With just two weeks left in the regular season, there is still surprisingly little decided with regard to the major awards and a solid chance that the final two weeks do little to clarify matters. One of the questions readers of this column might ask is, "Where's Tulo?" The Rockies' Troy Tulowitzki has been on another planet this month, hitting .351/.407/1.000 in September with 14 home runs and 34 RBIs. Tulo's 14 homers and 31 RBIs over a recent 15-game stretch marked the most impressive 15-game outburst in September in baseball history, passing Hank Greenberg's 12-homers, and 32 RBIs in 15 games in September 1940. Tulowitzki, however, has not cracked my top three for National League Most Valuable Player.
The reasons why are fairly straightforward. As hot as Tulowitzki has been, he missed more than a month with a broken wrist mid-season, which both carved a chunk out of his total value for the season and suppressed his counting stats. Even with his recent outburst, he's 13th in the league in home runs with 26, behind fellow middle infielder Rickie Weeks and 14th in RBIs with 89 behind the likes of Casey McGehee and Adam LaRoche. Also, as of right now, the Rockies aren't in a playoff position, and though they've been as hot as Tulowitzki this September (13-5, .722, including a recent 10-game winning streak), they're still in third place in both the NL West and wild card races and 3 1/2 games out in the latter.
It's not unheard of for late-season hot streaks to propel players to the MVP. The most recent example being Ryan Howard, who hit .385/.562/.750 in September 2006 and hit 23 home runs with 62 RBIs over that season's final two months, but Howard's performance was sustained over a longer period. Miguel Tejada was helped by the A's 20-game winning streak in late August into September 2002, but that team won 103 games and its division. Chipper Jones in 1999 had the aid of both a division title for his Braves and a sustained late-season surge that actually lasted all of the second half of that season, as Jones hit .349/.485/.756 with 31 home runs and 65 RBIs from July 1 through the end of the regular season. Greenberg won the American League MVP in 1940, but his Tigers won the pennant in a close race against the Indians. Tulowitzki gets graded on a curve because he's an elite fielder at shortstop, but given the time he missed and the strength of his competition, I'm guessing he won't get serious MVP consideration unless his current hot streak can lift the Rockies into the postseason, and even then, his teammate Carlos Gonzalez, who has been on fire since July, would be a better choice.
NOTE: All stats are through Sunday, September 19. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold italics. The number in parentheses after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list. Rookies are players who, before the current season, have had fewer than 130 at-bats or 50 innings-pitched in the majors or have spent fewer than 45 days on the active roster before rosters expand on September 1.
With Josh Hamilton out since September 4 with bruised ribs and Miguel Cabrera suffering through his worst month (.192/.254/.327), the AL MVP race is suddenly wide open to the eight candidates who should appear on every ballot: Hamilton, Cabrera, Robinson Cano, Jose Bautista, Paul Konerko, Adrian Beltre, Evan Longoria and Joe Mauer. Mauer might be the first player you'd eliminate from that list, if only because his performance this season (.331/.407/.473, 9 HR, 74 RBIs) falls so far short of his otherworldly MVP campaign of a year ago. Konerko would probably be next to go because he's only been the second-best first-baseman in his own division, behind Cabrera. The same logic eliminates Longoria, who hasn't been as good as fellow AL East third baseman Beltre on either side of the ball. Of the remaining five, only Hamilton and Cano are on teams headed for the postseason. That shouldn't matter, but it typically does to the voters, so lock those two in.
The remaining three of Cabrera, Bautista, and Beltre present the most consistently productive hitter in the league this year (Cabrera), a completely unanticipated break-out season that is about to result in the first 50-plus home run total in either league since 2007 (Bautista), and a fantastic offensive season from arguably the game's best defensive third baseman (Beltre). I expect Beltre to be unfairly overlooked, and though Bautista has been a sensation, I think his .262 average and lack of star power coming into the season will work against him. That leaves a top three that, if the season were to end today, might still look like this:
1. Josh Hamilton, OF, Rangers (2)
Season Stats:.361/.414/.635, 31 HRs, 97 RBIs, 8 SBs
2. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers (1)
Season Stats: .326/.417/.611, 34 HRs, 118 RBIs
3. Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees (3)
Season Stats: .325/.386/.548, 28 HRs, 102 RBIs
1. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (1)
Season Stats: .324/.424/.594, 34 HRs, 104 RBIs, 15 SBs
With just two weeks left in the season, the Triple Crown hopes of recent weeks have faded. Neither Votto nor Albert Pujols has any real chance of catching Carlos Gonzalez in batting average, and unless Gonzalez starts hitting like his teammate Troy Tulowitzki, he's not going to close the seven-home-run gap by which he trails Pujols. With the Triple Crown out of the picture, the MVP should go to Votto, who not only leads Pujols in all three slash stats, but whose Reds are well on their way to upsetting Pujols' Cardinals in the NL Central.
