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Awards Watch: McCutchen, Stanton close gap in NL MVP race

Awards Watch returns to the Most Valuable Player races this week to find the same leaders in both leagues and the same top-four in the National League. But don’t be fooled: The NL race has tightened up significantly and could find Troy Tulowitzki knocked off his season-long perch three weeks from now. In the American League, Mike Trout’s lead isn’t in much danger, but there’s a lot of turnover behind him with two new names this week and the likelihood of another incumbent falling off the list in short order.

Note: All stats are through Wednesday, July 9. 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: .350/.441/.616, 20 HR, 49 RBI, 70 R

Last Three Weeks: .328/.425/.475, 2 HR, 4 RBI, 13 R

Tulowitzki broke a homerless streak of 84 plate appearances with two round-trippers on Wednesday afternoon, but even during his power outage, he was still hitting for average, getting on base and playing an outstanding defense. And while he's kept up his strong play over the past few weeks, the rest of the NL pack is gaining on him, meaning this should be a compelling race in the second half.

2. Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates (2)

Season Stats: .316/.415/.540, 14 HR, 56 RBI, 49 R, 13 SB

Last Three Weeks: .299/.349/.519, 3 HR, 15 RBI, 11 R, 4 SB

Tulowitzki and McCutchen play in such disparate home ballparks that despite what appears to be a large gap in their slash lines, they have actually been similarly productive on the season. Using Baseball-Reference’s neutralized batting stats, which attempt to translate all players’ numbers into the same scoring environment, we get these lines for Tulo and Cutch on the season:

Tulowitzki: .341/.434/.579

McCutchen: .339/.440/.574

Factor in McCutchen stealing 13 bases without being caught this season while Tulo is 1-for-2 on the bases, and it is McCutchen, not Tulowitzki, who has been the better offensive player this season. What gives the edge back to Tulowitzki is his glove work. McCutchen is a good centerfielder that the advanced defensive metrics rate as average or worse this year than during his NL MVP-campaign of 2013. Tulowitzki, meanwhile, is an outstanding defensive shortstop that the advanced metrics rate as no worse than above-average.

3. Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Marlins (3)

Season Stats: .299/.396/.548, 21 HR, 63 RBI, 61 R, 8 SB

Last Three Weeks: .299/.402/.390, 1 HR, 6 RBI ,10 R, 3 SB

Speaking of power outages, Stanton, who will participate in his first Home Run Derby on Monday, has an active streak of 62 plate appearances without a home run, and though he still leads the league, he is just one in front of Tulowitzki and the Cubs' Anthony Rizzo. Despite having made his name on moonshots, however, Stanton is an excellent all-around player and continues to contribute with his glove, his legs (like McCutchen, he has not been caught stealing yet this year) and by reaching base at roughly a 40 percent clip.

Stanton and McCutchen’s unadjusted batting lines are more of an apples-to-apples comparison, given that both outfielders play their home games in pitching-friendly, homer-suppressing (no, really) ballparks. Given that, you can see just how close this race has become.McCutchen gets the edge for second place based on his superior on-base percentage, those few extra steals and the fact that he’s providing that production in centerfield rather than right, even if Stanton has graded out as the better defender this year.

4. Jonathan Lucroy, C, Brewers (4)

Season Stats: .327/.396/.512, 9 HR, 44 RBI, 43 R

Last Three Weeks: .270/.356/.413, 1 HR, 7 RBI, 8 R

One could argue that Lucroy, because of his contributions behind the plate, is as close to the three men above him on this list as they are to each other. Incidentally, for anyone who voted for Yadier Molina to start the All-Star Game, not only is Lucroy an excellent defensive catcher, pitch-framer and pitcher-handler in his own right, but he also has hit .304/.363/.487 since the start of the 2012 season. His performance this season is no fluke. He’s this good, and he deserved the starting spot that went to Molina for next Tuesday's game.

5. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks

Season Stats: .312/.404/.558, 16 HR, 61 RBI, 66 R, 8 SB

Last Three Weeks: .328/.513/.552, 1 HR, 9 RBI, 11 R, 2 SB

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Here comes last year’s NL MVP runner-up. Check out that on-base percentage over the last three weeks: .513! Thus far in July, Goldschmidt has hit safely in all nine of the Diamondbacks’ games, slashing .469/.564/.844 on the month. He leads the NL in total bases with 193 and the major leagues in doubles with 35, and he’s actually out-hitting his 2013 line (.302/.401/.551). The biggest differences between this season and last for Goldschmidt are the quality of his fielding, with the advanced metrics less sanguine about his glovework this year, and the depth of his competition.

