MVP awards watch (cont.)
1. Andre Ethier, RF, Dodgers (1)
Season stats: .392/.457/.744, 11 HR, 38 RBI, 26.6 VORP
Last three weeks: .444/.524/.889, 1 HR, 6 RBI (4 G)
Candidacy: Three weeks ago, Ethier was leading the NL in all three triple-crown categories, but a broken pinky sent him to the DL just four days later. Yet despite missing more than two weeks, he is just one home run and three RBIs behind the NL leaders, remains the NL leader in the cumulative total-offense statistic VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) and would still be leading the majors in batting average and slugging and the NL in on-base percentage if he hadn't fallen below the minimum plate-appearance requirement. Ethier is expected to come off the DL Monday night, and while we'll have to wait to see if the time off and hand injury put more than a pause on his torrid pace, he's still been the most productive man in the senior circuit to this point.
2. Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals (4)
Season stats: .310/.422/.572, 12 HR, 38 RBI, 25.1 VORP
Last three weeks: .303/.434/.576, 5 HR, 13 RBI
Candidacy: Pujols jumped up from the four-spot thanks to a huge Sunday performance against Ryan Dempster and the Cubs in which he reached base five times on three home runs and two walks (one intentional). That performance also gave him a share of the NL lead in homers (along with Corey Hart, Kelly Johnson, Mark Reynolds and Dan Uggla, none of whom made this list as all four trail Pujols in the other five categories listed above). Bet against two-time defending MVP Pujols in this race at your own peril.
3. Jason Heyward, RF, Braves (HM)
Season stats: .301/.421/.596, 10 HR, 38 RBI, 19.5 VORP
Last three weeks: .314/.435/.571, 2 HR, 12 RBI
Candidacy: Even with golden boy Stephen Strasburg due to make his major league debut next week, Heyward already has the NL Rookie of the Year award sewn up (barring injury, of course). Now he's setting his sights on the MVP, a two-fer never accomplished in the National League (and only by Fred Lynn and Ichiro Suzuki in the AL). Listing him as an honorable mention last time, I said all Heyward needed was "his groin to heal and the Braves to start winning." Done and done. Though he also missed some time with a thumb injury, Heyward is healthy and raking, and the surging Braves (15-4, .789, over the last three weeks) enter Monday's action just a half game behind the Phillies in the NL East.
4. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (5)
Season stats: .312/.408/.553, 10 HR, 33 RBI, 6 SB, 19.8 VORP
Last three weeks: .305/.373/.525, 3 HR, 13 RBI
Candidacy: Like Heyward, Votto is the leading hitter on a surging team. The Reds have gone 16-6 (.727) since May 8, slipping past Pujols' Cardinals into first place in the NL Central. Over that stretch, Votto hit .303/.383/.591 with five homers and 18 RBIs before being sidelined late last week due to a stiff neck. Right fielder Jay Bruce has actually out-performed Votto slightly since May 8, but unlike Bruce, Votto was hitting before the Reds caught fire. Votto finished in the top ten in VORP in the NL in 2009 and got some low-ballot MVP votes despite the fact that Cincinnati finished in fourth place, 13 games out and six games below .500. Unless his neck injury is worse than reported, Votto should get more attention with the Reds in the race this year.
5. Josh Willingham, LF, Nationals (N/A)
Season stats: .275/.429/.529, 10 HR, 34 RBI, 4 SB, 21.2 VORP
Last three weeks: .302/.472/.585, 4 HR, 14 RBI
Candidacy: In his first four full major league seasons (ages 27 to 30) Willingham hit .265/.362/.481 with annual rates very close to those three marks. The big change this year is his walk rate. After drawing an unintentional walk once every 9.4 plate appearances over the last four years, he is suddenly drawing an unintentional walk once every 5.7 PA and leading the senior circuit with 37 free passes. Those extra walks, coupled with the injury to Ethier, have pushed him to the top of the league in on-base percentage. That, combined with 10 extra points of batting average and a bit more lift in his swing -- generating more fly balls and sending more of them over fences -- has pushed him into the MVP race.
Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers (2): The day my last MVP column ran, Ryan Braun was hit in the left elbow by a pitch from the Braves' Tommy Hanson. He missed the next three games and hasn't been the same since, hitting just .232/.264/.391 with two homers and four RBIs since returning to the lineup.
Casey McGehee, 3B, Brewers (N/A): Leading the NL in the voters' favorite category with 41 RBIs, McGehee is actually surpassing his breakout rookie season of a year ago at age 27. An underappreciated facet of McGehee's game: He rarely strikes out, doing so only eight more times than he's walked this year -- or, to put it another way, just twice more than Albert Pujols.
Jayson Werth, RF, Phillies (3): The major league leader in doubles (22), Werth is surpassing his breakout 2009 season at age 31, but after stealing 40 bags in 44 attempts over the last two years, he has swiped just two in a mere three tries thus far this year.
Chase Utley, 2B, Phillies (HM): Utley missed two games with the flu in the middle of the month and has hit just .184/.311/.316 in 11 games since. Over his last six games he is 2-for-23, both hits being singles. Despite all of that, his season averages are right around his career marks, keeping him in the MVP hunt.
Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, Rockies (HM): As I pointed out last time, no pitcher has won an MVP award since Dennis Eckersley did so in 1992, 18 years ago. If not for that anti-pitcher history, Jimenez would be in my top five, as he is off to one of the best starts ever for a starting pitcher. As the Baseball Reference Blog pointed out last week, only one pitcher has ever gone deeper into a season with fewer earned runs allowed than games started (Jimenez has allowed seven earned runs in 10 starts thus far). That was Red Sox lefty Dutch Leonard, who set the modern ERA record in 1914, finishing the season with a 0.96 mark.
Off the list: Colby Rasmus (HM), David Wright (HM).