Troy Tulowitzki still leading NL MVP race; Nelson Cruz surges in AL

Thursday May 29th, 2014

Yasiel Puig has been red-hot in the month of May and has raised his season line to .344/.442/.623.
Matt York/AP

Awards Watch returns to the MVP races this week and finds some of the most exciting players in baseball atop the National League list. The American League's five representatives, meanwhile, include some similarly compelling young players with all-around ability but also veteran sluggers who make the cut despite their poor play defensively.

Note: All stats are through Wednesday, May 28. 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. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies (1)

Season Stats: .369/.471/.702, 14 HR, 37 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .281/.391/.561, 5 HR, 6 RBI

Tulowitzki has been merely excellent with the bat over the last three weeks rather than superhuman, as he was before that. Nevertheless, his season slash line is still something out of the Babe Ruth songbook, and his status as the game's best player to this point in the season remains indisputable.

2. Yasiel Puig, RF, Dodgers

Season Stats: .344/.442/.623, 11 HR, 39 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .400/.506/.829, 7 HR, 17 RBI

Last June, his first month in the major leagues, Puig announced himself as a sensation by hitting .436/.467/.713. This May, his sixth month in the major leagues, he has been even better, hitting .406/.509/.760 in nine more plate appearances. After 152 regular season games in the majors, his career line is .327/.408/.563, good for a 171 OPS+, and he has totaled 30 home runs and 62 walks in 649 plate appearances. So much for the idea that his post-June performance last year represented his actual level, the assertion that he is not a home run hitter, and concerns about his walk rate. The only thing it seems he can't do is steal bases. He has been caught 12 times in 28 career attempts, a lousy 57-percent success rate.

3. Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Marlins (2)

Season Stats: .318/.413/.621, 15 HR, 49 RBI, 4 SB

Last Three Weeks: .364/.468/.667, 5 HR, 11 RBI

In addition to ranking first in the NL in home runs and RBI, Stanton leads his league in total bases (123) and intentional walks (10). His four stolen bases, two shy of his career high, have come in as many attempts, and the advanced metrics agree that his play in rightfield has recovered from his injury-plagued 2013 season to make him once again an asset on both sides of the ball.

That the Marlins are just a half-game out of first place and three games above .500 should be irrelevant to Stanton's candidacy (this is an individual award, not a team award), but if both player and team persist at their current levels through the end of the season, you can be sure that Miami's surprising performance will factor heavily into Stanton's showing in the MVP vote.

4. Carlos Gomez, CF, Brewers

Season Stats: .323/.394/.594, 11 HR, 30 RBI, 10 SB

Last Three Weeks: .429/.509/.735, 3 HR, 10 RBI, 6 SB

At 28, Gomez has matured into nothing less than one of the best all-around players in baseball. An elite defensive centerfielder and a high-frequency and high-percentage base stealer (his 10 steals this year have come in 12 attempts, an 83 percent success rate), he has also improved in all three slash stats in each of the last three seasons. In addition, he is well on his way to career highs in hits, home runs, doubles, runs, RBI and walks and could have a 30/30 season.

5. Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals

Season Stats: 8-2, 1.67 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 8.6 K/9, 4.81 K/BB, 7.4 IP/GS, 2 SHO, 217 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 3-0, 0.87 ERA, 0.71 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 10.33 K/BB, 7.8 IP/GS, 1 SHO, 4 GS

Wainwright has held his opponents scoreless over seven or more innings in six of his 11 starts this season. Included in those six starts was a nine-strikeout one-hitter against the Diamondbacks two turns ago in which he faced just 28 batters, a performance that, even in the wake of Josh Beckett's no-hitter, stands as the best pitching performance of the season. In his last two starts, including that one, Wainwright has struck out 21 against one walk and allowed just six hits and no runs in 17 innings, and he will carry a 20-inning scoreless streak into his next start. That's only his second-longest scoreless streak of the season, however: He finished April with 25 straight scoreless innings.

