As we turn the corner into August, I see seven strong National League MVP candidates in what's shaping up as one of the most wide-open MVP discussions in years.
The players may eventually sort themselves out -- if I remember correctly, we were in a similar position at the end of last July in the NL, but Andrew McCutchen eventually pulled away from the pool of contenders and gathered 28 of 30 first-place votes -- as injuries and team results in the final two months play a factor. But this looks like one of those years in which a big September could put a player over the top.
Eric Karabell and I discuss the race in the video above, but here's a quick outline of the seven players I'm considering in the MVP hunt:
Andrew McCutchen, CF | Pirates
Numbers: .309/.409/.539, 17 HR, 63 RBIs, 60 runs, 4.5 bWAR, 4.4 fWAR
The case for: His numbers across the board are a slight tick up from last year; second in the NL in on-base percentage (he leads the league in walks) and fourth in slugging; 17 for 18 swiping bases; plays a key defensive position, although his defensive metrics aren't great (minus-8 defensive runs saved); the Pirates are in the thick of the playoff race after a slow start; has missed just two games.
The case against: Like last year, one single number doesn't stand out, so voters will have to factor in his all-around excellence; the Pirates and McCutchen were a feel-good story last year, so he can't rely on that part of the narrative again; voters don't like to give it to the same guy (although Miguel Cabrera did just win back-to-back MVP honors in the AL); doesn't lead in WAR on either Baseball-Reference or FanGraphs; Pirates might not make the playoffs, and the MVP almost always comes from a playoff team.
Numbers: .340/.432/.603, 21 HR, 52 RBIs, 71 runs, 5.6 bWAR, 5.1 fWAR
The case for: Leads the NL in all three triple-slash categories; plays a premium defensive position and plays it well (plus-8 defensive runs saved); leads NL players in both Baseball-Reference WAR and FanGraphs WAR; leads NL in park-adjusted OPS.
The case against: Currently on the DL with a hip flexor strain; hitting .417 at home but just .257 on the road, with 14 of his 21 home runs at Coors Field; the Rockies are horrible (the last player from a sub-.500 team to win an MVP was Cal Ripken in 1991).
Numbers: 12-2, 1.76 ERA, 112⅓ IP, 76 H, 15 BB, 141 SO, 4.9 bWAR, 4.1 fWAR
The case for: The best pitcher on the planet; leads the league in both K's per nine and fewest walks per nine; he's allowed a .220 OBP -- while owning a .237 OBP himself; after a seven-run outing against Arizona on May 17, he has a 1.10 ERA over his past 12 starts, so he's in the midst of one of the most extended dominant stretches we've ever seen from a starter; leads NL pitchers in both Baseball-Reference WAR and FanGraphs WAR; the Dodgers lead the NL West.
The case against: Pitchers don't win MVP awards; OK, Justin Verlander won the AL MVP in 2011, but he was the first pitcher to do so since Dennis Eckersley in 1992 and the first starter since Roger Clemens in 1986; the last NL pitcher to win the MVP was Bob Gibson in 1968; the last time an NL pitcher even finished in the top five was Greg Maddux in 1995; he missed all of April, so he ranks just 45th in the innings pitched; umm actually gave up a home run on a curveball this year?
Numbers: 13-5, 1.92 ERA, 149⅔ IP, 110 H, 34 BB, 122 SO, 4.7 bWAR, 3.4 fWAR
The case for: As great as Kershaw has been, Wainwright is right behind with a sub-2.00 ERA and has thrown 37 more innings; has had 10 starts in which he allowed zero runs; since 1980, the most such starts in a season is 11; just like Kershaw, his own OBP (.265) is higher than the OBP he's allowed (.258); has allowed just four home runs; the Cardinals are again in the thick of things; leads the league in wins even though the Cardinals are the second-lowest scoring team in the NL; 7-3, 1.52 against teams with a winning percentage above .500.
The case against: All the pitcher caveats with Kershaw apply here; peripheral numbers, such as walk rate and strikeout rate, are excellent but don't compare to Kershaw's.
Numbers: .293/.393/.535, 23 HR, 71 RBIs, 67 runs, 5.1 bWAR, 4.2 fWAR
The case for: Leads NL in RBIs and ranks second in home runs while also leading the league in intentional walks; leads McCutchen in Baseball-Reference WAR; plays a good right field (plus-9 defensive runs saved); has helped lead a Jose Fernandez-less Marlins team to a surprising .500 record; if they somehow go on a late-season run, Stanton will have the same narrative McCutchen had last year, the superstar carrying a bunch of nobodies into contention.
The case against: The Marlins are still a long shot to make the playoffs; numbers have tailed off in July, hitting .221 with just two home runs; doesn't play a premium, up-the-middle position.
Numbers: .306/.375/.495, 12 HR, 50 RBIs, 50 runs, 4.6 bWAR, 4.0 fWAR
The case for: Terrific offensive numbers for a catcher; the leader of the first-place Brewers; his WAR is right up there among the league leaders, and that doesn't account for how he handles the pitching staff and his pitch-framing abilities (he's one of the best, if not the best, in the game); has played in 100 of Milwaukee's 108 games and started 90 behind the plate.
The case against: He had the hot May and June but is hitting just .205 in July; you can argue that Carlos Gomez has been just as valuable to the Brewers; while he's great at pitch framing, he doesn't have a great arm and has allowed 56 stolen bases, the most in the league, with a below-average caught stealing percentage; voters obviously prefer big power numbers from their MVP candidates; voters might not place much value on his pitch framing.
Yasiel Puig, OF | Dodgers
Numbers: .317/.402/.544, 12 HR, 54 RBIs, 59 runs, 4.1 bWAR, 4.4 fWAR
The case for: Tied with McCutchen for second in fWAR among position players; second in the NL in batting average and slugging percentage and third in on-base percentage; third in extra-base hits; second in assists among right fielders and has committed just one error; has recently started playing center field, which increases his value if he stays there.
The case against: Will have to fight Kershaw for votes and narrative; has just one home run and 14 RBIs since June 1; has missed 10 games; voters might focus too much on some of the negatives (bat flips, baserunning gaffes).
It definitely looks like it will come down to September, one of those years in which the best stretch run will settle the race. There are two ways to look at the MVP voting: Who will win it and who should win it. The "should" debate is wide-open, but we can eliminate Tulo from the candidates of "will" win because the Rockies are out of it (and given his current DL status). Stanton is also unlikely; his numbers aren't any better than McCutchen's and his team is less likely to make the playoffs.
That leaves the other five (although a player who has a hot final two months could climb into the race, especially if he's on a playoff contender -- somebody such as Freddie Freeman or Anthony Rendon).
Who do you think will ultimately win it?