N/A): Like Zimmerman, hitting is just part of what makes McCutchen valuable. The 23-year-old is a stellar defensive center fielder and ranks second in the NL with 18 stolen bases, and has the fourth-best VORP in the NL. Yes, he plays for a team that seems to be eternally locked in last place, but he and newly-promoted third baseman Pedro Alvarez are going to make the Pirates worth watching for the remainder of the season and beyond.
Off the list:Jason Heyward (3), Josh Willingham (5), Ryan Braun (HM), Casey McGehee (HM), Jayson Werth (HM), Chase Utley (HM)