Monday August 1st, 2011

None of the top MVP candidates in either league changed teams at the trade deadline but that doesn't mean they won't be affected by the moves that were made. Given the manner in which voters tend to credit or punish candidates for their team's performances, players whose teams reinforced themselves for the stretch run could benefit. Meanwhile, players such as the Mets' Jose Reyes, whose teams were sellers, could see their candidacy undermined by something that had nothing to do with their own play.

NOTE: All stats through Sunday, July 31; 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. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Red Sox (1)

Season Stats: .357/.418/.571, 18 HRs, 90 RBIs

Last Four Weeks: .382/.456/.494, 2 HRs, 16 RBIs

2. Jose Bautista, 3B/RF, Blue Jays (2)

Season Stats: .324/.459/.656, 31 HRs, 71 RBIs

Last Four Weeks: .294/.412/.529, 4 HRs, 15 RBIs

With two months remaining in the season, this race seems to have defined itself as a battle between the more deserving Bautista, and the more heavily favored Gonzalez, who together lead the major leagues in every hitting category listed above. Gonzalez has the better batting average and teammates (the latter reflected both in his RBI total and the standings), which are the key factors for appealing to the traditionalist voter. Bautista, meanwhile, has been more valuable by any reasonable definition of the term. Not only does Bautista get on base more often (thus making outs less frequently) and hit for more power, the two most important things a hitter can do, but he has played not just one but two more important defensive positions, both of them well, and moved between the two as the team has needed him to without complaint or a change in his production at the plate (Bautista moved from rightfield to third base on June 28 and will likely return to the outfield when third base prospect Brett Lawrie is called up in the coming weeks).

Bautista has slumped since turning his right ankle sliding in to third base on July 14, hitting .231/.380/.308 without a home run in 50 plate appearances since the injury, but in his last 51 plate appearances before the injury he hit .372/.451/.907 with seven homers, proof that his defensive switch has played no part in his current skid. It's also worth nothing that, though he hasn't hit much since the injury, Bautista has continued to get on base at a high-rate. That's proof of just how valuable on-base skills can be, as they tend to be slump-proof. Gonzalez gets on base at a high rate as well, but Bautista has been in another world this season, and it's possible that voters will recognize that fact before they fill out their ballots.

3. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers (3)

Season Stats: .311/.426/.553, 22 HRs, 68 RBIs

Last Four Weeks: .256/.354/.488, 5 HRs, 12 RBIs

One could argue that, once you correct for their disparate home parks, Cabrera is having a better season at the plate than Gonzalez. Indeed, Cabrera has hit .317/.447/.593 on the road, while Gonzalez has hit .318/.387/.545 away from Fenway Park. However, Gonzalez is so much better in the field that his glove bridges that gap and then some. Still, with the Tigers looking likely to pull away in the Central after improving at the deadline and with the return from injury of Carlos Guillen, Cabrera, who finished second in the MVP voting last year and fourth the year before, does have a small chance of actually winning this award should Gonzalez and Bautista both suffer significant slumps or injuries.

4. Curtis Granderson, CF, Yankees (4)

Season Stats: .269/.361/.564, 28 HRs, 78 RBIs, 19 SBs

Last Four Weeks: .256/.343/.535, 6 HRs, 20 RBIs, 4 SBs

Over the last four weeks, Granderson has hit more home runs, driven in more runs, and out-slugged the three primary contenders for this award, all of whom play more traditional power positions. Mix in his speed on the bases and solid play in center, and it's easy to see why Granderson ranks so high despite his unspectacular batting average and on-base percentage. However, Granderson's 19 steals have come at a weak 68 percent success rate, and his play in center has been more erratic of late and over the season has graded out as below average according to both Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Baseball Prospectus's Fielding Runs.

5. Dustin Pedroia, 2B, Red Sox (N/A)

Season Stats: .309/.406/.488, 15 HRs, 57 RBIs, 21 SBs

Last Four Weeks: .406/.446/.743, 8 HRs, 19 RBIs, 5 SBs

Pedroia hit just .240/.351/.332 in the season's first two months, but has put up a .379/.461/.646 line in the two months since, a stretch highlighted by a 25-game hitting streak during which he hit .404/.459/.752 with nine home runs. In fact, since June 4, Pedroia has gone hitless in just three of 48 games. Mix in his usual outstanding defense and nearly risk-free basestealing (his 21 steals have come at an 88 percent success rate) and he has been the best player in baseball over the past two months by a safe margin.

