Thanks to a scorching last three weeks, Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson is giving Mike Trout a run for his money in the AL MVP race.
A tight race among new leaders in the American League highlights Award Watch’s look at the Most Valuable Player award races this week.
Note: All stats are through Wednesday, June 3. 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.
Three weeks ago, I wrote that Trout was the only player in my AL top five who was performing close to his career levels. Lo and behold, the others have since cooled off, while Trout has risen to the top of my MVP rankings by largely maintaining the line he had three weeks ago (.289/.396/.562). Still, Donaldson’s recent power surge nearly pushed the Blue Jays’ third baseman past Trout. Given that both are extremely productive hitters and elite fielders, the difference between the two came down to park factors.
Donaldson’s big advantage is in slugging, but the Rogers Centre is one of the friendliest parks for righthanded slugging (righthanded home run park factor of 125 from 2012 to '14 per the Bill James Handbook, tops in the AL over that span). Angel Stadium, meanwhile, is one of the least-friendly for righthanded power hitting (park factor of 85 over the same span, dead last in the AL). That was enough to break the tie in favor of Trout, but if you wanted to consider these two co-leaders, I wouldn’t object.
An MVP candidate in 2013, Kipnis had a lousy follow-up campaign on all fronts and got off to a poor start this April. Since the calendar flipped to May, however, he has hit .409/.490/.669, which, combined with his revived defense at the keystone, has thrust him into the MVP conversation.
Encouraging as all that might be, Kipnis’s big outburst was keyed by an unsustainable .453 batting average on balls in play, and the one aspect of his game that didn’t collapse last year, his base stealing, has gone missing this year. He is just 6-for-10 on the bases after averaging 28 steals per year at an 82% success rate over the last three seasons. It’s great that Kipnis is on this list, but he has more meaningful improvements to make if he wants to stay here.
Beyond the simple fact that his bat has finally started to cool off, Vogt suffers here for two reasons. The first is a simple matter of playing time: His 190 plate appearances are 42 fewer than Trout, who has the next fewest of the top four men on this list. The other is that, as sample sizes increase, his work behind the plate looks less impressive. Vogt’s 30% caught-stealing might seem good, but that is the average for all MLB catchers, and AL backstops overall have thrown out 33% of attempting thieves thus far this year. Meanwhile, per Baseball Prospectus’s numbers, Vogt’s pitch framing is proving to be below average, placing him in the bottom third of the league in that department.
Something else that bears watching going forward is Vogt's stamina. He was drafted as a first baseman and outfielder, started just eight games behind the plate last year, and his major league career high there is 40, set in 2013—one he will match with his next start there. Outside of '13, in which he also caught 65 games at Triple A, the 30-year-old Vogt has never caught more than 50 games in a season at any level. It will be interesting to see if he improves as the season progresses or if the demands of the position begin to take their toll on his performance on both sides of the ball.
Cruz just edges AL on-base-percentage leader Miguel Cabrera and the valuable pitching performances of Dallas Keuchel and Sonny Gray for the final spot here. Again, park factors are a major reason why: Cruz is leading the majors in home runs (tied with Bryce Harper) and the league in slugging despite playing in a ballpark notorious for devouring righthanded power. It’s not that he has conquered Safeco Field, however, slugging just .431 with four home runs in 28 home games while slugging .847 with 14 home runs in 25 games on the road. What he has done is remained tremendously productive despite the handicap of that home park.
Off the list: Russell Martin (3), Dallas Keuchel (5)
1. Bryce Harper, RF, Nationals (1)
Season Stats: .333/.471/.718, 18 HR, 44 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: .389/.529/.815, 6 HR, 13 RBIs
Harper leads the majors in home runs, walks (45), on-base percentage, slugging, OPS (1.189) and OPS+ (221). He leads the NL in runs scored (43), is tied for second in the NL (and the majors) with 44 runs batted in and is tied for fourth in the NL (and sixth in the majors) in batting average with Adrian Gonzalez. Harper also leads all players—pitchers and hitters—in Wins Above Replacement by more than half a win according to Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs, and Baseball Prospectus, which place his value this season at 4.3, 4.0 and 4.0 WAR, respectively. He’s the best player in baseball right now, and it’s not close.
As productive as Goldschmidt has been this season, what's especially noteworthy is that his line from the last three weeks isn’t all that different from his season as a whole. And in addition to his impressive offensive numbers, Goldschmidt bolsters his performance at the plate by being a strong defensive first baseman, and he has also matched Trout’s success on the bases (8-for-11). Goldschmidt gets dinged a bit for being at the far left of the defensive spectrum and for playing in a hitter-friendly ballpark, but even that can’t keep him from being the best player in the majors not named Bryce Harper this season.
Ignore the batting average and look at the rate stats that matter. Pederson's on-base percentage is ninth in the league, and his slugging percentage is fourth. Those add up to raw (.998) and adjusted (174) OPS figures that rank fifth in the league, and of the four men ahead of him in those categories, three are first basemen. Goldschmidt is so far ahead that Pederson’s considerable edge in defensive value isn’t enough to catch him, but the fact that Pederson is a fine centerfielder is enough to push him past the Cubs' Anthony Rizzo and Gonzalez, who slips out of my top five entirely this week. Pederson—who, it's worth remembering, is a 23-year-old rookie—has homered in each of his last five games and is just one behind Harper and Cruz for the major league lead in home runs.
4. Max Scherzer, RHP, Nationals
Season Stats: 6–4, 1.85 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 10.4 K/9, 7.50 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 210 ERA+
Last Three Weeks: 3–1, 1.61 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 11.3 K/9, 5.83 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS
The Nationals are just 7–4 in Scherzer’s starts this season, but that’s their fault, having scored just five runs in those four losses. The Nats are also arguably to blame for Scherzer’s already league-best ERA being as high as it is: On May 6, manager Matt Williams left him in too long, and Scherzer gave up a three-run homer to Giancarlo Stanton after Scherzer had already put the first two men on in the eighth inning. Without that blast, Scherzer’s ERA would be 1.51.
On the whole, no pitcher in either league has been as dominant this season as Scherzer. He has pitched deeper in his games than any other NL pitcher and has the peripherals to match his outstanding ERA, as his major league-best 2.18 Fielding Independent Pitching mark attests.
5. Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Cubs (5)
Season Stats: .317/.443/.574, 9 HR, 31 RBIs, 10 SB
Last Three Weeks: .288/.407/.530, 2 HR, 12 RBIs, 3 SB
Rizzo just edges out the two men who fell out of the top five this week, largely on the strength of the third-best on-base percentage in baseball. Rizzo’s OBP has been inflated by his major league-leading 13 times being hit by a pitch, just two off his career high, but he also has more unintentional walks than strikeouts on the season. He also ranks in the top 10 in the league in stolen bases (10-for-14), having already set a career high in that category and doubled his 2014 total. Rizzo is also tied for fourth in the NL in doubles and is sixth in slugging.
Off the list: Adrian Gonzalez (3), Dee Gordon (4)