Monday August 9th, 2010

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 Kevin Youkilis had season-ending thumb surgery on Friday and Justin Morneau is continuing to struggle with the after affects of a concussion suffered in early July. Still, the AL award looks like a three-man race, while the NL chase continues to be dominated by two players who will do battle over the next three days for their division lead. Further down the NL list, we find this is a big year for second basemen in the senior circuit, despite Chase Utley's continued absence.

NOTES: All stats through Sunday August 9; 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 (1)

Season stats: .343/.430/.636, 26 HR, 93 RBI, 60.9 VORP

Last three weeks: .371/.494/.671, 4 HR, 14 RBI

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 Brennan Boesch has stopped hitting and Magglio Ordoñez and Carlos Guillen both hit the disabled list on the same day, five days after Brandon Inge, effectively wiping out half of the Detroit lineup (their catchers were already gone) and resulting in a Tiger attack that has scored just 3.23 runs per game over that recent 6-20 nosedive. None of that is the fault of Cabrera, who continued to rake over that stretch, hitting .333/.455/.586 while being intentionally walked seven times in 26 games, which just goes to show how disconnected team performance and player value really are.

2) Josh Hamilton, LF, Rangers (2)

Season stats: .355/.403/.621, 24 HR, 77 RBI, 7 SB, 61.8 VORP

Last three weeks: .400/.467/.600, 2 HR, 11 RBI

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.

3) Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees (4)

Season stats: .332/.389/.567, 21 HR, 72 RBI, 54.4 VORP

Last three weeks: .310/.388/.577, 4 HR, 11 RBI

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 Orlando Hudson in the AL and behind only the Reds' Brandon Phillips among major league second baseman who have avoided the disabled list this season. That puts him well ahead of the sudden glut of productive, offense-first senior circuit second-sackers on defense alone, and he has them all beat at the plate, as well. Cano has been far and away the most productive second baseman in the game this season, and his MVP case really gains steam when you look at his value relative to the average major league second baseman. Consider the top three candidates here in terms of these performances by the average major league first baseman, left fielder, and second baseman:

1B: .270/.355/.459

LF: .271/.337/.433

2B: .266/.332/.394

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.

4) Adrian Beltre, 3B, Red Sox (HM)

Season stats: .336/.373/.571, 20 HR, 75 RBI, 45.0 VORP

Last three weeks: .353/.389/.627, 3 HR, 8 RBI

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.

5) Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays (N/A)

Season stats: .260/.375/.596, 34 HR, 85 RBI, 41.6 VORP

Last three weeks: .375/.464/.847, 9 HR, 27 RBI

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. Now he looks like an MVP candidate, though I wouldn't be surprised to see him dip back into the honorable mentions or even slide right off the list in another three weeks.

Paul Konerko, 1B, White Sox (HM): Konerko continues to have a career year at the age of 34 for a first-place team in a hard-fought division. Familiarity, a good reputation within the game, and a hot start which put his name out front early also work in his favor, though his chances of actually winning the award given the performance of the top three men on this list is almost nil.

Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays (5): The most valuable player on the team with the second-best record in baseball, Longoria does everything well (his 15 steals have come at an 83 percent success rate), but isn't doing any one thing so well that he's a serious candidate heading down the stretch.

Joe Mauer, C, Twins (N/A): Mauer is only having a disappointing follow-up to his 2009 MVP season if you expected him to have one of the greatest hitting seasons for a catcher in the history of the game every year. If you simply expect him to hit like Joe Mauer, who is one of the greatest hitting catchers in the game's history without all the extra home runs, he's doing just fine. Compare his current .322/.395/.473 line to his .326/.406/.482 career rates or his six home runs to the 9.5 taters he averaged in the four seasons before his MVP campaign. Yes, it has taken him a big surge since July 15 (.425/.489/.650) to get back up to that level, but he's there, and when Joe Mauer hits like Joe Mauer -- never mind the superhero from 2009 -- he's always going to be in the MVP discussion.

Carl Crawford, LF, Rays (HM): Another all-around candidate, Crawford's batting line alone (.299/.353/.480, 12 HR) doesn't scream "MVP candidate," but UZR ranks him as the best defensive outfielder in the game, and he's the best base stealer in the game as well (swiping his 38 bases at an 80 percent success rate compared to Juan Pierre's 42 at 75 percent). That's a lot of "hidden" value, but in order for Crawford to have a real chance at the award he'd have to be doing it with his bat, as well.