Off the list: Charlie Blackmon, Andrew McCutchen, Johnny Cueto

Josh Donaldson's combination of offense and defense at third base make him an MVP contender.
Beck Diefenbach/AP

American League

1. Nelson Cruz, LF, Orioles

Season Stats: .306/.376/.663, 19 HR, 48 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .333/.402/.813, 10 HR, 19 RBI

Cruz has started 20 games at designated hitter, is a poor defender in the outfield corners and trails the next two players on this list in wins above replacement. Still, he has been so productive at the plate that he earns the top spot this week. Cruz leads the majors in home runs (by three over Toronto's Edwin Encarnacion) and total bases (128) and is tops in the AL in RBI (one behind Stanton for the major league lead), slugging percentage, OPS (1.039) and OPS+ (182). He has nine home runs in his last 14 games and seven in his last nine. He has a hit in each of those last nine games, having gone 15-for-32 over that span with 12 of those 15 hits going for extra bases, while drawing eight walks (two intentional) against just six strikeouts. That performance works out to a .469/.561/1.281 line over 41 plate appearances.

2. Josh Donaldson, 3B, A's

Season Stats: .277/.370/.529, 13 HR, 41 RBI, 43 R

Last Three Weeks: .311/.432/.656, 6 HR, 17 RBI

Donaldson might be the most underrated player in baseball. One reason for that is that his home ballpark mutes his performance at the plate. Another is that only two years ago, he was a 26-year-old minor league catcher playing out of position as an injury replacement for Scott Sizemore. Donaldson's ascension since taking over at third base in Oakland for good in mid-August of 2012 has been remarkable. Dating back to his recall that month, Donaldson has hit .293/.376/.504 and played elite defense at the hot corner for one of the best teams in baseball.

3. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (2)

Season Stats: .281/.371/.531, 10 HR, 35 RBI, 5 SB

Last Three Weeks: .269/.366/.522, 4 HR, 15 RBI

Trout is slowly but surely pulling out of his slump. He has a hit in each of his last nine games and has hit .364/.410/.576 over that span. Perhaps most significantly, his strikeouts are down. He has just seven punchouts over the duration of that streak and just five in his last eight games. Digging deeper, a check on his batted ball types shows that he is reversing all of the negative trends that my colleague Jay Jaffe detected mid-month. Trout's popup rate is now down below his April mark while his line-drive and home-run-per-fly-ball rate have improved over the last two weeks. It seems he'll be just fine.

The only question now is why isn't he stealing bases. Trout led the majors with 49 steals as a rookie and stole 33 bags at an 83-percent success rate last year. This year, however, he has stolen just five and has attempted just one steal in May (he was successful).

4. Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays (1)

Season Stats: .301/.434/.528, 12 HR, 36 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .301/.391/.438, 3 HR, 15 RBI

Bautista still leads the majors in walks (44) and the AL in on-base percentage, but his power stroke has gone missing this month. Bautista had nine home runs in the first 30 games of the season but has hit just three more in the 24 games since and has only two other extra-base hits over the latter span, both doubles. Bautista hasn't had two extra-base hits in a game since May 2 and hasn't had an extra-base hit of any kind in his last 30 plate appearances.

5. Victor Martinez, DH, Tigers

Season Stats: .341/.396/.600, 12 HR, 29 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .372/.424/.679, 6 HR, 11 RBI

Martinez just edges out White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez for the final spot here despite the great disparity in their all-around abilities. Ramirez is an outstanding defensive shortstop who has stolen 10 bases in 11 attempts this season. Martinez is a full-time designated hitter who has six stolen bases in 13 attempts in his 12-year career.

However, Martinez's performance at the plate thus far cannot be ignored. His league-leading batting average is not the result of luck; in fact, his .313 batting average on balls in play is actually a tick below his career average. He is the only player in the league to rank in the top three in all three slash stats (he's second in slugging behind Cruz and third in on-base percentage behind Bautista and Shin-Soo Choo). Martinez is second to Cruz in both OPS (.996) and OPS+ (169) and tied for third in the league in total bases (111). Perhaps most impressively, however, he has struck out just 13 times in 207 plate appearances. Not only is that the major league's lowest K-rate, but it means he has just one more strikeout than home run. Only two players since 1957 have had more home runs than whiffs: Barry Bonds in 2004 and George Brett in 1980.

Off the list: Shin-Soo Choo, Albert Pujols, Max Scherzer

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