Matt Kemp was the unanimous choice for the National League Player of the Month for April and has clearly been the best player in baseball to this point in the season, but he's not the only man off to a strong start. Below, in my first full-blown Awards Watch of the season, I take a look at the top 10 candidates for the Most Valuable Player awards in each league.
As I mentioned last week, instead of trying to gauge how the writers might vote, as I have in previous seasons, this year I'm going to be offering my picks for these awards. For the MVP, that means that team performance will not be a factor in my rankings as I believe that player value is absolute. A dollar is a dollar whether you use it to buy a winning lottery ticket or a losing one. A team's success or failure in turning an individual player's value into wins doesn't impact the value itself. To put it another way, the performance of a player's 24 teammates should have no bearing on his own worthiness for an individual award such as this one. Matt Kemp would be the most valuable player in baseball to this point in the season even if his Dodgers were 8-17 instead of 17-8, and the fact that they are 17-8 doesn't make him any more valuable than he would have been otherwise.
NOTE: All stats are through Wednesday, May 2. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold italics.
1. Matt Kemp, CF, Dodgers
Season Stats:.411/.500/.856, 12 HR, 25 RBIs
I attempted to put Kemp's monster April in context on Monday, ultimately concluding that he had turned in the seventh-best April performance since 1974 (the final numbers: .417/.490/.893, .444 GPA, 187 "GPA+"). What I didn't explore in that piece was how the other men on my list finished the season or how they fared in the MVP voting.
It will probably come as no surprise that each of the other men on that list saw their production decline at least a little after April. Four times in the other 13 seasons I examined, the player in question went on to win the MVP (though three of those were by Barry Bonds). Here's a quick look at those 13 April performances sorted by the decline after April 30 in their Gross Production Average (a stat that combines on-base plus slugging but not before multiplying OBP by 1.8 to better reflect the importance of avoiding outs compared to extra bases, and then converts to a familiar scale similar to batting average):
Brett actually led the majors in OPS+ in 1983, but played just 123 games for a sub-.500 Royals team that finished 20 games out of first place. The fragile Burks played in just 21 more games after his hot April in 1994. As for Cey, the only other Dodger on the above list, his 1977 season actually proved to be his worst over a seven-year span from 1975 to 1981, per advanced stats such as OPS+ and Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement, though he never finished higher in the MVP voting in any other season.
The average decline in GPA on the above list is 136 points. A decline that large would give Kemp a .308 GPA from here on out. He had a .326 GPA in 2011. If he does manage a .308 GPA the rest of the way, he'll finish with a better year than he had last year, at least by his rate stats. In other words, as long as Kemp stays healthy, it could be a long time before he moves from this top spot, if he does at all this season.
2. David Wright, 3B, Mets
Season Stats: .392/.495/.582, 3 HR, 14 RBIs
Kemp leads the majors in all three slash stats, but Wright is hot on his heels in batting average and, before the Rockies walked Kemp three times on Wednesday afternoon, Wright actually led in on-base percentage. Wright opened the season with a 10-game hitting streak and will take an active nine-game streak back home for the weekend series against the Diamondbacks. Just three 0-fers separated the two streaks, and Wright drew a walk in two of those three games.
3. Yadier Molina, C, Cardinals
Season Stats: .318/.372/.576, 4 HR, 15 RBIs, 4 SB
Molina has started 22 of the Cardinals' 24 games behind the plate and came in half-way through one of the other two. He has thrown out 43 percent of opposing basestealers (compared to a league average of 29 percent) and his four stolen bases (without being caught) are one more than brother Bengie had in his entire 13-year career. Incidentally, three of those were straight steals of second, and the third came on the front end of a double-steal. I don't expect Molina to break double-figures in steals this year (though he did have a career high of nine at a solid 75 percent in 2009), but those extra bases still help boost his value.
