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Cano, McCutchen pushing leaders Hamilton, Votto for MVP

There hasn't been a lot of turnover in the Most Valuable Player races over the last three weeks. Of the 20 men to make my lists three weeks ago, just three have been replaced this week, while both leaders remain the same. However, in both leagues those leaders suddenly find themselves in close races against new, red-hot challengers, and in the American League, that top man is the only member of my top five from three weeks ago to remain in the top five.

NOTE: All stats are through Wednesday, July 4. 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. Josh Hamilton, CF, Rangers (1)

Season Stats: .318/.387/.650, 26 HR, 74 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .264/.371/.547, 4 HR, 12 RBI

Hamilton has been fairly ordinary since mid-May, hitting .256/.335/.482 since May 13. He's still hitting home runs (eight over that span and four in his last nine games), but the rest of his game has cooled off enough that one wonders how much longer he'll be able to hold on to the top spot on this list. Then again, I said much the same thing three weeks ago, and here he is.

2. Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees (HM)

Season Stats: .316/.376/.585, 20 HR, 50 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .394/.463/.803, 9 HR, 20 RBI

Cano had a poor April by his own standards, harking back to his early-career reputation as a slow starter, but since May 6, he has hit .350/.412/.704 with 19 home runs and 44 RBIs in 228 plate appearances. Cano has thus been better than Hamilton for more than half of the season to this point (Hamilton's bat didn't cool 'til mid-May), and leads him by a fair margin in Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement based largely on a superior fielding grade. Hamilton still has the better numbers across the board, however, and for now, that's enough to keep him ahead of Cano.

3. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (HM)

Season Stats:.343/.399/.551, 10 HR, 52 R, 23 SB

Last Three Weeks: .347/.395/.573, 4 HR, 10 RBI, 6 SB

I listed Trout as an honorable mention three weeks ago because of his limited playing time, but now that he is qualified for the batting title and has just 53 fewer plate appearances than Hamilton, I'm ready to give him full consideration on this list. I seem to find a reason to praiseTrout on at least a weekly basis, so I'll limit my comments here except to point out that he has a 10-point lead for the batting title, has been caught stealing just three times, good for an 88 percent success rate, and to link to this catch just one more time.

4. Austin Jackson, CF, Tigers (N/A)

Season Stats: .329/.410/.547, 9 HR, 48 R, 7 SB

Last Three Weeks: .342/.432/.526, 2 HR, 12 RBI

Jackson was third on this list six weeks ago, but fell off last week due to an abdominal strain that caused him to miss 21 games. As a result of that disabled list stay, Jackson has come to the plate less often than Trout, but he has shown no rust since his June 9 return, hitting .327/.405/.551 in that time. This looks like a legitimate breakout season for the 25-year-old Jackson, who is striking out less often, walking more often and hitting for more power than he did in either of his first two major league seasons.

5. Justin Verlander, SP, Tigers (HM)

Season Stats: 9-5, 2.58 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 4.27 K/BB, 7.4 IP/GS, 5 CG, 1 SHO

Last Four Starts: 3-1, 2.32 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 3.57 K/BB, 7.8 IP/GS, 1 CG

One could argue that there have been more effective pitchers in the American League this year, but Verlander is in that argument, and none of his rivals is close to his major league leading 132 2/3 innings pitched and 7.4 innings per start. That combination of effectiveness and innings-eating makes Verlander the clear choice for the league's most valuable pitcher in my eyes.

As for those who argue that a pitcher that only plays every five days can't be as valuable as a player who plays every day, consider that Verlander not only won this award last year, he has pitched 18 percent of the Tigers' innings this season, while major league plate appearance leader Ian Kinsler has made only 12 percent of his team's plate appearances and, despite playing a central middle-infield position, had just 10 percent of his team's defensive chances. Verlander has had, effectively, zero percent of his team's plate appearances, but if you average their participation in both halves of an inning, you get 9 percent for Verlander and 11 percent for Kinsler. That's not a huge difference, and certainly not enough of one to leave pitchers out of the MVP conversation.

Honorable Mention

Chris Sale, SP, White Sox (5): Remember when the White Sox pulled Sale from the rotation due to an injury concern only to name him their closer but never give him a save opportunity? Well, since he returned to the rotation he has gone 7-1 with a 1.94 ERA in 10 starts while averaging 6.9 innings per start.

Mark Trumbo, OF, Angels (3): Trumbo is still hitting homers (six in the last three weeks), but the things that made him so much more valuable than during his rookie campaign a year ago, his other hits and walks, have dried up, at least temporarily, leaving a batting average and on-base percentage over the last three weeks (.260 and .289) that look a lot like his rookie numbers (.254/.291).

David Ortiz, DH, Red Sox (N/A): The logic I used in defense of pitchers above is murder on a designated hitter like Ortiz, which is indirectly one reason why a full-time DH has never won this award. Ortiz has made just five percent of the Red Sox' plate appearances and had less than one percent of their defensive chances (he did make seven starts at first base during interleague play). Still, it's not always the size of the participation, but what you do with it. Ortiz has hit .302/.391/.607 with 22 home runs and 55 RBIs, ranking fifth in the league in on-base percentage and second in slugging and OPS. He deserves inclusion here.

Josh Willingham, LF, Twins (HM): Willingham's numbers are impressive in and of themselves --.380 OBP, .545 slugging, 18 homers, 59 RBIs -- but considering he is putting them up at Target Field, they become all the more so. With regard to his RBIs, however, it's worth noting that he is hitting behind the league leader in on-base percentage, Joe Mauer. Despite playing for the lowly Twins, Willingham has hit with more men on base than the average major leaguer. Mauer, meanwhile, just missed an honorable mention this week, his poor caught-stealing percentage (just 16 percent against a league average of 27 percent and a career rate of 34 percent) being part of what tipped the balance against him.

