Of the five criteria that MVP voters are told to consider in their official instructions, the second is "number of games played." That could weigh heavily on the outcomes of the MVP awards in both leagues. In the American League, Josh Hamilton has been on the shelf since Sept. 4 and still has no projected return date, while in the National League, Troy Tulowitzki is having a spectacular run of production for the month of September (.327/.383/.867, 15 home runs, 40 RBIs), but missed more than a month mid-season due to a broken wrist.
Hamilton has played 130 games this season and may not increase that total. Tulowitzki has played in 116 and, assuming he starts all of the Rockies remaining games, will finish with 123. Here are the lowest games-played totals for MVP winners in non-strike years (so not 1981, '94, or '95) since the schedule was expanded to 162 games in 1961:
117 -- George Brett, 3B, Royals, 1980
123 -- Mickey Mantle, CF, Yankees, 1962
126 -- Willie Stargell, 1B, Pirates, 1979
130 -- Barry Bonds, LF, Giants, 2003
134 -- Juan Gonzalez, RF, Rangers, 1996
135 -- Elston Howard, C, Yankees, 1963
136 -- Rickey Henderson, LF, A's, 1990
138 -- Joe Mauer, C, Twins, 2009
As you can see, in the last 49 years, just six non-catchers have won the MVP for a season in which they played fewer than 140 games. Also, every single one of the eight players on the above list played for a team that reached the postseason. That's bad news for Tulowitzki, whose Rockies are a longshot to climb back into the playoff picture with just seven games left in the season, and doesn't bode particularly well for Hamilton either given that, even if he were to return tonight, he couldn't get his games played above 137 for the season.
NOTE: All stats are through Sunday, September 26. 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.
1. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers (1)
Season Stats: .328/.419/.624, 38 HRs, 126 RBIs
September has been Cabrera's worst month this season by far, but his extraordinary consistency is starting to win out as he has heated back up over the last week and enters Monday night's action with an active six-game hitting streak during which he has gone 9-for-23 with four home runs. Cabrera doesn't do much outside of the batter's box and plays for a team barely keeping its head above .500, but no other American Leaguer has produced at such an elite level so consistently throughout the 2010 season. Cabrera has also started all but six of the Tigers' games this season.
2. Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees (3)
Season Stats: .318/.379/.532, 28 HRs, 105 RBIs
Hamilton has far and away the superior rate stats, but due to their disparate playing time, Cano leads the injured Rangers' outfielder in RBIs, hits, runs, and walks (!), and is just one double and three home runs shy of Hamilton's season totals. Give Cano additional credit for playing a far more challenging position, striking out fewer times in more than an hundred extra plate appearances, and for simple reliability (he has started all but three of the Yankees' games this year), and he slips past the former frontrunner in this race.
3) Josh Hamilton, OF, Rangers (2)
Season Stats:.361/.414/.635, 31 HRs, 97 RBIs, 8 SBs
We can't discount Hamilton completely. He has enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, and will thus lead both leagues in batting average, and he really was a key player, perhaps the key player in the Rangers' winning their first AL West title in 11 years. There are also some similarities between Hamilton's slightly abbreviated season and George Brett's 117-game MVP campaign in 1980. Both were having solid but unexceptional seasons through the end of May then flipped the switch in June. Both missed time in September (Brett was out 11 days due to tendinitis in his right hand) for teams that won the AL West. Both will lead the majors in batting average. The difference is that Brett flirted with .400 for most of the second half and posted what remains the highest full-season average since Ted Williams' .406 in 1941 (Tony Gwynn hit .394 in 475 plate appearances in the strike-shortened 1994 season), led the majors in all three slash stats (which has only been done twice since, by the Rockies' Larry Walker in 1999 and by Barry Bonds in 2002, note that Walker played in just 127 games in 1999 and finished 10th in a rather bizarre NL MVP vote), and drove in 118 runs. Then again, Brett also missed a month mid-season due to a torn ligament in his right ankle and played in 13 fewer games than Hamilton has already. Still, Brett's 1980 campaign was one of the signature performances of that era. The same can't be said about what Hamilton did this year, impressive though it was.
1. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (1)
Season Stats: .326/.426/.607, 37 HRs, 111 RBIs, 16 SBs
Votto may not wind up leading the league in any of the major counting stats, but there's a general consensus, even among the old-school set who place less emphasis on on-base and slugging percentages, that Votto will take home the hardware this year. The fact that his Reds not only upset the defending NL Central champion Cardinals but effectively ran away with the division in September certainly works in his favor, particularly given that one of Votto's primary rivals is the Cards' Albert Pujols. It also helps that, despite playing his home games in a hitter's heaven, Votto has been more productive on the road (.349/.452/.641) than at home (.300/.397/.569). Votto is a choice that both old-school voters and sabermatricians can agree on, even if Pujols still holds an edge in some advanced total-production stats.
2. Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals (3)
Season Stats: .311/.412/.601, 42 HRs, 116 RBIs, 13 SBs
Expect the voters to penalize Pujols for the failings of his team and for the fact that, as great as his season has been, it has been below the standard of his last two (combined .342/.452/.656), both of which resulted in MVP awards. That might be unfair, but it won't rob Pujols of an award he should have received, unless you really want to split hairs on games played. Pujols has started all but three of the Cardinals games this year. The Reds, meanwhile, have been without Votto in their lineup 14 times due to some minor aches, pains, and illnesses, including three consecutive games this past week.
3. Carlos Gonzalez, OF, Rockies (2)
Season Stats:.341/.382/.606, 33 HRs, 114 RBIs, 25 SBs
The best argument against a vote for Tulowitzki is that he has only been the second most valuable player on his own team. Gonzalez won't catch Pujols in home runs, but he will win the batting title and also leads the league in hits and total bases and is second in RBIs and slugging percentage. His 25 steals have come at a respectable 76 percent success rate, and though evaluations of his defense are mixed, he has started 55 games in center and has the athleticism to make plays like the potentially game-saving diving catch he made against the Giants on Saturday night. Incidentally, Tulowitzki won that game with a walk-off double, but it was Gonzalez, who went 3-for-6 with an RBI triple and three runs scored, who came around from first base to score the winning run.
1. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners (2)
Season Stats: 12-12, 227 Ks, 2.31 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 8.5 K/9, 3.34 K/BB, 6 CG
The AL Cy Young debate pitting Hernandez against Yankees 20-game winner CC Sabathia has raged long enough now that it seems the idea of Hernandez winning the award with roughly 13 wins and a winning percentage around .500 is gaining acceptance (Hernandez starts on Tuesday and could start again on the final day of the season, giving him an outside chance to finish with a 14-12 record). It doesn't hurt that Sabathia has struggled of late and now has an ERA nearly a run higher than King Felix's. Hernandez leads the majors in innings pitched (tied with Roy Halladay), quality starts, and quality start percentage. Among AL pitchers, he is first in strikeouts (two shy of leading MLB) and ERA, and second in WHIP and complete games. His support neutral won-loss record of 21-12 is the best in the majors and he's also tied with Halladay in the win-expectancy based SNLVAR (Support-Neutral Lineup-adjusted Value Above Replacement). There's something for everybody there, and there just might be a Cy Young award for Hernandez, after all.
2. Jon Lester, LHP, Red Sox (3)
Season Stats: 19-8, 220 Ks, 2.96 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 9.7 K/9, 2.83 K/BB, 2 CG
Lester could sneak in and swipe this award if he gets to 20 wins. On Thursday he'll face the White Sox in his only chance for number 20. He's not a better choice than Hernandez, but he's a better wins-choice than Sabathia and has out-pitched David Price as well. Special Bonus: with Toronto's Brandon Morrow shut down just shy of 150 innings due to a team-imposed limit, Lester now has the top strikeout rate in the AL among qualifiers.
3. David Price, LHP, Rays (N/A)
Season Stats: 18-6, 179 Ks, 2.84 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 2.27 K/BB, 2 CG
Price leap-frogged Sabathia via a pair of head-to-head matchups over the last two weeks. In the first, the two lefty aces matched eight scoreless frames. In the latter, Price turned in six quality innings and picked up the win after Sabathia fell apart in the sixth. However, Price's season line falls short of Lester's except for a small advantage in ERA and two fewer losses. Price might get an extra boost from the relative records of the Rays and Red Sox, but he shouldn't.
1. Roy Halladay, RHP, Phillies (1)
Season Stats:20-10, 213 Ks, 2.53 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 7.9 K/9, 7.10 K/BB, 8 CG, 3 SHO
Halladay has allowed three or four runs in each of his last six starts, posting a 4.32 ERA and allowing 10 home runs over that span. However, after struggling with poor run support early in the year, he is finally benefiting from a rejuvenated Phillies offense which has scored an average of seven runs in his four September starts, giving him a 4-0 record on the month. Fun fact: Halladay has walked 1.4 per nine innings pitched over the past seven seasons and 275 batters overall. Nolan Ryan issued more walks in every two-year span from 1972 to 1978.
2. Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals (2)
Season Stats:20-11, 213 Ks, 2.42 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 3.80 K/BB, 5 CG, 2 SHO
Wainwright and Halladay will each make just one more start this season, but this race is close enough that a disaster from Halladay and a gem from Wainwright might still tilt the balance. However, despite Wainwright's edge in ERA, WHIP and strikeout rate, Halladay's perfect game, impending postseason berth, innings pitched (a major league high 241 2/3 to Wainwright's still-impressive 230 1/3), and absurd K/BB ratio (currently the 20th best single-season mark among ERA qualifiers and 12th best since 1900) will likely prove too much to overcome. If Halladay avoids disaster this week, he should take home the award.
3. Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, Rockies (3)
Season Stats: 19-7, 198 Ks, 3.00 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, 2.30 K/BB, 4 CG, 2 SHO
Jimenez will make two more starts this season, which should guarantee him his 200th strikeout and give him an excellent chance of picking up his 20th win, both of which will be career highs. It also gives him time to get his ERA back below 3.00, though even if he fails the last, he's likely to appear on the majority of ballots thanks to the memory of his white-hot start and those handsome final numbers. Those who leave him off are likely to go with Tim Hudson, Mat Latos, Josh Johnson or Roy Oswalt, all of whom deserve recognition.
1. Neftali Feliz, RHP, Rangers (1)
Season Stats: 2.85 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 9.4 K/9, 4.06 K/BB, 38 SV
Feliz set the rookie record for saves on Saturday, nailing down the final four outs in the Rangers division-clinching victory over the A's. Since the All-Star break, he has carved nearly a run off his ERA, converted 15 of 16 save chances, posted a 1.57 ERA and struck out 27 men in 28 3/3 innings against just four walks (that's a 6.75 K/BB). Opponents have hit .160/.200/230 against him during that stretch, and while their batting average on balls in play has been abnormally low, Feliz has also posted a line-drive rate of just eight percent in the second half (against a league average of 19 percent), so he deserves considerable credit for that low BABIP.
2. Austin Jackson, CF, Tigers (2)
Season Stats: .298/.350/.407, 4 HRs, 39 RBIs, 26 SBs
Jackson's batting average, which is the majority of his value at the plate, dipped below .300 in the past week for the first time since the season's opening week, and his slugging percentage continues to hover just above .400. Setting aside the relative importance of an every-day center fielder and a one-inning closer, there has been just one American League rookie this year who has played at an All-Star level all season, and that is Neftali Feliz.
3) Danny Valencia, 3B, Twins (N/A)
Season Stats: .324/.364/.471, 7 HRs, 40 RBIs
Never mind the Rookie of the Year, Valencia deserves some sort of Nobel Prize for finally making the Twins realize how much better they could be by replacing Nick Punto in the lineup with someone who can actually hit. Since July 24, Valencia has started all but five games at third for the Twins while Punto has started just two games at any position, and the Twins have gone 40-16 (.714) over that span. Valencia can't take all of the credit for that (among other contributors, defending AL MVP Joe Mauer has hit .389/.471/.531 during that run), but he has absolutely been a huge part of Minnesota's late-season surge which has put them in the running for the best record in baseball. Having played just 78 games, however, he has no real shot at this award, nor does any other third-place candidate in the league.
1. Buster Posey, C, Giants (3)
Season Stats: .317/.368/.513, 16 HRs, 64 RBIs
2. Jason Heyward, RF, Braves (1)
Season Stats: .280/.395/.463, 18 HRs, 71 RBIs, 10 SBs
By hitting six home runs this month, Posey has rediscovered his power stroke and made this a real race down the stretch, one that could hinge on both the performances of these two hitters over the final week as well as which one of their teams makes it into the postseason (though both could, rendering that tie-breaker irrelevant for many voters). In the past week, Heyward has slumped (3-for-22 with no extra-base hits) while the Braves have slid, going 1-5 and falling from two games up in the wild card race to a half-game back. The Giants, meanwhile, have gone 4-2 and taken over first place in the NL West, but while Posey has homered twice in the last week, he still only hit .182 (4-for-22) and drove in just three runs. Nonetheless, Posey has a huge lead in average and slugging percentage and his counting stats are alarmingly close to Heyward's on the season given that Heyward has played in 34 more games. Adjust for the wide gulf between the production of the average catcher (.250/.320/.382) and average right fielder (.270/.343/.444) and Posey becomes the clear leader in this race.
3. Jaime Garcia, LHP, Cardinals (2)
Season Stats: 13-8, 132 Ks, 2.70 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 2.06 K/BB
That is Garcia's final line. He won't start again this season after throwing 163 1/3 innings in 28 starts. It's an impressive showing for a rookie, but ultimately falls short of what will be required to win the Rookie if the Year given the strength of the NL's rookie class this season. It also makes one wonder if the emerging trend of innings ceilings on rookie starters will make it increasingly difficult for starting pitchers to win this award given the resultant limit on their counting stats and overall impact.