Awards Watch takes its final full-scale look at the Most Valuable Player races this week (September will bring the condensed, "lightning-round" version of this column, which lists the top three contenders for all three awards every week), and finds the races as tight as ever. Sitting atop the American League list is a player who has not held the top position all season, while the National League race finds a pair of teammates locked in an apparent dead-heat.
Thanks to two red-hot weeks, Granderson has pushed his on-base percentage to a season high and his average up over .280 for the first time since June 22, which, combined with the Yankees holding a half-game lead on the Red Sox for the best record in the American League and Adrian Gonzalez slumping, has pushed his name to the front of the AL MVP conversation. Granderson leads the majors in runs by 23 over second-place Jose Bautista, is tied with Prince Fielder for the major league lead in RBIs, is second in the majors in home runs and slugging percentage (both to Bautista), and is fourth in triples, and has done all of that while playing a solid centerfield and swiping 24 bases. He's having the kind of season that allows you to play this game:
There are two concerns with Granderson's candidacy. First, if his batting average and on-base percentage slip a bit down the stretch, some voters might balk. He has very little margin for error in those categories. The last league MVP to hit below .280 was Johnny Bench in 1972, and the last to hit below .290 was Dawson in 1987. The last to post an on-base percentage below .375 was Miguel Tejada in 2002. Dawson and Tejada are both regarded as mistakes by many baseball analysts. Second, advanced defensive statistics rate Granderson's play in center very poorly. The good news for Granderson is that few voters place much stock in those statistics, and it's difficult to actually see any deficiencies in his play in center when watching his games. One theory that has been floated posits that playing next to leftfielder Brett Gardner, who grades out as one of the best fielders in the game at any position, has artificially limited Granderson's range because Gardner gets to so many balls in their shared territory in left center, though that, too, has been difficult to see.
Gonzalez hasn't done much in August and has lost the RBI lead, which was a large part of the argument,
By any purely objective analysis, Bautista has still been the best player in baseball, never mind the American League, this season. But because his team is not in contention, and because he has cooled off a bit since his white-hot first two months (.363/.505/.786, 20 HRs), his candidacy isn't being taken as seriously as it deserves to be. According to Baseball Prospectus's WARP, Bautista has been worth more than 2 ½ wins more than the next-most-valuable player in the game this season (Ellsbury). FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference's WAR have the race much tighter, but Bautista is still in the lead with a solid half-win lead over Ellsbury's Red Sox teammate Dustin Pedroia and the Dodgers' Matt Kemp, respectively.
Of course, one doesn't need advanced stats to see how good Bautista has been. He's leading the majors in the two most important things a hitter can do: getting on base (or, alternatively, not making outs) and hitting for extra-bases (that's on-base and slugging percentage); he's been a good and versatile defender, filling in at third-base when the Blue Jays needed him to and playing a strong rightfield; and he displays a similar athleticism on the bases. I expect that, if Bautista can avoid a major slump, he'll get far more consideration once the final numbers are in. Then again, I worry that the recent sign-stealing controversy surrounding the Blue Jays could serve as an excuse for many disregard Bautista in this race. Those tempted to do so should note that Bautista has hit .311/.452/.631 with 19 of his 36 home runs on the road this season.
It's hard argue that Ellsbury hasn't had a better season than Gonzalez. In the exact same number of at-bats, Ellsbury has out-homered Gonzalez, has drawn more unintentional walks (41 to Gonzalez's 37), and struck out less (78 to 87). He has also stolen 33 bases (fourth in the AL) to Gonzalez's one, and while both have had Gold-Glove quality seasons in the field, Ellsbury has had his in centerfield while Gonzalez has been playing first base. If you adjust their performances to the offensive standards of their positions, Ellsbury flies by Gonzalez. Entering Sunday's action, Ellsbury's VORP (Value Over Replacement Player, Baseball Prospectus's adjusted total-offense counting stat) listed Ellsbury as one-and-a-half times as valuable as Gonzalez relative to replacement level at their respective positions. If Bautista is going to be passed over, this race should rightly be between Ellsbury and Granderson, the rival centerfielders on the two best teams in the league.
