Christian Yelich leads the National League in batting average (.321), slugging percentage (.576) and OPS (.967). He has twice been named NL Player of the Week. He recently became the fifth player in history—and the second since the Great Depression—to hit for the cycle twice in one season. He has an excellent case for NL MVP. And he is the second-best player on his own team.
If you are looking for an MVP, you would find an able one in Lorenzo Cain. The Brewers’ surprising outlay of $80 million over five seasons to a then-31-year-old centerfielder in late January netted them the best player in the National League this year. Cain is hitting .312 and reaching base at a .400 clip, third and second, respectively, in the league. His 29 stolen bases rank fourth. But the real reason his WAR, at 6.9, is the best among NL position players is his defense. His 19 defensive runs saved above average are best among NL regular outfielders. Yelich has been terrific, but as a good-fielding leftfielder, he has to outhit Cain by a good deal to be more valuable than his teammate.
Cain’s origin story is well-trod but worth repeating: He picked up baseball at 16, and then only because he got cut from the basketball team and his mother forbade football. He arrived at his first Madison County (Fla.) High baseball practice in jeans and without a glove. He did not get his own bat until his senior year. He knew so little about the sport that when the Brewers phoned to tell him they had drafted him, he thanked them, told no one and went back to playing video games. He did not realize the import of that call until he saw an item in the local paper a few days later.
Six years later, Milwaukee traded him, shortstop Alcides Escobar, and pitchers Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi to the Royals for elite starter Zack Greinke and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt. Cain had never made a top prospect list. He blossomed with Kansas City, eventually helping lead the team to the 2015 World Series crown. When he became a free agent last fall, he was delighted to learn that his first team was interested, and even held off negotiations with other clubs.
“I was never torn, because this is the place I wanted to be,” he told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in February. “I don’t need to be in a big city. I played for a small-market team in K.C. I get more joy out of beating big-market teams. It puts a smile on my face.”
Cain’s path to MVP will be steep. As of a week ago, Bovada did not even list him on its odds list for the award. He missed two games last week with a tweaked intercostal muscle. At 32, he would be the oldest MVP since Barry Bonds won his fourth straight, in his age-39 season, in 2004. (Bonds’s OPS that year was 1.422. He was intentionally walked 120 times. If you’re looking to lose an afternoon, spend some time here.) But don’t count Cain out. It wouldn’t be the first time he surprised people.