The American League MVP Race

It’s time for midseason MVP honors and TheSportsNotebook begins today with the American League, where we’ll rank the Top 10, based on current performance to the All-Star break. Before we get into the rankings, let me preface by saying there are two criteria that don’t matter nearly as much to me as they do to the actual voters. I don’t particularly care if someone is on a playoff team. In an ideal world I’d like to see team success be a part of the equation, but not only is it not essential (this is, after all, an individual award. We have these little things called the playoffs & World Series as team rewards), I also define it more broadly, to include things helping a surprise team achieve a winning record or some other non-playoff benchmark no one expected them to get. And I don’t have a bias against starting pitchers. They may only go every fifth day, but the impact on the games they do play is easily enough to offset that. So here we go with TheSportsNotebook’s Top 10 in the AL MVP race…

1)Josh Hamilton (Texas): Yeah, I know I just gave that spiel about it not having to be from a contender, but sometimes one player’s numbers are so extraordinary as to defy any other choice. A .635 slugging percentage, keyed by 27 home runs is one of those numbers, and with a .380 OBP, it’s not as though Hamilton can’t make consistent contact when he’s not hitting the ball out of the park.

2)Paul Konerko (Chicago): He meets a lot of the classic MVP definitions, both conventional and what I outlined above. With a .404 on-base percentage and .528 slugging, the numbers are there. He’s on a first-place team and one that isn’t loaded with offensive depth. If Konerko can return his ratings in the defensive metrics to their career norms—he’s currently below average at first—and narrow the huge power gap between him and Hamilton he can make a run at the award.

3)Robinson Cano (New York): Cano got off to a slow start, so his OBP is still at .374, a little too low for the top spot, given another big power gap between him and Hamilton (.578 slugging, 57 points behind the Ranger outfielder). And Cano, like Hamilton, plies his craft in a friendly hitter’s park. But the overall offensive profile is extremely good and Cano’s defensive consistency has finally caught up to his athletic ability, as he grades out above average in the defensive metrics at a key position. With the Yankee lineup not as loaded as in years past, thanks to the decline of Alex Rodriguez, Cano can make himself a strong case in the second half.

Let me insert a theoretical page break at this point. I’d consider Konerko and Cano to be head-and-shoulders above the rest of the challengers to Hamilton, so there would be a sharp drop from #3 to #4.

4)Justin Verlander (Detroit): The Detroit ace has taken the ball 18 times already, on pace for a full workload and worked 132 IP, and almost singlehandedly kept the Detroit pitching staff afloat, as the Tigers struggled to remain in contention. The resume certainly isn’t what it was last year, but no sane person could expect a re-enactment of his 2011 campaign. He does deserve to be in the lead for the Cy Young Award and to lead up the next tier of candidates.

5)David Ortiz (Boston): Normally it’s tough for a DH to climb this high on my list, as I think not playing the field is a serious drawback. But Ortiz has a .406/.607 stat line for his OBP/Slugging, and like Verlander, has helped keep a struggling team afloat to the All-Star break. If Ortiz played the field he could be neck-and-neck with Hamilton based on offensive value.

Another theoretical page break here, as we move down another tier…

6)Miguel Cabrera (Detroit)—Cabrera leads up what’s about to be run on Detroit Tiger position players, with a .382/.557 stat line and the defensive metrics tell us he’s doing a better job at converting to third base that one might have expected. Cabrera was underrated defensively at first base too, and he’s been consistently undervalued when it comes to this award throughout his career.

7)Mark Trumbo (Los Angeles)—Another slugger who helped keep a struggling team alive, with a .608 slugging percentage that nips Ortiz by a point and is in striking distance of Hamilton—an apt analogy for the Angels and Rangers in the AL West. Trumbo has seen the help from his teammates arrive, as LAA’s in strong position for the wild-card and a shot at catching Texas.

8)Austin Jackson (Detroit)—His time on the disabled list keeps him down the list a bit, but in the spacious Comerica Park, Jackson has a .408/.545 stat line. The on-base percentage—keyed by a .332 batting average—is heartening, while the power is surprising. With nine home runs, Jackson does it more by driving the ball in the alleys than hitting it out, but either way, he’s a new dimension at the top of the Tiger lineup.

9)Prince Fielder (Detroit)—You can tell how bad the rest of the Detroit supporting cast has been when they can have four players in the Top 10 and still be struggling around the .500 level, but Fielder, along with the three above, have been able to keep the Tigers on their collective back. Prince has gone deep 15 times in a tough park to hit it out of—is it unreasonable to think he’d match Cano’s 20 if the two switched homefields? Fielder, like Konerko, can move up the list if his defense can improve to past levels.

10)Mike Trout (Los Angeles)—He got a late start, but as the year wears on that won’t matter quite as much, and if the .397/.562 stat line holds and the playing time gap diminishes, Trout will move up the list on that basis alone. One thing to note is that his defensive range ratings are not strong, in spite of the highlight clips you see. This is not unusual in young players up the middle, as experience and positioning count for a lot when it comes to getting to balls. In the meantime, Trout deserves a place in the midseason Top 10, although I thought ESPN’s promo last night comparing him and fellow rookie Bryce Harper in Washington to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird took “over the top” and gave it a whole new meaning.

I’m not going to do an honorable mention after this, because the last five players on the list really are the honorable mention. There’s certainly time for this landscape to change, but right now this race is very clearly Josh Hamilton’s to lose.