2. Carlos Gonzalez, OF, Rockies (2)
Season Stats:.340/.382/.605, 32 HRs, 107 RBIs, 23 SBs
Tulowitzki is grabbing all the headlines with an out-of-his-mind September (.351/.407/1.000, 14 HR, 34 RBI), but, in part due to time lost to injury, even that absurd performance hasn't pulled him up into the MVP picture. Besides, Gonzalez isn't hitting a home run every day, but he is hitting .441/.519/.662 on the month, continuing a hot streak that extends back to July 1, when Tulo was still on the DL. Gonzalez's deficit in on-base percentage and the likelihood of the Rockies missing the playoffs should keep him from taking home the hardware, but he's a solid second place in what long seemed like a two-man race between Votto and Pujols.
3. Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals (3)
Season Stats: .307/.404/.589, 39 HRs, 107 RBIs, 12 SBs
The counting stats are there, but relative to his own absurd standard, Pujols' rate stats are down this season. In the course of winning the last two NL MVPs, he averaged 42 home runs and 125 RBIs, totals within his reach this year, but also hit .342/.452/.656, which is yet another level of awesomeness above what he has accomplished in 2010. Expect Pujols to be penalized a bit for failing to live up to his own past performance, and even moreso for the failures of his Cardinals in the NL Central, however unfair either of those demerits might be.
1. CC Sabathia, LHP, Yankees (1)
Season Stats:20-6, 183 Ks, 3.05 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 2.65 K/BB, 2 CG
On Saturday, Sabathia became the first 20-game winner in either league since 2008. The Monday before that, he locked horns with David Price in a captivating pitchers' duel with first place in the AL East and the best record in baseball on the line. Sabathia gave up just a pair of singles and a pair of walks while striking out nine Rays in eight shutout innings in that game, which was ultimately won by the Rays 1-0 in 11 innings. That performance and that win total argue loudly for Sabathia to take home this award, which he will.
2. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners (2)
Season Stats: 12-11, 222 Ks, 2.35 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, 3.47 K/BB, 5 CG
Sabathia will win the Cy Young award, but Hernandez should. According to Baseball Prospectus' Support-Neutral Wins and Losses, had Hernandez and Sabathia both received average run support this season, Sabathia would be roughly 19-13 while Hernandez's record would be 20-12. Replace the above actual records with those support-neutral records and there's no way to argue for Sabathia over Hernandez. Yet, because Hernandez has received just 3.16 runs of support per start to Sabathia's 5.99, Sabathia, not Hernandez will win the award. Hernandez's only hope is that this year's voting pool is a more progressive group than I'm giving them credit for being.
3. Jon Lester, LHP, Red Sox (N/A)
Season Stats: 18-8, 212 Ks, 3.06 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 9.7 K/9, 2.83 K/BB, 2 CG
David Price (17-6, 172 K, 2.79 ERA) would probably finish third in the voting if the season ended today, but consider this: Lester has two more starts this season. If he wins them both and finishes with 20 wins, and Sabathia, who also has just two starts left this season, the first coming against Price and the Rays this Thursday, wins one or none and finishes with no more than 21 wins, doesn't Lester's final line look better than Sabathia's? Heck, even if Sabathia wins both starts and finishes with 22 to Lester's 20, a second 20-game winner in the league could significantly undermine Sabathia's candidacy, particularly given that Lester is currently matching Sabathia in ERA and WHIP and well ahead of him in strikeouts. The big question then becomes, would 20 wins for Lester split the vote and allow Hernandez to rightfully claim the award, or could Lester, my pre-season pick for this award, actually swoop in and win this thing after all.
