My fifth look at the Most Valuable Player races finds two top American League contenders knocked out of the race by injuries -- one permanently and one literally, as
If you believe that team performance is an important consideration in weighing the merits of Most Valuable Player candidates, than you should also believe that Cabrera's candidacy has taken a blow in recent weeks. His Tigers have won just six of their last 26 games, falling from first place in the AL Central to third place, nine games out in the division, four games below .500 and closer to the Royals than the Twins. Such reasoning is absurd, of course. The Tigers have been in free fall because
If the Cabrera argument doesn't move you, and you still believe the MVP has to come from a contending team, Hamilton is your man. His Rangers have the largest division lead in baseball by more than five games, and he has been the best player in baseball since June 1, hitting .417/.460/.722 with 15 homers and 50 RBIs in 250 plate appearances, while playing a solid left field, spotting in center and swiping four bases in as many attempts (he's been caught just once all season). That's all pretty convincing, but when Hamilton was hitting .281/.335/.500 on May 31, two months into the season, Cabrera was hitting .344/.419/.656, which is why Cabrera continues to hold the edge both objectively and subjectively in this race.
Hamilton supporters can point to his all-around skill set relative to Cabrera, who despite continuing to amaze at the plate, has regressed elsewhere to the point at which his bat is his only asset. However, if you're looking for a candidate to support because of his importance outside of the batter's box, Cano is your man. Cano isn't much of a base runner, but he's a stellar second baseman. According to Ultimate Zone Rating, he ranks behind only
Only catcher and shortstop have a lower offensive standard than second base, but no catcher or shortstop in either league is having the kind of season Cano is.
The average major league third baseman this season has produced a line not far removed from that of the average left fielder listed above. Beltre, however, is no average third baseman. He's consistently one of the major leagues' top fielders at the hot corner, and having finally escaped Safeco Field, he's having a season that's surprisingly similar to his monster walk year with the Dodgers in 2004, when he finished second in the NL MVP voting. Beltre isn't going to hit 48 home runs this year, but he hit .334/.388/.629 in 2004, a season in which the average NL batter hit .263/.333/.423, and is hitting just a tick below that this year in a league in which the average batter is hitting .262/.330/.409. The bitter irony for Red Sox fans is that he's once again doing it in a walk year, as only a catastrophic injury in September could prompt Beltre to pick up his $5 million player option for 2011, even if he hits the 640-plate-appearance trigger that makes it a $10 million option. Then again, given how the Sox's season has gone to this point, don't rule that out.
Bautista had only made one appearance on this list prior to this week, and that was as an honorable mention. That's because, until recently, he looked like a one-trick wonder, a journeyman veteran who happened to find a home run stroke at the age of 29, but wasn't doing much else. As recently as July 25, Bautista was hitting just .239, which was dragging his on-base percentage down to an uninspiring .354, relative to .345 for the average major league right fielder. In 13 games since then, however, he has hit an even .400 (20-for-50) to push his average up to a roughly league-average .260, which combined with his league-leading 66 walks (only two have been overtly intentional, though one imagines many more have been covertly so) has given him a solid on-base rate to go with his league-leading homer total.
For my money, the NL Central race is the most compelling in baseball. There may only be two teams involved, but, save for two games in July during which the underdog Reds held a three-game lead, those two teams haven't been separated by more than two games since May 11, and there have been somewhere around 20 lead changes in the three intervening months. What gives the race an extra boost for me is a belief that the fate of the division and this MVP race are intertwined. If one of these two sluggers starts to gain the edge over the other, it will likely be reflected in the division standings, and I find it hard to believe that either team will either fade or pull away in that division without a corresponding performance from their first baseman. It's great stretch-run theater being performed by two of the game's best hitters, and as of this writing, I still can't figure out what the twist ending will be. Unfortunately, the two teams have just six head-to-head games remaining, three of which take place Monday through Wednesday of this week in Cincinnati.
Huff's Giants are the Wild Card leaders and the only remaining threat to the Padres in the NL West, and Huff's performance is a major reason why. Before
It's easy to forget that Zimmerman broke into the majors at the age of 20 and was slowed by a shoulder injury in his third full season. He rebounded from that injury to have a breakout campaign last year at the age of 24, and he's building on that performance this year. Even before his bat matured, Zimmerman was routinely the top defensive third baseman in the National League according to UZR. This year, he tops the majors by that measure, which combined with his power, patience and batting average at the plate, makes him one of the most exciting young players in the game. For those who have slept on Zimmerman, think of him as Evan Longoria in an alternate universe in which the Rays didn't make the leap to contention. Zimmerman can't steal bases, but he's the superior fielder and only a year Longoria's senior.
Like Bautista, Gonzalez is a player who has been bubbling under these lists due to a low on-base percentage. But a recent surge that has not only pushed his OBP to its highest point since May 1 but also made him the NL batting leader sneaks him into the top five. Unlike Bautista, Gonzalez is a young, all-around threat who could and should be making repeat visits to these lists in future seasons. Gonzalez isn't an elite fielder, but he can hold his own in all three pastures and has actually spent the majority of his time in center this year, where the league average performance (.261/.327/.408) is significantly lower than in either corner. Add that versatility to his batting lead and impressive power/speed combo -- his 18 swipes have come at a 78 percent success rate and his .252 isolated slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average) is seventh in the league -- and this 24-year-old deserves to be mentioned among the emerging generation of major league superstars. The biggest question is whether or not he'll ever learn to take a walk. He has just one unintentional walk every 28.7 plate appearances this season.
All three are here because of the strength of their production relative to the average second baseman, and while one might argue that the confluence of the three performances argues against that very measure of value, it's worth pointing out that all three have better batting lines than the incumbent Best Second Baseman In Baseball, Chase Utley, who has been on the disabled list since the end of June. While none of the three plays Utley's typical Gold Glove-quality defense or has been in league with the AL's Robinson Cano on either side of the ball this season, none has been a major detriment to their team in the field, either.