With the first month of the 2011 season in the books, Awards Watch is now able to base its rankings largely on the season at hand, as opposed to balancing early-season performances against track record and projection as I had to do when we first looked at the MVP races three weeks ago. Still, the goal of this column is to determine who is most likely to win the award being discussed, not who is most deserving, so with five months remaining in the season, some adjustments for projection still must be made.
That's one reason that Andre Ethier and his 27-game hit streak merit only an honorable mention on the National League list below. Ethier's hit streak, and the .469 average on balls in play that is helping to perpetuate it, will be old news by the time the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America submit their ballots at the end of September. Besides which, the National League is currently chock-full of out-sized performances from which Ethier's overall numbers, absent consideration of the streak, don't particularly stand out. Indeed, there's considerable room for debate as to the proper ranking of the senior circuit candidates.
Not so in the AL, where Jose Bautista stands head and shoulders above his competition and would likely lead the league in every major category if only the Blue Jays had another hitter who could get on base at even a league-average rate.
NOTE: All stats through Sunday, May 1; 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. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers (2)
Season Stats: .356/.450/.703, 10 HRs, 23 RBIs, 3 SBs
Last Three Weeks: .358/.436/.687, 6 HRs, 15 RBIs, 3 SBs
I have Braun ahead of some hitters with superior rate stats for a variety of reasons. First, Braun is a former top-five-overall draft pick in his age-27 season, his natural peak, making it likely that we could be seeing the start of a career year from one of the best hitters in baseball. Second, Braun, the major league home run leader (tied with the Cubs' Alfonso Soriano) has a nice head-start on his rivals in the two triple-crown counting stats (home runs and RBIs), leads the majors in total bases (71), and shares the NL lead in runs scored with 24. Third, he is a strong all-around player who has made himself into an above-average left-fielder, typically adds 15 stolen bases to his tremendous production at the plate, and has shown a big spike in his walk rate in the early going this season despite hitting ahead of another MVP candidate, Prince Fielder. Fourth, he is playing for a team that is expected to contend deep into the season and will get Zack Greinke back from the disabled list on Wednesday. Fifth, Braun was high on this list in early May last year before taking a pitch off his left elbow, which sapped his production. Also worth noting: Braun signed a $105 million, five-year contract extension on April 21, then hit home runs in four of his next five (and five of his next seven) games.
2. Matt Holliday, LF, Cardinals (N/A)
Season Stats:.418/.521/.646, 3 HRs, 18 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: .403/.500/.611, 2 HRs, 15 RBIs
Holliday went 3-for-4 with a home run and a walk on Opening Day, then missed seven games due to an appendectomy, and since returning to action has now reached base in 19 of his 20 games. He's a better fielder than Braun, and his Cardinals have a 2 1/2 game lead on Braun's Brewers in the NL Central thanks in large part to Holliday's play, but for now I'm docking him slightly for having just 80 percent as many plate appearances as Braun due to the surgery. Fun fact: Remember when Holliday's production was believed to have been inflated by Coors Field? Well here are his career rates as a Rockie and as a Cardinal:
3. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (1)
Season Stats: .357/.492/.602, 5 HRs, 16 RBIs, 4 SBs
Last Three Weeks: .308/.464/.538, 3 HRs, 10 RBIs, 3 SBs
The defending NL MVP leads the league in walks (26) and runs (24, tied with Braun), is second to Holliday in on-base percentage, and is again adding to his significant contributions at the plate by being a surprising threat on the bases. Like Braun, he is a former top prospect in his peak-age-27 season playing for a team expected to contend all year long in the highly competitive NL Central (Votto's Reds are sandwiched between Holliday's Cardinals and Brauns' Brewers entering play Monday). However, Votto's counting stats are somewhat pedestrian at the moment, and as a first baseman, he'll have to clearly out-hit outfielders Braun and Holliday to pass them on this list.
4. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies (HM)
Season Stats: .298/.386/.602, 7 HRs, 17 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: .329/.390/.600, 4 HRs, 11 RBIs
Speaking of defensive advantages, Tulowitzki's numbers aren't eye-popping relative to his rivals on this list, but when you put them in the context of his position, they're staggering. Thus far this season, the average major league shortstop is hitting .256/.310/.359 with one home run. Tulowitzki is far from an average major league shortstop even in the field. He's the defending National League Gold Glove winner. One could argue that Brendan Ryan was better in the field last year, but one could also argue that Tulowitzki's Gold Glove was overdue, and with Ryan now a Mariner, Tulo stands as the league's best defensive shortstop. He is also the best hitting shortstop in baseball and the best hitter and best overall player on the team with the largest division lead in the league.
