Monday August 22nd, 2011

Awards Watch takes its final full-scale look at the Most Valuable Player races this week (September will bring the condensed, "lightning-round" version of this column, which lists the top three contenders for all three awards every week), and finds the races as tight as ever. Sitting atop the American League list is a player who has not held the top position all season, while the National League race finds a pair of teammates locked in an apparent dead-heat.

NOTE: All stats through Sunday, August 21; 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. Curtis Granderson, CF, Yankees (4)

Season Stats: .281/.375/.594, 35 HRs, 98 RBIs, 24 SBs

Last Three Weeks: .342/.448/.753, 6 HRs, 20 RBIs, 5 SBs

Thanks to two red-hot weeks, Granderson has pushed his on-base percentage to a season high and his average up over .280 for the first time since June 22, which, combined with the Yankees holding a half-game lead on the Red Sox for the best record in the American League and Adrian Gonzalez slumping, has pushed his name to the front of the AL MVP conversation. Granderson leads the majors in runs by 23 over second-place Jose Bautista, is tied with Prince Fielder for the major league lead in RBIs, is second in the majors in home runs and slugging percentage (both to Bautista), and is fourth in triples, and has done all of that while playing a solid centerfield and swiping 24 bases. He's having the kind of season that allows you to play this game:

Major league seasons with 30 HRs, 100 RBIs, 20 SBs, 100 R, 10 triples: six, most recently Andre Dawson in 1983; Granderson is two RBIs from adding a seventh.

Major league seasons with 40 HRs, 100 RBIs, 20 SBs, 100 R, 10 triples: Willie Mays, 1955; Granderson is two RBIs and five homers away from adding a second.

Major league seasons with 30 HRs, 100 RBIs, 30 SBs, 100 R, 10 triples: Ken Williams, 1939; Granderson is two RBIs and six steals away from adding a second.

Major league seasons with 40 HRs, 100 RBIs, 30 SBs, 100 R, 10 triples: none, but Granderson's could be the first.

There are two concerns with Granderson's candidacy. First, if his batting average and on-base percentage slip a bit down the stretch, some voters might balk. He has very little margin for error in those categories. The last league MVP to hit below .280 was Johnny Bench in 1972, and the last to hit below .290 was Dawson in 1987. The last to post an on-base percentage below .375 was Miguel Tejada in 2002. Dawson and Tejada are both regarded as mistakes by many baseball analysts. Second, advanced defensive statistics rate Granderson's play in center very poorly. The good news for Granderson is that few voters place much stock in those statistics, and it's difficult to actually see any deficiencies in his play in center when watching his games. One theory that has been floated posits that playing next to leftfielder Brett Gardner, who grades out as one of the best fielders in the game at any position, has artificially limited Granderson's range because Gardner gets to so many balls in their shared territory in left center, though that, too, has been difficult to see.

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

Season Stats: .343/.404/.537, 18 HRs, 94 RBIs

Last Three Weeks: .260/.317/.342, 0 HR, 4 RBIs

Gonzalez hasn't done much in August and has lost the RBI lead, which was a large part of the argument, wrongheaded as it may have been, for his previous status as the frontrunner in this race. What jumps out to me now is Gonzalez's relative lack of power compared to those on either side of him in this list. Jose Bautista has hit twice as many home runs as Gonzalez in more than 100 fewer at-bats, while Granderson has hit one shy of twice as many in roughly 40 fewer ABs. Both also have an isolated power (batting average minus slugging) more than 100 points (or more than 60 percent) greater than Gonzalez's (Bautista: .333; Granderson .313; Gonzalez: .194). Advanced stats such as Wins Against Replacement Player (WARP) and it's descendent, WAR, have rated Jacoby Ellsbury as the most valuable Red Sox player for most of the season, and I think that reality is starting to come into focus for the electorate. Don't be surprised to see Ellsbury, not Gonzalez, on the abbreviated "lightning-round" list when this column returns to the MVP race in September.

