If Jose Bautista keeps up his current pace, Major League Baseball might have to create a new award to give him because simply being the most valuable player in his league in this season isn't the half of it. A lot can happen between now and the end of the season, but as things stand, the only jockeying going on in the American League MVP race is to get in line behind the Blue Jays' rightfielder. The National League race, however, is wide open. Four of my top five below have been banged up in the last week, three of those five have hit below .225 over the last three weeks, the defending award winner had gone 20 games without a home run before going deep on Sunday, and Albert Pujols has fallen off the list for the first time since this column began a year ago, all of which throws Bautista's season into greater relief.
NOTE: All stats through Sunday, May 22; League leaders in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics. The number in parenthesis after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list (HM stands for honorable mention).
1. Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays
Season Stats: .353/.500/.816, 18HRs, 31 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: .346/.443/.904, 9 HRs, 15 RBIs
Last year, Josh Hamilton won the American League MVP largely by hitting .410/.461/.723 with 22 home runs over a three month span. A week shy of two months into this season, Bautista is hitting .353/.500/.816 with 18 home runs. It's too early for Bautista to have locked up the award, but with more than a quarter of the schedule in his rear-view mirror, he's absolutely running away with it. Bautista finished just fourth in the MVP voting last year despite his 54 home runs. The difference this year is that he's hitting for an extra 100 points of batting average and reaching base in exactly half of his plate appearances. That batting average hasn't been the product of luck, either, as his .316 batting average on balls in play is within the range of normal for so productive a hitter (rather, his .233 BABIP last year was the fluke). As for those on-base and slugging percentages, it's worth noting that only two men have ever qualified for the batting title with a .500 on-base percentage and .800 slugging percentage: Babe Ruth did it in 1920 and 1921, and Barry Bonds did it in 2001 and 2004. Yes, he has been that good.
2. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Red Sox
Season Stats: .342/.379/.574, 9 HRs, 41 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: .383/.414/.741, 8 HRs, 26 RBIs
After homering just once in April, my pre-season pick for this award has come on strong the last three weeks, capping the above performance by going 10-for-15 against the Cubs over the weekend. The only aspect of Gonzalez's offensive game that hasn't surged in May has been his walk rate, which is down from his Padres years, in large part due to a lack of intentional passes (he received 35 last year and has just four thus far this year). One imagines the walks will come in time -- after all, he led the majors in walks in 2009 and 97 of his 119 that season were unintentional -- although pitchers won't be able to pitch around him the way they could when he was in San Diego; at least not as long as Kevin Youkilis (see honorable mention below) and David Ortiz (still among the league's most productive hitters) continue to hit well behind Gonzalez.
3. Matt Joyce, RF, Rays
Season Stats:.355/.422/.617, 7 HR, 24 RBI
Last Three Weeks: .367/.437/.750, 5 HR, 14 RBI
Just imagine if Joyce could hit lefties. Thus far this year, he has hit .385/.446/.664 with all but one of his home runs and two of his RBIs against righthanders, but he is a career .157/.268/.257 hitter against southpaws. That split was why he opened the season in a platoon, but despite continued struggles against lefties, his production against righties has made him an everyday presence in the heart of the Rays' lineup. Joyce is just 26, young enough to have been a Rays fan while at Armwood High School in the Tampa suburb of Seffner (he was 13 in their inaugural season of 1998), and was highly regarded enough by the organization to have been acquired straight-up for four team-controlled years of Edwin Jackson after the Rays' pennant-winning 2008 season. There's a lot of batting average and luck on balls in play in his numbers above, but his power is real, he plays his position well and the Rays are second in the league in wins.
4. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers
Season Stats: .313/.435/.550, 8 HRs, 30 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: .279/.395/.426, 1 HRs, 10 RBIs
Cabrera ranked second to Bautista among American Leaguers in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player, Baseball Prospectus's cumulative, total-offense stat) prior to Sunday's games, and was second in on-base percentage as well. Unfortunately, that's about the extent of Cabrera's value. He offers nothing outside of the batter's box, and for those who care about team performance, his Tigers are seven games out of first place (albeit in second place) in the AL Central with a .500 record. Still, he finished second in the voting last year with a similar case, and while his numbers might appear to be down this year, this year's depressed run-scoring environment explains a lot of the difference.
