A hot start doesn't guarantee a player season-long contention for the Most Valuable Player award. Indeed, of the 20 players to make my MVP lists three weeks ago, 11 have fallen off my lists this time around, while two others are here almost entirely on the strength of what they did in April and will need to get back on track in June to maintain their candidacies.
A hot start is also not necessary for a player to have an MVP season. Justin Verlander, last year's AL winner, was 4-3 with a 3.42 ERA around this time a year ago, and Josh Hamilton, the 2010 AL MVP, was hitting similarly good-but-not-great .289/.346/.514 two years ago on this date. Still, starting strong doesn't hurt, and when a player is able to sustain it for a full quarter of the season, as the two leaders below have, an MVP season starts to look like a real possibility.
NOTE: All stats are through Wednesday, May 23. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold italics. The number in parentheses after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list.
1. David Wright, 3B, Mets (2)
Season Stats:.399/.497/.601, 4 HR, 26 RBI
Last Three Weeks: .406/.500/.625, 1 HR, 12 RBI
Obviously, Wright's batting average is going to come down. He's hitting .473 on balls in play, which is absurd, even by his own strong standards in that statistic. Coming into this season, he had hit .340 on balls in play in his career, and had a .394 BABIP in 2009, but .473 is just crazy.
Still, he's doing more at the plate than just hitting for an amazing average. His strikeout rate is lower than it has been since his rookie year, his walk rate is a career high (with some help from an MLB-best best six intentional passes), and despite the fact that he's had difficulty getting the ball out of the ballpark (just 6.5 percent of his fly balls have gone out, compared to a career rate of 9.9 percent entering the year), his isolated slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average) is right around his career mark. Wright has also been consistent -- he has yet to finish a game with an average below .361 this season. That was nearly a month ago, and he has hit .427 in 98 plate appearance since.
2. Matt Kemp, CF, Dodgers (1)
Season Stats: .359/.446/.726, 12 HR, 28 RBI
Last Three Weeks: .185/.258/.296, 0 HR, 3 RBI (9 games)
Kemp had one of the greatest Aprils in the last four decades, but vanished in May, hitting .212/.341/.303 before landing on the disabled list with a left hamstring strain. Still, his April was so productive that he's still a clear choice for number two here. Kemp is due to be activated on Tuesday, so don't be surprised if he's back on top when I revisit this list in three weeks.
3. Carlos Ruiz, C, Phillies (N/A)
Season Stats: .357/.407/.589, 7 HR, 29 RBI
Last Three Weeks: .393/.462/.607, 3 HR, 12 RBI
I generally try to leave team performance out of the MVP conversation -- in my opinion what a player's teammates do is simply not relevant to an individual award -- but it's hard not to wonder where the Phillies would be without Ruiz this season given that they haven't really received a meaningfully above average performance from any other spot in the lineup and hover at or below replacement level at too many positions.
That's not why Chooch is here, however. He's here because he's been one of the most productive hitters in the league and is providing that production from behind the plate, where he has also thrown out 36 percent of attempting basestealers (against a league average of 29 percent). That's a tremendously valuable player.
4. Jonathan Lucroy, C, Brewers (N/A)
Season Stats: .349/.393/.597, 5 HR, 29 RBI
Last Three Weeks: .412/.437/.735, 3 HR, 21 RBI
Lucroy has nearly equaled Ruiz's production this year, but he's been less effective at throwing out runners and, when given the choice of two nearly identical seasons, I'll take the one with more on-base percentage. That gives Chooch the edge. Incidentally, while both catchers seem to be playing way over their heads, and are sure to regress, the only thing completely out of character about their seasons are their power numbers.
Ruiz hit .292 with a .385 on-base percentage over the last two seasons, but has never hit more than nine home runs in a major league season. The 25-year-old Lucroy is in just his second full season as a major league starter and hit .298 in the minors with a .379 on-base percentage. Lucroy reached double digits in homers last year and hit 20 in A-ball in 2008, but his slugging percentage this season has been boosted by four triples. Prior to this season, he had just seven three-base hits in his entire professional career.
