Cabrera, Davis neck-and-neck in tight race for AL MVP

Thursday June 27th, 2013

Miguel Cabrera is getting stiff competition as he seeks to defend the AL MVP award he won in 2012.
Scott W. Grau/Icon SMI

Awards Watch returns this week with my first look at the Most Valuable Player awards since late May and finds a two-man race in the American League but a wide open National League field.

Note: All stats are through Wednesday, June 26. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics. The number in parentheses after a player's name reflects his rank on the previous list.

American League

1. Miguel Cabrera, 3B, Tigers (2)

Season Stats: .370/.460/.657, 22 HR, 78 RBI, 59 R

Last Four Weeks: .374/.496/.659, 7 HR, 19 RBI

2. Chris Davis, 1B, Orioles (1)

Season Stats: .330/.404/.709, 28 HR, 73 RBI, 54 R

Last Four Weeks: .277/.315/.604, 9 HR, 23 RBI

Davis continued to accumulate in the Triple Crown categories over the last four weeks and remains on pace for 57 homers and 150 RBIs, but his overall production over that stretch paled in comparison to that of Cabrera, who has retaken the lead in what already looks like a two-man race. Cabrera is on pace for 166 RBIs, but the more you look beyond those Triple Crown stats, the more his superiority to Davis to this point in the season becomes clear.

For all of the times I have cast Cabrera in an unflattering light for his lack of skill outside of the batter's box, he is tremendously well-rounded as a hitter, particularly in comparison to Davis. I've written before in this space that Davis' strikeout and walk rates are career bests, and that remains true, but he's still on pace for 176 strikeouts and just 50 unintentional walks and has a 3.58 strikeout-to-unintentional-walk ratio. Cabrera, by comparison, has a 1.46 K/UIBB ratio and is on pace for 79 unintentional passes against just 115 Ks. If things continue this way, Davis will keep Cabrera from another Triple Crown, but Cabrera will be far more deserving of this award this year than he was a year ago.

3. Joe Mauer, C, Twins

Season Stats: .337/.417/.505, 8 HR, 26 RBI, 48 R

Last Four Weeks: .351/.430/.553, 4 HR, 10 RBI

Mauer is very quietly having the second-best season of what is already rounding into a Hall of Fame caliber career. After adjusting for the double-whammy of the run-suppressing Target Field and the lower offensive level this season, his current OPS+ of 154 easily ranks as second-best in a career that has seen Mauer win three batting titles and lead the league in on-base percentage last year. One reason for that strong showing is that Mauer is hitting for more power than he has in any season other than his MVP-winning 2009 campaign. He's on pace for a career-best 53 doubles, and with eight home runs already this season, should easily pass 13 for just the second time in his career. That puts him on pace for a career-high in total extra-base hits.

That OPS+ also ranks fifth in the league, behind Cabrera, Davis, Mike Trout and David Ortiz, a designated hitter who missed the first three weeks of the season. It's worth noting that none of those other men are catchers. As recently as last year, when he started a combined 72 games at first base and designated hitter, it seemed Mauer was aging out of his primary position, but this year he has made a full two-thirds of his starts behind the plate and thrown out tremendous 42 percent of opposing basestealers (compare that to the league average of 25 percent and Yadier Molina's 43 percent this season).

Mauer can't hang with the raw production of the top two men on this list, but among the remaining 99.5 percent of the league that isn't putting up video-game numbers, he has been the most valuable player.

4. Mike Trout, LF, Angels (4)

Season Stats: .308/.384/.541, 13 HR, 51 RBI, 56 R, 19 SB

Last Four Weeks: .330/.408/.505, 3 HR, 14 RBI, 7 SB

Since April 28, Trout has hit .323/.401/.583 with 11 home runs and 15 stolen bases at an 88 percent success rate. Last year, after making his debut on April 28, Trout hit .326/.399/.564 with 30 home runs and 49 stolen bases at a 91 percent success rate. Project those 11 home runs and 17 steals over the remaining three months of the season (using the rough estimate of multiplying those totals by 2.5) and you get 28 home runs and 38 steals. In effect, Trout is replicating his mind-blowing season from a year ago, only with a weak start appended to the front (.274/.343/.422 with two homers and four steals through April 27). Yes, he's stealing a tad less frequently, and his fielding is bizarrely grading out as below average. Those reasons and that weak April are why he's merely fourth on this list, but he's most likely here to stay.

5. Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays

Season Stats: .299/.368/.551, 17 HR, 47 RBI, 52 R

Last Four Weeks: .270/.359/.580, 8 HR, 17 RBI

Longoria is having his finest season at the plate right on schedule in his age-27 season. However, after stealing 31 bases in 36 attempts in his first three seasons, he hasn't attempted a stolen base this year and he isn't quite the elite defender he used to be, so one must balk at saying he's having his best overall season. Still, he's reminding us why he was considered a perennial MVP candidate before losing half of last year to a hamstring injury. He's unquestionably one of the best players in the league.

