The wild NL MVP race

I've held a Most Valuable Player ballot in my hand many, many times. It's always challenging. It's always meaningful. It's never easy. Ever.

Now here we go again. In three weeks, I'm going to have to cast another MVP vote, this time in the National League. And I've already begun to stress about it, because this is shaping up as one of the toughest ballots I've ever had to fill out.

Do I vote for Andrew McCutchen, a clear-cut MVP favorite a month ago but a guy whose OPS has dropped nearly 100 points since and a fellow who has clearly begun to feel the weight of trying to elevate his franchise to a better place?

Do I vote for Buster Posey, a player whose second half is reaching historic proportions for a team bound for October, but whose overall numbers in most categories still don't quite match McCutchen's?

Do I vote for Ryan Braun, a man having a season pretty much the equal of his MVP season last year, but also a man whose overturned 2011 positive PED test will no doubt cause many of my fellow voters not to list him on their ballot at all?

Or do I vote for someone else entirely? Matt Holliday? Yadier Molina? Jay Bruce? Jason Heyward? Clayton Kershaw? Craig Kimbrel? David Wright? Pick your favorite off-the-radar-screen candidate. I promise I'll at least consider him.

In three weeks, maybe this landscape will look completely different. Maybe one of these men will clearly separate himself from the masses. Maybe somebody will come out of nowhere to complicate this vote even more. But for the moment, here's how I'd handicap the big three in this derby -- McCutchen, Posey and Braun:

Buster Posey
My odds: 2-to-1 favorite

Think back six months. Think about what your expectations were for Buster Posey when this season began, coming off as gruesome an injury as a catcher could possibly suffer.

Would he still have the foundation underneath him to catch 100 games? Would his legs allow him to be the hitter and player he used to be? Would he ever be the same?

Well, look at him now. He has caught 100-plus games already. And by the time the postseason is over, he could catch another 30, or more. He leads the National League in on-base percentage (.408). He ranks in the top five in WAR, slugging, OPS, batting average and just about every significant sabermetric category you could name.

But it's Posey's second half, as his legs have gotten stronger and his team has put away the NL West, that makes him the MVP candidate to beat. These are his insane numbers since the All-Star break: .393 AVG/.470 OBP/.658 SLG, 11 homers, 46 RBIs.

Want to look that stat line over one more time? It's not one you've seen a whole lot in your lifetime, no matter how many years your lifetime has lasted.

Over the last half-century, only three other hitters have emerged from the All-Star break to hit over .390 in the second half, with an on-base percentage and slugging percentage that high, and with double-digit home runs. Here they come:

Barry Bonds, 2002: .404/.608/.825, 19 homers.
Larry Walker, 1998: .402/.480/.699, 14 homers.
George Brett, 1980: .421/.482/.696, 16 homers.

Pretty high-profile group. Walker had Coors Field's lack of gravity going for him. Bonds had, uhhhh, flax seed going for him. Brett had the most picturesque swing of modern times going for him.

But none of them was coming off a devastating knee injury. And none of them had to scrunch into a squat 125 times every night and bear the responsibility of catching one of the best pitching staffs in baseball.

But that's what Buster Posey is doing. Amazing. So no wonder that, in my informal poll of coaches, scouts and executives, he was the runaway pick.

"He's had an unbelievable second half," said one scout. "And what's most impressive about it is that if you look at the other guys [in this debate], everyone else's lineup stayed the same. His hasn't. I know the Giants went out and got Hunter Pence. But Melky Cabrera was a guy who was in the MVP conversation himself. And since he's been gone, it's almost like Posey said, 'I've gotta pick it up.' And he's done it -- and done it in a park where it's tough to put up power numbers. Plus, he's got to catch a very electric pitching staff. He's been really, really impressive."

Impressive enough, in fact, that I think this is his award to lose.

Andrew McCutchen
My odds: 5-to-1

On Aug. 8, 106 games into his season, the great Andrew McCutchen was hitting .370, with a .625 slugging percentage, 1.055 OPS, 23 home runs and 50 extra-base hits. His team was 16 games over .500, leading the second-wild-card race by 3½ games and writing itself one of the best sports scripts of 2012.

Maybe, back then, somebody somewhere could have talked himself (or herself) into believing that someone else was the NL MVP. But there would have to have been some mild sunstroke issues involved.

So what's happened since then? Yikes. Did you have to ask?

Since Aug. 8, in 31 games, McCutchen has hit just .242, slugged only .347, run up a wobbly .680 OPS and produced a mere three home runs and seven extra-base hits in 124 at-bats. And ohbytheway, in a related development, his team hasn't exactly been the '98 Yankees since then, either. In fact, the once-surging Pirates have gone 9-23 since that day, a worse record than (gasp) the Astros (9-22).

So how much of Pittsburgh's fall is tied to his fall? Way too much of it, unfortunately -- because he's that important to who and what they are.

"He hasn't gotten the same pitches to hit in the second half, but some of that is his fault because he's chasing," said one NL scout. "He's only hitting now when nobody's on base, because he's changed his swing with people on base. He's pulling off. He's lacked discipline. He's extended his strike zone. There's just no reason to throw him fastballs early in the count because he's swinging at the slider, he's swinging at the changeup, he's swinging at the curveball, and he's making easy outs. And that's not what he was doing early."