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

Season Stats: .318/.459/.652, 36 HRs, 80 RBIs

Last Three Weeks: .286/.461/.625, 5 HRs, 9 RBIs

By any purely objective analysis, Bautista has still been the best player in baseball, never mind the American League, this season. But because his team is not in contention, and because he has cooled off a bit since his white-hot first two months (.363/.505/.786, 20 HRs), his candidacy isn't being taken as seriously as it deserves to be. According to Baseball Prospectus's WARP, Bautista has been worth more than 2 ½ wins more than the next-most-valuable player in the game this season (Ellsbury). FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference's WAR have the race much tighter, but Bautista is still in the lead with a solid half-win lead over Ellsbury's Red Sox teammate Dustin Pedroia and the Dodgers' Matt Kemp, respectively.

Of course, one doesn't need advanced stats to see how good Bautista has been. He's leading the majors in the two most important things a hitter can do: getting on base (or, alternatively, not making outs) and hitting for extra-bases (that's on-base and slugging percentage); he's been a good and versatile defender, filling in at third-base when the Blue Jays needed him to and playing a strong rightfield; and he displays a similar athleticism on the bases. I expect that, if Bautista can avoid a major slump, he'll get far more consideration once the final numbers are in. Then again, I worry that the recent sign-stealing controversy surrounding the Blue Jays could serve as an excuse for many disregard Bautista in this race. Those tempted to do so should note that Bautista has hit .311/.452/.631 with 19 of his 36 home runs on the road this season.

4. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF, Red Sox (HM)

Season Stats: .313/.370/.517, 22 HRs, 79 RBIs, 33 SBs

Last Three Weeks: .264/.321/.528, 5 HRs, 17 RBIs, 2 SBs

It's hard argue that Ellsbury hasn't had a better season than Gonzalez. In the exact same number of at-bats, Ellsbury has out-homered Gonzalez, has drawn more unintentional walks (41 to Gonzalez's 37), and struck out less (78 to 87). He has also stolen 33 bases (fourth in the AL) to Gonzalez's one, and while both have had Gold-Glove quality seasons in the field, Ellsbury has had his in centerfield while Gonzalez has been playing first base. If you adjust their performances to the offensive standards of their positions, Ellsbury flies by Gonzalez. Entering Sunday's action, Ellsbury's VORP (Value Over Replacement Player, Baseball Prospectus's adjusted total-offense counting stat) listed Ellsbury as one-and-a-half times as valuable as Gonzalez relative to replacement level at their respective positions. If Bautista is going to be passed over, this race should rightly be between Ellsbury and Granderson, the rival centerfielders on the two best teams in the league.

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

Season Stats: .321/.426/.546, 23 HRs, 81 RBIs

Last Three Weeks: .370/.413/.407, 1 HR, 13 RBs

Cabrera's name never seems to come up when the MVP award is discussed these days, but he's having a far better season than Gonzalez at the plate (consider their respective home ballparks and Cabrera's numbers really pop) and doing it for a first-place team that wasn't a terribly popular pick in their division coming into the season. The reason, of course, is that he's a designated hitter in first baseman's clothing, a liability outside of the batter's box and, perhaps not insignificantly in the mind of many voters, off the field. The Tigers are also getting terrific seasons from ace Justin Verlander, sophomore catcher Alex Avila, and shortstop Jhonny Peralta, but then Gonzalez has had even more support in the Boston lineup.

Dustin Pedroia, 2B, Red Sox (5). Pedroia may have been the best player in baseball in June and July (taking that mantle from Bautista, who held it in April and May), but he has cooled off significantly in August, and with teammates Ellsbury and Gonzalez both garnering more attention in this race (not to mention Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano having shinier triple-crown stats), I find it difficult to believe that there will be enough votes left over to push Pedroia into the top five without a return to his mid-summer form in September.

Justin Verlander, SP, Tigers (N/A). As I mentioned three weeks ago in giving honorable mention to Roy Halladay in the National League, just because pitchers don't win the MVP any more (not since Dennis Eckersley in 1992) doesn't mean they don't still get votes. Verlander is starting to pull away in the AL Cy Young race and leads the majors in wins (18), strikeouts (204), innings (202 2/3), WHIP (0.88), and both quality starts and quality start percentage (24 of 27, 89 percent). Those numbers have been generating some down-ballot MVP buzz for Verlander, as well they should. He will get votes, but don't expect him to finish in the top five.

Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees (N/A). Cano's triple crown stats (.304 average, 21 home runs, 87 RBIs) compare favorably to those of Pedroia (.306-16-65), Ellsbury, and Cabrera. Coming from a slick-fielding second baseman (though, again, the advanced defensive stats have differing opinions of his defense this season) on the league's best team, that should translate into a solid showing in the voting.

Paul Konerko, 1B, White Sox (HM). The White Sox continue to cling to the AL Central race despite a .500 record coming into Monday's action. Their pitching is the main reason for that, but Konerko is in the top five in the league in homers (28), RBIs (85), on-base percentage (.402), and slugging (.556), and thus seems sure to draw some support.

Mark Teixeira, 1B, Yankees (HM). Teixeira is here on the strength of his home run and RBI totals (34 and 95, respectively), both of which are in the top four in the major leagues, his defensive reputation, which, like his teammates on this list, is not reflected in advanced fielding metrics, and his team's place atop the league. Teixeira is also posting the worst batting average and second-worst on-base percentage of his career, though awful luck on balls in play seems to be to blame for both. Apologies to more deserving candidates such as the Rays' Ben Zobrist, the Tigers Alex Avila, and the Rangers' Ian Kinsler.

Off the list: Asdrubal Cabrera (HM), Michael Young (HM)

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

Season Stats: .305/.415/.561, 28 HR, 98 RBIs

Last Three Weeks: .357/.435/.600, 4 HRs, 22 RBIs

2. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers (1)

Season Stats: .330/.400/.585, 24 HRs, 81 RBIs, 26 SBs

Last Three Weeks: .371/.430/.571, 3 HRs, 10 RBIs, 7 SBs

The Brewers have the biggest division lead in baseball (they are 8 ½ games in front of the Cardinals in the NL Central heading into Monday) and, according to Baseball Prospectus's playoff odds, a 98.3 percent chance of reaching the postseason for just the fourth time in team history and second time since 1982. They also seem likely to yield this year's NL MVP, an award never won by a Brewer as their last league MVP was Robin Yount in 1989, when the Brewers were still an American League team. The only question is which of these two will take home the hardware.

For some, Fielder's superior counting stats will carry the day, though it's worth remembering that the player clean-up hitter Fielder has driven in the most (other than himself) is No. 3 hitter Braun, who has scored 26 of the 98 runs Fielder has driven in. For others, myself included, their numbers are close enough that Braun's superior all-around contributions, which includes those 26 steals at an outstanding 87 percent success rate and strong play in leftfield, trump Fielder's comparatively one-dimensional game. For still others, Braun's diverse skillset merely compensates for his deficit in the counting stats, knotting this race back up. Looking at their performances over the last three weeks hardly helps maters. Advanced stats, which hold Fielder to the higher standard established by his fellow first baseman and credit Braun for the runs he saves in the field, favor Braun by a solid margin, but I suspect the voters are still leaning toward Fielder. Braun may be the better player, but Fielder has more star power: he's a second-generation major leaguer with the fire-hydrant build, the wild hair, the tattoos, and the violent swing and the local favorite in his walk year/farewell tour whose impending free agency influenced the front-office to go all-in this season. How is Braun supposed to compete with that?

3. Matt Kemp, CF, Dodgers (3)

Season Stats: .322/.394/.569, 28 HRs, 92 RBIs, 33 SBs

Last Three Weeks: .346/.393/.487, 2 HRs, 10 RBIs, 5 SBs

Kemp is the Jose Bautista of the NL. He has clearly been the league's best player this year, but he won't win the MVP award because he has an inferior collection of teammates. That said, Kemp's superiority to the rest of his league is less obvious that Bautista's. He doesn't lead the league in any major categories, he has struck out more than any of the other top 11 OPS leaders, has walked less than half as often as he has struck out, and he's a sub-par fielder. Still, when you combine his position, his baserunning (though he's been caught four times in his last nine attempts, he still has an excellent 82.5 percent success rate on the season), his power, his run production, and his batting average, you can build the case for Kemp even without turning to the advanced stats, which, with the exception of FanGraphs WAR, heavily favor him over the rest of the league.

