Home runs have been the story as the Most Valuable Player races in both leagues have begun to tighten up. Jose Bautista's power outage has kept the door open a crack in the American League, while a pair of National Leaguers have ridden the long ball to the top two spots on the senior circuit list, bumping the leader from three weeks ago down to third. Meanwhile, members of the
Bautista ended a 13-game home-run drought with a solo shot on Sunday, but that dry spell didn't mean he had turned back into a utility pumpkin. Bautista also had a 13-game homer drought last year around this time (from June 5 to June 20) and homered in just one of 24 games from June 5 to July 2, so it's premature to say his wild ride is over. Unlike last year, when his average sunk to .229 on July 2, he has continued to hit for average and get on base even without launching home runs, and he's still leading the majors in homers and slugging percentage, as well as in walks (58, nine intentional) and on-base percentage. That last is Bautista's most impressive statistic this season; he has reached base in all but three of the 58 games in which he has appeared.
Tying the concept of player value to team performance is flawed at best given how marginal the impact any individual player can have on his team's won-loss record is, but it's hard not to see the parallels between Gonzalez's performance and that of the Red Sox this season. Gonzalez hit .244/.346/.400 while the Red Sox stumbled out to a 2-10 start, and has hit .360/.402/.622 as the Sox have gone 36-16 (.692) since. That leaves out a lot of other important contributions to that turn-around, but Gonzalez isn't out of place this high on this list whether you use the numbers or the narrative to get him here.
Granderson's batting average and on-base percentage don't really jive with so high a ranking (and he was hitting just .267 before a 4-for-4 performance on Sunday), but when you take into account the fact that he's a solid defender at a premium defensive position, an asset on the basepaths (on pace to tie his previous career high in stolen bases, albeit at a lower success rate), and the most valuable hitter on the team with the second-best record in the league, his power surge demands his inclusion. Divorced from the context of their careers to that point, Granderson's 2011 season looks a lot like Bautista's 2010. Bautista, who is also an asset in the field and on the bases, though not necessarily an elite performer in either context, experienced a power surge at age 29 and hit .260/.379/.617 with 54 home runs and 124 RBIs last year on his way to a fourth-place finish in the MVP voting. Granderson, 30 and experiencing a similar though less dramatic surge, is on pace for 51 home runs and 121 RBIs with a comparable slash line.
Like Gonzalez with the Red Sox, Cabrera hasn't been the only valuable Tiger this season, but he is the man most likely to see his candidacy get a boost from the Tigers' overtaking of the Indians in the AL Central, and, again, it's hard to argue against it. Cabrera, who has finished in the top five in his league's MVP voting in four of the last six seasons including a second-place finish last year, is third in the majors in on-base percentage, in the top 10 in the AL in most major hitting categories, has walked a dozen more times than he has struck out, and entering Sunday's action ranked second in the AL in VORP (Value Over Replacement Player, Baseball Prospectus's cumulative total-offense statistic).
Advanced fielding metrics (specifically Ultimate Zone Rating and Baseball Prospectus's Fielding Runs Above Average) consider Cabrera the worst defensive shortstop in baseball right now, but as long as he makes the occasional Globetrotters-like highlight play, most of the voters are likely to believe their eyes instead of those numbers. Instead, they'll focus on Cabrera's batting numbers, which, given that they do come from a shortstop, rank him among the most valuable players in the junior circuit. The irony is that the Indians' fall from atop of the AL Central will likely drag Cabrera's candidacy down anyway, producing the proper result for the wrong reason.
Kemp has been a part of the MVP discussion since reaching base four times in five trips on Opening Day, but he has thrown his candidacy into overdrive in the last four weeks by stealing Jose Bautista's longball mojo. Kemp hit three home runs in four games from May 17 to May 20, has seven home runs in his last nine games (including a pinch-hit homer on Friday in a game he didn't start due to a tender hamstring), and has hit .344/.417/.856 overall since May 17 with 13 home runs in 25 games. He now leads the NL in home runs with 20, one off Bautista's major league lead, and slugging percentage, is second in RBIs, third in batting average and hits (81), fifth in on-base-percentage, and tied for sixth in steals. The only strikes against him are the fact that, though he plays a premium defensive position, he plays it poorly, and his Dodgers are just a game out of last place in the NL West. The voters should disregard one of those two facts, but I'm guessing they'll choose the wrong one.
Prince Fielder had done Kemp one better with eight home runs in his last 10 games, including a stretch of six in six games. While less exciting, Fielder has also been walking at an impressive rate, drawing 19 free passes in his last 21 games, only three of which were intentional. That's a 146-walk pace over a full season from the man who led the majors in bases on balls last year with 114 (though he's far short of that pace on the season as a whole, having walked just 18 times, four intentional, in his first 45 games). Again, that may not be particularly sexy, but it has helped Fielder reach base in more than half of his plate appearances since May 21. Also, he has struck out just eight times over the same span and hasn't seen strike three since last Monday, a span of 24 plate appearances that is only his fourth-best strikeout drought of the season. Mix in the home runs, and Fielder's doing an even better Jose Bautista impression than Kemp thus far this month.
Berkman is another player on a home run rampage, albeit a less impressive one than Kemp's or Fielder's. Big Puma has gone deep in five of his last seven games, four of them coming after he received a cortisone injection in his right wrist on June 5. Berkman sprained the wrist making a diving catch in rightfield on May 18, missed three games, and later fell into a brief slump at the end of the month, but the cortisone seems to have done the trick. The only question is how long it will last. Berkman said at the time that the shot was so painful he would not get another, but given his outburst since, he may change his mind.
John Autin of Baseball-Reference.com wrote a blog post on Reyes last Tuesday that pointed out that the 28-year-old shortstop is on pace to set the Mets franchise records for hits, doubles, triples, extra-base-hits, and total bases, hit the second most triples since the start of the 20th century, set a major league record for most total bases with seven or fewer home runs (Reyes has hit just three taters this season), become just the third player ever to have 20 triples and 50 stolen bases in the same season (after Ty Cobb, thrice, and Lance Johnson), the second player ever to have 50 doubles and 20 triples in the same season (Stan Musial did it in 1946), and the first player ever to have 50 doubles, 20 triples, and 50 stolen bases in the same season. Reyes, who leads the majors in hits (94), triples, and batting average, remains on pace for all but the 50 doubles (he's currently on pace for 47), which makes his pending free agency all the more loaded a situation for the cash-strapped Mets.
Braun, the fifth overall pick in the '05 draft, launched a major league-leading 10 home runs in April, but has hit just four more in 165 plate appearances since. However, he has stolen 11 bases in 14 attempts (79 percent success rate) over the latter span, a 45-steal pace over 162 games and evidence of how much of a complete player Braun is; when his bat cools, he still contributes with his legs and his glove (UZR disagrees, but John Dewan's plus/minus system and Baseball Prospectus's new Fielding Runs both see Braun as average or better in the field). Not that his bat isn't contributing as well. As the "last three weeks" line above shows, he doesn't need to hit home runs to be tremendously productive.