Paul Konerko, 1B, White Sox (2): Konerko has hit just .245/.324/.362 since the start of June and remains on this list only because he hit .381/.455/.642 prior to that.

Off the list: Adam Jones (4), Matt Joyce (N/A)

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

Season Stats: .350/.469/.628, 14 HR, 47 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .311/.408/.525, 2 HR, 3 RBI

Votto gave the Reds and baseball fans everywhere a scare when he missed the first two games of July with a knee injury, but he returned to action on Tuesday and has gone 3-for-8 with a double in two games since. Votto now has 34 doubles on the season. He led the NL last year with 40. Miguel Cabrera led the majors with 48. The single-season record is 67, and no one has reached 60 since 1936. Todd Helton came the closest, with 59 in 2000.

2. Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates (HM)

Season Stats:.360/.412/.610, 16 HR, 54 RBI, 14 SB

Last Three Weeks: .459/.500/.784, 5 HR, 17 RBI

I don't believe that team performance should be a factor in the MVP voting. It is an individual award and only individual performance should matter. It's not the player's fault if his 24 teammates don't make up a winning team even with his contributions, and his contributions aren't the only reason his team wins when it does. That said, it's hard to separate McCutchen's success from the Pirates' right now. While McCutchen has been on the crazy run captured in that Last Three Weeks line above, the Pirates have gone 13-6 (with one of those losses occurring in the only game McCutchen missed) and taken over the lead in the NL Central.

That's not a coincidence, but it's not all to McCutchen's credit, either. Pedro Alvarez has hit .373/.471/.797 over the same period. Garret Jones has hit .321/.377/.643. Leftfielder Drew Sutton has hit .387/.424/.677 in nine games since being called up. In the last three weeks James McDonald has gone 3-1 and A.J. Burnett has gone 3-0, each with three quality starts in four turns. Success in baseball has many fathers. McCutchen is here not because the Pirates are winning, and not because he is indeed playing a large role in that, he's here because he's been one of the best players in baseball this season, period.

3. David Wright, 3B, Mets (2)

Season Stats: .350/.441/.559, 10 HR, 55 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .324/.377/.485, 2 HR, 18 RBI

I haven't listed Wright's eight stolen bases above because he has been caught seven times. That's the only negative aspect of an all-around fantastic season from Wright, who has managed to cool off from his white-hot start without actually slumping.

4. Carlos Ruiz, C, Phillies (5)

Season Stats: .357/.419/.598, 13 HR, 46 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .345/.415/.655, 5 HR, 11 RBI

To put the 33-year-old Ruiz's season in context, his Phillies have played 83 games and he has already broken his previous career high in home runs by three, he is eight shy of his career high in RBIs, he is 30 hits shy of his previous career high in that category (116) and he is 27 shy of his previous career high in total bases (166). He has also set a career high in times hit by pitch with a league-leading 12, yet his 11 unintentional walks are barely more than a fourth of his previous high in that department.

5. R.A. Dickey, SP, Mets (4)

Season Stats:12-1, 2.15 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 4.64 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO

Last Four Starts: 3-0, 1.41 ERA, 0.50 WHIP, 10.7 K/9, 6.33 K/BB, 8.0 IP/GS, 2 CG, 1 SHO

Dickey, who will start against the Phillies on Thursday, is the biggest surprise of the season to this point and has been far and away the best pitcher, perhaps even the best player, in baseball since mid-May. Over his last eight starts, he has gone 7-0 with a 0.86 ERA and his opponents have hit just .139/.185/.192 in 223 plate appearances. By way of comparison, the average National League pitcher has hit .132/.170/.166 this year and Dickey himself is hitting .176/.200/.176. In other words, Dickey has been making every opposing hitter look like a pitcher lately.

Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers (HM): Braun hit seven home runs over the last three weeks to take over the NL lead in that category with 23. He edges out fellow power-and-speed threat Carlos Gonzalez on this list by putting up similar numbers in slightly less favorable hitting environment.

Carlos Gonzalez, LF, Rockies (HM): Gonzalez has stolen 10 bases in 11 attempts and leads the NL in total bases (179) and runs scored (59). He hit .412 over the last three weeks to raise his average to .340, but most of his production over that span came via singles hitting.

Carlos Beltran, RF, Cardinals (HM): A drop in power over the last three weeks (just one home run and a mere .092 isolated slugging) has dropped Beltran behind Braun and Gonzalez on this list. He leads the NL in RBIs with 63, but has benefitted from hitting with a lot of runners on base as part of the lineup with the best on-base percentage in the NL.

Yadier Molina, C, Cardinals (N/A): This is Molina's second appearance on this list this year. He was third on May 3 and has been just beyond the top 10 ever since. His reappearance this week is more indicative of a slight shift in the balance of the borderline candidates than it is of a major surge by Molina or decline by his competitors. Molina's next home run and next stolen base will each tie his previous career high (14 and nine, respectively). He has stolen his eight bases in nine attempts.

Matt Cain, SP, Giants (3): Cain's third-place ranking last time around came in the immediate wake of his perfect game. He has turned in just one quality start in three tries since but, like Verlander, his combination of effectiveness and innings-eating (he leads the NL in innings per start) demands his inclusion on this list.

Off the list: Melky Cabrera (HM)

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