McCutchen jumps to NL MVP lead; Cabrera vs. Trout again in AL

Thursday August 8th, 2013

Andrew McCutchen has helped the Pirates to the best winning percentage in baseball.
Gene J. Puskar/AP

With the dog days of August upon us, injuries are taking their toll on the Most Valuable Player races, particularly in the National League where three of my top five candidates from three weeks ago -- Carlos Gonzalez (finger), David Wright (hamstring) and Yadier Molina (knee) -- have since hit the disabled list, putting an already crowded race even further out of focus. In the American League, Miguel Cabrera has been limited by nagging back and hip injuries, but not so much that his lead in the race has been threatened.

Note: All stats are through Wednesday, August 7. 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.

National League

1. Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates

Season Stats: .312/.384/.511, 16 HR, 65 RBI, 24 SB

Last Three Weeks: .356/.422/.699, 6 HR, 16 RBI, 4 SB

McCutchen has been hanging around the periphery of the NL MVP conversation all season, but this is his first appearance in my top five since last year, when he finished third in the actual voting. He debuts at number one here due in part to the injuries mentioned above and to the concurrent cooling off of previous leader Paul Goldschmdit, but also because McCutchen has been on absolute fire in recent weeks. Since June 21, McCutchen has hit .356/.429/.638.

Even still, his season stats alone don't necessitate his place atop this list, but when you factor in his baserunning (his steals have come at an 80 percent success rate), his elite play in centerfield, his pitching-friendly home ballpark, and, suddenly a key factor in this race, his health, he rises to the top.

2. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks (1)

Season Stats: .299/.390/.545, 26 HR, 90 RBI, 11 SB

Last Three Weeks: .227/.366/.485, 5 HR, 13 RBI, 2 SB

If you think of Goldschmidt as merely a power-hitting first baseman in a power-friendly ballpark you ignore his fine play in the field and surprising speed (he stole 18 bases last year, though his 11 this year have come at a less-than-ideal 73 percent success rate), which contribute to his value. If all he was doing was putting up those numbers at the plate, he'd still be on this list, but he might not be quite this high.

3. Clayton Kershaw, SP, Dodgers

Season Stats: 10-7, 1.91 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, 4.49 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 187 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 2-1, 1.55 ERA, 0.72 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, 13.5 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS

Kershaw is the best pitcher in baseball. As tight as the race for the NL Cy Young award has been this season, Kershaw has been my leader every time I have looked at that competition, and a pitcher that dominant deserves to be a part of the MVP conversation.

Kershaw trails St. Louis' Adam Wainwright by just an inning and a third for the major league lead, and Kershaw has faced 665 batters, also second to Wainwright in the NL. The highest Kershaw's season ERA has been after any of his starts was 2.14 back on April 23.

4. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds

Season Stats: .324/.438/.511, 17 HR, 52 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .354/.463/.538, 2 HR, 10 RBI

Speaking of Votto, it seems appropriate that the league leader in games (114) and plate appearances would return to the list while so many other top candidates are inactive. Votto also leads the NL in OPS+ (156) despite an unfavorable adjustment from his home ballpark, on-base percentage and intentional walks (13), and leads the majors in bases on balls (85). For those still griping about his low RBI total, he is also second in the league (to the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter, a bubbling under candidate) in runs scored (77).

5. David Wright, 3B, Mets (4)

Season Stats: .309/.391/.512, 16 HR, 54 RBI, 17 SB

Last Three Weeks: .333/.364/.540, 3 HR, 10 RBI, 2 SB

Of the three men on my previous list to hit the DL, Wright is the only one to remain in the top five this week. That's due to both his solid post-break performance and his all-around value. Like McCutchen, Wright's candidacy improves as you broaden your view. Add in baserunning (17 steals at an 85 percent success rate), fielding (excellent work at the hot corner), and adjust for an unfavorable home ballpark, and you realize that Wright's already stellar season stats above don't capture the full scale of his value.

JAFFE: Mets lose Wright at wrong time

Wright is also still 18th in the league in plate appearances despite going on the disabled list with a strained right hamstring last Saturday. With a quick return, he could yet challenge for the top spot as this race remains wide open with less than eight weeks left in the season.