Paul Konerko, 1B, White Sox (HM): Konerko is another nod to the traditionalist voter, who will thrill at his counting stats (he's fourth in the league in both home runs and RBIs) and .300 average, and will, in turn, give him an exaggerated portion of the credit if the White Sox, who are still just four games out in the Central, are able to mount a late threat to the Tigers despite downgrading their roster by trading Edwin Jackson. In reality, after adjusting for his position and hitting-friendly ballpark, Konerko barely makes the AL's top 20 in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player), and that's before factoring in his sub-par defense.

Jacoby Ellsbury, CF, Red Sox (HM): Amazingly, as great as Gonzalez and Pedroia have been this season, it's Ellsbury who boasts the highest Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) total on the Red Sox this season, and thus the second-highest total in the majors after Bautista. He's done that by doing the two things his critics said he couldn't: hit for power (17 homers and a .516 slugging percentage) and play outstanding defense in center.

Asdrubal Cabrera, SS, Indians (5): Cabrera will get the Indians' vote, which is to say, if Cleveland continues to fade, so will his candidacy, but if the acquisition of Ubaldo Jimenez trade reverses their course, it should do the same to Cabrera's. I'm not optimistic about either.

Michael Young, DH, Rangers (N/A): No player to make the majority of his starts as a designated hitter has ever won an MVP award, and Young won't be the first, but he's second in the league in batting average, hits and doubles, six RBIs out of second place in that category, leads the third-best team in the league in on-base percentage, and will receive many brownie points for agreeing to change positions for the third time in his career to accommodate a new addition to the team.

Mark Teixeira, 1B, Yankees (HM): Start with Konerko, move him up two spots on the home run and RBI leader boards and upgrade his defense, then shave off 60 points of batting average and remember that he not only didn't he make the All-Star team, but he didn't deserve to with Gonzalez, Cabrera, and, yes, Konerko in the league and you have Teixeira.

Off the list: David Ortiz (HM), Alex Avila (HM)

1. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers (4)

Season Stats: .322/.394/.583, 21 HRs, 71 RBIs, 19 SBs

Last Four Weeks: .333/.345/.722, 5 HRs, 9 RBIs, 0 SBs

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

Season Stats: .296/.412/.554, 24 HRs, 76 RBIs

Last Four Weeks: .293/.398/.451, 3 HRs, 7 RBIs

Momentum had build up behind Fielder's candidacy when I last visited this race around Independence day, but since then, Prince has had something of a power outage (relative to his own standards, at least), while his teammate, Braun, returned from the calf injury that shelved him for much of the early part of the month with a power surge. As a result, any clear-eyed comparison between the two teammates has to favor Braun. Their hitting lines, both in terms of rate and counting stats, are roughly equivalent, but Braun stole those 19 bases at an excellent 83 percent success rate, and plays a solid leftfield (though UZR offers a dissenting opinion on the latter). Fielder, meanwhile, is a detriment both on the bases and in the field. Braun hasn't attempted a steal since before his calf injury, but that doesn't erase the bases he already swiped. With all else being equal (their team, their ballpark, their opponents), there's really no sound way to favor Fielder over Braun right now.

3. Matt Kemp, CF, Dodgers (2)

Season Stats: .317/.394/.585, 26 HR, 82 RBIs, 28 SBs

Last Four Weeks: .298/.348/.500, 4 HRs, 18 RBIs, 6 SBs

It doesn't take much to see that Kemp has been better than Braun this season, particularly once you adjust for their positions and ballparks. However, Kemp's play in center leaves a lot to be desired, and his Dodgers have the fourth-worst record in the league. Both of those things undermine his candidacy, though the latter shouldn't. Put Kemp on the Brewers (they certainly have room for him), and he'd be running away with this award.

