MVP candidates abound, but the race is far too early to call
Giancarlo Stanton, Jonathan Lucroy, Clayton Kershaw are among MVP candidates, but it's far too early
By Ken Rosenthal
Few things drive me crazier than anointing MVP candidates in August. Paul Goldschmidt, Troy Tulowitzki and Andrew McCutchen get hurt, and suddenly Giancarlo Stanton is the leading contender. No, wait, it has to be Clayton Kershaw, whose value to the Dodgers . . .
Five weeks remain in the season, five weeks that almost certainly will influence the thinking of the voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (I am an NL MVP and AL Cy Young voter this season).
If I had to pick right now, Stanton would be my choice. But I don't have to pick right now. And I actually expect the race to be fairly close, unless Stanton has a monster stretch run, helping the Marlins stay in contention.
Stanton is first among NL hitters in Wins Above Replacement, according to the Fangraphs version of the metric. Kershaw also is at 5.5 WAR, tops among NL pitchers, but WAR will be one of only many metrics I consider when making my decision. I don't entirely trust the defensive component for position players; even sabermetricians acknowledge that one-year measures of defensive value are not always accurate.
Anyway, I've mentioned that not enough people are paying attention to Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy (WAR is not a great measure for catchers; it does not account for pitch framing, one of Lucroy's chief skills, or game-calling). I also expect McCutchen to make a late run and see Justin Upton as a possible threat, even though Upton does not presently measure up to Stanton as a corner outfielder.
The final five weeks will determine the outcome. I place heavy emphasis on games played, so I generally prefer position players to pitchers -- I voted for Jacoby Ellsbury over Justin Verlander for the 2011 AL MVP. But I'm certainly going to stay open-minded on Kershaw. How can you not?
Talk to me at the end of the regular season. Actually, don't talk to me then; I can't reveal my ballot until after the results are announced in November. I will offer a full explanation of my ballot then.
AND IN THE AL . . .
Got a text from a former player Saturday that said, "When will Robbie Cano get some love for MVP? Has there ever been a bigger free agent do as well and fly as much under the radar like he has?"
To the second question, I would say, "Probably not."
I was one of many who criticized Cano for signing a 10-year, $240 million free-agent contract with the Mariners, viewing his decision as a pure money grab. Well, the Mariners lead the race for the second AL wild card, and they’re 3½ games ahead of Cano’s previous team, the Yankees. Never mind, for now, what might happen in the final nine years of Cano’s contract; he is a major reason for the M’s resurgence, which was exactly the team’s plan.
The statistic OPS-plus - which measures a player’s OPS, adjusted to his league and ballpark – accounts for the difference in hitting environments between Yankee Stadium and Safeco Field. Cano is at 146, meaning that his adjusted OPS is 46 percent above the league average. In each of his last two seasons with the Yankees, he finished at 148.
So, never mind that Cano's OPS has declined from .929 to .899 to .859 during that time, or that his homers have declined from 33 to 27 to 11. His overall offensive contribution is approximately the same, in part because his on-base percentage during that period has increased from .379 to .383 to .394.
MVP? Cano is certainly a legitimate candidate, though it might be difficult for him or anyone else to overtake Mike Trout. Per Fangraphs, Cano is third among AL hitters in WAR, behind Trout and Alex Gordon. (Gordon’s rating, as pointed out by Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron, is heavily and perhaps excessively skewed by his defensive measure in left field.)
Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager is fourth in WAR among AL hitters, and two of the top 13 pitchers in the AL also play for Seattle – Felix Hernandez, who ranked first, and Hisashi Iwakuma, who was 13th. The Mariners, then, are a terrific example of how star players can elevate a team’s performance.
In fact, the M's serve as a counter-argument to my recent suggestions that the Marlins trade Stanton, who could provide the same type of impact when paired with right-hander Jose Fernandez, who is expected to return from Tommy John surgery next season.
The problem is that the Marlins control Stanton only through 2016, and I don't expect them to sign him long-term.
Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr., in a telephone interview Saturday, expressed surprise that closer Jonathan Papelbon isn't drawing more trade interest.
Papelbon cleared waivers, so he is available to any club. And while his contract includes a $13 million salary next season and $13 million vesting option for 2016, Amaro said that he has made it clear to other GMs that he is willing to include cash in any trade, "including possible vests."
So, why would teams shy from Papelbon, whose 1.49 ERA would rank as his best since 2006?
Well, Papelbon no longer throws as hard as he once did -- his average fastball velocity has dropped over the past four seasons from 94.8 mph to 93.8 to 92.0 to 91.3. His strikeout rate is the second-lowest of his career, and his .232 opponents' batting average on balls in play indicates that he has benefited, in part, from good luck.
Still, it's difficult to argue with Papelbon's results -- he's 31-for-34 in save opportunities, his 0.85 walks and hits per innings pitched (WHIP) is his lowest since 2007 and he's still averaging nearly a strikeout per inning.
So, is it his personality?
Amaro said it shouldn't be, explaining that Papelbon has been a positive influence this season on the Phillies' younger relievers, most notably Jake Diekman and Ken Giles.
"He has been a very good citizen," Amaro said. "He just speaks his mind."
Amaro said that Papelbon reminds him of Billy Wagner, another former Phillies closer who occasionally created stirs with his blunt remarks.
Papelbon has expressed his desire to join a contender, even if it means waiving his limited no-trade clause. In July, he told reporters, "Some guys want to stay on a losing team? That's mind-boggling to me. I think that's a no-brainer."
Said Amaro: "He gets ticked because we're not winning. I don't blame him."
CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER IN ARIZONA
Tony La Russa, the Diamonbacks' chief baseball officer, has said repeatedly that he will not decide whether to retain manager Kirk Gibson until after the season is over.
But in the meantime, Gibson continues to raise questions with his in-game strategy.
The latest example came Friday night, when Gibson removed his starting pitcher, Josh Collmenter, with a 5-0 lead and one out in the ninth inning. The Padres had runners on first and second, and Collmenter was at 106 pitches, three short of his season high.
Gibson replaced Collmenter with right-hander Matt Stites, but closer Addison Reed also was warming -- one more base-runner would have brought the potential tying run on deck, creating a save situation.
So, Gibson got two relievers "hot" when his starting pitcher needed just two outs to complete a four-hit, no-walk shutout in a game his team led by five runs. And if Stites had allowed a base-runner, he likely would have been out of the game immediately.
The more conventional move would have been to stay with Collmenter until another runner reached base and then go straight to Reed. But Gibson seemingly had little faith in his team to protect even a 5-0 lead.