5. Carlos Beltran, RF, Cardinals (HM)
Season Stats: .292/.400/.618, 14 HR, 37 RBI, 5 SB
Last Three Weeks: .315/.413/.722, 6 HR, 17 RBI
If Beltran were to keep this up, it would be the best season in his borderline Hall of Fame career. To this point of the season, he has easily been one of the best acquisitions of last offseason.
Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers (N/A): The gap between Beltran and Braun is tiny. I gave Beltran the edge because of his advantage in on-base percentage and his less hitter-friendly home ballpark (though Beltran is raking at Busch Stadium this season), but it's hard to leave Braun out of the top five. If you're willing to put more weight on two months of defensive statistics than I am, you wouldn't have.
Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates (N/A): The difference between McCutchen and Braun to this point in the season is the five extra home runs Braun has hit. Otherwise, they're almost an exact match. Credit McCutchen for his stellar play in centerfield and for playing in a tougher home ballpark, and one could argue that McCutchen should be in front (though if you trust two months of Ultimate Zone Rating, Braun actually comes out ahead in the field).
A.J. Ellis, C, Dodgers (N/A): Ellis is of a piece with Ruiz and Lucroy as a catcher who appears to be playing way over his head and is sure to regress but in reality is only playing beyond his abilities in the power department. The 31-year-old Ellis, who has already set a major league career high in plate appearances this season, played 251 games at Triple-A over the last four seasons and hit .310 with a .441 on-base percentage, darn close to his current .327 and .449 marks. However, he also slugged just .413 over that span, a full 100 points below his current slugging percentage. Ellis is getting it done on defense, too, throwing out 45 percent of attempting basestealers.
Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (N/A): Since 2009, Votto leads all players with 1,500 or more plate appearances with a .421 on-base percentage. His .447 mark this year is third in the NL and he's on pace to draw 151 walks. Votto does other things well, as you know, but that on-base percentage, the single most important offensive statistic in baseball, demands he be included here.
Rafael Furcal, SS, Cardinals (HM): Furcal is reaching base close to 40 percent of the time, stealing bases with a high rate of success (he's 8 for 10), mixing in his share of extra-base hits (most of them doubles), and adding solid to strong play in the field. I said previously that I'd include the league's best pitcher in the early going of these MVP lists, but I just couldn't leave Furcal off the list, even if there are other players above him who are contributing more at the plate with comparable value in the field.
Off the list: Yadier Molina (3), Stephen Strasburg (4), Carlos Gonzalez (5), Jose Altuve (HM), Pablo Sandoval (HM), Buster Posey (HM)
1. Josh Hamilton, CF, Rangers (1)
Season Stats: .379/.429/.758, 18 HR, 49 RBI, 4 SB
Last Three Weeks: .360/.420/.773, 9 HR, 24 RBI
Hamilton won the 2010 AL MVP award by hitting .410/.461/.723 with 22 home runs and 70 RBIs over a span of three months (June through August) and 343 plate appearances, so his performance this season has a precedent. Thus far, he has come to the plate 184 times in 2012, putting him just over half way to that prior accomplishment in terms of sustaining a seemingly unsustainable hot streak, and he has started to cool off of late, going 11 games without a home run and hitting just .308/.348/.385 over that span (yes, an empty .308 average counts as a slump for Hamilton this season).
That might be nitpicking, though. Hamilton is on pace for 65 home runs, 176 RBIs, 122 runs scored, and 220 hits. He won't reach those numbers, but he has a huge lead in this race. If he can stay reasonably healthy -- he missed a month of 2010 and still claimed the award -- he's going to be hard to beat.
2. Paul Konerko, 1B, White Sox (N/A)
Season Stats:.381/.462/.633, 9 HR, 25 RBI
Last Three Weeks: .424/.521/.644, 4 HR, 9 RBI
Konerko has failed to reach base in just two of his 41 games this season and has reached in his last 18 straight. Last Friday, he was hit near the left eye by a Jeff Samardzija pitch. He missed just two games and has gone 5-for-8 with a double and a home run since his return. He's unstoppable. He's also of little to no value in the field or on the bases, which makes the gap between himself and Hamilton larger than it might otherwise appear.