5. Asdrubal Cabrera, SS, Indians
Season Stats: .302/.363/.522, 9 HRs, 32 RBIs, 6 SBs
Last Three Weeks: .366/.416/.620, 4 HRs, 15 RBIs, 4 SBs
Cabrera's five-hit, two-homer performance against the Reds on Sunday boosted his season batting average 20 points and pushed him into the top five on this list, but he had already earned an honorable mention prior to that outburst. In fact, the 25-year-old had already set a career high in home runs (he hit six in both 2008 and 2009) and was fifth in the league in VORP (which is adjusted for position) on Sunday morning. Now he's third in VORP, sixth in homers, fifth in RBIs, and fourth in hits and leads all shortstops in both leagues in RBIs and slugging percentage. Who knows how long either will last, but for now he's the best player on the team with the best record in baseball.
Howie Kendrick, 2B/LF, Angels: Kendrick opened the season as the Angels' second baseman and No. 2 hitter, but is currently their leftfielder and No. 5 hitter. That has more to do with the Angels' desperate attempts to stack their lineup than Kendrick's play at the keystone. After designated hitter Bobby Abreu and Kendrick, the Angels' OBP leaders are Maicer Izturis (.368), Alberto Callaspo (.361), and Erick Aybar (.349). Those three fill the infield, thus Kendrick has been spat out into left for the time being. Nonetheless, his defensive value, be it as a second baseman or a utility man (he has also started seven games at first base), combined with his strong showing at the plate contributes to his standing on this list.
Curtis Granderson, CF, Yankees: Granderson's batting average (.263) and on-base percentage (.328) are underwhelming, but in this pitching-dominated season, the average American Leaguer is hitting just .250/.318/.391. Add his strong play in centerfield to the second-best home run total in the majors (16) and third-best slugging percentage in the league (.614), and that still-above-average OBP isn't enough to keep him from a mention here.
Kevin Youkilis, 3B, Red Sox: Youkilis has come on strong the last three weeks (.344/.438/.590, 3 HRs, 15 RBIs), and, like Kendrick, the fact that the Red Sox were able to change his position to accommodate an offensive upgrade (in this case, Adrian Gonzalez) makes him appear more valuable. In reality, his shaky play at the hot corner is undermining his value at the plate, which keeps him out of the top five, but not off this list entirely.
Ben Zobrist, 2B, Rays: Yet another player whose value is partially derived from his ability to play multiple positions, Zobrist hasn't ventured beyond second base and rightfield thus far this year, and has made just 12 starts at the latter thanks to Joyce's emergence. Still, he's a solid defensive second baseman, and that position is most flattering to his bat, which is busy proving that his power outage in 2010 was a fluke by cracking eight home runs and posting a .509 slugging percentage thus far.
Adrian Beltre, 3B, Rangers: There are players more deserving of this spot, such as Tigers catcher Alex Avila, but Beltre's counting stats (10 HRs, 37 RBIs) and typically outstanding play at the hot corner combined with the Rangers' continued hold on first place in the AL West (albeit while just a game over .500) in the absence of 2010 MVP Josh Hamilton and slugger Nelson Cruz (both of whom are expected to be activated today), leads me to suspect that, were the vote held today, Beltre would get more votes than his .307 on-base percentage deserves.
Off the list: Robinson Cano (2), Russell Martin (4), Mark Teixeira (5), Alex Rodriguez (HM), Jeff Weaver (HM), Travis Hafner (HM)
1. Lance Berkman, RF, Cardinals (5)
Season Stats: .338/.451/.662, 11 HRs, 35 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: .189/.441/.432, 3 HRs, 12 RBIs
The hits haven't been dropping in for Berkman the last three weeks (.138 BABIP), and he missed three days at the end of last week due to a sore wrist, but he's still second in the league in batting average, on-base percentage, and home runs, fourth in RBIs, and leads the league in VORP and in slugging by nearly than 100 points. His play in rightfield undermines that production somewhat, but with those numbers and the Cardinals in first place, he's the most obvious choice at the moment.
2. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers (1)
Season Stats: .299/.390/.565, 12 HRs, 37 RBIs, 10 SBs
Last Three Weeks: .224/.306/.382, 2 HRs, 14 RBIs, 7 SBs
In addition to leading the league in home runs and RBIs, Braun is leading the NL in total bases and is second in runs and slugging percentage. He also has an outside shot at a 40/40 season should he keep up his current pace (which currently has him set for 41 home runs and 34 stolen bases, the stolen bases being the easier portion of the equation for players who can get close). With his Brewers just 3 1/2 games behind Berkman's Cardinals in the NL Central, Braun currently looks like the player most likely to take home the actual hardware at the end of the season, but for now, the sixty points of on-base percentage and nearly 100 points of slugging by which he trails Berkman carry the day.
