Posted: Thursday May 24, 2012 11:41AM ; Updated: Thursday May 24, 2012 11:41AM
Cliff Corcoran
Cliff Corcoran>MLB AWARDS WATCH

Wright overtakes Kemp to join Hamilton as MVP front-runner

Story Highlights

David Wright leads the majors in batting average and on-base percentage

Matt Kemp cooled off in May after a red-hot April and is now on the DL

Texas' Josh Hamilton has opened up a huge lead already in the AL MVP race

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David Wright
David Wright has been consistently excellent all season long.
AP

A hot start doesn't guarantee a player season-long contention for the Most Valuable Player award. Indeed, of the 20 players to make my MVP lists three weeks ago, 11 have fallen off my lists this time around, while two others are here almost entirely on the strength of what they did in April and will need to get back on track in June to maintain their candidacies.

A hot start is also not necessary for a player to have an MVP season. Justin Verlander, last year's AL winner, was 4-3 with a 3.42 ERA around this time a year ago, and Josh Hamilton, the 2010 AL MVP, was hitting similarly good-but-not-great .289/.346/.514 two years ago on this date. Still, starting strong doesn't hurt, and when a player is able to sustain it for a full quarter of the season, as the two leaders below have, an MVP season starts to look like a real possibility.

NOTE: All stats are through Wednesday, May 23. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold italics. The number in parentheses after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list.

National League

1. David Wright, 3B, Mets (2)

Season Stats: .399/.497/.601, 4 HR, 26 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .406/.500/.625, 1 HR, 12 RBI

Obviously, Wright's batting average is going to come down. He's hitting .473 on balls in play, which is absurd, even by his own strong standards in that statistic. Coming into this season, he had hit .340 on balls in play in his career, and had a .394 BABIP in 2009, but .473 is just crazy.

Still, he's doing more at the plate than just hitting for an amazing average. His strikeout rate is lower than it has been since his rookie year, his walk rate is a career high (with some help from an MLB-best best six intentional passes), and despite the fact that he's had difficulty getting the ball out of the ballpark (just 6.5 percent of his fly balls have gone out, compared to a career rate of 9.9 percent entering the year), his isolated slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average) is right around his career mark. Wright has also been consistent -- he has yet to finish a game with an average below .361 this season. That was nearly a month ago, and he has hit .427 in 98 plate appearance since.

2. Matt Kemp, CF, Dodgers (1)

Season Stats: .359/.446/.726, 12 HR, 28 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .185/.258/.296, 0 HR, 3 RBI (9 games)

Kemp had one of the greatest Aprils in the last four decades, but vanished in May, hitting .212/.341/.303 before landing on the disabled list with a left hamstring strain. Still, his April was so productive that he's still a clear choice for number two here. Kemp is due to be activated on Tuesday, so don't be surprised if he's back on top when I revisit this list in three weeks.

3. Carlos Ruiz, C, Phillies (N/A)

Season Stats: .357/.407/.589, 7 HR, 29 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .393/.462/.607, 3 HR, 12 RBI

I generally try to leave team performance out of the MVP conversation -- in my opinion what a player's teammates do is simply not relevant to an individual award -- but it's hard not to wonder where the Phillies would be without Ruiz this season given that they haven't really received a meaningfully above average performance from any other spot in the lineup and hover at or below replacement level at too many positions.

That's not why Chooch is here, however. He's here because he's been one of the most productive hitters in the league and is providing that production from behind the plate, where he has also thrown out 36 percent of attempting basestealers (against a league average of 29 percent). That's a tremendously valuable player.

4. Jonathan Lucroy, C, Brewers (N/A)

Season Stats: .349/.393/.597, 5 HR, 29 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .412/.437/.735, 3 HR, 21 RBI

Lucroy has nearly equaled Ruiz's production this year, but he's been less effective at throwing out runners and, when given the choice of two nearly identical seasons, I'll take the one with more on-base percentage. That gives Chooch the edge. Incidentally, while both catchers seem to be playing way over their heads, and are sure to regress, the only thing completely out of character about their seasons are their power numbers.

Ruiz hit .292 with a .385 on-base percentage over the last two seasons, but has never hit more than nine home runs in a major league season. The 25-year-old Lucroy is in just his second full season as a major league starter and hit .298 in the minors with a .379 on-base percentage. Lucroy reached double digits in homers last year and hit 20 in A-ball in 2008, but his slugging percentage this season has been boosted by four triples. Prior to this season, he had just seven three-base hits in his entire professional career.

5. Carlos Beltran, RF, Cardinals (HM)

Season Stats: .292/.400/.618, 14 HR, 37 RBI, 5 SB

Last Three Weeks: .315/.413/.722, 6 HR, 17 RBI

If Beltran were to keep this up, it would be the best season in his borderline Hall of Fame career. To this point of the season, he has easily been one of the best acquisitions of last offseason.

Honorable Mention

Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers (N/A): The gap between Beltran and Braun is tiny. I gave Beltran the edge because of his advantage in on-base percentage and his less hitter-friendly home ballpark (though Beltran is raking at Busch Stadium this season), but it's hard to leave Braun out of the top five. If you're willing to put more weight on two months of defensive statistics than I am, you wouldn't have.

Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates (N/A): The difference between McCutchen and Braun to this point in the season is the five extra home runs Braun has hit. Otherwise, they're almost an exact match. Credit McCutchen for his stellar play in centerfield and for playing in a tougher home ballpark, and one could argue that McCutchen should be in front (though if you trust two months of Ultimate Zone Rating, Braun actually comes out ahead in the field).

A.J. Ellis, C, Dodgers (N/A): Ellis is of a piece with Ruiz and Lucroy as a catcher who appears to be playing way over his head and is sure to regress but in reality is only playing beyond his abilities in the power department. The 31-year-old Ellis, who has already set a major league career high in plate appearances this season, played 251 games at Triple-A over the last four seasons and hit .310 with a .441 on-base percentage, darn close to his current .327 and .449 marks. However, he also slugged just .413 over that span, a full 100 points below his current slugging percentage. Ellis is getting it done on defense, too, throwing out 45 percent of attempting basestealers.

Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (N/A): Since 2009, Votto leads all players with 1,500 or more plate appearances with a .421 on-base percentage. His .447 mark this year is third in the NL and he's on pace to draw 151 walks. Votto does other things well, as you know, but that on-base percentage, the single most important offensive statistic in baseball, demands he be included here.

Rafael Furcal, SS, Cardinals (HM): Furcal is reaching base close to 40 percent of the time, stealing bases with a high rate of success (he's 8 for 10), mixing in his share of extra-base hits (most of them doubles), and adding solid to strong play in the field. I said previously that I'd include the league's best pitcher in the early going of these MVP lists, but I just couldn't leave Furcal off the list, even if there are other players above him who are contributing more at the plate with comparable value in the field.

Off the list: Yadier Molina (3), Stephen Strasburg (4), Carlos Gonzalez (5), Jose Altuve (HM), Pablo Sandoval (HM), Buster Posey (HM)

 
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