New leaders in AL, NL MVP races; Hamilton tumbles off list
The big news in this week's Most Valuable Player award rankings concerns the top spot in the American League. Three weeks ago, Josh Hamilton was still clinging to that spot, which he'd held all season to that point. This week, he's off the list entirely. It's no secret as to why. After hitting .368/.420/.764 through the end of May, Hamilton has hit just .195/.282/.384 in 181 plate appearances since the calendar flipped to June.
On Monday, Rangers team president Nolan Ryan said that Hamilton was giving away at-bats, something manager Ron Washington later echoed. And in Sunday night's ESPN telecast of the Rangers-Angels game, Terry Francona easily illustrated how pitchers have been getting Hamilton out by luring him out of the strike zone with pitches off the outside corner (Hamilton went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts in that game).
Hamilton has just one multi-hit game in July -- and only four since June 1 -- and hasn't had three hits in a game since May 11. Things have only gotten worse for Hamilton as the season has progressed, and in the three weeks since my last MVP column, he has hit just .127/.194/.255 with 18 strikeouts in 15 games. Of course, even if Hamilton had started to turn things around in the last three weeks, he might still have lost the top spot to the irresistible force that is rookie sensation Mike Trout.
The ascension is complete. Trout wasn't called up until April 28, but he now leads the major leagues in all three major Wins Above Replacement stats (both Baseball-Reference's and FanGraph's WAR and Baseball Prospectus's Wins Above Replacement Player: 6.2 bWAR, 6.0 fWAR, 5.9 WARP), all cumulative stats. He also leads the majors in stolen bases (swiping his 31 bags at a 91 percent success rate) and runs and the AL in OPS+ (183) and batting average.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Trout is the first player in major league history to accumulate 100 hits, 15 home runs and 30 stolen bases in his first 75 games of a given season. That's first player, not first rookie or first 20-year-old. Trout no longer needs such qualifications. Fred Lynn and Ichiro Suzuki are the only men ever to win the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards in the same season. Trout is now in position to become the third and by far the youngest (Lynn was 23, Suzuki 27).
Cano hit nine home runs in 14 games from June 17 to July 1, but has gone deep just twice in the 20 games since. Still, he has hit safely in 27 of his last 28 games after having a 23-game hit streak snapped on Saturday and is drawing walks at a career-best rate of one unintentional pass every 14.6 plate appearances. He has also played in all 98 of the Yankees games this season and, according to the advanced stats, is having his best season defensively. There is a chink in the armor of every MVP candidate on this list from the fourth spot on down, but Cano's performance thus far has been unassailable.
Once again, Verlander is the best pitcher in baseball. He leads the majors in innings (148 2/3), strikeouts (142), complete games, WHIP and innings per start. In addition, no American League pitcher has delivered a quality start more often and the only two qualified pitchers in the AL with lower ERAs have each thrown more than 30 fewer innings. Looking at his rate stats, Verlander's 2012 season is more like his MVP-winning 2011 season than it is different from it. Only Trout's historic performance and Cano's best season are keeping him out of the top spot.
Total Zone and Baseball Prospectus's Fielding Runs both suggest that Cabrera has been a roughly average defensive third baseman this season, something I and Ultimate Zone Rating find hard to believe. Still, while Cabrera's play at the position is anything but smooth, he's clearly not the liability many expected him to be, and his more traditional fielding stats (fielding percentage and range factor) support the view of his play as roughly average. Given that, we can take his contributions at the plate at face value, and while they're not up to the level of his last two seasons (combined .337/.434/.604), the fact that he is holding his own at third base boosts the overall value of his performance.
It will be interesting to see if Cabrera is more productive in the second half than he was in the first. Historically his splits are pretty even before and after the All-Star break, but one could attribute the muting of his numbers in the first half to the effort he has had to exert to reestablish himself at his old position. He has hit .408/.474/.755 since June 25.
Encarnacion has been one of the most productive hitters in the American League all season, but he spent most of April and May as the Blue Jays' designated hitter, greatly undermining his candidacy for MVP. However, Encarnacion has played mostly first base since the end of May, and on Tuesday made his 46th start at the position this season compared to 45 starts at DH (he has also made single starts at third base and in leftfield and thus has 48 starts in the field compared to 45 at DH). The player formerly known as "E5" remains a lousy fielder, but he's not the sort of liability at first base that he was during his worst seasons at third base with the Reds. Much like Cabrera, that allows us to take his offensive production at something close to face value, and that value has been significant. So much so that the Blue Jays though it a worthy gamble to spend $29 million to lock the 29-year-old up through 2015.
