At the end of April, Matt Kemp and Josh Hamilton looked like they were going to run away with the Most Valuable Player award in their respective leagues, but Kemp has since been knocked out of my top 10 by injuries, while Hamilton's lead has largely evaporated due to a recent slump.
Their struggles have made room in the NL for a new, red-hot leader (and former winner of the award) and in the AL an opportunity has arisen for, among others, a thrilling rookie and his slugging sophomore teammate. Also making big gains this week are three of the hottest pitchers in the game, including Wednesday's Mr. Perfect.
NOTE: All stats are through Thursday, June 13. 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. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (HM)
Season Stats: .362/.485/.657, 12 HR, 44 RBI
Last Three Weeks: .507/.575/.881, 5 HR, 16 RBI
Votto, the 2010 NL MVP, is one point behind Melky Cabrera for the NL lead in batting average and two points behind Paul Konerko for the major league lead. He leads the NL in slugging by 47 points and leads the majors in on-base percentage by 25 points. He also paces the majors in doubles (27, five more than the runners up) and walks (52 against just 49 strikeouts). Votto has hit safely in all but one of his last 19 games, including a pinch-hit single on May 30, and has seven multi-hit games in June.
All that, and his line from the last three weeks above, explains why teams are starting to refuse to pitch to him (he has been walked intentionally four times in the last five games and leads the majors with 11 intentional passes). This is nothing new, of course. Since the start of the 2009 season, Votto leads all hitters with 1,500 or more plate appearances with a 166 OPS+ having hit .323/.426/.574 over that span. Oh, and he's an outstanding defensive first baseman as well.
2. David Wright, 3B, Mets (1)
Season Stats: .358/.460/.583, 8 HR, 36 RBI
Last Three Weeks: .280/.386/.547, 4 HR, 10 RBI
Wright was hitting .405/.500/.628 a day after I last checked in on the MVP races, when he was the frontrunner. He then went hitless for four games. In the 15 games since snapping that 0-fer, he has hit .316/.418/.596. The first line was clearly unsustainable, but that second isn't far from what people expected from Wright after he hit .311/.394/.534 in his age-22 to -25 seasons. His power numbers may still come down a bit, but it would be great to see Wright finally picking up at 29 where he left off in his early 20s, something he's well on his way toward doing.
3. Matt Cain, SP, Giants (N/A)
Season Stats: 8-2, 2.18 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 6.00 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS, 2 SHO
Last Four Starts: 4-0, 0.59 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, 10.0 K/9, 5.67 K/BB, 7.7 IP/GS, 1 SHO
Yes, he just turned in a perfect game that was one of the most dominant nine-inning pitching performances in major league history, but let's look at Cain's season as a whole. At its essence, a starting pitcher's job is to eat innings while preventing baserunners and runs. No one has done that better than Matt Cain to this point in the season as he leads the majors in innings per start and WHIP, leads the NL in total innings (95) and shutouts and is third in the majors in ERA. The next most important thing a pitcher can do is keep the ball out of the hands of his defense by getting his outs via strikeout. Well, Cain is third in the majors with 96 K's, having recorded roughly one per inning, and he leads the NL in strikeout-to-walk ratio. If all that doesn't make him one of the most valuable players in the National League, I don't know what would.
4. R.A. Dickey, SP, Mets (N/A)
Season Stats:10-1, 2.20 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 4.75 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 2 CG, 1 SHO
Last Four Starts: 4-0, 0.00 ERA, 0.55 WHIP, 10.7 K/9, 13.00 K/BB, 8.2 IP/GS, 2 CG, 1 SHO
Dickey leads the majors with 12 quality starts (in 13 tries!) and has pitched so well in his last four starts that he has actually out-pitched Cain across the board over a span that includes Cain's 14-strikeout perfect game.
In his last start, which came just before Cain's on Wednesday night, Dickey threw a 12-strikeout one-hitter at Tampa Bay in which the only hit was a bouncer down the third base line that David Wright was unable to corral with his bare hand. The scoring decision was the right one (it would have been a tremendous play if Wright had made it, particularly with the speedy B.J. Upton running), but it was a weak hit and the only one of the game. The Rays scored an unearned run on the ninth on a throwing error by Wright, a pair of passed balls (Mike Nickeas must have been exhausted from catching Dickey's nasty, unpredictable knuckler all night) and an RBI groundout. That was the first run Dickey had allowed since May 22, a stretch of four starts, and it was unearned.
On the season, Dickey is second in the NL in innings pitched and innings per start (to Cain), second in WHIP (to Cain), third in ERA and fourth in strikeouts (90). He is also one of just 10 qualified pitchers not to have allowed a stolen base this season. Given that he's a righthander who throws a slow, unpredictable pitch 85 percent of the time, that's remarkable.