3. Austin Jackson, CF, Tigers (N/A)
Season Stats: .331/.414/.544, 5 HR, 17 RBI, 29 R, 6 SB
Last Three Weeks: .333/.378/.485, 1 HR, 3 RBI
Jackson put up numbers like these for a half season in High-A ball in 2007, but hasn't done anything like it since. He struck out 351 times in his first two major league seasons, but so far this year, his strikeout rate is down below the league average and his walk rate has shot up, giving him a strong 1.45 strikeout-to-walk ratio, compared to 3.41 the last two years.
His power numbers are also way up. Jackson hit just four home runs in 2010 and 10 last year and had a combined .116 isolated slugging over those two seasons. This year, his ISO is .213. Other than the fact that he continues to have a high-rate of success on balls in play, he's been a completely different hitter this year, and he's done it while continuing to be an elite defensive centerfielder and a high-percentage base stealer (he has yet to be caught this season). The big question, then, is if the 25-year-old can keep it up. Unfortunately, the abdominal strain he suffered last Wednesday is preventing us from finding out for the moment.
4. Adam Jones, CF, Orioles (N/A)
Season Stats: .311/.357/.601, 14 HR, 29 RBI
Last Three Weeks: .306/.352/.624, 8 HR, 17 RBI
If Jackson is for real, the Tigers will get to enjoy that production for three more team-controlled seasons, albeit at arbitration prices. If Jones, who finally seems to have made the leap at age 26, is for real, the Orioles will need to work out an extension to keep him, as he's due to become a free agent after the 2013 season. Like the catchers on my NL list above, the big change in Jones's game this season has been his power. Jones' ISO in his first four seasons with the Orioles was .164. This year it's a staggering .289. Nearly one in of every four of his fly balls has left the park, which seems unsustainable.
5. Asdrubal Cabrera, SS, Indians (N/A)
Season Stats: .308/.406/.507, 5 HR, 19 RBI
Last Three Weeks: .325/.435/.532, 3 HR, 13 RBI
Cabrera experienced a huge spike in his power numbers last year, and while we've all been watching to see if he could sustain that power this year (which he has), he has gone and radically improved his strikeout and walk rates, practically inverting that aspect of his game from a 2.70 K/BB ratio a year ago (3.05 if you take out his five intentional passes) to a 0.68 K/BB ratio this year (0.72 without his one intentional walk). Despite his ability to make the highlight reels, he's still not grading out particularly well in the field according to the advanced metrics, but all that does is make the 26-year-old look like prime-era Derek Jeter with fewer strikeouts and the ability to switch-hit. Wow.
Justin Verlander, SP, Tigers (N/A): Last year's MVP and pitching triple crown winner again leads the league in ERA and strikeouts and could move into a tie for the league lead in wins with a victory over Cabrera's Indians Thursday afternoon. He's also leading the majors in WHIP once again and averaging more than 7 1/3 innings per start, having completed two of his first nine.
Josh Willingham, LF, Twins (HM): Willingham has reached base in all but three of his games this season and has rebounded nicely from the 0-for-14 slump that started his May.
Derek Jeter, SS, Yankees (2): Jeter has cooled off considerably in the last three weeks, particularly in the power department. His double on Wednesday night was his first extra-base hit since May 6. In the 14 games in between, he hit .224/.262/.224.
Curtis Granderson, CF, Yankees (HM): Penalizing Adam Dunn and David Ortiz for being designated hitters and Matt Joyce for being a platoon player makes room for Granderson, who is essentially replicating his 2011 season, just without the stolen bases (he has just one in three attempts).
Jake Peavy, SP, White Sox (5): Peavy is in the top three in the league in ERA and WHIP, has averaged more than seven innings per start and after nine turns is tied for the major league lead with eight quality starts.
Off the list: Matt Wieters (3), Jered Weaver (4), David Ortiz (HM), Evan Longoria (HM), Edwin Encarnacion (HM)