Off the list: Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista

National League

1. Carlos Gomez, CF, Brewers (3)

Season Stats: .313/.355/.570, 12 HR, 37 RBI, 15 SB, 8 3B

Last Four Weeks: .276/.319/.506, 2 HR, 12 RBI, 5 SB, 5 3B

Gomez's bat cooled off in June, and he hasn't played since Sunday after spraining his left shoulder doing this, but that play was emblematic of why he's back on top in this race. In addition to all of the things he's doing to generate runs this season, he continues to be arguably the best defensive centerfielder in baseball. With the two men ahead of him four weeks ago slumping (Joey Votto has hit a mere .260/.355/.427 over the last four weeks) or injured (Troy Tulowitzki hit the disabled list with a broken rib on June 13), Gomez is my nominal leader in a wide-open race that could go in almost any direction from here.

2. David Wright, 3B, Mets

Season Stats: .305/.387/.523, 12 HR, 41 RBI, 14 SB

Last Four Weeks: .323/.374/.576, 5 HR, 11 RBI, 3 SB

Wright is having arguably his best season in the first year of his $192 million contract. A year after being successful in just 15 of 25 stolen base attempts, he has only been caught once in the course of stealing 14 bases, while he continues to be an all-around threat at the plate and a fine defender at the hot corner. He'll do the home fans proud as the National League's starting third baseman in this year's All-Star game, but his ranking here shows just how absurd it was that just a few weeks ago he was trailing Pablo Sandoval (.283/.319/.414) in the voting.

3. Carlos Gonzalez, LF, Rockies

Season Stats: .301/.370/.613, 21 HR, 58 RBI, 62 R, 14 SB

Last Four Weeks: .297/.349/.673, 8 HR, 25 RBI, 5 SB, 4 3B

Gonzalez matches Wright in stolen base success (he's been caught just once), and has a huge advantage in slugging, but when you correct for the relative difficulty of hitting for power in their home ballparks and their relative defensive value, Cargo falls just short. Indeed, Gonzalez's park-adjusted OPS+ is 148 to Wright's 156. That said, it bears repeating that Gonzalez is hitting as well on the road as at home this season, giving his candidacy a legitimacy some believed was lacking when he finished third in the voting in 2010 with an extremely lop-sided home/road split.

4. Yadier Molina, C, Cardinals

Season Stats: .357/.400/.516, 6 HR, 44 RBI, 26 2B

Last Four Weeks: .363/.408/.593, 3 HR, 17 RBI, 12 2B

Remember when Molina was a star despite his bat? It wasn't that long ago. In 2010, his age-27 season, he hit .262/.329/.342, bringing his career rates after six-plus major league seasons to .268/.327/.361 (82 OPS+). Since then, he has hit .321/.370/.491 (136 OPS+) in two-plus seasons.

What changed? Well, he stopped hitting the ball on the ground as much, which improved his fortune on balls in play (.321 over the last three seasons compared to .281 previously), but the biggest change, which is related to that reduction in fly balls, is that he has seen a huge increase in power. Molina's career isolated power (slugging minus batting average) through 2010 was .093. Since then it has been .170. His career high in extra-base hits through 2010 was 32. He has had more than 50 in each of the last two seasons and is already at 32 extra-base hit this year, and we're not yet at the half-way point. Molina homered more often last year, but he's leading the NL in doubles this year and should shatter his previous career high in that category of 32.

That he's done all of this without losing a beat behind the plate has made him a perennial MVP candidate and if he keeps it up into his mid-30s, it could carry him to the Hall of Fame.

5. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies (2)

Season Stats: .347/.413/.635, 16 HR, 51 RBI

Last Four Weeks: .377/.411/.642, 4 HR, 8 RBI

Tulowitzki broke a rib making this diving stop on June 13 and has been on the disabled list ever since, but he still leads the NL in slugging, and if he can return right after the All-Star break, could avoid dropping out of this race. Look no further than Josh Hamilton's 2010 AL MVP award, which came after he effectively lost all of September of that year to a pair of broken ribs, also suffered while making a play in the field, for evidence of a player accomplishing what Tulowitzki is hoping to do here.

The big difference, however, is that Hamilton effectively had his MVP award sewn up before his injury (even though I thought it should have gone to Miguel Cabrera), whereas Tulowitzki will have to fight a crowded field for another two and a half months after his return. Still, just two weeks into his DL stay, I can't take him off this list, which is intended to represent the most valuable players to this point in the season, not project future performance. Apologies to Buster Posey and the three men who fell off the list this week.

Off the list: Joey Votto, Jean Segura, Paul Goldschmidt

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