Jose Altuve and Daniel Murphy could make MVP history for second basemen

BY foxsports • August 30, 2016

Not once since the inception of the modern Most Valuable Player award in 1931 has the winner in both leagues been a second baseman.

That could change this season if the Nationals' Daniel Murphy wins in the National League and the Astros' Jose Altuve in the American.

I wrote Monday why the Cubs' Kris Bryant is the NL front-runner. But Murphy's case, at least according to some advanced metrics, is stronger than you might think.

Murphy is first in the NL in win probability added, which measures the impact of each of a player’s plate appearances on his team’s chances of winning. He also is a close second to Bryant in weighted on-base average, which attempts to credit a hitter for the value of each outcome rather than treating every time on base equally.

Murphy’s defense at second rates as below-average, but his offense and baserunning are so strong that he is tied with Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford for third in the NL in Fangraphs’ version of wins above replacement, after Bryant and Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager.

Yet, even if Murphy and Altuve fail to win MVPs, there also has never been a season in which both batting champions were second basemen. That possibility is quite realistic -- Altuve leads the AL in batting by 32 points, while the two NL leaders, Murphy and the Rockies’ DJ LeMahieu, also are second basemen.

My thanks to FOX editorial assistant Wayne Fidelman for the research.

Worth noting: Two second basemen -- the Athletics' Eddie Collins and Braves' Johnny Evers -- won the Chalmers Award, an early version of the MVP, in 1914.

Speaking of MVP candidates, Dodgers officials say the most impressive thing about shortstop Corey Seager is his consistency as a 22-year-old rookie.

Seager had a mediocre April, but his month-by-month on-base/slugging percentages since then are something you might see from a veteran superstar:

May: .892

June: 1.085

July: .891

August: 1.009.

Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez told me in early August that he still wasn't satisfied with his offensive resurgence, saying he wanted to better elevate the ball.

At the time, Gonzalez worried that if he tried to adjust mechanically -- scooping the ball, dropping his back shoulder, cheating to certain pitches -- he would only create bad habits.

"There is nothing I can do but just keep trying to hit it as hard as I can and take a good path to the ball," Gonzalez said then.

Well, he finally is getting results; his line-drive and flyball percentages in August are his best of the season.

The Dodgers' decision on whether to promote Yasiel Puig involves factors beyond baseball, but the outfielder might not even qualify as the right-handed threat that the team needs.

Puig this season has hit righties (.271 BA, .727 OPS) better than lefties (.231/.653). That trend has continued during his stint at Triple A; club officials say he prefers the ball away.

Then again, Puig is hitting everyone well at Triple A, batting .369 with a 1.045 OPS in his first 18 games. Josh Reddick, a left-handed hitter, is batting only .145 with a .359 OPS in his first 24 games with the Dodgers.

Ian Kennedy exploited free agency not only to land a terrific deal from the Royals -- five years, $70 million with a two-year opt-out -- but also to reunite with Dave Eiland, his old pitching coach in the minors and majors with the Yankees.

The relationship is paying off, to say the least.

After Kennedy allowed 18 homers in a span of nine starts from June 4 to July 20, Eiland assured me that the right-hander would improve, saying that he was working with Kennedy to limit fly balls and home runs.

Sure enough, Kennedy has allowed only two homers in his past six starts, pitching to a 1.62 ERA while contributing to the Royals' remarkable August run.

So, what changes did Eiland help the pitcher make?

"Ian's issue always has been, even when I had him years ago in the minor leagues and big leagues with the Yankees, is that he likes to rush through his balance point," Eiland said. "What happens then is that his arm gets to his arm slot late so he's underneath the ball and pitches up in the zone and he's flat. He can't drive the ball downhill.

"That being said, Ian likes to pitch up in the zone with his fastball for chase swings. But you're talking above the belt. When he's quick through his delivery, his arm slot gets a little bit lower. He gets underneath the ball and he's like upper thigh to belt-high. That's kind of the hitters' happy zone.

"I've been working with him and he's been working really hard to not be so quick through his balance point, stay back over the rubber a little bit longer to give his arm a chance to work and get up to the proper arm slot. We've been concentrating on pitching down in the zone, then going up when we want to go up, but going up above the belt.

"My little catchphrase with him is that, 'We're going to stay down until we want to go up.'"

Kennedy next pitches Wednesday night against the Yankees.

It's natural to view Mark Trumbo's 40 home runs as the product of him moving to hitter-friendly Camden Yards, but his splits are fairly even -- 21 homers at home, 19 on the road.

