National League MVP chase is wide-open (cont.)
1. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Padres (N/A)
Season Stats: .310/.409/.552, 15 HR, 47 RBI, 31.4 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .431/.494/.806, 6 HR, 19 RBI
It's evidence of how comparatively weak the competition is in the NL that Gonzalez was able to propel himself straight to the top of this list on the basis of a Hamilton-like three week surge, while Hamilton himself, who has been even hotter, only made it to fifth on the AL list. Indeed, each of the top five AL candidates listed above has accumulated more VORP than NL leader Gonzalez. Three weeks ago, Gonzalez was hitting .261/.377/.450 and failed to make my top 10 NL candidates for the second time. Since then, he's been the league's best hitter. Gonzalez's role on the major leagues' most surprising team has been key to his ascension. The Padres continue to sit atop the NL West standings despite a severely lopsided team whose overperforming pitching staff remains the stingiest in the majors, but whose expectedly inept offense continues to be among the game's worst. Of course, you can't win a game 0-0. Enter Gonzalez, who is a man among boys in the Padres' batting order (thus his 13 intentional walks, which are second in the majors to Albert Pujols). Mix in his solid defense and correct for the production-stifling effects of his home ballpark (Gonzalez has hit .348/.411/.652 on the road and leads the NL in the park-adjusted OPS+ as well as the park- and position-adjusted VORP) and you get an out-of-the-blue MVP frontrunner.
2. Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals (2)
Season Stats: .306/.426/.548, 15 HR, 50 RBI, 30.5 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .295/.436/.475, 3 HR, 12 RBI
Surprise, surprise. In a year without a breakout performance by a National League hitter, the King of Consistency continues to lurk near the front of the MVP race. Pujols is actually having one of his weaker seasons, primarily due to a drop in power relative to his career (he has a .624 slugging percentage) and especially his last two seasons (.656 SLG combined), both of which ended with him taking home NL MVP honors. Yet, despite that and the fact that he has had Matt Holliday as protection in the lineup for 53 of his 68 games, he is on pace for a career-high in intentional walks having already received a major league best 20. That is why he's leading the majors in walks and the NL in on-base percentage. When not being intentionally walked, Pujols OBP drops to .385, which is still good, but would drop him to ninth in the NL in that category.
3. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (4)
Season Stats: .311/.409/.546, 14 HR, 43 RBI, 7 SB, 26.0 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .309/.413/.529, 4 HR, 10 RBI
Votto is the best hitter for the league's best offense on a team that not only surprised many by rising to the top of the NL Central standings, but has remained there in a dog fight with Pujols' Cardinals since mid-May. He's also a solid defensive first baseman (as are Pujols and Gonzalez), and has mixed in a career-high in steals (albeit at a poor 64 percent success rate). Votto was every bit as good last year, but he missed time due to an inner-ear infection and depression. Still, some voters noticed and he picked up a few down-ballot MVP votes. If he stays healthy this year (he did miss six games at the end of May due to a stiff neck), he'll have the counting stats to turn those honorable mentions into legitimate contention.
4. Andre Ethier, RF, Dodgers (1)
Season Stats: .318/.382/.582, 12 HR, 43 RBI, 22.0 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .197/.259/.316, 1 HR, 5 RBI
Ethier was hitting .392/.457/.744 on May 14 when he broke a finger on his right hand. As the second line above shows, he has yet to get his groove back since returning from the resulting disabled list stay, and he enters this week's action in an 0-for-17 slump. Ethier is this high on my list entirely on the strength of his performance over the first month and a half of the season, which is a testament to just how otherworldly his performance over that span was.
5. David Wright, 3B, Mets
Season Stats: .283/.371/.506, 12 HR, 53 RBI, 12 SB, 23.4 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .361/.410/.597, 4 HR, 19 RBI, 4 SB
If you believe in the old-school method of using team performance to measure player value, as many MVP voters do, Wright is your man. On May 5, Wright was hitting .286/.413/.571 and the Mets were in second place in the NL East, just 1 1/2 games behind the Phillies having spent five days in first place the previous week. Over the next two weeks, Wright hit .196/.279/.333 and the Mets sank to last place, seven games out. Since then, Wright has hit .324/.375/.529 and the Mets have gone 19-6 to climb back to second place, just 2 1/2 games behind the surging Braves. Of course, those parallels are a bit forced. The big picture is that Wright is experiencing a nice recovery from his peculiar power-outage last year, and David Wright with his power stroke intact is a fantastic all-around player and a perennial MVP candidate who finished in the top 10 in the voting from 2006 to 2008.
Scott Rolen, 3B, Reds (N/A): Rolen's 14 homers this season are already his most since 2006, and he's been even more productive on the road than in the Reds' hitting-friendly ballpark, making him a key bat in the NL's top offense.
Troy Glaus, 1B, Braves (N/A): Glaus missed nearly all of the 2009 season due to setbacks following January shoulder surgery and got off to a slow start this year. On May 29, he was hitting just .266/.359/.396, but he's been tearing the cover off the ball since, hitting .311/.424/.716. In that three week span, Glaus has connected for eight of his 14 home runs and pushed across 23 of his now-league-leading 55 runs batted in. Glaus will have to stay hot to overcome those slow first two months and get to the top of this list, but he's a shoo-in for NL Comeback Player of the Year.
Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, Rockies (HM): I keep mentioning that no pitcher has won an MVP award in either league since Dennis Eckersley in 1992, but no starting pitcher has won an MVP since Roger Clemens in 1986, and no National League pitcher has won the MVP award since Bob Gibson in 1968. If not for that history, Jimenez would top my list. The key to his candidacy might be the fourth-place Rockies' ability to thrust themselves into the race in the NL West. The last pitcher to win an MVP for a team that didn't finish in first place was Bobby Shantz of the fourth-place Philadelphia A's in 1952.
Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Nationals (N/A): There are some 10 to 20 players on the cusp of this list, any of whom could have claimed one of these last two spots with a particularly good showing over the weekend. I went with Zimmerman here in large part because of the additional value offered by his defense. Zimmerman has been one of the best defensive third baseman in baseball for several years, but wasn't recognized with a Gold Glove until his breakout season at the plate last year. An All-Star, Gold Glove winner, Silver Slugger and down-ballot MVP candidate last year, the 25-year-old Zimmerman is having an even better season this year, and with all of those eyes on his teammate Stephen Strasburg, people will start to notice.
Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates (N/A): Like Zimmerman, hitting is just part of what makes McCutchen valuable. The 23-year-old is a stellar defensive center fielder and ranks second in the NL with 18 stolen bases, and has the fourth-best VORP in the NL. Yes, he plays for a team that seems to be eternally locked in last place, but he and newly-promoted third baseman Pedro Alvarez are going to make the Pirates worth watching for the remainder of the season and beyond.
Off the list: Jason Heyward (3), Josh Willingham (5), Ryan Braun (HM), Casey McGehee (HM), Jayson Werth (HM), Chase Utley (HM)