5. Carlos Ruiz, C, Phillies (3)
Season Stats: .361/.420/.579, 8 HR, 35 RBI
Last Three Weeks: .370/.452/.556, 1 HR, 6 RBI
Ruiz is 33 years old and doing a lot of things he's never done before. His batting average is being propped up by luck on balls in play that has his current BABIP nearly 80 points above his previous career rate. Also, his fly balls are leaving the ballpark twice as often as they had prior to this year, and he is now just one home run shy of his career high. At the same time, his walk rate has been cut in half, only for those missing walks to be replaced by hit-by-pitches. Ruiz was plunked for a major league-leading 10th time on Thursday, but has drawn just 11 walks, three of them intentional. Right now, all of that adds up to a tremendously valuable performance at the plate that is made even moreso by the fact that it has come from a catcher (one, I should add, who is throwing out 39 percent of attempting basestealers, also by far a career best, against a league average of 28 percent). None of it, however, seems likely to last.
Carlos Beltran, RF, Cardinals (5): Beltran, Ryan Braun and Carlos Gonzalez are all corner outfielders with superficially similar stat lines, but Beltran, who leads the NL with 19 home runs, has assembled his while playing in Busch Stadium, a less pitching-friendly home ballpark, so he gets the edge over the other two.
Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers (HM): Braun is essentially having the same season that won him this award last year. That he's this far down on this list says more about the performances of the men above him than about the fact that he's just a hair behind last year's pace in everything but home runs.
Carlos Gonzalez, LF, Rockies (N/A): Gonzalez his hitting just .248/.307/.457 on the road this year, but it's worth noting that even that is better than the average NL hitter has done away from his home park. When Gonzalez finished third in the MVP voting in 2010, he hit .289/.322/.453 away from Coors Field, which worked out to a 118 OPS+ relative to the league's road split. Gonzalez leads the majors in runs scored (49) and the NL in total bases (144) and hasn't been caught in nine steal attempts.
Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates (HM): I wouldn't argue against putting McCutchen at the top of this honorable mention list based on the fact that he's a centerfielder playing in a tough hitting ballpark. It's also true that he's the lone everyday star on a Pirates team that recently pulled into second place in the National League Central, but I would (and do) argue against using team performance to evaluate individual performances. Sure, the Pirates wouldn't have a winning record without McCutchen, but if McCutchen was doing the same things for a team 20 games below .500 he'd be just as valuable, he'd just be on a team less capable of capitalizing on that value (which the Pirates should ultimately prove to be anyway).
Melky Cabrera, LF, Giants (N/A): Cabrera leads the NL in batting average (.363), and the majors in hits (91) and triples (7, tied with new White Sox third baseman Orlando Hudson). Those things strike me as fluky. I'm not saying that Cabrera, 27, hasn't matured into a star, but his .402 BABIP cries out for a correction in his batting average and while AT&T Park is triples-friendly, it's not so much so that Cabrera should be one away from his previous career high in the category in mid-June. I don't think the coming correction is going to be huge, but look for Cabrera's average to come back down toward .300 and his triples to turn back into doubles. Melky has done enough to convince me that he will remain a key bat in the weak Giants lineup, but don't expect him to linger too long on this list.
Off the list: Matt Kemp (2), Jonathan Lucroy (4), A.J. Ellis (HM), Rafael Furcal (HM)
1. Josh Hamilton, CF, Rangers (1)
Season Stats: .330/.390/.674, 22 HR, 62 RBI, 6 SB
Last Three Weeks: .222/.300/.486, 4 HR, 13 RBI
Hamilton had a huge lead in this race three weeks ago, but he has hit just .227/.294/.443 over his last 25 games. We're 13 games into June and he has yet to have a multi-hit game this month, has hit just one home run and has struck out 16 times (a high rate for a player who hasn't hit triple-digits in strikeouts since 2008) with at least one K in 12 of those 13 games. He's actually third in the league in OPS+ now, behind the next two men on this list, and Adam Dunn has caught him in home runs. The fact that he plays a bit more than half his games in centerfield is actually a large part of what's keeping him in first place at this point. If he doesn't perk up soon, he could be looking up at a new leader when I return to this award in three weeks.
2. Paul Konerko, 1B, White Sox (2)
Season Stats:.364/.441/.598, 12 HR, 35 RBI
Last Three Weeks: .323/.391/.516, 3 HR, 10 RBI
Konerko went into a small slump after having a 14-game hitting streak snapped on May 29, going 1-for-16 over four games. However, since having a bone chip removed from his left wrist in early June, a procedure which only caused him to miss three games, he has gone 9-for-26 (.346) with multiple hits in three of seven games and now leads the majors in batting average while retaining his AL lead in on-base percentage.
3. Mark Trumbo, OF, Angels (N/A)
Season Stats: .328/.385/.622, 14 HR, 39 RBI, 4 SB
Last Three Weeks: .333/.378/.733, 8 HR, 20 RBI
The Rookie of the Year runner-up last season, the 26-year-old Trumbo was evicted from first base when the Angels signed Albert Pujols and opened the season in a bench role that found Los Angeles trying to shoehorn him into a job-share at third base. It's ironic, then, that Trumbo is making an appearance on this list before the three-time NL MVP and perennial contender Pujols.
