NL MVP Rankings: Is Andrew McCutchen Ready to Take the Trophy in September?

Ian CasselberryMLB Lead WriterSeptember 5, 2012

NL MVP Rankings: Is Andrew McCutchen Ready to Take the Trophy in September?

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    The rest of the field competing for the National League Most Valuable Player award had its chance to take over the top spot from Andrew McCutchen in August. 

    But now that the calendar has turned to September, the Pittsburgh Pirates' center fielder appears to have beaten whatever was bringing him down during the past month. It's very early in September, of course, but signs seem to indicate that McCutchen is swinging the bat well again. If he starts hitting for power as well, his grasp on the MVP trophy will only get stronger.

    The top five didn't change very much from last week, though some players, such as the Cincinnati Reds' Jay Bruce, Atlanta Braves' Jason Heyward, Colorado Rockies' Carlos Gonzalez and Miami Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton, are all making a push to break in.

    Personally, I like Adam LaRoche as the Washington Nationals' top MVP candidate, too, though he's just not hitting well enough from an average standpoint to be considered. 

    It still looks like a two-man race between McCutchen and Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants through September. But the Milwaukee Brewers' Ryan Braun might have something to say about that if he keeps launching baseballs out of the park. 

    These look like the top-five top contenders for the NL MVP award this week. All the statistics mentioned here are current before play began on Sept. 5.

    Please share your responses and suggestions for this week's top five in the comments. We had a great discussion last week. You can also reply to me on Twitter. My address is at the end of this article. That feedback can influence how these rankings are assembled from week to week. 

5. David Wright, New York Mets

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    Last week: No. 4.

    Comparing David Wright to Matt Holliday makes for a pretty even competition. 

    Wright has the edge over Holliday with a .313 batting average, .403 on-base percentage and .904 OPS. Maybe that should be enough to put him ahead on this list.

    However, we're giving Holliday the edge because of his power numbers. At least in terms of home runs. With 17 homers, Wright has eight fewer than Holliday, and his slugging percentage is 21 points lower. Holliday has the edge in RBI too, but he plays for a far better team with a stronger lineup, so he has more opportunities to drive in runs. 

    It's probably not fair to also give Holliday a nod for the St. Louis Cardinals having a better record than the New York Mets and competing for a wild-card playoff spot. Holliday has the good fortune of playing for a better team than Wright does currently. He's also surrounded by better hitters. 

    But I do think there's something to be said for playing under pennant-race pressure. Holliday doesn't have to carry the load by himself, but the Cards are in a four-team dogfight for one of the NL's wild-card bids.

    That's not to say Wright is just frolicking around out there. He's obviously playing extremely well, ranking among the top hitters in the National League. At this point of the season, however, the Mets are looking ahead to next year and a possible contract extension for Wright. 

4. Matt Holliday, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Last week: No. 5.

    We made the case for Matt Holliday in the previous slide, kind of hogging the spotlight in David Wright's territory. 

    Holliday and Wright could easily switch places on this list, depending on the day and mood. They match up against one another quite well. 

    But as I said, Holliday is getting the edge this week because of his power numbers. He has 25 home runs to Wright's 17, and he is slugging .522 to Wright's .501. Perhaps Holliday enjoys a slight advantage hitting at Busch Stadium as opposed to Citi Field, according to ESPN.com's park factors, but it's a slight edge. 

    Holliday's 25 homers are tied for the seventh-highest total in the NL. His 92 RBI rank third in the league. 

    The argument could be made that the Cincinnati Reds' Jay Bruce belongs on this list over Holliday. He has more home runs (31), a higher slugging percentage (.522) and is right behind Holliday with 91 RBI. Bruce has also had to help carry the Reds' lineup in Joey Votto's absence. Yet Holliday has the edge in batting average, on-base percentage and OPS. 

    This might be something to think about during the last month of the season. Who is actually more valuable to their team between the two players? Which player is having the better season? Should the Reds being ahead of the Cardinals in the NL Central by a substantial margin matter at all? 

3. Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Last week: No. 3.

    Does Ryan Braun really have a chance at winning the NL MVP award?

