Awards Watch: Harper and Trout are running away with MVP races
After checking in on all three major player awards with a lightning round two days after the All-Star Game and the Comeback Player of the Year races on July 23 and then taking last week off due to the flurry of action surrounding the non-waiver trade deadline, Awards Watch is back with the first in-depth look at the MVP races since June 25. Returning to its regular format, this column will now begin one more trip through the MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year races over the next three weeks before returning to weekly lightning rounds in September.
Not much has changed on the MVP leader boards since I looked at the first-half front-runners three weeks ago. The top three men in the NL race are the same, as are two of the top three names in the AL. Still, things have tightened up in both races, and as we get deeper into the season, our appreciation of the quality of the seasons these players are enjoying is deepening, as well.
Note: All stats are through Wed., Aug. 5. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics.
After an insane May and June in which he hit a combined .365/.475/.790 with 19 home runs in 48 games, Harper has cooled off over the last four weeks, hitting .277/.394/.482 since July 6. Everything is relative, of course: That .876 OPS would rank 17th in the majors over the entire season, but it marks Harper’s least productive month thus far. It’s no surprise, then, that he’s still leading this race. Harper had a huge lead heading into the All-Star break, and by continuing to hit like an All-Star, albeit on a human scale, he hasn't provided much opportunity for his competition to catch up.
Goldschmidt opened August with his longest slump of the season, failing to reach base in four straight games and striking out in nine of his 15 plate appearances. By way of comparison, he failed to reach base in just 10 of his first 100 starts this season, striking out in just 18.7% of his 450 PA over that stretch. He snapped that slump Wednesday night by going 3-for-5 with a walk and two stolen bases, tying and breaking his career high in that last category in the process.
Despite being a 6’3” first baseman, Goldschmidt is now tied for ninth in the majors in stolen bases; he has as many steals as Royals speedsters Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson and more than Michael Bourn, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner and Jose Reyes, among many others. What’s more, Goldschmidt has been successful on 83% of his steal attempts, a higher success rate than those of Jose Altuve, Dee Gordon and four others ahead of him on the stolen-base leader list.
Combining that many steals with his level of production—Goldschmidt currently boasts a 181 OPS+—is extremely rare. How rare? Since the start of the Live Ball era in 1920, only four players have stolen more bases while posting a qualified OPS+ of 181 or better: Rickey Henderson in his MVP season of 1990; Joe Morgan in his MVP season of '76; George Sisler in his record-setting 257-hit season in '20; and prime-era Barry Bonds, who did it in '92, '93 (both MVP seasons), '94 and '96.
Posey is having his best season at the plate since 2012, when he was named MVP, and is arguably having his best year ever behind the plate. He has thrown out 48% of attempting basestealers this season (17 of 33) and is second in the majors behind only the Dodgers’ Yasmani Grandal in Runs Added by Count, Baseball Prospectus’s cumulative pitch-framing metric, which credits him with 11.8 runs saved via pitch framing alone. He also ranks among the major league leaders in passed balls and wild pitches saved, per BP’s metrics. The result is that Posey has been the most valuable hitter and arguably the most valuable fielder (Posey edges Grandal in pitch blocking and combating the running game) at baseball’s most valuable (non-pitching) position.
4. Zack Greinke, RHP, Dodgers
Season Stats: 10–2, 1.41 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 7.9 K/9, 5.12 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 1 CG, 260 ERA+
What has Greinke done since his 45 2/3-inning scoreless streak came to an end on July 26? He has allowed all of four runs in 13 innings. Twenty of Greinke’s 21 starts this season have been quality, and only two of those were at the bare-minimum standard (6 IP, 3 R). Greinke wasn’t working especially deep into games early in the season, but in his last nine starts, he has averaged 7.4 innings per outing and allowed a total of six runs in nine appearances, completing eight innings in three of his last four starts. He has allowed more than two runs in a game just three times in 21 starts and seems to be getting better and stingier as the season progresses.
Votto just barely edges out fellow first baseman Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs for this spot because his lead in on-base percentage (34 points) is both larger than Rizzo’s edge in slugging (14 points) and more valuable (avoiding outs trumps collecting extra bases).