5. Lance Berkman, RF, Cardinals (N/A)
Season Stats: .398/.456/.753, 8 HRs, 23 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: .477/.528/.954, 8 HRs, 22 RBIs
Based on his 2011 numbers alone, Berkman should be higher, possibly even topping this list, but while I'll readily admit to having been completely wrong about him coming into the season, I still have lingering doubts about his ability to sustain a high level of production over the full season. At 35, Berkman is the oldest player to be ranked this high on either list, he's coming off a season in which he hit just .248/.368/.413 in a pair of hitters' parks, and he's playing the outfield full time for the first time since he was 28. With regards to that last, Berkman is giving a lot of runs back with his glove. Fielding stats compiled from just a month of data are borderline worthless, but Ultimate Zone Rating says that Berkman is on pace to be 23 runs below average in rightfield over 150 games, and that rings true. Still, it can't be denied he has been an overall positive impact on the Cardinals this season. The only question is how long it will last.
Matt Kemp, CF, Dodgers (4). UZR is as down on Kemp's play in center as Berkman's play in right, but in Kemp's case, that synchs up with his similarly poor rating over a full season last year. That greatly undermines an otherwise fantastic comeback season from the Dodger centerfielder and keeps him out of the top five.
Prince Fielder, 1B, Brewers (3). Fielder is living up to expectations by having a likely career season in his walk year at his peak-age of 27. With Braun and Rickie Weeks getting on base ahead of him, he is second in the majors in RBIs. However, like Cabrera, Fielder is only of use with a bat in his hands, and thus has to clearly out-hit his rivals for this award, which he is not.
Andre Ethier, RF, Dodgers (N/A). Eithier singled on Opening Day, took an 0-fer the next day, and has had a hit in every game since, a still-active 27-game streak that ranks as the longest in the game since 2009, when Ichiro Suzuki hit in 27 straight and Ryan Zimmerman got to 30. Impressive as his streak is, it has been built on an absurd and utterly unsustainable .469 batting average on balls in play (Ethier's career BABIP is .323 and his single-season best is .354). He's not walking much more often or hitting for more power than he usually does, so when the streak ends, and that BABIP corrects itself, he'll go right back to being the hitter he has always been.
Placido Polanco, 3B, Phillies (N/A). Polanco, who is tied with Ethier for the major league lead in hits with 42, is another hitter enjoying a nice spike in luck on balls in play. His .388 BABIP is more than 40 points above his previous career high, though his walk and power rates are up slightly relative to his career. Also, among players who qualify for the batting title, Polanco is tied with A.J. Pierzynski for the fewest strikeouts (five), but with 24 more plate appearances. Polanco has been the best hitter on a Phillies team that greatly misses Chase Utley, Jayson Werth and Jimmy Rollins' power yet still has the best record in the NL.
Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals (HM). Pujols' slash stats are still weak (.245/.303/.445), but he's tied for fourth in the league in home runs, has as many RBIs as Kemp and Polanco, and has hit .300/.351/.571 since April 12 with six of his seven homers and 15 of his 19 RBIs. His big problem is that he is hitting too many ground balls (and leading the league in double plays as a result). If he can get more lift on the ball, look out. It's still way too early to leave him off this list.
Off the list: Ryan Howard (5), Ryan Zimmerman (HM), Jason Heyward (HM), Miguel Montero (HM)
1. Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays (HM)
Season Stats:.357/.530/.762, 9 HRs, 16 RBIs, 4 SBs
Last Three Weeks: .355/.529/.806, 7 HRs, 14 RBIs, 4 SBs
Bautista's breakout 2010 season was built largely on the strength of three monster months (May, July and August) in which he hit a combined .311/.424/.758 and homered once every 8.3 at-bats. Through the first month of 2011, Bautista has hit .357/.530/.763 with a home run every 9.3 at-bats and is leading the AL in home runs, batting average and total bases (64) and the major leagues in on-base percentage, slugging, walks (30), and runs scored (25). He hit .213/.314/.427 with just four home runs last April. Most of the discussion surrounding Bautista this offseason concerned whether or not his regression from last year's career year would be large or small; hardly anyone entertained the possibility that he could be even better, but thus far he has been. Shocking fact: Just one of Bautista's 28 walks has been intentional. Cherry-picked but impressive fact: Bautista is the first man in major league history to finish April with at least 30 hits, nine homers, and 28 walks.
2. Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees (N/A)
Season Stats: .320/.340/.630, 8 HRs, 21 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: .317/.338/.651, 6 HRs, 16 RBIs
I picked Howie Kendrick as my April All-Star second baseman in the AL on Friday, but in a three-game home series against Bautista's Blue Jays over the weekend, Cano went 4-for-9 with a pair of homers, a pair of walks, a hit-by-pitch, and a stolen base, reaching base seven times in 12 plate appearances and goosing the weak .309 on-base percentage that prompted me to look past him before the weekend. Cano, who finished third in the AL MVP voting last year, is my top pick from among a pack of Yankees who currently boast five of the top eight OPS marks in the league. Cano trails third-place Curtis Granderson by a difference lost to rounding, with both officially listed at .970, and is followed by Alex Rodriguez (.964), Russell Martin (.963), and, after an enemy interloper, Mark Teixeira (.957). I favor the 28-year-old Cano here because his near-MVP season last year and relative youth (only Martin is younger out of that quintet) suggest he's most likely to maintain his current level of performance, and his low walk rate (he has just three on the season) and batting average on balls in play (.312 compared to a career mark of .322) suggest he could actually improve as the season progresses.
3. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers (1)
Season Stats: .333/.460/.626, 7 HRs, 20 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: .324/.459/.559, 3 HRs, 11 RBIs
Cabrera is actually a detriment to his team outside of the batters box, so in order for him to take home the hardware either he needs to lap the field with his production at the plate or the Tigers need to win their division, thus making Cabrera appear more valuable to those voters who still mistakenly link player value to the standings. Though the AL Central is standing on its head at the moment, and the Tigers have the best record of the three supposed contenders, Detroit still seems unlikely to see October baseball, and with Bautista doing the field-lapping, Cabrera's customary raking seems somewhat unexceptional. Still, he has been the second-most productive hitter in the league thus far this season.
4. Russell Martin, C, Yankees (N/A)
Season Stats: .293/.376/.587, 6 HRs, 19 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: .289/.396/.556, 3 HRs, 11 RBIs
Martin is my second pick from among that cluster of Yankees, because of his position (the average AL catcher is hitting .228/.290/.382 thus far this season), his strong on-base percentage relative to the third up-the-middle defender in the quintet, Curtis Granderson, his youth (he turned 28 in February), and the manner in which the question marks in the Yankees' rotation are increasingly being answered in the team's favor (save for the likely ailing Phil Hughes, of course). I don't actually credit Martin for that last, but I expect the voters will if the Yankees upset the Red Sox and win the division. I also have serious doubts about Martin's ability to sustain his April performance, but the similarity of his performance to his 2007 season (.293/.374/.469) gives it some precedence, and the return of Francisco Cervelli from the disabled list on Sunday should lead to the workhorse Martin getting the rest he'll need, unlike in '07 and '08, when he appeared in more than 300 games for the Dodgers.
5. Mark Teixeira, 1B, Yankees (N/A)
Season Stats: .256/.387/.570, 7 HRs, 17 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: .302/.424/.585, 3 HRs, 7 RBIs
Teixeira, who finished second in the voting in 2009, is a notorious slow starter who has hit .237/.348/.427 with a home run every 24.3 at-bats in March and April over his career. This March and April, he hit .256/.392/.549 with a home run every 13.7 at-bats, the best first-month performance of his career. That suggests that, at age 31, he could be on his way to the best season in what is shaping up to be a Hall of Fame-quality career. He has also won the Gold Glove in four of the last six years, the two exceptions being seasons that he split between leagues.
Curtis Granderson, CF, Yankees (N/A). Much as they do seem likely to cancel each other out, all five of those Yankees deserve mention. Granderson isn't just off to a hot start, batting .281/.330/.640 with 8 home runs, he has been raking ever since Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long altered his mechanics in August of last season, making particularly large gains in his performance against left-handed pitching and in his power stroke. Add in his excellent defense in center, a promotion to the two-spot in the batting order, and the ability to steal a base (though he hasn't done much of that thus far), and Granderson's case has to be taken seriously.
Alex Rodriguez, 3B, Yankees (3). Rodriguez, who won his third and most-recent AL MVP in 2007, had a monster spring training and earned considerable MVP buzz pre-season despite entering his age-35 season. He then got off to a red-hot start, hitting .405/.511/.865 through his first 11 games before back stiffness stole his mojo. He missed two games due to his back and has hit just .139/.256/.278 in 43 plate appearances since. Stay tuned.
Howard Kendrick, 2B, Angels (HM). Assume all those Yankees will cancel each other out and the Indians will fall from their perch atop the AL Central. The Rangers' most productive hitters thus far have been their sophomore first baseman and 34-year-old designated hitter. That bounces the eye to Kendrick, who has been the offensive spark behind the Angels' strong start, which has them tied with Texas atop the AL West heading into Monday's action. I had Kendrick, who in his age-27 season is already nearly half way to his career high in walks (28, set last year) and more than half of the way to his career high in home runs (10, set each of the last two years), in my top five until I realized that over the last three weeks he has gone back to being the same disappointing hitter he's been over the last five years (.257/.329/.419 vs. a career line of .295/.330/.432).
Jeff Weaver, SP, Angels (N/A). I generally avoid including pitchers on these MVP lists because no pitcher has won the award since Dennis Eckersley in 1992, 19 years ago, and no starting pitcher has won it since Vida Blue in 1971, 40 years ago. However, Weaver, despite getting scratched from his Sunday start due to a stomach virus, is off to the kind of start that brings MVP talk into play.
Travis Hafner, DH, Indians (N/A). No player who has played the majority of his games at designated hitter has ever won the award, which is perhaps the most significant of a number of strikes against Hafner's candidacy. Among the others are the unlikelihood of the Indians staying atop their division, and Hafner's own lack of durability as an injury-prone, 34-year-old DH who hasn't hit this well in half a decade.
Off the list: Nelson Cruz (2), Dustin Pedroia (4), Ian Kinsler (5), Paul Konerko (HM), Adrian Gonzalez (HM), Yunel Escobar (HM)
Next week, Awards Watch revisits the Cy Young award races.