4. Lance Berkman, OF/1B, Cardinals (5)

Season Stats: .286/.396/.601, 28 HRs, 72 RBIs

Last Four Weeks: .237/.338/.559, 7 HRs, 11 RBIs

Berkman, like Fielder, is something of a liability outside of the batter's box. Yet in stark contrast to Prince, Berkman may not be getting the support he deserves for this award. In a season that has seen both Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday miss time due to injuries, and saw Pujols struggle for perhaps the first time in his career early in the year, Berkman has been both a constant source of production at the plate, and a versatile defender who shifted to both leftfield and first base when his superstar teammates were out of the lineup. That's not to say that Berkman is a good fielder. He has been particularly awful in his primary position of rightfield, and has had nagging injuries of his own, most recently a rotator cuff strain that cost him five games. He has also hit just .231 since May 3, but that last is primarily due to awful luck on balls in play. His outstanding walk and home run rates have more than made up for that misfortune to keep him fourth in the league in on-base percentage and first in slugging and home runs.

5. Jose Reyes, SS, Mets (3)

Season Stats: .341/.382/.510, 78 R, 16 3B, 32 SBs

Last Four Weeks: .267/.286/.400, 13 R, 1 3B, 2 SBs

A hamstring strain cost Reyes the first half of July, and as the above "last four weeks" line shows, his bat has gone a bit cold since his return. He's still leading the league in average, hits (140), triples and runs, but some of the shine has come off his season, which is a shame given how unique and exciting it was prior to the injury. He still rates as the third most valuable player in the league according to WARP, ahead of Berkman, Fielder and Braun, but with the Mets likely to fade after trading Carlos Beltran, Reyes, who is something of an odd duck in this race, could find support for his candidacy harder to come by without another big surge.

Justin Upton, RF, Diamondbacks (HM): Upton enters August with an active 12-game hitting streak during which he has hit .478/.528/1.065 with 14 of his 22 hits going for extra bases and six of them leaving the ballpark. Meanwhile, his upstart Diamondbacks have closed to within two games of the NL West-leading Giants.

Brian McCann, C, Braves (HM): A strained left oblique has pushed McCann to the disabled list for the time being, but the Braves are hopeful that he won't miss much more than the minimum 15 days. If so, his candidacy shouldn't be hurt too badly. The 3.8 wins McCann has been worth compared to a replacement catcher according to WARP covers the size of the Braves' wild card lead plus some.

Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates (HM): The criminally underrated McCutchen should get some attention if his Pirates are able to keep their record above .500, but Pittsburgh appears to be slipping back into the pack, a course the additions of Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick seem unlikely to reverse. McCutchen's recent slump (.192/.322/.384 over the past four weeks) isn't helping, though a closer look at that line shows some bad luck on balls in play accompanied by a lot of walks and solid power, which combined with his excellent work in center and speed on the bases have made him the second most valuable player in the league (after Kemp) according to WARP.

Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (HM): Votto leads the league on on-base percentage at .428, but with his Reds fading, and his power down from last year (a drop of 80 points of isolated slugging), the defending NL MVP seems unlikely to garner much support as anything other than mid-ballot filler.

Roy Halladay, SP, Phillies: Like designated hitters, pitchers don't win the MVP award. The last to do so was A's closer Dennis Eckersley in 1992 The last National League starter to win the award was Bob Gibson in 1968. Still, a top-10 finish is not unheard of. Limiting the list to starting pitchers, in the last five years, Johan Santana finished seventh in the AL MVP voting in 2006, Jake Peavy finished seventh in the NL voting when he won the pitching triple crown in 2007, CC Sabathia finished sixth when he put the Brewers on his back down the stretch in 2008 and Halladay finished sixth last year, the first in which he received any MVP votes. With the Phillies boasting the best record in baseball thanks primarily to their starting rotation, and Halladay again the best of that bunch and the leading candidate for the NL Cy Young award, one imagines he'll crack the top 10 again this year. Better him than teammate Ryan Howard, who is second in the league in RBIs, but isn't anywhere near one of the 10 most valuable players in the National League.

Off the list: Shane Victorino (HM)

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