4. Justin Upton, RF, Diamondbacks (HM)

Season Stats: .299/.371/.548, 25 HRs, 77 RBIs, 19 SBs

Last Three Weeks: .274/.312/.534, 4 HRs, 12 RBIs, 3 SBs

FanGraphs WAR favors Upton because Ultimate Zone Rating loves his fielding. Total Zone, the defensive component of Baseball-Reference's WAR, however, lists him as below average in rightfield. No matter, between what Upton does with his bat and his legs and his team's surprising place atop the NL West, Upton seems sure to get plenty of support in the vote, even if the Diamondbacks fail to make the playoffs. Upton leads the NL in doubles, and is tied with Granderson for the major league lead in extra-base hits, and is one behind Kemp atop the NL leaders in total bases. However, he's largely been a product of hitter-friendly Chase Field this season, hitting just .241/.314/.441 on the road.

5. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (HM)

Season Stats: .322/.436/.536, 22 HRs, 80 RBIs, 7 SBs

Last Three Weeks: .338/.482/.662, 5 HRs, 12 RBIs

The defending NL MVP is hitting for essentially the same batting average as a year ago and has already drawn more walks (he leads the NL with 92). His power is down overall, but his slugging percentage hasn't been this high since June 4 and he's on a bit of a home run tear with taters in five of his last 10 games. His Reds have sunk out of the playoff hunt, which will hurt his case, but if he can continue to boost is power numbers, his sparkling batting average (fourth in the league) and league-leading on-base percentage should put him among the top runners-up for the award.

Jose Reyes, SS, Mets (5). Reyes's thrilling season has been interrupted by a pair of hamstring injuries that have limited him to just 20 games and a .274/.295/.417 performance since the end of June. However, he came to the plate enough in the first three months of the season that he still leads the league in batting average (.336) and triples (16) and is second in stolen bases with 34 (at a stellar 83 percent success rate). Reyes could return to action as soon as the end of this week, and if he's able to stay healthy and productive down the stretch, he should still garner a fair number of votes, though one wonders how much this reoccurrence of his chronic hamstring issues will limit the impending free-agent's value this winter.

Lance Berkman, RF, Cardinals (4). With the Cardinals falling out of the playoff hunt and teammate Albert Pujols leading the league in home runs once again, Berkman's comeback season, which has included some horrific play in the outfield corners, looks less special. Still, he has hit as many home runs as Fielder in 80 fewer at-bats and is tied with Prince for the second-best OPS in the league (.977). That last is on the strength of his .572 slugging percentage, which is second in the league behind Braun, and his .405 on-base percentage, which is fourth in the NL, though, again, he's behind a teammate in that category (Matt Holliday, who has a .409 OBP).

Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies (N/A). The Rockies never really were contenders this season, but Tulowitzki, a popular pre-season pick for this award, is once again coming on strong down the stretch, hitting .380/.434/.690 thus far in August. On the season, he's hitting .303 with 25 homers and 86 RBIs, which combined with his usual stellar fielding, puts him right among the league leaders in WAR and WARP, making him an attractive down-ballot choice for both old school and progressive voters.

Shane Victorino, CF, Phillies (N/A). I'll be fascinated to see where Victorino winds up in the voting. He's been the most valuable everyday player on baseball's best team this season, but credit for the Phillies' success will, appropriately, go to the rotation, not Victorino. Philadelphia first baseman Ryan Howard has far more impressive counting stats (26 HRs and 96 RBIs to Victorino's 13 and 44), and Victorino has lost time to injury this season, hitting the DL in May with a hamstring strain and in July with a thumb sprain. Players who do everything well but nothing great tend to be undervalued, and that has been Victorino this season. He has 12 triples, 16 stolen bases (at an 84 percent success rate), is hitting for average (.313), getting on base (.388), hitting for power (.539), and playing his usual outstanding defense, but he's not doing any single one of those things at an MVP level. If voters fail to grasp the total package, they likely will pass him over in their voting.

Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates (HM). These last couple of NL picks are far less cynical than their AL counterparts. I have some small reason for optimism. I feel as though people are starting to talk about Victorino, and that when the voters look back at the season, they'll remember the Pirates' mid-season surge and will credit McCutchen, a player of similarly diverse talents, appropriately. He certainly deserves the votes. If he gets them, he'll be the first Pirate to finish in the top 10 in the NL MVP voting since Barry Bonds won the award in 1992.

Off the list: Brian McCann (HM), Roy Halladay (HM)

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