3. Matt Kemp, CF, Dodgers (HM)
Season Stats: .316/.399/.537, 10 HRs, 32 RBIs, 12 SBs
Last Three Weeks: .224/.321/.418, 4 HRs, 13 RBIs, 4 SBs
I allowed Kemp's sub-par play in centerfield to keep him out of the top five three weeks ago, but, as with Berkman, his production at the plate demands inclusion this time around. Kemp may not be a very good centerfielder, but the simple fact that he is a centerfielder should boost his candidacy given that the bulk of his competition are corner outfielders and first basemen -- that is, players who play offense-first positions, and some not very well at that. What hurts his candidacy is the fact that the Dodgers have the third-worst record in baseball. I don't believe that team performance should impact MVP votes, but many voters do, and my task in this column is to anticipate the voters' preference. Still, I think it's too early in the season to penalize Kemp for the shortcomings of his teammates.
4. Matt Holliday, LF, Cardinals (2)
Season Stats:.349/.439/.557, 6 HRs, 31 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: .271/.338/.457, 3 HRs, 12 RBIs
Holliday is a better fielder than any of the three outfielders above him on this list, has been more productive at the plate than all but Berkman, and the 10 days Holliday lost to his appendectomy in early April are already pretty insignificant. One could easily argue that he's been the most valuable player in the league, but I suspect that, if the vote were held today, he'd not get as much support as the three men above him. That's because of his deficit in home runs, lack of stolen bases (he has attempted just one and was caught), and the presence of Berkman, who despite being a brutal fielder, is close to Holliday in batting average and ahead of him in all of the other categories listed above. Holliday should be higher on this list, but he also should have finished much higher than 12th in last year's voting.
5. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (3)
Season Stats: .335/.458/.549, 6 HRs, 28 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: .303/.403/.470, 1 HRs, 12 RBIs
Votto's home run on Sunday was his first since April 27, but as the above numbers show, he produces so much more than longballs at the plate. The major league leader in on-base percentage a year ago, he's leading the non-Bautista world in walks and OBP thus far this year. He's also third on the league in batting average, fourth in slugging, first in runs scored, and has struck out eight fewer times than he has walked.
Prince Fielder, 1B, Brewers (HM): Big things were expected from Fielder in his walk year, and he's delivering. He's second in the league in RBIs, total bases, and extra-base hits, and just two behind his teammate Braun's lead in home runs.
Jose Reyes, SS, Mets (N/A): Another young player in his walk year, Reyes is fourth in the NL in VORP thanks to league-leading hits (62) and stolen base (17) totals. He's also first in the NL in triples (6), second in doubles, fourth in total bases, and fifth in extra-base hits, that last despite having hit just one home run this season. He's also leading the league in intentional walks, which says something about the Mets' lineup, but also proves that people have noticed how good Reyes has been.
Carlos Beltran, RF, Mets (N/A): Yet another player in his walk year, Beltran is having a strong comeback season after two years largely lost to a knee injury and the subsequent surgery. If he was still playing a quality centerfield and stealing bases at a high percentage, he'd be a serious contender for this award. Instead, as a rightfielder who hasn't attempted a steal all year, he's been just good enough to get an honorable mention.
Gaby Sanchez, 1B, Marlins (N/A): The surprising Marlins, who are sitting comfortably in the wild card lead right now, and just a game and a half behind the heavily-favored Phillies in the NL East, should have a representative on this list. The 27-year-old Sanchez, who has thus far taken a big step forward from his strong rookie campaign of a year ago, is the best candidate, at least until fellow sophomores Logan Morrison, who missed time with a foot injury, and Mike Stanton, who is still learning the strike zone at age 21, catch him.
Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies (4): Teammate Todd Helton has been more productive on a per-at-bat basis than golden boy Tulowitzki this year, but the 37-year-old Helton has also been limited by his chronic back problems, which have reduced the quality of his fielding and make him a risky bet going forward. The better odds are on Tulowitzki, who, like Adrian Beltre in the AL, derives a great deal of value from his defense and has the counting stats to lure in the voters (11 HRs, 27 RBIs) despite an underwhelming batting average (.250) and on-base percentage (.330).
Off the list: Andre Ethier (HM), Placido Polanco (HM), Albert Pujols (HM)