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Pair of first basemen undeservingly lead baseball's MVP races

The purpose of this column is to rank players according to how likely they are to win a given award, not by who is most deserving of that award. As a result, the rankings below bow to the conventional wisdom that Adrian Gonzalez and Prince Fielder have been the most valuable players in their respective leagues through the first half of the 2011 season, despite the fact that they quite clearly have not been. While Gonzalez and Fielder are indeed enjoying outstanding seasons, both are first basemen playing in hitter-friendly ballparks. If one adjusts their production to account for the offensive standard of their position and the tendencies of their home ballparks, both are slightly diminished. More significantly, even without any adjustments, each plays in a league with a player who has been clearly more productive in terms of raw numbers.

The catch is that Gonzalez and Fielder play for contending teams, while the players who have clearly been more productive -- Jose Bautista of the Blue Jays and Matt Kemp of the Dodgers -- play for teams that lurk toward the bottom of their respective divisions. That, unfortunately, brings us back to the central conflict between old-school and progressive thinking when it comes to the Most Valuable Player Award. There are many award voters who still believe that a player cannot be considered truly valuable unless he helps his team contend. That is, in a word, absurd. I don't care how productive he is, no lone player can single-handedly change the fortunes of a bad baseball team. The game does not allow it. Perhaps in a single game, a National League pitcher could throw a shutout, hit a solo home run, and be said to have single-handedly beaten his opponents, but even then his defense played a part. Even if that pitcher did that in every start, he'd still only be able to effect one-fifth of his team's games, and pitchers never win the MVP award anyway (the last was Dennis Eckersley in 1992, the last starter was Roger Clemens in 1986, and the last who actually got to hit was Bob Gibson in 1968).

Using team performance to evaluate the candidates for an individual award is simply illogical. Player value is absolute. That is what the family of "above replacement" stats attempt to show by converting a player's performance into runs (as in the aptly named Value Over Replacement Player, or VORP, an offense-only stat) or wins (as in WARP, Wins Above Replacement Player, or its descendant WAR, same minus "player," both of which factor in defense as well). If a player is worth, say, six wins according to WARP or WAR, he has made his team six wins better, whether it's making a 92-win team into a 98-win team or a 72-win team into a 78-win team. The performance of his teammates should be irrelevant when considering his value. His value is absolute.

Sadly, while the Cy Young voters have made considerable progress in looking past pitching wins -- another method of using team performance to evaluate individuals -- the MVP award still seems to be tied to team performance and RBI totals (another problematic, team-dependent stat, but I'll save that rant for another day). Thus, what we see below are the two league-leaders in RBIs, both first basemen on contending teams, ranked above clearly more valuable players who have the misfortune to be surrounded by inferior teammates. My hope is that, just as we saw with Felix Hernandez and the American League Cy Young vote last year, the conventional wisdom will begin to shift before the votes are cast. But I'm not holding my breath.

NOTE: All stats through Sunday, July 3; 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. Prince Fielder, 1B, Brewers (2)Season Stats: .296/.416/.582, 21 HRs, 69 RBIsLast Three Weeks: .262/.418/.410, 2 HRs, 11 RBIs

Momentum seems to be gathering around Fielder as the front-runner in this race. Never mind that he's not even the most valuable player on his own team (that would be Ryan Braun), or that entering Sunday's action he was 12th in the league in WARP, or that Kemp is his equal or superior in nearly every major offensive stat and plays a far more difficult position. Fielder is a lefty slugger in a ballpark that favors left-handed home-run hitters (126 park factor for left-handed home runs over the last three seasons per the 2011 Bill James Handbook), and a subpar defender at an offense-first position. There's no doubt that he's having a great season, but taken in context, he's nowhere near the league's most valuable player. WARP even ranks Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks -- a good defender, base-stealer, and productive right-handed bat at a position that typically offers little at the plate -- ahead of Fielder so far this season, making Prince the third-most-valuable player on his own team. Still the narrative of Fielder's impending free agency being the motivating factor for the Brewers offseason rotation improvements, his big season, the team's first-place rank and that voter-pleasing RBI total are a lot for the rest of the league to overcome.