Trumbo hit pretty well in his part-time role in April, starting 14 of the Angels' 22 games, after which the Angels' cluster of corner men and designated hitters was thinned out by the release of Bobby Abreu, Torii Hunter's leave of absence to attend to a personal matter and Vernon Wells' thumb injury. The Angels haven't asked Trumbo to play third base since May 3, and since May 5, he has started all but one of their 37 games, most of them in an outfield corner, and hit .348/.404/.674 with 11 home runs and 29 RBIs.
4. Adam Jones, CF, Orioles (4)
Season Stats: .306/.353/.580, 18 HR, 39 RBI, 9 SB
Last Three Weeks: .292/.342/.528, 4 HR, 10 RBI, 3 SB
Jones has been caught stealing four times in his 13 attempts (69 percent success) and is an average at best centerfielder, so temper whatever extra value you're tempted to attribute to him for his speed or fielding. Jones does get extra credit for being a centerfielder, though, even if he's not an especially good one. A centerfielder who hits .300 with 40-homer power (Jones is on pace for 46) is a tremendous thing. In a way, what Jones has done this year is comparable to what Curtis Granderson, another centerfielder considered below average by advanced fielding metrics, did last year. Granderson hit 41 homers with a .364 on-base percentage, stole 25 bases at a 71 percent success rate and finished fourth in the MVP voting. That Jones is fourth on this list is a coincidence, but not an inappropriate one.
5. Chris Sale, SP, White Sox (N/A)
Season Stats: 8-2, 2.05 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 4.22 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS, 1 CG
Last Four Starts: 4-0, 0.86 ERA, 0.64 WHIP, 10.3 K/9, 6.00 K/BB, 7.8 IP/GS, 1 CG
Sale was 3-1 with a 2.81 ERA after five starts this season when he reported some tenderness in his elbow. The White Sox flipped out and pulled him from the rotation, sending him to the bullpen to be the team's new closer and saying he'd remain a relief pitcher, the role he filled as a sophomore last year, for the rest of the season. Sale blew a save in an eighth-inning appearance before the team bothered to get an MRI on his elbow, and when the MRI came back clean they capitulated and put Sale back in the rotation. Since then, Sale has gone 5-1 with a 1.51 ERA in six starts and emerged as the best pitcher in the American League, a development in keeping with his having been the 13th overall pick in the 2010 draft and a major leaguer later that year.
Justin Verlander, SP, Tigers (HM): One could argue that Verlander has been more valuable than Sale to this point in the season. Sale's ERA is more than a half-run lower, but Verlander's peripherals are roughly equal or better, and he leads the majors in innings pitched (101 2/3), strikeouts (103) and complete games (3), and tops the AL in innings per start (7.26, just behind Cain's major league best 7.31). Including unearned runs, however, swells Verlander's Run Average all the way up to 3.01, compared to Sale's 2.17. That's a big gap, particularly with Sale pitching better of late (Verlander has a 4.10 ERA and 1.44 WHIP over his last four starts).
Josh Willingham, LF, Twins (HM): Willingham, who ranks as one of the top 20 hitters in baseball since the start of the 2009 season according to OPS+, is hitting .333/.440/.705 at Target Field this year. He's not quite the MVP, but he deserves some sort of award for that.
Mike Trout, OF, Angels (N/A): Trout, who leads my Rookie of the Year ranking, has arguably been the best player in the American League since May 5, when he hit his first major league home run, but he missed most of April, and it's still too early to put a player who went 1-for-11 in the first month of the season in the top five. If Trout keeps up his pace, however, he could well become just the third rookie ever to win the MVP award (after Fred Lynn and Ichiro Suzuki). After all, just two years ago Josh Hamilton won the award despite missing nearly all of September, playing just five games after August, so there's recent precedent for the award going to a player who missed a month of the season.
Matt Joyce, RF, Rays (N/A): Three weeks ago, I kept Joyce off this list because he was being used as a platoon player by Rays manager Joe Maddon, but he has since shaken off that platoon, starting six of the Rays last nine games against a lefthanded starting pitcher. Joyce is now hitting a solid .263/.373/.404 in 68 plate appearances against lefties this season to go with his .300/.410/.600 line against righties and thus cracks my MVP rankings for the second time in as many years.
Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees (N/A): Cano got off to a slow start this year, but has hit .326/.385/.659 with 10 home runs and 26 RBIs since May 6, bringing his season line up near what he did a year ago, when he finished sixth in the MVP voting.
Off the list: Austin Jackson (3), Asdrubal Cabrera (5), Derek Jeter (HM), Curtis Granderson (HM), Jake Peavy (HM)