MVP watch (cont.)
1. Prince Fielder, 1B, Brewers (2)
Season Stats: .305/.415/.561, 28 HR, 98 RBIs
Last Three Weeks: .357/.435/.600, 4 HRs, 22 RBIs
2. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers (1)
Season Stats: .330/.400/.585, 24 HRs, 81 RBIs, 26 SBs
Last Three Weeks: .371/.430/.571, 3 HRs, 10 RBIs, 7 SBs
The Brewers have the biggest division lead in baseball (they are 8 ˝ 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?
3. Matt Kemp, CF, Dodgers (3)
Season Stats: .322/.394/.569, 28 HRs, 92 RBIs, 33 SBs
Last Three Weeks: .346/.393/.487, 2 HRs, 10 RBIs, 5 SBs
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.
4. Justin Upton, RF, Diamondbacks (HM)
Season Stats: .299/.371/.548, 25 HRs, 77 RBIs, 19 SBs
Last Three Weeks: .274/.312/.534, 4 HRs, 12 RBIs, 3 SBs
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.
5. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (HM)
Season Stats: .322/.436/.536, 22 HRs, 80 RBIs, 7 SBs
Last Three Weeks: .338/.482/.662, 5 HRs, 12 RBIs
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.
Jose Reyes, SS, Mets (5). Reyes's thrilling season has been interrupted by a pair of hamstring injuries that have limited him to just 20 games and a .274/.295/.417 performance since the end of June. However, he came to the plate enough in the first three months of the season that he still leads the league in batting average (.336) and triples (16) and is second in stolen bases with 34 (at a stellar 83 percent success rate). Reyes could return to action as soon as the end of this week, and if he's able to stay healthy and productive down the stretch, he should still garner a fair number of votes, though one wonders how much this reoccurrence of his chronic hamstring issues will limit the impending free-agent's value this winter.
Lance Berkman, RF, Cardinals (4). With the Cardinals falling out of the playoff hunt and teammate Albert Pujols leading the league in home runs once again, Berkman's comeback season, which has included some horrific play in the outfield corners, looks less special. Still, he has hit as many home runs as Fielder in 80 fewer at-bats and is tied with Prince for the second-best OPS in the league (.977). That last is on the strength of his .572 slugging percentage, which is second in the league behind Braun, and his .405 on-base percentage, which is fourth in the NL, though, again, he's behind a teammate in that category (Matt Holliday, who has a .409 OBP).
Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies (N/A). The Rockies never really were contenders this season, but Tulowitzki, a popular pre-season pick for this award, is once again coming on strong down the stretch, hitting .380/.434/.690 thus far in August. On the season, he's hitting .303 with 25 homers and 86 RBIs, which combined with his usual stellar fielding, puts him right among the league leaders in WAR and WARP, making him an attractive down-ballot choice for both old school and progressive voters.
Shane Victorino, CF, Phillies (N/A). I'll be fascinated to see where Victorino winds up in the voting. He's been the most valuable everyday player on baseball's best team this season, but credit for the Phillies' success will, appropriately, go to the rotation, not Victorino. Philadelphia first baseman Ryan Howard has far more impressive counting stats (26 HRs and 96 RBIs to Victorino's 13 and 44), and Victorino has lost time to injury this season, hitting the DL in May with a hamstring strain and in July with a thumb sprain. Players who do everything well but nothing great tend to be undervalued, and that has been Victorino this season. He has 12 triples, 16 stolen bases (at an 84 percent success rate), is hitting for average (.313), getting on base (.388), hitting for power (.539), and playing his usual outstanding defense, but he's not doing any single one of those things at an MVP level. If voters fail to grasp the total package, they likely will pass him over in their voting.
Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates (HM). These last couple of NL picks are far less cynical than their AL counterparts. I have some small reason for optimism. I feel as though people are starting to talk about Victorino, and that when the voters look back at the season, they'll remember the Pirates' mid-season surge and will credit McCutchen, a player of similarly diverse talents, appropriately. He certainly deserves the votes. If he gets them, he'll be the first Pirate to finish in the top 10 in the NL MVP voting since Barry Bonds won the award in 1992.
Off the list: Brian McCann (HM), Roy Halladay (HM)
Phillips: Cox, La Russa, and Torre added to Hall of Fame class
SI Now Live Monday December 9, 2013