Awards Watch: Red-hot Bryce Harper takes lead in NL MVP race
Last week, I picked the top three candidates in each league for Most Valuable Player, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year in the season debut of Awards Watch. I didn’t expect much to change in my first full look at the MVP races, and that was the case with regards to the American League, where the top three remain the same, fleshed out by the expansion to a top five. Things changed notably in the National League, however, with three new names—including a new No. 1—on the list.
Note: All stats are through Wednesday, May 13. 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.
Harper has gone 13-for-23 (.538) with two doubles and seven home runs in his last seven games to surge to the top of this list, but it’s not as though he just started hitting a week ago: He had a .405 on-base percentage prior to that outburst and hit .286/.440/.545 in April. But as great as he has been, it’s too soon to label this his long-awaited breakout. Wednesday night marked the Nationals’ 34th game of the year; after that same point in 2013, Harper was hitting .302/.383/.629 with 10 home runs. By then, though, he had already run into one outfield wall and, soon after that, ran into another, leading to a month on the disabled list and struggles at the plate upon his return. We know Harper can hit. The question is, can he stay healthy?
Goldschmidt’s hits have been coming in bunches over the last 2 1/2 weeks. In six games from April 27 to May 3, he went 15-for-27 (.556), then saw a pair of rainouts in Colorado interrupt his hot streak. Goldschmidt then went 7-for-15 (.467) over a four-game span from May 6 to 9, the last of which saw him walked four times (once intentionally) by the Padres. On Wednesday night, he broke an 0-for-8 skid by going 3-for-4 with a double and a triple. That performance was his sixth three-hit game of the young season, putting him in a three-way tie for the second most such games in the majors behind only Miami's Dee Gordon. It also propelled Goldschmidt into second place on this list.
An 0-for-4 Wednesday night knocked Gonzalez’s slugging percentage below .700 for the first time this season and similarly brought his batting average to a season low at .360, but that’s not evidence of a gathering slump. Gonzalez had gone 11-for-27 (.407) in his last seven games prior to Wednesday night and has hit .324/.398/.556 since his 10-hit, five-homer outburst in the first three games of the season. That line alone would give him the ninth-best OPS in the NL.
4. Dee Gordon, 2B, Marlins
Season Stats: .426/.452/.529, 0 HR, 12 RBIs, 12 SB
Gordon's batting average isn't just the best in the major leagues—it's a whopping 66 points better than Gonzalez's second-place mark. What's more, Gordon's nine games of three or more hits lead the majors by three, and his three games with four or more hits, including Wednesday night’s 4-for-5 performance against the Dodgers, are tied for the most in the majors with Baltimore's Adam Jones. Despite drawing just eight walks and not having been hit by a pitch, Gordon is also third in the majors in OBP.
That batting-average-driven performance, however, is fluky and due for correction. Gordon's .466 batting average on balls in play, the highest among qualified batters this season, is utterly unsustainable (no qualified batter has topped Rod Carew’s 1977 mark of .408 in a full season since 1924, when Rogers Hornsby had a .422 BABIP). There’s not a lot of power in those numbers, either: Gordon's slugging percentage is only 103 points higher than his batting average.
This list isn’t about projections, however, but about performance. Gordon’s work through the first five weeks of the season, which includes his fine play at second base, has absolutely been among the five most valuable in the Senior Circuit, even if he’s a poor 12-for-19 (63%) on the bases.
Rizzo, who is second in the majors in OBP (behind the Cardinals’ Matt Holliday at .466), has reached base in 30 of the Cubs’ 33 games this season and has the same number of unintentional walks as strikeouts on the season (17 each). On top of that, he has slugged .776 in May, with 10 of his 17 hits going for extra bases, and he is 7-of-9 on stolen bases, giving him the same net stolen base total (+5) as Gordon, who is 12-for-17.
Off the list: Joc Pederson (2)
Here's a way to put Vogt’s 203 OPS+ (the third-highest mark in the majors) in context: The highest full-season OPS+ by a qualified catcher is Mike Piazza’s 185 in 1997. Vogt has failed to reach base in a game he has started just three times this season and has also reached base in five of the six games he has entered in the eighth inning or later, collecting a single and four walks (one intentional) in six pinch-hitting appearances. In his last eight starts, he has hit five home runs and slugged .871. Add in his strong play behind the plate, and no player in the AL has been more valuable.
The major league leader in slugging, OPS (1.136), OPS+, home runs and total bases (96), as well as the AL leader in batting average, Cruz has wielded the most valuable bat in the majors to this point in the season. But that status, as always, is undermined by his typically brutal play in the field. Cruz, who has made 23 of his 33 starts this season in rightfield, would be more valuable as a full-time designated hitter. That makes him a tough sell as an MVP candidate when there’s a fine defensive catcher in Vogt putting up comparable numbers.
In sharp contrast to Cruz, Martin’s value starts with his fielding, which thus far this season has included a 48% caught-stealing rate and his typically excellent pitch framing. As for his bat, Martin hit just .197 in April but drew 15 walks on the month to maintain a .367 OBP—in combination with his catching, that made him plenty valuable despite his dearth of hits. He has since hit .419/.422/.791 in May to get himself onto this list despite his slow start at the plate.
The difference between Trout and the other four players on this list is that Trout is actually this good and could easily maintain his current rate stats through the end of the season. After all, his slash line above (which translates to a 170 OPS+) is a near match for his career rates of .304/.395/.550 (167 OPS+).
It's fitting that Trout is directly above Keuchel on this list: The Angels' star might single-handedly be keeping Houston's ace from ranking even higher. In Keuchel's most recent start on Saturday in Anaheim, Trout had three hits in four at-bats against him, including a home run, as Keuchel gave up his most runs (four) and had his second-shortest outing (6 2/3) of his seven starts this season. He has fared much better against every other hitter he's faced this year, allowing all non-Trout batters a .152 average and no home runs in 187 plate appearances.