Nick Swisher, RF, Yankees (N/A): It's just not fair. The Yankees' payroll is nearly 50 percent larger than that of the second-ranked team in that category, but their two best hitters this year are a homegrown player still in his team control years (Cano) and one who was acquired in a personality dump trade for Wilson Betemit and two spare minor league arms (Swisher). Of course, on the Yankees, those two players still make a combined $15.75 million. Swisher reportedly took his postseason struggles hard over the winter and worked with hitting coach Kevin Long to rebuild his swing and improve his batting average. It worked. This is his second honorable mention on this list. His last was in May.

Off the list: Morneau (3), Youkilis (HM), Vladimir Guerrero (HM).

1) Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (1)

Season stats: .319/.421/.603, 27 HR, 75 RBI, 8 SB, 51.9 VORP

Last three weeks: .364/.432/.712, 6 HR, 15 RBI

2) Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals (2)

Season stats: .311/.404/.580, 28 HR, 82 RBI, 11 SB, 51.1 VORP

Last three weeks: .325/.361/.636, 7 HR, 18 RBI

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.

3) Aubrey Huff, 1B/OF, Giants (HM)

Season stats: .304/.393/.538, 20 HR, 67 RBI, 5 SB, 39.9 VORP

Last three weeks: .310/.410/.535, 3 HR, 13 RBI

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 Buster Posey was installed behind the plate, before Pat Burrell was rescued from the American League, before Madison Bumgarner arrived to round out the rotation, there was Huff, having a typically inexplicable season. Huff has provided defensive flexibility by spotting in the outfield corners to make room for first Posey, then another missed opportunity for Travis Ishikawa. Of course, one needn't consider team performance to make an argument for Huff, his performance does that on its own, leaving little doubt about his value no matter how you interpret that term.

4) Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Nationals (N/A)

Season stats: .296/.386/.539, 22 HR, 63 RBI, 39.3 VORP

Last three weeks: .310/.405/.634, 6 HR, 15 RBI

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.

5) Carlos Gonzales, OF, Rockies (N/A)

Season stats: .327/.355/.579, 25 HR, 77 RBI, 18 SB, 42.6 VORP

Last three weeks: .403/.415/.831, 8 HR, 16 RBI, 5 SB

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.

Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Padres (3): One could make an argument for Matt Holliday over Gonzalez based on Holliday's superior speed and defense and superficially similar hitting stats, which become even more similar when one factors in the Petco effect (to boost Gonzalez's slugging) and factors out the impact of intentional walks (which have boosted Gonzalez's on-base percentage). Still, it's difficult to imagine the voters getting past the fact that Holliday is the supporting act to Albert Pujols, while Gonzalez is the whole offensive show for the shocking AL West-leading Padres, or was until his team stole Ryan Ludwick from Holliday's.

Adam Dunn, 1B, Nationals (HM): Like Swisher, Dunn has sacrificed some walks for batting average this year, but he's not hitting for as much average as Swisher. Fortunately, the NL home run leader's power has been bigger than ever: He's bidding to become the first hitter since former National Alfonso Soriano in 2006 to hit 40 home runs and 40 doubles in the same season, a feat which has been accomplished just 34 times in major league history.

Kelly Johnson, 2B, Diamondbacks (N/A); Rickie Weeks, 2B, Brewers (N/A); Dan Uggla, 2B, Marlins (N/A): Here are those offense-first second basemen I mentioned in the Cano comment above. Johnson was non-tendered by the Braves in November, signed a cheap, one-year deal with the Diamondbacks, then opened the season by hitting .313/.404/.750 with nine homers in April. He cooled off from there, but has found his stroke again, hitting .336/.396/.520 since July 1. He leads the trio in average (.284) and on-base percentage (.373) and is the top-rated fielder of the three this season, according to UZR. He also leads in steals with 11, but at a poor success rate. Weeks was the second overall pick in the 2003 draft, but has struggled with inconsistency and injury since. He's finally putting it all together this season at the age of 27, leading the trio in RBIs (71) and trailing Uggla by just one home run with 23. Uggla, the only one of the three not drafted in the first round, was a Rule 5 pick out of the Diamondbacks' organization prior to the 2006 season and has done nothing but hit (and I do mean "nothing but") since. His 24 homers and .509 slugging percentage lead this trio and he's having the finest season in a surprising career that already includes a pair of All-Star appearances.

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.

Off the list: David Wright (4), Hanley Ramirez (5), Corey Hart (HM), Ryan Howard (HM), Martin Prado (HM).

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