1. Roy Halladay, RHP, Phillies
Season Stats:19-10, 210 Ks, 2.49 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 7.50 K/BB, 8 CG, 3 SHO
2. Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals
Season Stats:19-11, 206 Ks, 2.45 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 3.75 K/BB, 5 CG, 2 SHO
This race remains impossibly tight, but again, Halladay gets the edge due to his decisive edge in innings, K/BB ratio, and complete games and shutouts. Also, don't forget that Halladay threw a perfect game in May. Not only is that a point in his favor, but if he does win the Cy Young, he'll be just the second man to do so for a season in which he pitched a perfect game. The first was Sandy Koufax in 1965.
3) Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, Rockies
Season Stats:19-6, 192 Ks, 2.84 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 8.5 K/9, 2.34 K/BB, 4 CG, 2 SHO
Josh Johnson deserves to be on this list with his major league leading 2.30 ERA and support-neutral record of 18-10, but the gap between his performance and Jimenez's is not all that great. Ubaldo was Tulowitzki-hot to start the season and should finish with 20 wins and 200 strikeouts. It's hard to argue too vehemently against that.
1. Neftali Feliz, RHP, Rangers (1)
Season Stats: 3.00 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 9.4 K/9, 3.88 K/BB, 36 SV
Feliz made just one appearance in the last week in part because he was on unofficial paternity leave to attend the birth of his daughter (speaking of which, it's time for Major League Baseball to make paternity leave official like bereavement leave, so that teams aren't penalized when their players try to be good fathers and husbands). As a result, Feliz is still one save shy of the rookie record, which is the key to his candidacy for this award.
2) Austin Jackson, CF, Tigers (2)
Season Stats: .300/.355/.412, 4 HRs, 36 RBIs, 24 SBs
There are many reasons to prefer Jackson over Feliz in this race. Primarily that Jackson is an everyday player who contributes in the field and on the bases as well as at the plate. There's also the fact that he's a "proper" rookie, one who made his major league debut on Opening Day, whereas Feliz spent two months in the majors in 2009, dominating in 20 relief appearances that made his 2010 performance seem tame by comparison. The rookie saves record will likely clinch it for Feliz, but don't be surprised to see Jackson take home the award.
3) Wade Davis, RHP, Rays (3)
Season Stats: 12-9, 104 Ks, 4.19 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 6.1 K/9, 1.79 K/BB
Davis took a no-decision in his lone start this past week, but he did set a season-high with eight strikeouts. That's another sign that he is rounding back into form after an underwhelming start to his first full major league season. Davis struck out nine men in his major league debut last September and `0 men in his third major league start, but had struck out as many as seven in a game just twice this season.
1. Jason Heyward, RF, Braves
Season Stats: .286/.402/.478, 18 HRs, 71 RBIs, 9 SBs
2. Jaime Garcia, LHP, Cardinals
Season Stats: 13-8, 132 Ks, 2.70 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 2.06 K/BB
Heyward has hit .327/.442/.505 since returning from a the disabled list after the All-Star break and .400/.519/.648 in 28 games since August 21. That late push plus the likelihood of his Braves reaching the postseason (though that really shouldn't be a factor) have inched him past Jaime Garcia. The Cardinals skipped his last start and Garcia will likely make just one more start as the Cardinals, now all but officially out of the postseason hunt, look to limit his innings.
3. Buster Posey, C, Giants
Season Stats: .325/.374/.517, 14 HRs, 61 RBIs
Posey has been a key player in the Giants' stretch-drive attempt to slip past the Padres into first place in the NL West (something they did again on Sunday thanks in part to Posey doubling twice and walking thrice in five plate appearances and scoring three runs). Posey has had two hits in five of the Giants' last six wins and has homered in three of them, including two against the Padres two weekends ago. Those performances should stick in the minds of voters and help him fend off the more impressive counting stats of full-season rookies such as the Marlins' Gaby Sanchez (18 HRs, 78 RBIs) and the Mets' Ike Davis (18 HRs, 69 RBIs).