2. Matt Kemp, CF, Dodgers (1)Season Stats: .322/.406/.609, 22 HRs, 64 RBIs, 22 SBsLast Three Weeks: .288/.384/.475, 2 HRs, 8 RBIs, 8 SBs

Kemp has been far and away the most valuable player in the National League this year, even after you adjust for his misadventures in center field. To get from Fielder to Kemp you have to take Prince out of Miller Park and put him in pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium (87 park factor for home runs from right-handed batters like Kemp), add enough production to get him back up to his Miller Park-assisted level, then add 30 points of batting average and 22 stolen bases in 25 attempts (an outstanding 88 percent success rate). Oh, and did I mention that he'd also have to be able to play center field about as well as Fielder plays first base? This race shouldn't even be close right now.

3. Jose Reyes, SS, Mets (4)Season Stats: .354/.398/.529, 15 3B, 65 Rs, 30 SBsLast Three Weeks: .385/.424/.526, 4 3B, 18 Rs, 10 SBs

Teams interested in acquiring Reyes -- be it via a deadline trade or a big free agent deal -- got a frightening reminder of what might be on Saturday when Reyes left the Mets' Subway Series game with a strained hamstring. As a sophomore, Reyes missed most of the first half of the 2004 season due to a hamstring strain, and leg injuries posed such a threat to his career early on that the Mets tried to change the way he ran. After four healthy seasons, a severe hamstring tear cost him most of 2009. This injury proved to be mild, a Type 1 strain of his left hamstring (those earlier issues were with his right leg) that shouldn't require a disabled list stay, but one wonders if the reminder will lower Reyes' price. Still, the Mets are surely thankful that Reyes' injury wasn't worse, as should we all be given what a thrilling season he is having.

4. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers (5)Season Stats: .320/.402/.559, 16 HRs, 62 RBIs, 19 SBsLast Three Weeks: .365/.414/.556, 2 HRs, 14 RBIs, 5 SBs

Braun brings an active 22-game hitting streak into this week's action, though a sore left calf has put it on pause for the moment, prompting him to sit out Sunday's game and perhaps more. Braun has hit .366/.418/.573 over the life of the streak, which dates back to June 8. Only Andre Ethier (30 games) and Hunter Pence (23 games) have had longer streaks this season, and the next-longest active streak is Pablo Sandoval's 13 games, which matches Braun's previous career high. Of course, Braun's value goes well beyond the statistical oddity that is a hitting streak. One doesn't have to squint to see how his high-percentage base stealing (he's one shy of his career high already and has been successful on 83 percent of his attempts) and solid play in left field make him more valuable than his comparatively one-dimensional teammate Fielder.

5. Lance Berkman, OF/1B, Cardinals (3)Season Stats: .297/.409/.610, 22 HRs, 61 RBIsLast Three Weeks: .233/.338/.583, 6 HRs, 15 RBIs

With Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday missing time due to injury and illness, Berkman has filled in both at the plate and in the field, moving to left field and first base when those positions became vacated. His contributions to the Cardinal cause have come exclusively at the plate, however, and as of late, they've come largely in the form of walks and home runs. That's because Berkman has been hitting in awful luck over the past two months. Since May 3, he has hit just .229 thanks to a dreadfully unlucky .198 batting average on balls in play (the NL average this season is .294, and his career BABIP is .316). However, over the same stretch, he has hit 13 home runs (one every 15 plate appearances) and drawn 32 unintentional walks (roughly one every six PA), resulting in an on-base percentage 149 points higher than his batting average (the major league average is 67 points) and an isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) of .274 (compared to the major league average of .139). On the season, his .313 isolated power is the second-best mark in the majors (behind Jose Bautista, of course).

HONORABLE MENTION

Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (HM): Votto leads the NL in on-base percentage, but he has shed nearly 90 points of isolated power from his MVP campaign of a year ago.