    His numbers certainly deserve strong consideration. Braun leads the league with 37 home runs and 98 RBI. His .312 batting average ranks sixth among NL hitters, as does his .389 on-base percentage. 

    However, Braun leads all NL batters with a .605 slugging percentage and .994 OPS. He's 20 points ahead of Andrew McCutchen in that latter category as of Sept. 5. 

    FanGraphs rates Braun as the league's best hitter at 7.1 wins above replacement (WAR). Baseball-Reference's version of WAR has Braun tied for third at 5.7 with the Atlanta Braves' Michael Bourn. 

    But as I wrote last week, two factors will likely weigh heavily against Braun's MVP candidacy.

    The Milwaukee Brewers are 66-69, 16 games out of first place in the NL Central and 7.5 games back in the wild-card standings. If the Brewers winning their division and qualifying for the postseason gave him the edge over Matt Kemp in last year's NL MVP voting, then it only seems fair to penalize Braun for his team's performance this year.

    Secondly, MVP voters might hold a grudge against Braun if they feel duped after he tested positive for testosterone last winter. His 50-game suspension was overturned, of course.

    Braun's performance this season should quiet PED suspicions as well. But any voters who thought Braun should have been stripped of his award last year might try to enact that penalty this year. 

2. Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants

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    Last week: No. 2.

    The San Francisco Giants have broken out to a 4.5-game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West, providing a decent cushion as the two teams fight for a playoff spot throughout September. 

    If last year's NL MVP race told us anything, it's that the Giants qualifying for the postseason could give Buster Posey the edge over Andrew McCutchen for MVP honors. 

    Posey did have a strong week to help his candidacy, however. In six games since last week's rankings, the Giants' catcher hit 9-for-26 (.346) with three doubles and five RBI.

    That's kept him in the NL's top three in batting average at .326 and on-base percentage at .401. With a .527 slugging percentage and .928 OPS, Posey also ranks among the top-six NL batters. 

    However, Posey trails McCutchen in each of the triple-slash hitting categories. He does have a slight edge in doubles, RBI and walks, but that probably isn't enough to give him the nod for MVP with fans and voters. 

    Posey's defense at catcher might make a stronger argument for him. As shown by FanGraphs, he's only allowed one passed ball all season, and his 21 wild pitches allowed are the second-fewest among qualified catchers in MLB.

    In a year when McCutchen rates as one of the worst defensive center fielders, according to Ultimate Zone Rating, could voters actually give Posey an edge based on defense? It seems doubtful, but it's yet another thing to consider. 

1. Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Last week: No. 1.

    After a poor August in which he hit .252 with a .643 OPS, Andrew McCutchen's front-runner status in the NL MVP race looked vulnerable. 

    But McCutchen's rivals for award consideration may have seen their best chance go by. It's very early in September, but the Pittsburgh Pirates' center fielder appears to have gotten his timing back and turned himself around at the plate.

    Obviously, a small sample size has to be considered, but McCutchen has batted .412/.412/.941 in 17 September plate appearances. Now that he appears to be hitting the ball again, will the power be soon to follow?

    The hitting surge pushed McCutchen over Melky Cabrera again for the NL batting lead, which probably makes Bud Selig and the MLB offices relieved. MLB surely wants to see McCutchen finish ahead of Cabrera and avoid having to put a suspended PED user in the record books. 

    Despite his August slide, McCutchen still leads the NL with a .409 on-base percentage. His .565 slugging percentage ranks third in the league, while his .974 OPS is the second-best in the NL. With 24 home runs and 83 RBI, he's far down the list of league leaders in those categories now. 

    However, McCutchen's case really seems to come down to the concept of "most valuable." Would the Pirates be anywhere near playoff contention (currently 2.5 games behind the NL wild-card leaders) without him? And is it a coincidence that the Bucs fell off the pace in the NL Central and lost their wild-card lead while McCutchen was struggling? 

    Unless the Pirates completely fall into a crater over the course of September, McCutchen's value to his lineup should compensate for where Pittsburgh finishes in the standings. 

     

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