New leaders for AL, NL MVP (cont.)
1. Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates (2)
Season Stats: .369/.426/.634, 22 HR, 66 RBI, 14 SB
Last Three Weeks: .417/.493/.750, 6 HR, 12 RBI
That Last Three Weeks line is impressive, but over a sample more than twice as large, dating to June 17, McCutchen has hit .452/.507/.802 with 11 home runs. He leads the majors in batting average, slugging and OPS+ (193), and the NL in total bases (223), and if he's not clearly the best player in baseball right now, it's only because Mike Trout is a better fielder and basestealer.
McCutchen grades out as an average center fielder and has only been successful in two-thirds of his steal attempts this season, but he could be a plodding first baseman without a single stolen base to his name and still be close to the top of this list with that batting line. That he's hitting like that while playing a solid centerfield make him the clear favorite for MVP, though it doesn't hurt that his closest rival is on the disabled list.
2. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (1)
Season Stats: .342/.465/.604, 14 HR, 49 RBI
Last Three Weeks: .250/.419/.333, 0 HR, 2 RBI (7 G)
Votto will be out a few more weeks following surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, but his performance this season is strong enough, and we're far enough into the season, that the time he misses shouldn't knock him out of contention for this award. In fact, it wasn't the injury that pushed him out of first place this week, it was McCutchen.
3. Carlos Ruiz, C, Phillies (4)
Season Stats: .345/.409/.574, 14 HR, 56 RBI
Last Three Weeks: .291/.367/.473, 1 HR, 10 RBI
With the Phillies set to play their 100th game of the season on Friday, it seems like an appropriate time to start looking at Ruiz's season not just in the context of this award, but in context of the greatest seasons ever by a catcher. For example, since 1900 there have been just 10 seasons in which a player played 75 percent or more of his games behind the plate and posted an OPS+ of 160 or better. Ruiz's OPS+ right now is 163 and would rank eighth on that list. The only live-ball era catchers to post a higher single-season OPS+ than Ruiz's current mark are Mike Piazza (three times), Joe Mauer (171 in 2009) and Johnny Bench (166 in 1972). Ruiz has also thrown out 38 percent of attempting basestealers (against a league average of 27 percent).
To bring his fielding into the picture, if we project Ruiz's current 4.4 bWAR out over the remainder of the season we get 7.2, which would tie Gary Carter's 1984 for the seventh best all-around catching season by that measure since 1900, with only Piazza, Bench (twice), Carter (again), Mauer and Darrell Porter's 1979 ahead of him on the list.
4. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers (HM)
Season Stats: .318/.400/.619, 28 HR, 69 RBI, 17 SB
Last Three Weeks: .362/.439/.690, 5 HR, 10 RBI, 4 SB
I often repeat my belief that team performance shouldn't be a factor in deciding individual awards. Braun's performance on Wednesday night is a perfect example of why. Braun went 3-for-4 against the Phillies Wednesday night and reached base six times on an error, two doubles, a home run and a pair of intentional walks. But both doubles came with the bases empty and his teammates failed to drive him in all night (to be fair, he was caught stealing once) and the Brewers lost the game 7-6 after Francisco Rodriguez blew a save in extra innings. Was that Braun's fault?
What about the July 17 game when Braun went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts and the Brewers won 3-2. Does Braun get credit for that win? It's not that individual performances aren't reflected in team performance, it's that it's not a direct relationship. What the other eight or nine or 24 men on the team do has an even greater impact most nights than what a team's best player does.
Though we break baseball down to individual acts it remains a team sport. The MVP, however, is not a team award. It is an individual award, and a season like Braun's deserves recognition no matter what his team is doing. That works both ways. McCutchen would top this list even if the Pirates had the worst record in baseball because player value is absolute. It takes a lot of valuable players to make a winning team. This award is for the player with the most individual value.
5. David Wright, 3B, Mets (3)
Season Stats: .340/.430/.566, 15 HR, 67 RBI
Last Three Weeks: .297/.378/.594, 5 HR, 12 RBI
Wright is 29. He is two home runs away from 200 for his career, has 1,367 hits and a career batting line of .303/.384/.512. From 2006 to 2008 he finished in the top 10 in the MVP voting every year while winning two Silver Sluggers and two Gold Gloves. Then, in 2009 he set a career low with just 10 home runs and in both 2010 and 2011 he set personal full-season lows in batting average and on-base percentage, with a career-low .771 OPS in 2011. Curiously, the advanced fielding stats suggest Wright's play in the field during those three down years slipped as well.
This year, however, has been his best by far, and the fielding stats suggest he has been rejuvenated on both sides of the ball. The only aspect of Wright's game that hasn't improved this season has been his base stealing, as he is just 10-for-18, a miserable 56 percent success rate at which he'd be better off staying put. What will be most interesting to see is if those three down seasons prove to be a brief wilderness period in a potential Hall of Fame career or if this year's performance represents the last MVP-quality season from a player destined for the Hall of Nearly Great.
Buster Posey, C, Giants (N/A): Posey has hit .465/.489/.767 since the All-Star break. Remember the note above that Josh Hamilton hasn't had a three-hit game since May 11? Posey has had five since July 15 including one four hit game and one sequence of three-straight three-hit games. His season thus far is very much in character with his Rookie of the Year-winning campaign in 2010, but with an extra 22 points of on-base percentage in a year in which the league as a whole has posted an OBP six points lower than it did two years ago.
Melky Cabrera, LF, Giants (N/A): Melky has hit .378/.442/.600 since the break. He leads the majors in hits (136), is second in batting average (.356 a few ten thousandths of a point ahead of Trout) and is second in the NL in runs (66) and triples (8). Giants fans seem to overrate his fielding, however, and his success rate on the basepaths is below the acceptable level. Then again, the wins above replacement stats suggest I'm underrating him, which seems to be a byproduct of AT&T's park factor. Either I'm not appreciating just how tough a hitting environment the Giants' home park is this year or the single- (in fact, partial-) year park factors are overstating it.
Johnny Cueto, RHP, Reds (N/A): Cueto leads the majors in ERA (2.23) and ERA+ (187) and is seventh in the NL in innings pitched, just 6 2/3 frames behind leader Clayton Richard of the Padres, who has made one more start. He hasn't allowed more than three runs in any of his last 10 starts, posting a 1.95 ERA over that stretch while averaging 6.9 innings per start and eight strikeouts per nine innings, up considerably from his early-season rate.
Matt Holliday, LF, Cardinals (N/A): Holliday has recovered from a lukewarm first two and a half months by hitting .417/.493/.692 since June 16, putting his overall numbers this season right in line with his last two, his only other full-seasons in St. Louis. Two years ago that was good for a 12th-place finish in the voting and only the time he missed due to injuries kept him off the ballot last year.
Yadier Molina, C, Cardinals (HM): Carlos Gonzalez has some impressive raw stats, but after you adjust for his brutal play in the field (the advance stats all agree) and his very friendly ballpark, he slips out of the top 10. With Carlos Beltran slumping (.210/.219/.371 in the last three weeks), that lets me keep Molina on the list. Like Ruiz, Molina has already set a career high in homers (15), and he has thrown out 38 percent of opposing basestealers. Unlike Ruiz, he has stolen eight bases himself in a mere nine attempts.
Off the list: R.A. Dickey (5), Carlos Gonzalez (HM), Carlos Beltran (HM), Matt Cain (HM)