Monday June 13th, 2011

Home runs have been the story as the Most Valuable Player races in both leagues have begun to tighten up. Jose Bautista's power outage has kept the door open a crack in the American League, while a pair of National Leaguers have ridden the long ball to the top two spots on the senior circuit list, bumping the leader from three weeks ago down to third. Meanwhile, members of the exceptional 2005 draft class dominate the down-ballot candidates. Looking at the bottom six men on each list, six of those 12 were drafted in 2005, five of them in the first round, and four of them in the first dozen picks of that draft, and that's without Troy Tulowitzki (seventh overall) or Ryan Zimmerman (fourth), the former of whom made the NL list three weeks ago, and the latter of whom was a regular presence on the list last year.

NOTE: All stats through Sunday, June 12; 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. Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays (1)

Season Stats: .338/.489/.701, 21 HRs, 42 RBIs

Last Three Weeks: .309/.466/.471, 3 HRs, 11 RBIs

Bautista ended a 13-game home-run drought with a solo shot on Sunday, but that dry spell didn't mean he had turned back into a utility pumpkin. Bautista also had a 13-game homer drought last year around this time (from June 5 to June 20) and homered in just one of 24 games from June 5 to July 2, so it's premature to say his wild ride is over. Unlike last year, when his average sunk to .229 on July 2, he has continued to hit for average and get on base even without launching home runs, and he's still leading the majors in homers and slugging percentage, as well as in walks (58, nine intentional) and on-base percentage. That last is Bautista's most impressive statistic this season; he has reached base in all but three of the 58 games in which he has appeared.

2. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Red Sox (2)

Season Stats: .341/.392/.584, 13 HRs, 60 RBIs

Last Three Weeks: .338/.395/.610, 4 HRs, 19 RBIs

Tying the concept of player value to team performance is flawed at best given how marginal the impact any individual player can have on his team's won-loss record is, but it's hard not to see the parallels between Gonzalez's performance and that of the Red Sox this season. Gonzalez hit .244/.346/.400 while the Red Sox stumbled out to a 2-10 start, and has hit .360/.402/.622 as the Sox have gone 36-16 (.692) since. That leaves out a lot of other important contributions to that turn-around, but Gonzalez isn't out of place this high on this list whether you use the numbers or the narrative to get him here.

3. Curtis Granderson, CF, Yankees (HM)

Season Stats: .279/.353/.611, 20 HRs, 47 RBIs, 10 SBs

Last Three Weeks: .315/.407/.603, 4 HRs, 13 RBIs, 6 SBs

Granderson's batting average and on-base percentage don't really jive with so high a ranking (and he was hitting just .267 before a 4-for-4 performance on Sunday), but when you take into account the fact that he's a solid defender at a premium defensive position, an asset on the basepaths (on pace to tie his previous career high in stolen bases, albeit at a lower success rate), and the most valuable hitter on the team with the second-best record in the league, his power surge demands his inclusion. Divorced from the context of their careers to that point, Granderson's 2011 season looks a lot like Bautista's 2010. Bautista, who is also an asset in the field and on the bases, though not necessarily an elite performer in either context, experienced a power surge at age 29 and hit .260/.379/.617 with 54 home runs and 124 RBIs last year on his way to a fourth-place finish in the MVP voting. Granderson, 30 and experiencing a similar though less dramatic surge, is on pace for 51 home runs and 121 RBIs with a comparable slash line.

4. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers (4)

Season Stats: .314/.438/.562, 13 HRs, 45 RBIs

Last Three Weeks: .318/.444/.591, 5 HRs, 15 RBIs

Like Gonzalez with the Red Sox, Cabrera hasn't been the only valuable Tiger this season, but he is the man most likely to see his candidacy get a boost from the Tigers' overtaking of the Indians in the AL Central, and, again, it's hard to argue against it. Cabrera, who has finished in the top five in his league's MVP voting in four of the last six seasons including a second-place finish last year, is third in the majors in on-base percentage, in the top 10 in the AL in most major hitting categories, has walked a dozen more times than he has struck out, and entering Sunday's action ranked second in the AL in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player, Baseball Prospectus's cumulative total-offense statistic).

5. Asdrubal Cabrera, SS, Indians (5)

Season Stats: .302/.350/.523, 12 HRs, 42 RBIs, 9 SBs

Last Three Weeks: .300/.317/.525, 3 HRs, 10 RBIs, 3 SBs

Advanced fielding metrics (specifically Ultimate Zone Rating and Baseball Prospectus's Fielding Runs Above Average) consider Cabrera the worst defensive shortstop in baseball right now, but as long as he makes the occasional Globetrotters-like highlight play, most of the voters are likely to believe their eyes instead of those numbers. Instead, they'll focus on Cabrera's batting numbers, which, given that they do come from a shortstop, rank him among the most valuable players in the junior circuit. The irony is that the Indians' fall from atop of the AL Central will likely drag Cabrera's candidacy down anyway, producing the proper result for the wrong reason.

