It’s not exactly the same Most Valuable Player debate, but the arguments are very similar. Tulowitzki is the National League’s best all-around player — as Trout was in the American League for each of the past two seasons (and the current one, too). Lucroy, meanwhile, is the NL’s most indispensable player, anchoring the offense and defense of a Milwaukee Brewers team with the league’s best record.
From a purely statistical basis, Tulowitzki would be the choice. He’s the major-league leader in OPS and one of the top defensive shortstops in the game. He leads the NL in Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs.com, and is second only to Trout in the majors.
The factors against Tulo: His Colorado Rockies have dropped to last in the NL West and are effectively out of the playoff picture with nearly half the season to play. And some critics — not me — will hold it against him that he’s posting those gaudy numbers at hitter-friendly Coors Field. (For all the runs they’ve scored since the franchise’s inaugural game in 1993, the Rockies have accounted for only one MVP — Larry Walker in ’97.)
If handed a ballot today, I’d cast my vote for Lucroy. He ranks sixth in the NL with a .907 OPS while catching the fourth-most innings in the majors. He’s one of the top defensive catchers in baseball — particularly when it comes to framing pitches — and is arguably the biggest reason the Brewers have exceeded expectations by such a large margin this year.
For all the valuable advanced metrics in the sport today, it’s impossible to quantify how trust in a catcher’s receiving ability influences pitch selection, execution, and ultimately winning and losing.
In that sense, a team’s performance is absolutely relevant in the MVP discussion. In a team sport, the context is crucial. The MVP criteria are vague — perhaps intentionally so — but I interpret them to mean, “Which player has made the greatest contribution to his team’s success this year?” Midway through the 2014 season, in the National League, that player is Lucroy.
By the end of the season, Lucroy’s toughest challenger for the award may be Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton or Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen, the reigning MVP. Stanton has kept the Marlins near .500 despite the catastrophic absence of ace Jose Fernandez, while McCutchen has lifted the Pirates from their early-season malaise and back into the playoff picture.
Meanwhile, Trout is well on his way to ensuring no grand philosophical debate will occur in the AL this season. No longer merely the best player in the sport, Trout, in his third full season, is performing in a fashion that has reinvigorated an entire franchise. The Angels are poised to reach the postseason for the first time in five years, despite a below-average pitching staff. Trout has made up for that shortcoming — sometimes, it seems, all by himself.
Trout leads the AL in OPS and ranks among the league’s top 10 in runs, home runs and RBI. He’s 10 for 10 in stolen bases. He’s even tied for the major-league lead in sacrifice flies — evidence that he’s taking a more veteran approach to at-bats with men in scoring position. He won’t turn 23 until next month — and yet he’s the most complete player in the game.
My full MVP ballots at the midway point . . .
AL: 1) Mike Trout, 2) Adam Jones, 3) Edwin Encarnacion, 4) Josh Donaldson, 5) Jose Bautista, 6) Masahiro Tanaka, 7) Victor Martinez, 8) Kyle Seager, 9) Alex Gordon, 10) Ian Kinsler.
NL: 1) Jonathan Lucroy, 2) Giancarlo Stanton, 3) Troy Tulowitzki, 4) Andrew McCutchen, 5) Todd Frazier, 6) Carlos Gomez, 7) Yasiel Puig, 8) Anthony Rendon, 9) Paul Goldschmidt, 10) Freddie Freeman.