The race for the American League MVP award clearly centers on Los Angeles Angels’ outfielder Mike Trout. If you’re one who has a bias against starting pitchers, there’s frankly no argument against Trout based on the season up to today.
If you share the view of TheSportsNotebook, and are more broad-minded in your MVP mindset, then there’s a couple worthy challengers. In either case, any discussion of the American League MVP landscape has to begin with Trout.
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Trout has an on-base percentage of .406 and a slugging percentage of .611 coming into the Fourth of July games. His defense, while not a significant asset, is at least average. On a team where Albert Pujols is in decline and Josh Hamilton spent a good chunk of time on the disabled list, Trout has been the leader in helping the Angels to a 48-36 record.
That record would have them hosting the American League wild-card game if the season ended today, it’s third-best in the AL and still has the Angels right on the heels of the Oakland A’s, who merely have the best record in baseball.
Thus, by any reasonable measurement—statistical production, value to the lineup and being on a playoff team—Trout is the top position player in the American League thus far in the 2014 MLB season and if you don’t want to include starting pitchers in the conversation, he would have be your runaway AL MVP choice.
But if you do want to include starting pitchers—and I do, because even though they only pitch every fifth day, their impact on the games they start more than make up for it—then you need to look at the cases for Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners and the New York Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka.
Seattle would be the second wild-card out of the American League based on today’s standings and the best ERA in the league is the reason why. King Felix is 10-2 with a 2.10 ERA, and has pitched 128 innings. The latter two categories lead the league and the first has him as one of just five American League pitchers with double-digit wins.
No starting pitcher in major league baseball has more wins than Tanaka, who picked up #12 last night. Nor is this a case of a Yankee starter riding the bats to wins. This year’s New York team is mediocre offensively, above-average at best in the bullpen and the rotation behind Tanaka is spotty and injury-riddled.
Tanaka also has a dazzling 2.27 ERA and has thrown 122 innings. Furthermore, Yankee Stadium is perhaps the most hitter-friendly park in the American League. New York is sitting on .500 coming into today, at 42-42. There’s only reason this team has a puncher’s chance to make the playoffs and it’s because of Tanaka.
I recall an episode of the ESPN show First Take on the second day of the baseball season, where pundit Skip Bayless opined that Tanaka would have to win thirty games if the Yankees were to make the playoffs. A friend and I dismissed it as Bayless’ usual attempt to get attention by saying something dramatic. It turns out that he may be right, and that in either case, Tanaka might at least get 22-25 wins, an amazing accomplishment in today’s pitch count culture.
Therefore, I give Tanaka the edge over King Felix as the top pitcher thus far, and would narrow the debate for AL MVP to the Yankee starter and Trout. And frankly, I think I have to give a slight edge to Tanaka.
The reason is simple—while Trout is having a great year and meets a reasonable definition of “most valuable”, Tanaka has gone one step further. He has, in effect, told the Yankees “hop on my back and I’ll carry you.” If they end up making the postseason, he’s a lock. And even if they finish where they’re at right now—around .500, just outside the playoffs, he’s still the reason New York fans have hope on the Fourth of July.
I’ll also give you an intangible reason to go with Tanaka—as a Boston Red Sox fan, my heart sinks a little when I hear that Tanaka is scheduled to pitch tonight. And I think longingly of just how bad the Yankees would be this year if they didn’t have him to turn to every fifth day.
So let’s go with a Fourth of July ballot of Tanaka, Trout and King Felix, in that order. Here’s a few other contenders that are close enough to make a serious run at the award in the coming months…
*The Toronto Blue Jays’ tandem of Jose Bautista (.429 OBP/.535 slugging) and Edwin Encarcion (.369/.599) have keyed an offense that kept the Blue Jays in first place in the AL East much of the first half and they’re still only a percentage point behind the Baltimore Orioles coming into today.
What hurts them, at least in my view, is that they cancel each other out—neither one really carries his team in the way the leading three candidates do. It’s great for team success, but should hurt in the MVP discussion.
*Two Detroit Tigers are having big years. After a slow start, Miguel Cabrera, who has won this award the last two years, is up to .374/.551 in one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the AL. Victor Martinez has a stat line of .389/.600, a display of offensive balance second only to Trout.
Martinez is a DH, and that’s a position I do have a bias against, since it basically means you just have to hit four or five times and then go into the air-conditioned clubhouse on a hot night to watch video of your at-bats. And yes, as a Red Sox fan, I’ve never pushed David Ortiz for MVP for this same reason. I will be very open to pushing Cabrera if his upward trajectory continues.
*Nelson Cruz in Baltimore and Jose Abreu for the Chicago White Sox each have great power numbers (Cruz has 26 home runs and Abreu is slugging .624). Cruz has lifted the Orioles into first place and Abreu is keeping the White Sox on the map.
The issues here pertain to on-base percentage—Cruz at .348 and Abreu at .331 aren’t liabilities, but they are still more pure power hitters than all-around offensive players. What’s more, Abreu has missed time due to injury and Cruz does a good bit of DHing. Abreu can make up for the lost time in the second half, but Cruz will really have to overwhelm offensively to make up for being a mostly one-dimensional player.
*Let’s also keep an eye on Oakland A’s first baseman Brandon Moss, with his stat line of .363/.537, while playing in another pitcher-friendly park and being on the team with the best record in baseball.
All of these players are viable threats to make a run at American League MVP. But sitting here today, my edge goes to Masahiro Tanaka.