This seems like a good place for a reminder that I consider team performance completely irrelevant to an individual award such as this one. Player value is absolute, and I refuse to penalize a player for his team’s inability to capitalize on that value. A $100 bill is worth $100 whether it’s surrounded by twenties or singles. The 10-game gap between Rizzo’s wild-card contending Cubs and Votto’s also-ran Reds, then, does not matter to this discussion. Votto has been just a smidge better to this point in the season and thus has been that much more valuable.
Trout ranked third on this list when I last took an isolated look at the MVP races on June 25. From that point through the end of July, however, he took over the race, hitting .375/.474/.854 with 14 home runs in 26 games. The lead he built up over that stretch is large enough that even his five-game slump to start the month of August (1-for-20) has done little to threaten his standing. Meanwhile, Trout is now not only leading the majors in home runs but is just four shy of his career-high, set last year.
For all of those wondering how Trout could improve after his spectacular first two seasons, the answer has been by adding power. Trout posted a .236 isolated slugging (SLG – AVG) over those first two seasons, but improved that figure to .274 last year and is at .308 to this point this season. He’s not stealing as many bases as he did those first two seasons, but he’s making up the difference with his bat. In 2012, Trout’s total bases and net steals added up to 359 accumulated bases. Though he has yet to have fewer than 352 accumulated bases in a full season, that '12 total still stands as a career high. This season, however, he’s on pace for 357 total bases with his bat alone.
The best hitter in baseball’s best offense, Donaldson leads the majors in runs (77) and RBIs, but he’d be on this list even if his teammates weren’t helping pad those totals. Having homered in his last three games and four of his last five, Donaldson has already tied his career high in home runs and is on pace to set career highs in hits, doubles, total bases, runs, RBIs and, if his production holds steady, slugging, OPS, OPS+ and Wins Above Replacement. On top of all of that, he remains an elite defensive third baseman and a constant presence in the Jays' lineup, having started 107 of their 109 games and with more plate appearances (476) than any other player in the majors this season.
As great as Donaldson has been this season, the 22-year-old Machado is nipping at his heels for the title of the best third baseman in baseball. The obvious difference in their batting lines right now is Donaldson’s 55-point advantage in slugging, but if you factor in stolen bases and park factors, that gap is not nearly as large. Both men play in hitter- and homer-friendly ballparks, but Baltimore's Camden Yards is more favorable to lefthanded home run hitters, while Toronto's Rogers Centre is better to righties (both Donaldson and Machado are righthanded hitters), which is one reason for the big (and expected) spike in Donaldson’s power numbers this season.
Meanwhile, if you add each player's stolen bases (Donaldson has three in three attempts) to his total bases and recalculate his slugging percentage, you get .530 for Machado and .571 for Donaldson, a 41-point difference that is, again, further reduced by correcting for their home ballparks. Donaldson still has the edge, but the advanced metrics are all in agreement that Machado is the superior fielder. That narrows the gap even further. In fact, Baseball Prospectus’s Wins Above Replacement Player actually ranks Machado ahead of Donaldson on the season. I still have Donaldson in front, but it’s close, and it's also an extremely compelling rivalry that has already boiled over on the field.
4. Lorenzo Cain, CF, Royals
Season Stats: .306/.363/.490, 11 HR, 46 RBIs, 19 SB
Cain’s reputation as one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball preceded him into this season, and his breakout at the plate has combined with his contributions on the other side of the ball to make him a legitimate MVP candidate for the AL’s best team. Cain got out to a hot start this season, hitting .462 (18-for-39) through his first 10 games. He cooled off from there until mid-June, but since June 13, he has hit .340/.402/.615 in 41 games. Combine that with his speed and defense, and he has spent the second half doing a decent Willie Mays impersonation.
Unfortunately, his 43-game slump from mid-April to mid June and the 12 games he has missed means even this fourth-place ranking might be a bit generous. Still, Cain is having a legitimate breakout season this year and has clearly been among the league’s most valuable players.
Kipnis topped this list in late June, but this seems likely to be the last time I mention him in connection to the AL MVP award this year. From July 3 to Aug. 1, Kipnis hit just .255/.339/.351, and on Aug. 3, he went on the disabled list with inflammation in his right shoulder, an injury that is expected to keep him out of action for most of the month. Kipnis hit .397/.477/.603 from May 1 to July 2, but his impact this season now seems likely to have been limited to those 56 games.