Jacoby Ellsbury, CF, Red Sox (N/A): After playing in just 18 games last year due to a series of rib injuries, Ellsbury, the 24th overall pick in the 2005 draft, is doing for the Red Sox what they had hoped Carl Crawford would: hitting for average, stealing a ton of bases, and providing a power threat atop the lineup. That last is the twist. Ellsbury has always been fast and able to hit for average, but the power is new. He's second in the majors (to his teammate Gonzalez) in doubles with 21, and has mixed in seven home runs; his previous career highs in those categories are 27 and 9. He's also doing two things Crawford has long refused to: play centerfield and bat leadoff, all for less than a fifth of Crawford's 2011 salary.

Paul Konerko, 1B, White Sox (N/A): Konerko surprised everyone by having his best season last year at age 34 and finishing fifth in the MVP voting, and he is back at it again this year, practically replicating his 2010 performance across the board and charting a course for his 400th career home run (he's 19 away).

Alex Avila, C, Tigers (N/A): Last year, the Tigers' catchers, primarily Avila and Gerald Laird, hit .223/.294/.330. So, the Tigers went out and signed Victor Martinez . . . and made him their designated hitter. That was a head-scratcher at the time, but Avila's big step forward at the age of 24 and Martinez's .173/.224/.250 line while donning the tools of ignorance explains everything. Avila has been the best catcher in baseball this season, supplementing his outstanding production at the plate by throwing out 36 percent of attempting basestealers (against a major league average of 28 percent), and is a large part of why the Tigers are about to move into first place in the AL Central.

Carlos Quentin, RF, White Sox (N/A): A broken wrist appeared to rob Quentin of this award in late 2008, and nagging injuries sullied his attempt at a follow-up season. Now 28, he has never played in 132 games or had 500 at-bats in a major league season, but when he's healthy, he's a beast, which makes it all the more problematic that one of his skills seems to be getting on base by getting hit by pitches. He leads the majors in that category with 13, is tied for third in the majors in doubles with 20, and for fourth in the AL in home runs (17) and RBIs (47).

David Ortiz, DH, Red Sox (N/A): Having pulled his career back from the brink of collapse in each of the last three seasons, Ortiz is now, at 35, hitting like he did in his prime, when he finished in the top four in the AL MVP voting four years in a row. Of course, Ortiz never won the award; no player who has spent the majority of his time at designated hitter ever has, and Ortiz hasn't played more than 10 games in the field since he was in his twenties. If Ortiz didn't win the award in his prime, he won't now. Still, this list would be incomplete without him.

Off the list: Matt Joyce (3), Howie Kendrick (HM), Kevin Youkilis (HM), Ben Zobrist (HM), Adrian Beltre (HM)

1. Matt Kemp, CF, Dodgers (3)

Season Stats: .331/.411/.641, 20 HRs, 56 RBIs, 14 SBs

Last Three Weeks: .368/.443/.912, 10 HRs, 23 RBIs, 2 SBs

Kemp has been a part of the MVP discussion since reaching base four times in five trips on Opening Day, but he has thrown his candidacy into overdrive in the last four weeks by stealing Jose Bautista's longball mojo. Kemp hit three home runs in four games from May 17 to May 20, has seven home runs in his last nine games (including a pinch-hit homer on Friday in a game he didn't start due to a tender hamstring), and has hit .344/.417/.856 overall since May 17 with 13 home runs in 25 games. He now leads the NL in home runs with 20, one off Bautista's major league lead, and slugging percentage, is second in RBIs, third in batting average and hits (81), fifth in on-base-percentage, and tied for sixth in steals. The only strikes against him are the fact that, though he plays a premium defensive position, he plays it poorly, and his Dodgers are just a game out of last place in the NL West. The voters should disregard one of those two facts, but I'm guessing they'll choose the wrong one.

2. Prince Fielder, 1B, Brewers (HM)

Season Stats: .305/.414/.627, 19 HRs, 58 RBIs

Last Three Weeks: .373/.519/.898, 9 HRs, 22 RBIs

Prince Fielder had done Kemp one better with eight home runs in his last 10 games, including a stretch of six in six games. While less exciting, Fielder has also been walking at an impressive rate, drawing 19 free passes in his last 21 games, only three of which were intentional. That's a 146-walk pace over a full season from the man who led the majors in bases on balls last year with 114 (though he's far short of that pace on the season as a whole, having walked just 18 times, four intentional, in his first 45 games). Again, that may not be particularly sexy, but it has helped Fielder reach base in more than half of his plate appearances since May 21. Also, he has struck out just eight times over the same span and hasn't seen strike three since last Monday, a span of 24 plate appearances that is only his fourth-best strikeout drought of the season. Mix in the home runs, and Fielder's doing an even better Jose Bautista impression than Kemp thus far this month.

