Trio pulling away in AL MVP race while NL chase is wide-open
Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano and Justin Morneau are the class of the AL
Adrian Gonzalez is the surprise front-runner for NL MVP honors
Albert Pujols remains a threat to win his third straight NL MVP award
Two very different races are emerging in this year's Most Valuable Player chase. In the American League, three primary candidates are beginning to separate themselves from the pack and should generate a heated debate about the relative value of each as the season progresses. In the National League, a lack of break-out candidates has resulted in a great deal of turnover with five new names making the list, one of them debuting at number-one, plus a sixth returning after falling off the list last week. The comparatively weak NL field makes one wonder if this might be the first time in 18 years that an MVP award is won by a pitcher.
NOTE: All stats through Sunday, June 20; League leaders in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics. The number in parenthesis after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list (HM stands for honorable mention).
1. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers (2)
Season Stats: .328/.409/.632, 19 HR, 60 RBIs, 34.6 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .265/.363/.529, 5 HR, 12 RBI
The race for AL MVP is quickly boiling down to three players: Cabrera, Robinson Cano and Justin Morneau. To this point in the season, Cano is the most deserving, as I explain below, and Morneau has the top rate stats of the trio, but I don't believe that the voters as a whole will see past Cabrera's superior counting stats, particularly his major league best home run and RBI totals. Were the season to end today, Cabrera wouldn't be an egregiously poor pick, just the wrong one given the quality of his competition.
2. Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees (4)
Season Stats: .367.416/.607, 14 HR, 49 RBI, 44.1 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .378/.446/.608, 4 HR, 12 RBI
The case for Cano is based primarily on the position he plays. The average AL first baseman this year is hitting .258/.350/.442, while the average AL second baseman is hitting .262/.329/.386. Cano thus represents a much larger upgrade over an average second baseman than Cabrera or Morneau represent over an average first baseman, making Cano more valuable. If you prefer to use replacement level, the level of production a team can expect to acquire (via a minor league call-up or waiver wire addition, etc.) in the event of an injury to their starter, you can head straight to VORP (Value Over Replacement Player, in which value is measured in runs and the replacement-level baseline is adjusted for position). VORP tells us that Cano has been worth nearly five runs (roughly equivalent to half a team win) more than Morneau and nearly 10 runs (or an entire team win) more than Cabrera. Add in the fact that Cano not only plays second base but plays it well (VORP does not account for the quality of a player's defense) and his advantage is even greater.
One argument against Cano might be that he plays for a powerful Yankee team with an All-Star lineup, but the Yankees' big-name hitters are all underperforming to this point in the season: (Mark Teixeira: .226/.344/.410, Alex Rodriguez: .277/.349/.459, Derek Jeter: .283/.336/.423, Curtis Granderson missed a month with a groin injury and is hitting .240/.322/.442, and Nick Johnson is out indefinitely with another wrist injury having hit .167 in 24 games). Cano has thus been the primary run producer in the second-best offense in baseball for the team with the best record in the game and has done it while playing strong defense.
3. Justin Morneau, 1B, Twins (1)
Season Stats: .340/.448/.622, 15 HR, 47 RBI, 39.4 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .269/.333/.507, 4 HR, 11 RBI
Morneau leads the majors in the single most important batting statistic: on-base percentage (which should really be thought of as the rate at which a hitter avoids making outs) and is second in the majors in batting average (to Cano) and slugging percentage (to Cabrera). He's also a better defensive first baseman than Cabrera and plays for the first-place team that leads Cabrera's by 1 1/2 games in the AL Central, which suggests that Cabrera is actually the third-best candidate for AL MVP. The difference between Morneau's homer total and Cabrera's is Morneau's new home park, which swallows up long drives and has allowed just two of Morneau's to clear the wall (Morneau leads Cabrera in road home runs 13 to 11 in the exact same number of plate appearances). The difference between Morneau and Cabrera's RBI totals, however, does break down to performance. Cabrera has driven in 19.2 percent of the runners on base ahead of him to Morneau's 14.6 percent. Cano, incidentally, comes in at 17.1 percent.
4. Kevin Youkilis, 1B, Red Sox (HM)
Season Stats: .312/.435/.591, 14 HR, 47 RBI, 32.0 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .348/.405/.636, 4 HR, 18 RBI
Since May 3, the Red Sox have gone 32-14 (.696) to thrust themselves into the AL East race. They now stand tied with the Rays, a single game behind the major league-best Yankees. Over that same span, Youkilis, who leads the majors in run scored with 58, has hit .336/.478/.650. With Adrian Beltre in place at third base, the Red Sox no longer need Youkilis's defensive versatility, but they still benefit from his superlative play in the field at first base. Youkilis finished third and sixth in the MVP voting the last two years and is having by far his best major league season this year.
5. Josh Hamilton, LF, Rangers (N/A)
Season Stats: .337/.381/.600, 16 HR, 52 RBI, 34.1 VORP
Last Three Weeks: .474/.500/.846, 7 HR, 25 RBI
The biggest gainer on our charts this week, Hamilton has been out of his mind in June, as evidenced by the second stat line above. Entering this week with an active 16-game hitting streak, Hamilton has reached safely in all but one game this month, had multiple hits in 10 of his last 19 games, and six times collected three or more safeties in a single game, including a 5-for-6 performance against the Astros on Sunday afternoon. He homered in five games over a seven-game stretch in the middle of the month, and he has driven in a run in 13 of the 16 games of his current hitting streak. The only thing Hamilton hasn't been doing this month is walking (just three free passes, none intentional), but one imagines he'll stop seeing good pitches pretty soon. With rookie Justin Smoak coming on strong as well this month (.318/.416/.576 with four homers and 20 RBIs) the middle third of the Rangers' order -- Vladimir Guerrero, Hamilton, and Smoak -- is suddenly devastating and a large part of the reason why the team is starting to pull away in the AL West, having gone 15-4 thus far in June.
Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays (3): An under-appreciated aspect of Longoria's game is his ability to steal a base. In his major league career, he has stolen 26 bases in 28 attempts and he has a career-high 10 this season at an 83 percent success rate.
Vladimir Guerrero, DH, Rangers (HM): Guerrero's been surpassed in value on his own team by Hamilton and is primarily a designated hitter, which historically has been a serious blow against any MVP candidacy, even one that involves the second-highest RBI total in the majors (57).
Paul Konerko, 1B, White Sox: After a blistering start, during which he jumped to the major league lead in home runs, Konerko slumped badly in late May, but he's turned it on in June, hitting .409/.500/.621 since May 29. He's done it by hitting for a high average, which is particularly surprising given that he hit just .260 over the last three seasons. That disparity suggests that his current hot streak won't last, either.
Alex Rios, CF, White Sox (HM): Rios has an impressively three-dimensional skill set that includes not only a career year at the plate (.317/.377/.558) at age 29, but also excellent defense in center field (after being stuck in right field while with the Blue Jays) and a rapid stolen base pace. He has already swiped 20 bags at a solid 77 percent success rate (his previous career high in steals was 32 in 2008).
Adrian Beltre, 3B, Red Sox (N/A): The Red Sox signed Beltre for his glove and his power stroke and are reaping the rewards of not only a return to form following an injury-plagued 2009 season, but also an unexpected surge of batting average (.336) that has nothing to do with their hitting-friendly ballpark. Beltre is hitting .366/.390/.598 on the road and remains one of the best defensive third basemen in the game.
Off the list: Nelson Cruz (5), Vernon Wells (HM), Jose Bautista (HM)
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