Let's not forget, Trumbo hit 32 homers in 2012 and 34 in '13 while playing for the Angels. He had only 22 combined for the Diamondbacks and Mariners last season, but he traces the roots of his resurgence to his second half.

"I'm proud of what I did last year," said Trumbo, who had an .814 OPS after the All-Star Game. "Most people don't see it that way, I guess. But in the final three months, I made some strides to becoming a better overall hitter."

Trumbo said the biggest difference this season is his improved timing, saying that in years past he would foul off a "ton" of good pitches because he was late with his swing.

How does a hitter improve his timing?

"It's a little better awareness, the idea of adjusting, making adjustments within at-bats," he said. "Sometimes, it takes more experience as a hitter. With some guys, it comes quickly, naturally. The rest of us have got to grind.

"You can't be stubborn. You've got to self-evaluate better when things aren't where they need to be."

The Nationals appear higher on rookie right-hander Reynaldo Lopez than supposed top prospect Lucas Giolito -- interesting, considering that in 2012 the Nats signed Lopez out of the Dominican Republic for $17,500 and Giolito out of the draft for $2.925 million.

Lopez was 18 at the time, a former catcher with a quick arm. Johnny DiPuglia, the Nationals' vice-president of international operations, recalls that Lopez had trouble staying over the rubber, and credits the team's minor-league staff with fixing the problem. Lopez's velocity jumped immediately after that, up past 100 mph, and the Nats actually had to slow him down.

Modesto Ulloa, one of the Nats' Dominican scouts, actually signed another hard-throwing right-hander, Phillips Valdez, the same day he saw Lopez; Valdez is now at Double A.

The Nats, until recently, did not spend much money internationally, but DiPuglia and his staff have still come up with players. Lopez, infielder Wilmer Difo and catcher Pedro Severino signed for a combined $92,500, and all have been in the majors this month.

So much for any concern that the Yankees' home attendance would suffer with a younger, less star-laden club.

The team's three-game weekend series against the Orioles drew an average of 38,422, not far below the season average of 38,941.

Fans did not like the older, initial version of the Yankees that they saw before the non-waiver deadline -- and clearly are excited by Gary Sanchez and Co.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon points to Dexter Fowler's supposed improvement in center field as a reason to distrust defensive metrics.

Fowler was minus-20 in John Dewan's plus-minus ratings last season, meaning that he made 20 fewer plays than the average player at his position. But this season, he is plus-seven.

Did Fowler improve that much from his age 29 to 30 seasons? Or is something else happening?

"We're playing him deeper," Maddon said. "That's it."

For all of Jason Heyward's offensive struggles, it's unlikely that the Cubs would bench him for a postseason game.

Heyward's defense and baserunning are so good, he still rates as an above-average performer according to Wins Above Replacement. Even offensively, he still works a good at-bat, ranking third on the team in pitches per plate appearance behind only Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist.

For what it's worth, Heyward is 10-for-29 since his four-game hiatus from the starting lineup.

Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, who turned 31 on Aug. 1, told me recently that he wants to be like Torii Hunter and play until he is 40.

Jones said that he already has made some concessions to his advancing age, cutting down on batting practice to conserve his energy; the first day on the road in a new city, he will not hit at all.

Jones will be 33 when his six-year, $85.5 million contract with the Orioles expires after the 2018 season. He has averaged 153 games the past six seasons, and is on pace to hit that number again this year.

Rookie left-hander Matt Strahm has a 0.68 ERA in 10 games with the Royals, but club officials aren't especially surprised; Eiland and manager Ned Yost took a liking to him in spring training.

"Live arm. Lefty. A little bit of funk to him," Eiland said. "Not like (Chris) Sale, but that arm slot, a little bit across his body like Sale is. There is some deception, too, along with 94 to 96.

"He had kind of a loopy breaking ball. It's hard to throw a curveball out of that low, three-quarter arm slot. So I just have him throwing a hard slurve, kind of like an Andrew Miller breaking ball. He went from throwing that little curveball 71-72 to 77-79. The hitters can't see it out of his hand the way they did with his other breaking ball."

The Royals still view Strahm as a potential starter.

The Braves see Matt Kemp as a three-year, $25.5 million investment from 2017 to '19, given that they purged Hector Olivera's remaining $28.5 million over that span in their deal with the Padres.

Kemp, who turns 32 next month, might not be a good investment even at that modest price, but the Braves figured the free-agent options in left field -- Yoenis Cespedes, Jose Bautista, Ian Desmond, et al -- would be far more expensive.

And finally, Jorge Soler’s game-tying homer to right-center for the Cubs on Monday night reflected his recent work with teammate Miguel Montero, who suggested that he make better use of the opposite field.