The National League MVP Race

TheSportsNotebook’s midseason MVP voting continues today, with a look at the National League. As I explained in yesterday’s preface to the American League Top 10, there are two areas that conventional voters weight much more heavily than I do. I could care less if someone is on a contender, though I will at least give consideration to whether they helped their team achieve a significant goal (which could be a winning season for a long-suffering franchise as much as it could a playoff berth for a consistent one). And I have no bias against pitchers, given how big their impact is on the games they start. With that said, here’s how the Top 10 in the National League MVP race breaks down at TheSportsNotebook…

1)Andrew McCutchen (Pittsburgh): Whatever criteria you want to look at, McCutchen is bringing it. He’s batting .362 with an on-base percentage up over .400. He’s hitting for power and slugging an astronomical .625. He does it without any real support in the lineup and he’s the biggest reason a long-suffering franchise is not only in position for its first winning season since 1992, but is in first place in the NL Central. While I don’t think he leads the field by as much as Josh Hamilton does in the American League, the Pirate centerfielder is still a clear #1 choice.

2)Ryan Braun (Milwaukee): Here’s where my non-bias against non-contending teams comes in, though I suppose Milwaukee does have an outside shot at a wild-card push if they don’t trade Zack Greinke. But Braun has hit 24 home runs, has 61 RBI and his on-base percentage is at .391. This in spite of losing his lineup support when Prince Fielder left for Detroit, and having his table-setter, Rickie Weeks, morph from an All-Star into one of the worst everyday players in the game. Last year I did not vote for Braun at season’s end, opting instead for Los Angeles’ Matt Kemp, who posted big numbers in a bad lineup. I understand why the actual voters will have bias against Braun based on the Brewers’ record, and since that same factor worked in his favor last year, all’s fair. But all’s got to be fair at TheSportsNotebook as well, and I see the Milwaukee left fielder as a close second.

3)David Wright (NY Mets): The .563 slugging percentage is a little lower than the other contenders, but of the top four hitters in the National League, Wright is the only one who plays in a true pitchers’ park at Citi Field. And the .441 on-base percentage is outstanding, as are the 59 RBI in a lineup without a lot of help. He’s carried the everyday lineup as the Mets exceed expectations.

4)Joey Votto (Cincinnati): I have him lower than the mainstream media consensus would suggest, given that this race is generally posited as Votto vs. McCutchen. While I would concur that the Cincy first baseman is very close to the top, and the OBP/Slugging stat line is dazzling at .417/.617, he is in one of the best hitters’ parks. And to my surprise, Votto graded out very poorly on the defensive metrics (areas where McCutchen and Braun excelled, and Wright at least treaded water). In a race this close, everything matters and defense was enough to push Votto down to fourth.

5)R.A. Dickey (NY Mets):The knuckleballer has done for the Mets’ pitching what Wright has done for the everyday lineup and that’s invite everyone to get on his back for a ride. Dickey’s not only got the 12 wins and the 2.40 ERA, he’s got 120 innings pitched, a serious workload for a starter in this day and age. The downside? Given Citi Field is a pitcher’s park, I think the ERA has to come down even more. A tough expectation, but this is the MVP we’re talking about and this year’s field is a competitive one.

Insert a theoretical page break here. Because I can see a credible argument for any of the top five to win the award based strictly on performance to date. Below this line, anyone else would be a stretch, though a second-half surge could alter the equation.

6)Johnny Cueto (Cincinnati): His ERA is a nudge below Dickey’s, at 2.39 and Cueto’s got 10 wins and the same 120 IP. Why isn’t’ the above the line then? It’s a relative value question. While Cincy’s pitching isn’t great, they aren’t quite as dependent on their ace as New York is on theirs.  But while I rank Cueto sixth right now, I expect him to pass Dickey for the Cy Young season’s end and move up this list.

7)Melky Cabrera (San Francisco): With a .353 batting average, Melky and Buster Posey kept the San Francisco offense afloat when Pablo Sandoval was hurt, and the team at least stayed above water. Now Cabrera is a big part of what’s been push right into the NL West race. With seven home runs a .519 slugging percentage, he’s not top-tier MVP material, but easily a Top 10 choice.

8)Craig Kimbrel (Atlanta): Closers, like DH’s, are a spot I do have something of a bias against, given how specialized the role is. If you don’t share my view, you could move Kimbrel into the top tier right now. He’s closed 25/26 save chances, has a 1.36 ERA and Atlanta is a team very dependent on its bullpen as they hang in the race for both the NL East and the wild-card.

Time another theoretical line break. While I could see Cueto, Cabrera or Kimbrel moving up to serious contention by season’s end, it’s highly unlikely anyone below this will do any more than merit honorable mention.

9)Carlos Ruiz (Philadelphia): The veteran catcher has been a bright spot in a lost season, posting  a .412/.584 stat line, keyed by a .350 batting average. The factors holding him back are being a hitter’s park, and while I don’t hold non-contending status against a player, it’s harder to justify when that status is on a big underachieving team.

10)James McDonald (Pittsburgh): We open and close this Top 10 with a Pirate. As good as McCutchen has been, it’s pitching that has kept the Pittsburgh ship sailing and McDonald has nine wins with a 2.37 ERA. He’s got ten fewer IP than Dickey or Cueto, accounting for his being the third starter named, but if he added more innings he can move up the list.

I don’t do honorable mentions, since the last names in a Top 10 basically amount to that. I do want to call attention to Arizona first baseman Paul Goldschmidt though. Not because I’m trying a politician-type move of jamming more names into the Top 10 or because Goldschmidt is my #11. I don’t know where I’d rank him right now, but given how much the power-hitting first baseman picked up his game in the last couple months, how hot he’s capable of getting and the fact he can slug Arizona to an NL West title, Goldschmidt (.368/.552, 12 HRs) is the man to watch in either league if you’re looking for someone not in serious contention right now to pour it on and win an MVP by season’s end.