That Last Three Weeks line is impressive, but over a sample more than twice as large, dating to June 17, McCutchen has hit .452/.507/.802 with 11 home runs. He leads the majors in batting average, slugging and OPS+ (193), and the NL in total bases (223), and if he's not clearly the best player in baseball right now, it's only because Mike Trout is a better fielder and basestealer.
McCutchen grades out as an average center fielder and has only been successful in two-thirds of his steal attempts this season, but he could be a plodding first baseman without a single stolen base to his name and still be close to the top of this list with that batting line. That he's hitting like that while playing a solid centerfield make him the clear favorite for MVP, though it doesn't hurt that his closest rival is on the disabled list.
Votto will be out a few more weeks following surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, but his performance this season is strong enough, and we're far enough into the season, that the time he misses shouldn't knock him out of contention for this award. In fact, it wasn't the injury that pushed him out of first place this week, it was McCutchen.
With the Phillies set to play their 100th game of the season on Friday, it seems like an appropriate time to start looking at Ruiz's season not just in the context of this award, but in context of the greatest seasons ever by a catcher. For example, since 1900 there have been just 10 seasons in which a player played 75 percent or more of his games behind the plate and posted an OPS+ of 160 or better. Ruiz's OPS+ right now is 163 and would rank eighth on that list. The only live-ball era catchers to post a higher single-season OPS+ than Ruiz's current mark are Mike Piazza (three times), Joe Mauer (171 in 2009) and Johnny Bench (166 in 1972). Ruiz has also thrown out 38 percent of attempting basestealers (against a league average of 27 percent).
To bring his fielding into the picture, if we project Ruiz's current 4.4 bWAR out over the remainder of the season we get 7.2, which would tie Gary Carter's 1984 for the seventh best all-around catching season by that measure since 1900, with only Piazza, Bench (twice), Carter (again), Mauer and Darrell Porter's 1979 ahead of him on the list.
I often repeat my belief that team performance shouldn't be a factor in deciding individual awards. Braun's performance on Wednesday night is a perfect example of why. Braun went 3-for-4 against the Phillies Wednesday night and reached base six times on an error, two doubles, a home run and a pair of intentional walks. But both doubles came with the bases empty and his teammates failed to drive him in all night (to be fair, he was caught stealing once) and the Brewers lost the game 7-6 after Francisco Rodriguez blew a save in extra innings. Was that Braun's fault?
What about the July 17 game when Braun went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts and the Brewers won 3-2. Does Braun get credit for that win? It's not that individual performances aren't reflected in team performance, it's that it's not a direct relationship. What the other eight or nine or 24 men on the team do has an even greater impact most nights than what a team's best player does.
Though we break baseball down to individual acts it remains a team sport. The MVP, however, is not a team award. It is an individual award, and a season like Braun's deserves recognition no matter what his team is doing. That works both ways. McCutchen would top this list even if the Pirates had the worst record in baseball because player value is absolute. It takes a lot of valuable players to make a winning team. This award is for the player with the most individual value.
Wright is 29. He is two home runs away from 200 for his career, has 1,367 hits and a career batting line of .303/.384/.512. From 2006 to 2008 he finished in the top 10 in the MVP voting every year while winning two Silver Sluggers and two Gold Gloves. Then, in 2009 he set a career low with just 10 home runs and in both 2010 and 2011 he set personal full-season lows in batting average and on-base percentage, with a career-low .771 OPS in 2011. Curiously, the advanced fielding stats suggest Wright's play in the field during those three down years slipped as well.
This year, however, has been his best by far, and the fielding stats suggest he has been rejuvenated on both sides of the ball. The only aspect of Wright's game that hasn't improved this season has been his base stealing, as he is just 10-for-18, a miserable 56 percent success rate at which he'd be better off staying put. What will be most interesting to see is if those three down seasons prove to be a brief wilderness period in a potential Hall of Fame career or if this year's performance represents the last MVP-quality season from a player destined for the