Brian McCann, C, Braves (N/A): A perennial All-Star and Silver Slugger, McCann has nonetheless been overshadowed by Joe Mauer and, more recently, Buster Posey, but with both having lost significant time to injury, McCann is seizing the spotlight by having his finest major league season at age 27. He has been far and away the best hitter on a Braves team that stands to repeat as the NL wild card and his production from behind the plate has been rivaled only by Tigers' sophomore Alex Avila this season.

Justin Upton, RF, Diamondbacks (HM): The ultra-talented Upton is finally putting it all together in his fifth season at the still-tender age of 23 (by way of comparison, the average age of the five players on my NL Rookie of the Year list last week was 23, and Upton, though a five-year veteran, remains the youngest player on the Diamondbacks' 25-man roster). He has been the most-productive hitter on a surprising D'backs team and an all-around threat, but was just 15th in WARP entering Sunday's action, ranking behind unlisted players Rickie Weeks, Troy Tulowitzki, Albert Pujols, Gaby Sanchez, and Hunter Pence (in that order), and is the only player on this list to rank below Fielder in WARP. Still, as three of those players are on losing teams, Pujols is on the disabled list, and Weeks would be the third Brewer on the list, I think Upton would get the most support from among those five peripheral candidates.

Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates (HM): Having a winning record, for the Pirates, is like being in first place for any other team in the league, and McCutchen has been a huge part of the reason why, both for his production at the plate in a ballpark that swallows up right-handed home runs (park factor of 80 over the last three years per the Bill James Handbook), and for his play in center field, which has helped the Pirates become the best defensive team in the league (per Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, which adjusts the rate at which teams turn balls in play into outs to the dimensions of their home ballpark). Entering Sunday's action, McCutchen was third in the league in WARP behind only Kemp and Reyes.

Shane Victorino, CF, Phillies (N/A): Victorino has been the best hitter on the best team in baseball this season, but with no eye-popping counting stats and the credit for the Phillies success being properly assigned to the starting rotation, Victorino seems likely to be limited to a few down-ballot votes.

OFF THE LIST: Jay Bruce (HM), Gaby Sanchez (HM)

1. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Red Sox (2)Season Stats:.350/.407/.588, 16 HRs, 74 RBIsLast Three Weeks: .384/.458/.603, 3 HRs, 14 RBIs

Favoring Gonzalez for the AL MVP isn't as egregious an error as favoring Fielder in the NL. Gonzalez is an excellent fielder, second in his league in WARP, and while Fenway Park does inflate left-handed batting averages (Gonzalez is hitting .380 at home), it has actually suppressed home runs over the last three years (park factor of 88 for left-handed hitters per James). Rogers Centre, meanwhile has become a launchpad, particularly for right-handers like Jose Bautista (116 park factor for right-handed homers over the last three years, 137 in 2010). Taking that all into account, one can find a way to explain away some of the gap between the two, but the only way to put Gonzalez ahead of Bautista is to give each too much credit (or blame) for their team's performance.

2. Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays (1)Season Stats: .331/.471/.688, 27 HRs, 56 RBIsLast Three Weeks: .309/.413/.647, 6 HRs, 14 RBIs

Bautista took a little break from hitting home runs in June, homering just once in 22 games from May 29 to June 21. That allowed the MVP momentum to shift to Gonzalez, but Bautista still reached base 40 percent of the time during his power outage, and has since hit six home runs in his last 11 games, including one in each of the last three, batting .368/.478/.947 over that stretch with 10 of his 14 hits going for extra bases. An excellent right fielder, he remains the most valuable player in either league -- he's worth more than two wins more than Gonzalez, and 1.5 more than Kemp -- according to WARP, and a win and a half more than Kemp, though much of that advantage is comprised of the two outfielders' disparate performances in the field.

3. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers (4)Season Stats: .328/.446/.572, 17 HRs, 56 RBIsLast Three Weeks: .375/.474/.609, 4 HRs, 11 RBIs

Cabrera is having a season equal to and possibly even better than last year, when I argued that he should have been the American League MVP, but his competition this year is far tougher. By WARP, Cabrera hasn't even been the most valuable regular on the Tigers, which is a staggering thought and one in which adjustments for position play a very large role. That's the rub with Cabrera; he's somewhere between useless and downright harmful outside of the batters box, which is why team's can't wait to walk him (he leads the majors with 14 intentional passes). At the plate, only Bautista and Kemp have been more valuable this season.

