Votto takes over NL MVP lead while field chases Hamilton in AL
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.
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.
Wright was hitting .405/.500/.628 a day after
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.