Off the list: Carlos Gonzalez, Buster Posey, Yadier Molina

American League

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

Season Stats: .359/.453/.668, 33 HR, 102 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .303/.395/.606, 3 HR, 7 RBI

Since July 22, Cabrera has been on the bench nursing injuries more often than he has been in the lineup, missing seven games and eight starts due to injury while starting just six games over that span. When he's on the field, though, his performance hasn't suffered at all. In those six starts, all of them coming at third base (he hasn't made a single start at designated hitter all season), Cabrera has hit .381/.435/.714. Last Sunday, he came off the bench to deliver a pinch-hit single in the 12th inning against the White Sox in his first at-bat in five days. Cabrera is 4-for-12 with a double and a homer in three starts since.

JAFFE: What's most impressive about Cabrera's season

2. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (3)

Season Stats: .333/.424/.580, 20 HR, 70 RBI, 24 SB

Last Three Weeks: .394/.544/.667, 5 HR, 11 RBI, 3 SB

Trout is tied with Adrian Beltre for the major league lead in hits (145), is tied with Cabrera and Chris Davis for the AL lead in runs (80), tied with Jacoby Ellsbury for the league lead in triples (8) and stands alone as the league leader in walks (67), those last two matching his totals from last year. Three weeks ago, Trout's batting line was a dead match for his MVP-worthy 2012 campaign. He has since blown past that level and has now hit .359/.456/.638 since April 30. Compare that line to Carbrera's above. Given Trout's advantage in the field and on the bases (his steals have come at an 86 percent success rate), Cabrera's edge in this race rests solely on his superior performance in April. Given how hot Trout is and how banged up Cabrera is, this race could tighten up considerably down the stretch.

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

Season Stats: .302/.375/.676, 41 HR, 106 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .235/.289/.471, 4 HR, 13 RBI

Davis hit just .205/.256/.282 with 20 strikeouts and no home runs in his first 10 games after the All-Star break. That was his longest home-run drought of the season and made many wonder if we'd seen the last of Crush Davis. Since then, he has hit four home runs in eight games while striking out just seven times, producing a .276/.333/.724 line. Davis' batting average and on-base percentage have declined steadily since the end of May (he was hitting .356/.442/.749 on May 31, but has hit .255/.313/.614 since), which is why he's starting to fall behind in this race. His power will likely keep him on this list the rest of the way, even if he's no longer a serious threat to Cabrera and Trout.

4. Jason Kipnis, 2B, Indians

Season Stats: .292/.370/.487, 15 HR, 68 RBI, 21 SB

Last Three Weeks: .254/.308/.366, 2 HR, 11 RBI

Kipnis just missed this list three weeks ago coming off a red-hot June and makes it here because Robinson Cano and Josh Donaldson have slumped worse than he has since the All-Star break (Cano: .209/.289/.284; Donaldson: .206/.342/.270). If I had room, I'd include those two as well as they, along with the next man on this list, Beltre, are in a tightly packed group of four with similar numbers and skill-sets (power and solid averages at the plate plus excellent fielding at key infield positions). Kipnis has a bit less power than the others, but he also is the only serious stolen base threat of the quartet, stealing his 21 bags at a 78 percent success rate.

5. Adrian Beltre, 3B, Rangers

Season Stats: .319/.364/.535, 25 HR, 70 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .338/.391/.500, 4 HR, 15 RBI

Beltre is my other pick from that quartet in part because he's been the only one not slumping in the second half. He also leads the group in batting average, slugging percentage and home runs and is tied for the major league lead in hits with Trout at 145. The defensive metrics suggest that Beltre isn't the same player in the field this year that he has been in the past, which given that he's 34 could be more than a fluke result, but I'm going to continue to give him the benefit of the doubt for now. Meanwhile, Beltre deserves an intangibles bonus not for being the lone productive bat left in the Rangers' lineup in the wake of Nelson Cruz's suspension, but for being a GIF Hall of Famer.

Off the list: Robinson Cano, Josh Donaldson

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