4. Curtis Granderson, CF, Yankees (3)Season Stats: .273/.366/.572, 22 HRs, 58 RBIs, 15 SBsLast Three Weeks: .250/.413/.417, 2 HRs, 11 RBIs, 5 SBs

Many expected a home run spike from Granderson last year, when he moved from lefty-stifling Comerica Park to the new Yankee Stadium, which is the best home-run hitting park for left-handed hitters in the major leagues. That makes his power outburst this season all the more impressive as it hasn't been a product of his home park. Granderson has homered once every 16 plate appearances at home and once every 16.5 plate appearances on the road. He has been less impressive on the bases, where he was caught five times in 11 steal attempts in June, putting his season stolen base rate in the red. That was likely a fluke, however. Granderson's career steal rate before this season was 81 percent and he stole eight of 10 bags (80 percent, of course) in April and May combined. Indeed, he has not been caught in his last five steal attempts.

5. Asdrubal Cabrera, SS, Indians (5)Season Stats: .291/.341/.496, 14 HRs, 49 RBIs, 12 SBsLast Three Weeks: .253/.309/.400, 2 HRs, 7 RBIs, 3 SBs

Despite playing just .370 ball in June, the Indians continue to cling to their lead in the AL Central. Since first ascending to the top of the division on April 7, Cleveland has failed to own at least a share of first place for just five days, nonconsecutive days. Blame the Tigers and White Sox for failing to seize the opportunity the Indians have presented to them, but also credit the Tribe for putting up a win the day after they slipped into second place on three separate occasions. Though Cabrera has slumped with his team, he has clung to the top five in the MVP race in much the same way. The day before my last look at this race, he went 3-for-5 with a double and two stolen bases, and despite his weak three-week performance above and an 0-for-4, three-strikeout day on Sunday, he has hit .300/.323/.567 with both of those home runs and six of those seven RBIs over his last seven games.

HONORABLE MENTION

Paul Konerko, 1B, White Sox (HM)

David Ortiz, DH, Red Sox (HM)

Mark Teixeira, 1B, Yankees (N/A)

Adjusting for position and ballpark take the sting out of the superficially impressive numbers from this trio, none of whom ranked in the top 19 in the AL in WARP heading into Sunday's action. It's not that they've not been tremendously valuable, but Teixeira's production has been dragged down by bad luck on balls in play (.213 BABIP on the season, resulting in an uncharacteristic .243 average), Ortiz doesn't play defense, which, if history is a guide, gives him no chance of winning this award, and Konerko plays his home games in the most welcoming environment for right-handed sluggers in baseball (right-handed home run park factor for the last three years: 145; for 2010: 179!).

Alex Avila, C, Tigers (HM): Adjustments for position and defensive performance (two separate things) put Avila ahead of Miguel Cabrera in WARP, and if you throw in an adjustment for his home park, he's effectively tied with McCann as the most valuable catcher in baseball to this point in the season. Not bad for a sophomore who hit .228/.316/.340 last year.

Jacoby Ellsbury, CF, Red Sox (HM): Range-based defensive metrics were sour enough on Ellsbury in 2009 that the Red Sox tried to move him to left field last year only to watch him take up residence on the disabled list. This year, with Carl Crawford installed in left, Ellsbury has been given another shot at center and suddenly the defensive metrics love him. Whether or not that has been the result of an actual improvement in his play or the variability and unreliability inherent in those systems is hard to say (Ellsbury graded out well in center before 2009, so I'm guessing it's more the latter), but by adding power and "improving" his defense, Ellsbury has come back from a season lost to injury to become one of the most valuable players in the league and far and away Boston's best outfielder in 2011.

OFF THE LIST: Carlos Quentin (HM)

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