Off the list: Carlos Gomez

American League

1. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (1)

Season Stats: .303/.396/.590, 20 HR, 64 RBI, 60 R, 10 SB

Last Three Weeks: .274/.391/.521, 4 HR, 10 RBI, 13 R, 1 SB

Trout, a centerfielder who hasn’t been caught stealing in 10 attempts this season, leads the league in OPS+ (177) and wins above replacement (5.1), is second in on-base percentage and unadjusted OPS (.986), third in total bases (193), fourth in slugging and fifth in both home runs and RBIs. All of that makes him an easy pick for the top spot on this list, even if he has cooled off a bit over the last three weeks.

What helps Trout's cause is that the American League batting leader lists are otherwise dominated by slow-footed sluggers with no or even negative defensive value. Designated hitter and OPS leader Victor Martinez, home run and RBI leader Nelson Cruz, home run co-leader and slugging percentage leader Jose Abreu and his fellow first basemen Edwin Encarnacion and Miguel Cabrera aren't on this list — not because they haven’t been valuable, but because the contributions of the other men below have been more so.

2. Michael Brantley, LF, Indians (5)

Season Stats: .325/.389/.522, 14 HR, 60 RBI, 60 R, 10 SB

Last Three Weeks: .333/.382/.536, 3 HR, 14 RBI, 11 R

Three weeks ago there was a concern that Brantley’s concussion might have been season-altering, but he missed just two games and picked up right where he left off when he returned. What’s more, with Michael Bourn back on the disabled list, Brantley is now Cleveland’s centerfielder. Brantley is better suited for a corner, but the simple fact that he can cover in center for any length of time gives him added value relative to the sluggers mentioned above. You can add to that Brantley's excellent throwing arm (he’s third in the majors with nine outfield assists) and that, like Trout, he has 10 stolen bases without being caught once. Thanks to all of that, Brantley, who is tied for fourth in the league in OPS+ (158) with Cruz and Encarnacion, easily edges his less dynamic competition.

3. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners

Season Stats: 10-2, 2.11 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, 6.30 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 177 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 2-0, 1.57 ERA, 0.61 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 5.75 K/BB, 7.7 IP/GS

MasahiroTanaka was second on this list three weeks ago, but even before Tanaka’s recent elbow soreness that landed him on the disabled list, Hernandez had surpassed him as the best pitcher in the league. It’s not hard to see why. Hernandez has gone at least seven innings and allowed no more than two runs in each of his last 10 starts. Here’s King Felix’s line over that span: 6-1, 1.40 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, 9.9 K/9, 7.73 K/BB, 7.7 IP/GS. His opponents have hit .170/.202/.211 over those 10 games. On the season, Hernandez is third in the majors in innings pitched and trails only Chris Sale in the AL in ERA, WHIP and ERA+ while having thrown 44 percent more innings than the White Sox’ ace. 

How valuable is Hernandez? The Mariners wanted him to start the opener of their weekend set against the division-leading A’s so badly that they are leaving Thursday’s game to their bullpen with reliever Tom Wilhelmsen drawing his first major league start. It’s a solid gamble given how little the bullpen has to contribute on days when Hernandez starts.

4. Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays (3)

Season Stats: .292/.412/.510, 17 HR, 52 RBI, 57 R

Last Three Weeks: .178/.296/.333, 2 HR, 4 RBI, 6 R

A quad strain prevented Bautista from starting seven straight games at the end of June, and while he did homer in each of his first two starts after returning from the injury, those were his only two hits in those games. He hasn’t had a multi-hit game since June 18, and going all the way back to June 7, he has hit just .224/.323/.365. If he doesn’t snap out of this slump, he won’t be on this list three weeks from now.

5. Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros

Season Stats: .339/.378/.437, 2 HR, 27 RBI, 47 R, 41 SB

Last Three Weeks: .373/.404/.422, 0 HR, 3 RBI, 12 R, 17 SB

For all of the hype surrounding senior circuit speed demons Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton​, Altuve’s 41 steals, already a career high, rank second in the majors, just one behind Gordon’s lead. What’s more, Altuve has been caught six fewer times than Gordon and 10 fewer times than the third-place Hamilton. Altuve has stolen 28 bases since the last time he was caught, barely more than halfway to Vince Coleman’s record of 50, but it’s impressive nonetheless.

That streak and Altuve's 93-percent success rate on the bases makes him very close to a no-risk proposition on the bases, and those bases count. Fold them into his slugging percentage (while deducting his mere three times caught stealing from his on-base percentage) and his slash line looks like this: .339/.374/.493. That level of production from a second baseman is tremendously valuable. Consider that Robinson Cano leads major league second baseman with an .829 OPS. That would be .837 with Cano’s steals folded in, while Altuve’s steals-inclusive line would result in an .867 OPS.

Off the list:MasahiroTanaka, Nelson Cruz