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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.