Cabrera's name never seems to come up when the MVP award is discussed these days, but he's having a far better season than Gonzalez at the plate (consider their respective home ballparks and Cabrera's numbers really pop) and doing it for a first-place team that wasn't a terribly popular pick in their division coming into the season. The reason, of course, is that he's a designated hitter in first baseman's clothing, a liability outside of the batter's box and, perhaps not insignificantly in the mind of many voters, off the field. The Tigers are also getting terrific seasons from ace Justin Verlander, sophomore catcher Alex Avila, and shortstop Jhonny Peralta, but then Gonzalez has had even more support in the Boston lineup.
The Brewers have the biggest division lead in baseball (they are 8 ½ games in front of the Cardinals in the NL Central heading into Monday) and, according to Baseball Prospectus's playoff odds, a 98.3 percent chance of reaching the postseason for just the fourth time in team history and second time since 1982. They also seem likely to yield this year's NL MVP, an award never won by a Brewer as their last league MVP was Robin Yount in 1989, when the Brewers were still an American League team. The only question is which of these two will take home the hardware.
For some, Fielder's superior counting stats will carry the day, though it's worth remembering that the player clean-up hitter Fielder has driven in the most (other than himself) is No. 3 hitter Braun, who has scored 26 of the 98 runs Fielder has driven in. For others, myself included, their numbers are close enough that Braun's superior all-around contributions, which includes those 26 steals at an outstanding 87 percent success rate and strong play in leftfield, trump Fielder's comparatively one-dimensional game. For still others, Braun's diverse skillset merely compensates for his deficit in the counting stats, knotting this race back up. Looking at their performances over the last three weeks hardly helps maters. Advanced stats, which hold Fielder to the higher standard established by his fellow first baseman and credit Braun for the runs he saves in the field, favor Braun by a solid margin, but I suspect the voters are still leaning toward Fielder. Braun may be the better player, but Fielder has more star power: he's a second-generation major leaguer with the fire-hydrant build, the wild hair, the tattoos, and the violent swing and the local favorite in his walk year/farewell tour whose impending free agency influenced the front-office to go all-in this season. How is Braun supposed to compete with that?
Kemp is the Jose Bautista of the NL. He has clearly been the league's best player this year, but he won't win the MVP award because he has an inferior collection of teammates. That said, Kemp's superiority to the rest of his league is less obvious that Bautista's. He doesn't lead the league in any major categories, he has struck out more than any of the other top 11 OPS leaders, has walked less than half as often as he has struck out, and he's a sub-par fielder. Still, when you combine his position, his baserunning (though he's been caught four times in his last nine attempts, he still has an excellent 82.5 percent success rate on the season), his power, his run production, and his batting average, you can build the case for Kemp even without turning to the advanced stats, which, with the exception of FanGraphs WAR, heavily favor him over the rest of the league.
FanGraphs WAR favors Upton because Ultimate Zone Rating loves his fielding. Total Zone, the defensive component of Baseball-Reference's WAR, however, lists him as below average in rightfield. No matter, between what Upton does with his bat and his legs and his team's surprising place atop the NL West, Upton seems sure to get plenty of support in the vote, even if the Diamondbacks fail to make the playoffs. Upton leads the NL in doubles, and is tied with Granderson for the major league lead in extra-base hits, and is one behind Kemp atop the NL leaders in total bases. However, he's largely been a product of hitter-friendly Chase Field this season, hitting just .241/.314/.441 on the road.
The defending NL MVP is hitting for essentially the same batting average as a year ago and has already drawn more walks (he leads the NL with 92). His power is down overall, but his slugging percentage hasn't been this high since June 4 and he's on a bit of a home run tear with taters in five of his last 10 games. His Reds have sunk out of the playoff hunt, which will hurt his case, but if he can continue to boost is power numbers, his sparkling batting average (fourth in the league) and league-leading on-base percentage should put him among the top runners-up for the award.