New York icons Wright, Jeter trail favorites Kemp, Hamilton for MVP
No player in baseball is off to a better start than Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp
David Wright has shaken off a minor injury to post a very solid opening month
Derek Jeter slumped badly the first half of 2011 but he has been sizzling so far
Matt Kemp was the unanimous choice for the National League Player of the Month for April and has clearly been the best player in baseball to this point in the season, but he's not the only man off to a strong start. Below, in my first full-blown Awards Watch of the season, I take a look at the top 10 candidates for the Most Valuable Player awards in each league.
As I mentioned last week, instead of trying to gauge how the writers might vote, as I have in previous seasons, this year I'm going to be offering my picks for these awards. For the MVP, that means that team performance will not be a factor in my rankings as I believe that player value is absolute. A dollar is a dollar whether you use it to buy a winning lottery ticket or a losing one. A team's success or failure in turning an individual player's value into wins doesn't impact the value itself. To put it another way, the performance of a player's 24 teammates should have no bearing on his own worthiness for an individual award such as this one. Matt Kemp would be the most valuable player in baseball to this point in the season even if his Dodgers were 8-17 instead of 17-8, and the fact that they are 17-8 doesn't make him any more valuable than he would have been otherwise.
NOTE: All stats are through Wednesday, May 2. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold italics.
1. Matt Kemp, CF, Dodgers
Season Stats: .411/.500/.856, 12 HR, 25 RBIs
I attempted to put Kemp's monster April in context on Monday, ultimately concluding that he had turned in the seventh-best April performance since 1974 (the final numbers: .417/.490/.893, .444 GPA, 187 "GPA+"). What I didn't explore in that piece was how the other men on my list finished the season or how they fared in the MVP voting.
It will probably come as no surprise that each of the other men on that list saw their production decline at least a little after April. Four times in the other 13 seasons I examined, the player in question went on to win the MVP (though three of those were by Barry Bonds). Here's a quick look at those 13 April performances sorted by the decline after April 30 in their Gross Production Average (a stat that combines on-base plus slugging but not before multiplying OBP by 1.8 to better reflect the importance of avoiding outs compared to extra bases, and then converts to a familiar scale similar to batting average):
|NR = Not Ranked|
Brett actually led the majors in OPS+ in 1983, but played just 123 games for a sub-.500 Royals team that finished 20 games out of first place. The fragile Burks played in just 21 more games after his hot April in 1994. As for Cey, the only other Dodger on the above list, his 1977 season actually proved to be his worst over a seven-year span from 1975 to 1981, per advanced stats such as OPS+ and Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement, though he never finished higher in the MVP voting in any other season.
The average decline in GPA on the above list is 136 points. A decline that large would give Kemp a .308 GPA from here on out. He had a .326 GPA in 2011. If he does manage a .308 GPA the rest of the way, he'll finish with a better year than he had last year, at least by his rate stats. In other words, as long as Kemp stays healthy, it could be a long time before he moves from this top spot, if he does at all this season.
2. David Wright, 3B, Mets
Season Stats: .392/.495/.582, 3 HR, 14 RBIs
Kemp leads the majors in all three slash stats, but Wright is hot on his heels in batting average and, before the Rockies walked Kemp three times on Wednesday afternoon, Wright actually led in on-base percentage. Wright opened the season with a 10-game hitting streak and will take an active nine-game streak back home for the weekend series against the Diamondbacks. Just three 0-fers separated the two streaks, and Wright drew a walk in two of those three games.
3. Yadier Molina, C, Cardinals
Season Stats: .318/.372/.576, 4 HR, 15 RBIs, 4 SB
Molina has started 22 of the Cardinals' 24 games behind the plate and came in half-way through one of the other two. He has thrown out 43 percent of opposing basestealers (compared to a league average of 29 percent) and his four stolen bases (without being caught) are one more than brother Bengie had in his entire 13-year career. Incidentally, three of those were straight steals of second, and the third came on the front end of a double-steal. I don't expect Molina to break double-figures in steals this year (though he did have a career high of nine at a solid 75 percent in 2009), but those extra bases still help boost his value.
4. Stephen Strasburg, SP, Nationals
Season Stats: 2-0, 1.13 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, 5.67 K/BB
Last year, the Tigers' Justin Verlander became the first pitcher to win an MVP award in 19 years, and the first starting pitcher to do so in 25 years. There was much debate then about whether pitchers should be eligible for the MVP award but they are and that's the way it ought to be. For now, however, I'm going to try to limit myself to the top pitcher in each league. In the NL, which hasn't had a pitcher win MVP since Bob Gibson in his historic 1968 season, that's Strasburg. He has gone at least six innings in each of his five starts and only once allowed as many as two runs, only once walked more than one men, twice held his opponents scoreless and twice struck out nine men in a game.
5. Carlos Gonzalez, LF, Rockies
Season Stats: .310/.383/.631, 7 HR, 23 RBIs, 4 SB
In the six games of the Rockies' current homestand, Gonzalez has gone 11-for-23 (.478) with five home runs, 14 RBIs, as many walks as strikeouts (four), and two stolen bases. Given the huge chasm between his home and road numbers over the last two-plus years (.358/.419/.680 home; .271/.316/.448 road), his placement on this list could have as much to do with timing as performance, but it's hard to argue with that kind of production, no matter where it takes place.
Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros: The ultimate underdog, Altuve is a 5-foot-5 (at most), 21-year-old sophomore who plays for a team that, by year's end, is expected to be among the worst in the majors. For now though he's third in the league in batting average (.358), sixth in on-base percentage (.404) and four-for-five on the bases.
Rafael Furcal, SS, Cardinals: When Furcal is healthy, he can be a tremendously valuable player, as he has been thus far this season, hitting .330/.389/.474 with four stolen bases in as many attempts. On the downside, he has been healthy enough to play 100 games just once in the last four seasons.
Pablo Sandoval, 3B, Giants: Sandoval opened the season with a 20-game hitting streak, breaking Willie Mays' franchise record, took one 0-fer, then homered in his next two games. Unfortunately, he left Wednesday night's game with an injured left hand and might be headed for the disabled list exactly a year after he had surgery to remove the hamate bone from his right hand.
Buster Posey, C, Giants: Posey's slash line (.342/.400/.575) is better than Molina's, but he has started behind the plate in just 15 of the Giants' 24 games, started four others at first base and been out of the lineup entirely five times. He has also nabbed just two of the 10 men who have tried to steal against him (and stolen just one of his own).
Carlos Beltran, RF, Cardinals: Beltran takes the final spot here over fellow corner outfielders Corey Hart, Ryan Braun and Jay Bruce. Braun and Bruce have weak on-base percentages (both sitting below .340 to Beltran's .398). Hart also trails in OBP (at .362) and lacks Beltran's stolen bases (five in six attempts, more than he stole all of last season). Beltran trails the other three in slugging (.535 to over .600 for each of his rivals), but matches or betters them in the triple-crown counting stats (with seven homers and 18 RBIs), and his advantage in getting on base and advancing himself compensates for that deficit.