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Nevertheless, it's time for this important announcement: This race isn't over. And this season isn't over. If you view the season as one giant entity, rather than one of those convenient, "The MVP needs a huge second half" storylines, it's remarkably easy to argue that McCutchen should still win this award.

He still leads the league in wins above replacement and runs created per game. He's ahead of Posey in the batting race (.340), in slugging (.559), in OPS (.965) and in home runs (26). And he's doing all this without a lot of help, for a team whose season has taken on gargantuan importance, unless you think making the postseason and finishing over .500 for the first time in 20 years are overrated (which they're not).

But what voters have to decide for themselves is this pivotal question: What is an MVP? And traditionally, the voters in this election have decided it's a guy who lifts his team when it most needs lifting, not a guy whose numbers look pretty but who couldn't rise to meet the season's biggest moments down the stretch.

"Let me ask you this," said one scout. "If the Pirates wind up finishing in third or fourth place, could they have finished in third or fourth place without Andrew McCutchen? I think you know the answer. But would the Giants have won their division without Buster Posey? And are Buster Posey's numbers MVP-worthy? If you say no to the first question and yes to the second, then you've answered your own question."

Ryan Braun
My odds: 50-to-1

His numbers are virtually identical to last year's numbers, except that he's on pace to hit 10 more home runs (yep, 10). His team is roaring back from the crypt. And this time around, he has no Prince Fielder to hit behind him.

So if you read only that paragraph above, it would be kind of clear that Ryan Braun's MVP credentials are slightly more impressive than, say, Jason Bay's. Right?

Except you know and I know that the Ryan Braun MVP debate isn't going to revolve around any of that. Of course it isn't!

Sadly, it's going to center around one issue, and one issue only: A positive drug test from last October that was later overturned, because of what a since-fired arbitrator ruled to be an "invalid" collection of his urine sample.

So what are we, the voters, supposed to make of this, huh?

The easy way out is to say, "The bum's a cheater, so nobody should ever honor him for anything ever again." And you can bet your autographed picture of Shyam Das there are going to be voters who think that way.

I'm just not one of them.

Let's think this through, as slowly, logically and rationally as possible. Try it, OK? You can do it.

First off, this man was judged, by the proper legal authorities, to be not guilty. That's supposed to matter in the America I grew up in.

Second, we have a frustratingly incomplete set of facts to help us understand exactly why he tested positive and why his suspension was overturned. And that's not getting cleared up in the next three weeks -- or, most likely, the next three centuries.

Third, this was supposed to be a confidential process. So if this news hadn't leaked (to ESPN), we wouldn't have any facts, because we never would have known he tested positive in the first place.

Now seriously, given all that, is there really enough basis for rational voters to completely dismiss this man's candidacy? There shouldn't be. But good luck on that.

So what are we supposed to make of the murmurs, from people tight with Braun, that if we knew "the real story," we'd have a different view? Who knows?

And what are we supposed to make of Braun's repeated insistence that the reason he won his case wasn't because of a technicality, but because "I didn't do it"? Who knows on that front, either.

Back in July, at an on-the-record Q-and-A between union chief Michael Weiner and the Baseball Writers Association of America, Weiner was asked if the arbitrator's decision did, in fact, prove that Braun "didn't do it." His response back then:

"What we proved was that this was not a valid collection, and therefore the collection had to be thrown out. And the case did not proceed to questions beyond that. So I'm not going to differ with Ryan Braun, whom I have a very strong relationship with and still do, or his characterization of it. But the case was about whether it was a valid collection. It was deemed to be an invalid collection, and that was the basis for overturning it."

In other words, as usual, for those of us who have to vote, all of this remains open to interpretation -- with minimal facts to help us interpret it. Great.

So this week, I asked Bill Shaikin, president of the Baseball Writers Association, if the BBWAA would issue any guidelines to voters about how to handle Braun's MVP case. On behalf of the organization, he declined comment.

And there you have it. We're officially on our own. But let's remember we do have at least one known fact to weigh: Braun's positive test didn't happen this season. So why would it be any more sensible to use it as a reason not to vote for him this year than, say, Josh Hamilton's past transgressions or Miguel Cabrera's 2011 DUI arrest?

After all, this isn't a Hall of Fame vote, where we're assessing Braun's entire career. We're supposed to be judging how his season fits into the MVP discussion in 2012. And (A) he wasn't suspended, and (B) given the scrutiny he's been under, you could make a case that his fabulous 2012 season proves he never "cheated" himself to greatness in the first place. Couldn't you?

But in a world where people believe what they want to believe, and feel a need to make moral statements on behalf of the planet, only one thing is certain: Ryan Braun can't win. Can't.

I'd bet at least one-third of this year's MVP voters don't give him even a top-10 vote. And that will be that. And you know what? If that happens, it won't just be the ban-'em-all-for-life crowd that cheers. So will people who work in this sport. Some of them.

One last story: As I was working on this column, I asked one of the scouts quoted earlier which player he thought was the National League MVP. His answer said it all.

"Anybody," he said, "but Ryan Braun."