4. Stephen Strasburg, SP, Nationals
Season Stats: 2-0, 1.13 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, 5.67 K/BB
Last year, the Tigers' Justin Verlander became the first pitcher to win an MVP award in 19 years, and the first starting pitcher to do so in 25 years. There was much debate then about whether pitchers should be eligible for the MVP award but they are and that's the way it ought to be. For now, however, I'm going to try to limit myself to the top pitcher in each league. In the NL, which hasn't had a pitcher win MVP since Bob Gibson in his historic 1968 season, that's Strasburg. He has gone at least six innings in each of his five starts and only once allowed as many as two runs, only once walked more than one men, twice held his opponents scoreless and twice struck out nine men in a game.
5. Carlos Gonzalez, LF, Rockies
Season Stats: .310/.383/.631, 7 HR, 23 RBIs, 4 SB
In the six games of the Rockies' current homestand, Gonzalez has gone 11-for-23 (.478) with five home runs, 14 RBIs, as many walks as strikeouts (four), and two stolen bases. Given the huge chasm between his home and road numbers over the last two-plus years (.358/.419/.680 home; .271/.316/.448 road), his placement on this list could have as much to do with timing as performance, but it's hard to argue with that kind of production, no matter where it takes place.
Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros: The ultimate underdog, Altuve is a 5-foot-5 (at most), 21-year-old sophomore who plays for a team that, by year's end, is expected to be among the worst in the majors. For now though he's third in the league in batting average (.358), sixth in on-base percentage (.404) and four-for-five on the bases.
Rafael Furcal, SS, Cardinals: When Furcal is healthy, he can be a tremendously valuable player, as he has been thus far this season, hitting .330/.389/.474 with four stolen bases in as many attempts. On the downside, he has been healthy enough to play 100 games just once in the last four seasons.
Pablo Sandoval, 3B, Giants: Sandoval opened the season with a 20-game hitting streak, breaking Willie Mays' franchise record, took one 0-fer, then homered in his next two games. Unfortunately, he left Wednesday night's game with an injured left hand and might be headed for the disabled list exactly a year after he had surgery to remove the hamate bone from his right hand.
Buster Posey, C, Giants: Posey's slash line (.342/.400/.575) is better than Molina's, but he has started behind the plate in just 15 of the Giants' 24 games, started four others at first base and been out of the lineup entirely five times. He has also nabbed just two of the 10 men who have tried to steal against him (and stolen just one of his own).
Carlos Beltran, RF, Cardinals: Beltran takes the final spot here over fellow corner outfielders Corey Hart, Ryan Braun and Jay Bruce. Braun and Bruce have weak on-base percentages (both sitting below .340 to Beltran's .398). Hart also trails in OBP (at .362) and lacks Beltran's stolen bases (five in six attempts, more than he stole all of last season). Beltran trails the other three in slugging (.535 to over .600 for each of his rivals), but matches or betters them in the triple-crown counting stats (with seven homers and 18 RBIs), and his advantage in getting on base and advancing himself compensates for that deficit.
1. Josh Hamilton, CF, Rangers
Season Stats:.395/.438/.744, 9 HR, 25 RBIs
Only Kemp has had a higher batting average, slugging percentage or home run total than Hamilton thus far this season. Hamilton hasn't played since coming out of Sunday's game with a stiff back, but he started every game up to that point, and the Rangers hope to have him back in the lineup on Friday.
2. Derek Jeter, SS, Yankees
Season Stats: .385/.425/.567, 4 HR, 13 RBIs
Jeter hit .267/.336/.357 over 1,032 plate appearances from Opening Day 2010 until landing on the disabled list with a calf strain last June, looking every bit like a shortstop pushing his 37th birthday. While on the DL, however, he reworked his swing with Gary Denbo, an experienced hitting coach who had been Jeter's first manager in the minor leagues. Since returning to action on July 4 of last year, he has hit .345/.395/.479 in 428 plate appearances. If he can maintain that pace for the remainder of the season, he'll join Hall of Famers Honus Wagner and Luke Appling with one of the greatest seasons by a shortstop 38 years old or older in major league history.
