Two very different races are emerging in this year's Most Valuable Player chase. In the American League, three primary candidates are beginning to separate themselves from the pack and should generate a heated debate about the relative value of each as the season progresses. In the National League, a lack of break-out candidates has resulted in a great deal of turnover with five new names making the list, one of them debuting at number-one, plus a sixth returning after falling off the list last week. The comparatively weak NL field makes one wonder if this might be the first time in 18 years that an MVP award is won by a pitcher.
The race for AL MVP is quickly boiling down to three players: Cabrera,
The case for Cano is based primarily on the position he plays. The average AL first baseman this year is hitting .258/.350/.442, while the average AL second baseman is hitting .262/.329/.386. Cano thus represents a much larger upgrade over an average second baseman than Cabrera or Morneau represent over an average first baseman, making Cano more valuable. If you prefer to use replacement level, the level of production a team can expect to acquire (via a minor league call-up or waiver wire addition, etc.) in the event of an injury to their starter, you can head straight to VORP (Value Over Replacement Player, in which value is measured in runs and the replacement-level baseline is adjusted for position). VORP tells us that Cano has been worth nearly five runs (roughly equivalent to half a team win) more than Morneau and nearly 10 runs (or an entire team win) more than Cabrera. Add in the fact that Cano not only plays second base but plays it
One argument against Cano might be that he plays for a powerful Yankee team with an All-Star lineup, but the Yankees' big-name hitters are all underperforming to this point in the season: (
Morneau leads the majors in the single most important batting statistic: on-base percentage (which should really be thought of as the rate at which a hitter avoids making outs) and is second in the majors in batting average (to Cano) and slugging percentage (to Cabrera). He's also a better defensive first baseman than Cabrera and plays for the first-place team that leads Cabrera's by 1 1/2 games in the AL Central, which suggests that Cabrera is actually the third-best candidate for AL MVP. The difference between Morneau's homer total and Cabrera's is Morneau's new home park, which swallows up long drives and has allowed just two of Morneau's to clear the wall (Morneau leads Cabrera in road home runs 13 to 11 in the exact same number of plate appearances). The difference between Morneau and Cabrera's RBI totals, however, does break down to performance. Cabrera has driven in 19.2 percent of the runners on base ahead of him to Morneau's 14.6 percent. Cano, incidentally, comes in at 17.1 percent.
Since May 3, the Red Sox have gone 32-14 (.696) to thrust themselves into the AL East race. They now stand tied with the Rays, a single game behind the major league-best Yankees. Over that same span, Youkilis, who leads the majors in run scored with 58, has hit .336/.478/.650. With
The biggest gainer on our charts this week, Hamilton has been out of his mind in June, as evidenced by the second stat line above. Entering this week with an active 16-game hitting streak, Hamilton has reached safely in all but one game this month, had multiple hits in 10 of his last 19 games, and six times collected three or more safeties in a single game, including a 5-for-6 performance against the Astros on Sunday afternoon. He homered in five games over a seven-game stretch in the middle of the month, and he has driven in a run in 13 of the 16 games of his current hitting streak. The only thing Hamilton hasn't been doing this month is walking (just three free passes, none intentional), but one imagines he'll stop seeing good pitches pretty soon. With rookie
It's evidence of how comparatively weak the competition is in the NL that Gonzalez was able to propel himself straight to the top of this list on the basis of a Hamilton-like three week surge, while Hamilton himself, who has been even hotter, only made it to fifth on the AL list. Indeed, each of the top five AL candidates listed above has accumulated more VORP than NL leader Gonzalez. Three weeks ago, Gonzalez was hitting .261/.377/.450 and failed to make my top 10 NL candidates for the second time. Since then, he's been the league's best hitter. Gonzalez's role on the major leagues' most surprising team has been key to his ascension. The Padres continue to sit atop the NL West standings despite a severely lopsided team whose overperforming pitching staff remains the stingiest in the majors, but whose expectedly inept offense continues to be among the game's worst. Of course, you can't win a game 0-0. Enter Gonzalez, who is a man among boys in the Padres' batting order (thus his 13 intentional walks, which are second in the majors to
Surprise, surprise. In a year without a breakout performance by a National League hitter, the King of Consistency continues to lurk near the front of the MVP race. Pujols is actually having one of his weaker seasons, primarily due to a drop in power relative to his career (he has a .624 slugging percentage) and especially his last two seasons (.656 SLG combined), both of which ended with him taking home NL MVP honors. Yet, despite that and the fact that he has had
Votto is the best hitter for the league's best offense on a team that not only surprised many by rising to the top of the NL Central standings, but has remained there in a dog fight with Pujols' Cardinals since mid-May. He's also a solid defensive first baseman (as are Pujols and Gonzalez), and has mixed in a career-high in steals (albeit at a poor 64 percent success rate). Votto was every bit as good last year, but he missed time due to an inner-ear infection and depression. Still, some voters noticed and he picked up a few down-ballot MVP votes. If he stays healthy this year (he did miss six games at the end of May due to a stiff neck), he'll have the counting stats to turn those honorable mentions into legitimate contention.
Ethier was hitting .392/.457/.744 on May 14 when he broke a finger on his right hand. As the second line above shows, he has yet to get his groove back since returning from the resulting disabled list stay, and he enters this week's action in an 0-for-17 slump. Ethier is this high on my list entirely on the strength of his performance over the first month and a half of the season, which is a testament to just how otherworldly his performance over that span was.
If you believe in the old-school method of using team performance to measure player value, as many MVP voters do, Wright is your man. On May 5, Wright was hitting .286/.413/.571 and the Mets were in second place in the NL East, just 1 1/2 games behind the Phillies having spent five days in first place the previous week. Over the next two weeks, Wright hit .196/.279/.333 and the Mets sank to last place, seven games out. Since then, Wright has hit .324/.375/.529 and the Mets have gone 19-6 to climb back to second place, just 2 1/2 games behind the surging Braves. Of course, those parallels are a bit forced. The big picture is that Wright is experiencing a nice recovery from his peculiar power-outage last year, and David Wright with his power stroke intact is a fantastic all-around player and a perennial MVP candidate who finished in the top 10 in the voting from 2006 to 2008.