3. Lance Berkman, OF, Cardinals (1)

Season Stats: .317/.431/.619, 16 HRs, 46 RBIs

Last Three Weeks: .271/.386/.525, 4 HRs, 10 RBIs

Berkman is another player on a home run rampage, albeit a less impressive one than Kemp's or Fielder's. Big Puma has gone deep in five of his last seven games, four of them coming after he received a cortisone injection in his right wrist on June 5. Berkman sprained the wrist making a diving catch in rightfield on May 18, missed three games, and later fell into a brief slump at the end of the month, but the cortisone seems to have done the trick. The only question is how long it will last. Berkman said at the time that the shot was so painful he would not get another, but given his outburst since, he may change his mind.

4. Jose Reyes, SS, Mets (HM)

Season Stats: .346/.391/.529, 19 2B, 11 3B, 20 SBs

Last Three Weeks: .444/.474/.736, 5 2B, 5 3B, 3 SBs

John Autin of wrote a blog post on Reyes last Tuesday that pointed out that the 28-year-old shortstop is on pace to set the Mets franchise records for hits, doubles, triples, extra-base-hits, and total bases, hit the second most triples since the start of the 20th century, set a major league record for most total bases with seven or fewer home runs (Reyes has hit just three taters this season), become just the third player ever to have 20 triples and 50 stolen bases in the same season (after Ty Cobb, thrice, and Lance Johnson), the second player ever to have 50 doubles and 20 triples in the same season (Stan Musial did it in 1946), and the first player ever to have 50 doubles, 20 triples, and 50 stolen bases in the same season. Reyes, who leads the majors in hits (94), triples, and batting average, remains on pace for all but the 50 doubles (he's currently on pace for 47), which makes his pending free agency all the more loaded a situation for the cash-strapped Mets.

5. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers (2)

Season Stats: .309/.399/.560, 14 HRs, 48 RBIs, 14 SBs

Last Three Weeks: .333/.421/.545, 2 HRs, 11 RBIs, 4 SBs

Braun, the fifth overall pick in the '05 draft, launched a major league-leading 10 home runs in April, but has hit just four more in 165 plate appearances since. However, he has stolen 11 bases in 14 attempts (79 percent success rate) over the latter span, a 45-steal pace over 162 games and evidence of how much of a complete player Braun is; when his bat cools, he still contributes with his legs and his glove (UZR disagrees, but John Dewan's plus/minus system and Baseball Prospectus's new Fielding Runs both see Braun as average or better in the field). Not that his bat isn't contributing as well. As the "last three weeks" line above shows, he doesn't need to hit home runs to be tremendously productive.

Jay Bruce, RF, Reds (N/A): The 12th overall pick in '05, Bruce was rated the top prospect in all of baseball prior to the 2008 season by both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus's Kevin Goldstein, made his major league debut in late May 2008 at the age of 21, and hit 68 home runs in his first three seasons despite being plagued by injuries and inconsistency. His coming out was a .385/.467/.868 performance with 14 home runs in his final 107 plate appearances of 2010, a stretch that included a walk-off home run that clinched the Reds first playoff berth in 15 years. Bruce got off to a slow start this April, but has hit .316/.394/.637 with 15 home runs since April 25 at the still-tender age of 24, giving him a cumulative line of .316/.391/.631 with 31 home runs and 72 RBIs in 339 at-bats since August 18 of last season. It seems safe to say he's delivering on his potential.

Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (5): Votto leads the non-Jose Bautista world in walks (55) and on-base percentage (.463) by more than a little, and, entering Sunday's action, ranked third in the majors in Baseball Prospectus's WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player), but coming off an MVP season in which he hit 37 home runs and drove in 113 runs while leading his underdog team to its first division title in 15 years, he just doesn't have the counting stats or team performance right now to suggest a repeat.

Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates (N/A): It's easy to overlook McCutchen, a great young player who does everything well (advanced fielding metrics finally agree) but no one thing better than everyone else and toils for one of the worst franchises in the game. Still, he poked his dreadlocked head onto this list last year and is doing so again now as the all-around should-be superstar on a Pirates team that is flirting with .500. Drafted one spot ahead of Bruce in 2005, McCutchen is also just 24 and enjoying his finest season yet in what is shaping up to be a very promising career.

Gaby Sanchez, 1B, Marlins (HM): Sanchez, a fourth-round pick in 2005, continues to fend off advances from teammate Mike Stanton and a resurgent Albert Pujols (.310/.389/.521 since May 4) thanks largely to his advantages over both in batting average (.312) and on-base percentage (.387) and his strong play in the field. However, it's not hard to envision Prince Albert reclaiming his spot in this line of succession three weeks from now as the Marlins continue to slip back into the pack in the NL East.

Justin Upton, RF, Diamondbacks (N/A): With the Indians in free-fall, the Diamondbacks, who briefly slithered into first place in the NL West as May turned to June, have become the underdog story of the moment, helping to push the 23-year-old Upton, yet another 2005 first-round pick, to the periphery of the MVP discussion. Upton's numbers greatly resemble McCutchen's across the board; the primary difference is a deficit of 10 points of batting average and an inferior strikeout-to-walk ratio (McCutchen: 1.29; Upton: 1.93), though Upton has cut down his strikeouts significantly this season.

Off the list: Matt Holliday (4), Carlos Beltran (HM), Troy Tulowitzki (HM)

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