Lightning Round debuts with Trout, Braun, Dickey among leaders
The Angels' standing could hurt Mike Trout's MVP hopes but he's a ROY lock
Milwaukee's Ryan Braun is in good position to defend his NL MVP from 2011
Justin Verlander, R.A. Dickey and Wade Miley lead for the remaining awards
There is less than a month left in the 2012 baseball season, which means it's time for Awards Watch to move into the "Lightning Round." Rather than list the top five candidates in each league for one award each week, for the remainder of the season I'll be listing the top three candidates in each league for all three of the major player awards every week. Thankfully, this year's races merit such close attention. Though the Rookie of the Year races are effectively over, the competition for the Cy Young award in each league is incredibly tight, and there's significant potential for the voters to misidentify the Most Valuable Player in each league as those races tighten up as well.
NOTE: As has been the case all year, the rankings reflect how I would vote (I do not have a vote) if the season ended today, not necessarily how I think the actual voting will finish. Rookies are players who, prior to the current season, had fewer than 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched in the majors or spent fewer than 45 days on the active roster prior to rosters expanding on Sept. 1. The number in parentheses after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list. All stats are through Wednesday, September 5. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold italics. The varying "Last Three Weeks" time periods correspond to the period of time since I last visited that particular race, and, yes, all three American League Cy Young candidates have made just two starts while all three National League candidates have made three since I last checked in on that award two weeks ago.
1. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (1)
Season Stats: .330/.394/.563, 25 HR, 75 RBI, 108 R, 44 SB
Last Three Weeks: .280/.352/.415, 3 HR, 9 RBI, 15 R, 6 SB
Trout has been the best player in baseball this season, and he's going to have to hit a lot worse over the next three weeks than he has over the last three for that not to be true at season's end. Still, with his bat slowing down and his having spent April in the minors, one can imagine an argument some might make for not placing him atop their MVP ballots should his offense not pick back up and the Angels miss the playoffs.
That's malarkey, of course. Even if you do believe that team performance should impact an individual award, which I don't, it's clear that the Angels wouldn't even be as close as they are to a playoff spot (2½ games out in the wild-card race as of Thursday morning) without Trout's massive contribution.
2. Miguel Cabrera, 3B, Tigers (2)
Season Stats: .330/.396/.595, 35 HR, 116 RBI
Last Three Weeks: .357/.449/.679, 5 HR, 13 RBI
Cabrera's remarkable second-half surge (he has hit .366/.441/.685 with 20 home runs and 60 RBIs since June 25) is what has made the thought of Trout not winning this award possible. Cabrera just passed Trout for the batting title lead on Wednesday (he's at .33015 to Trout's .32976), giving him the lead over the rookie in all three Triple Crown stats and all three slash stats. If Cabrera's Tigers reach the playoffs due to a September surge (they caught the division-leading White Sox via a head-to-head series this past weekend but have since fallen a game behind and are actually a half game behind the Angels in the wild-card race) while Trout's Angels are eliminated, some will argue that those circumstances prove Cabrera's superior value, particularly in light of his pre-season move to third base in order to accommodate fringe MVP candidate Prince Fielder at first base.
Never mind that Cabrera is a lousy fielder at his new/old position and a largely immobile baserunner, facts which undermine his production at the plate rather than enhance it, while Trout is outstanding in both aspects and arguably the best in the game on the bases. I don't deny Cabrera's great value. I'm listing him here because I genuinely believe he has been the second most valuable player in the American League this season, but to my eye, the gap between him and Trout remains significant and obvious.
3. Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees (3)
Season Stats: .301/.366/.545, 29 HR, 73 RBI
Last Three Weeks: .239/.329/.507, 4 HR, 5 RBI
This is going to be a two-man race between Trout and Cabrera, so the identity of Bachelor Number Three doesn't much matter. I don't expect much consensus on this spot from the voters, and if there were a clearer leader in the Cy Young race (see below), I'd probably put the top pitcher in the league in this spot, but with only one spot left in this format, it didn't seem fair to include one without the other two, at least for now. Cano is the best of the rest of the AL hitters, but the gap between him and Cabrera is much larger than the gap between Cano his various rivals for this spot.
1. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers (3)
Season Stats: .311/.389/.604, 37 HR, 98 RBI, 90 R, 22 SB
Last Three Weeks: .375/.451/.800, 8 HR, 21 RBI, 17 R, 3 SB
Now this is going to be interesting. Braun plays for a team with a losing record and is coming off both a controversially overturned positive test for performance enhancing drugs and last year's MVP award. What are the chances that the writers are going to make him a back-to-back winner? I'd say slim to none, particularly given the superior narratives attached to his two primary rivals for the award. That said, I don't think team performance should matter, the positive test from 2011 was thrown out and has not been followed by another, and, in my opinion, Braun has been the best player in the National League to this point in the season. It would, of course, be ironic if Braun was passed over for the award this year in part because of his team's poor performance as he won over Matt Kemp last year largely because of the relative performances of their teams, a result I disagreed with.
2. Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates (1)
Season Stats: .345/.408/.561, 24 HR, 83 RBI, 93 R
Last Three Weeks: .267/.345/.307, 0 HR, 11 RBI, 11 R
Three weeks ago I posited that, at that moment, McCutchen could have been the unanimous winner of this award, but he has slumped badly since then while Braun has surged. As a result, McCutchen has fallen out of the top spot in my rankings for the first time since he ascended past Joey Votto in July. McCutchen has homered just twice since July 18, slugging a mere .376 over that span, and the slide captured by his Last Three Weeks line above actually goes back four weeks, with McCutchen hitting .245/.325/.314 since August 9.
It doesn't help matters that Braun is actually the superior basestealer (Braun's 22 steals have come at a 79 percent success rate, while McCutchen's 16 swipes have come at a mere 59 percent success rate) and, according to advanced fielding metrics, the superior fielder as well, at least relative to others at his position. You might want to quibble with those fielding evaluations, but you'd be wasting your breath as Braun has no real hope of winning this award, leaving McCutchen as the favorite, at least for the moment.
3. Buster Posey, C, Giants (2)
Season Stats: .325/.400/.525, 19 HR, 85 RBI
Last Three Weeks: .299/.360/.418, 0 HR, 9 RBI
It's not outside the realm of possibility for Posey, a player who wasn't even in my top 10 at the All-Star break (though he did merit an honorable mention in early May), to take this award with a big second-half surge much like the one that landed him the league's Rookie of the Year award in 2010. Given the adjustment he gets for being a solid defensive catcher, his Triple Crown and slash stats aren't far behind McCutchen's at all. Still, Posey hasn't homered since going deep six times in his first 10 games of August and one could argue that he's not even the most valuable catcher in the league given the season the defensively superior Yadier Molina, who is also hot at the plate right now (.389/.440/.511 since August 1), is having.
The upshot of all of that is that this award, which has at various points in this season seemed like destiny for Kemp, Votto and McCutchen, is still very much up for grabs with less than a month left in the season.
NEXT: Cy Young Award