3. Matt Wieters, C, Orioles
Season Stats: .303/.391/.618, 7 HR, 17 RBIs
The fifth overall pick in the 2007 draft, the switch-hitting Wieters hit .343/.438/.576 in his brief minor league career and was supposed to be a superstar catcher upon arrival in the big leagues in early 2009. Instead, he scuffled through his first two seasons, hitting a solid-but-underwhelming .266/.328/.393. Last year, he picked up the pace a bit, knocking 22 homers, making his first All-Star team and winning his first Gold Glove. Now, with his 26th birthday fast approaching, he seems to finally be emerging as the player he was projected to be, throwing out 37 percent of opposing basestealers while hitting for average with power and patience.
4. Jered Weaver, SP, Angels
Season Stats: 4-0, 1.61 ERA, 0.78 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 6.43 K/BB
Weaver has allowed a run in just two of his six starts this season while pitching at least six innings each time out and averaging more than 7 1/3 innings per start. He has walked more than one man only once in those six starts, has had more strikeouts than innings pitched in four of the six and has allowed just two home runs. Oh yeah, he also threw a dominant no-hitter on Wednesday night in which he struck out nine against just one walk. That was his second complete game of the season, and he was almost as good in his first start of the year, when he allowed four hits but walked none against 10 strikeouts over eight innings, needing only 97 pitches to do so.
5. Jake Peavy, SP, White Sox
Season Stats: 3-1, 1.67 ERA, 0.69 WHIP, 7.9 K/9, 6.60 K/BB
Peavy has allowed one run in 18 innings over his last two starts and over his last three has posted this line: 25 IP, 11 H, 2 R, 3 BB, 20 K. All five of his starts this season have been quality, he has allowed just one home run, and he seems to be getting better each time out. I know I said above that I would try to include only one pitcher per league this early in the season, but Peavy and Weaver are impossible to separate right now.
Curtis Granderson, CF, Yankees: Granderson, who is tied with Hamilton for the AL lead in home runs with nine, is off to a better start than he was a year ago, when he finished fourth in the MVP voting. The biggest change thus far is that he's getting on base much more often (.389 OBP compared to .364 last year), more than doubling his walk total through his first 24 games of last year.
David Ortiz, DH, Red Sox: Ortiz is off to a monster start, hitting .391/.441/.707 with six homers and 21 RBIs and ranking in the top four in the majors in all three slash stats and leading the AL in on-base percentage. If he wasn't a designated hitter, he'd be right behind Hamilton, but his lack of defensive contributions hurts his candidacy significantly.
Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays: Longoria is on the disabled list with a hamstring tear, but thus far he has only missed two games, and what he has done to this point in the season (.329/.433/.561, 4 homers, 19 RBIs) combined with his usual contributions in the field, demands inclusion here. His injury, though, does knock him down a few spots.
Josh Willingham, LF, Twins: Willingham has gone 15-for-32 with eight extra-base hits, three of them homers, in nine games at Target Field this year, but has scuffled on the road. With the A's in 2011, he posted an OPS 124 points higher at the Oakland Coliseum than on the road. It just goes to show that some players just prefer to hit at home no matter where that might be, something that should soften the criticism of Carlos Gonzalez's road numbers. Willingham hit .333/.447/.667 with five home runs through his first 18 games, missed the next two for the birth of his son, then came back and went 3-for-5 with a double and a triple. I'm not sure even Kemp had a better month than that.
Edwin Encarnacion, DH, Blue Jays: Yes, he's a DH, but he can and has spotted at the infield corners (one start at third base and five at first), is tied for the league lead in homers with nine and has stolen four bases in five attempts. Thus, it's hard to keep Encarnacion and his .320/.376/.680 line off this list in favor of an unexceptional defensive first baseman like Paul Konerko, even though Konerko's .418 OBP is significantly higher.