10 Dark-Horse Contenders Emerging for the MLB MVP Awards

Kerry MillerCollege Basketball National AnalystMay 28, 2013

10 Dark-Horse Contenders Emerging for the MLB MVP Awards

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    If the MLB season ended today, your NL MVP would probably be Joey Votto, and your AL MVP would indisputably be Miguel Cabrera.

    Fortunately, the season doesn't end today. We have four months left during which injuries or prolonged cold streaks could drastically alter the voting for the most popular end-of-season award.

    Should those favorites drift back to the pack, there are five dark horses in each league who would gladly find a home for the award above their fireplace.

    Read on to find out how we got to that number and who those candidates are.

    *All statistics are courtesy of ESPN.com and FanGraphs.com and are accurate through the start of play on Monday, May 27.

Criteria

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    Here's how the list of roughly 800 players was whittled down to 10 finalists.

     

    No. 1: No pitchers

    Justin Verlander may have won the award two years ago, but let's keep the pitchers in the Cy Young discussion and leave the MVP discussion for the everyday players.

     

    No. 2: Minimum of five home runs

    Aside from Verlander, the only MVP in the past 11 seasons to hit fewer than 24 home runs was Dustin Pedroia (17) in 2008. If you don't have five home runs at this point in the season, it's unlikely you're hitting 20 more between now and the end of September.

     

    No. 3: Minimum batting average of .280

    The lowest batting average to win the MVP in the past 20 seasons was Jimmy Rollins' .296 average in 2007. With apologies to the Mark Reynolds fan club, if you're batting below .280 at this point in the season, you probably aren't finishing the year above .300.

     

    No. 4: Minimum WAR of 1.5 (according to FanGraphs.com)

    You aren't winning an MVP with a WAR below 6.0, and you're unlikely to achieve a WAR of 6.0 if you aren't at least 25 percent of the way there by now.

     

    No. 5: No votes for MVP in ESPN's preseason panel

    The first four criteria get us the list of legitimate MVP candidates, but this fifth one gets us to the dark horses.

Honorable Mentions

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    The criteria on the previous slide reduced the field of possible candidates to 18. From there, I applied my own judgment to remove these eight guys.

     

    Jhonny Peralta

    Sorry, but there are at least four Tigers who will finish ahead of Peralta in the voting.

     

    Shin-Soo Choo and Brandon Phillips 

    They're good, but they aren't Joey Votto good. You have to at least be the MVP of your own team to be the MVP of your league.

     

    Starling Marte and Jean Segura

    Same idea as the one used to eliminate Choo and Phillips. Marte isn't quite as good as Andrew McCutchen, and Segura is still a step behind Ryan Braun and Carlos Gomez, in my opinion. Plus, I would never trust a rookie to maintain a .375 BABIP for an entire season.

     

    Brandon Crawford

    Pretty much the bare minimum for each criterion, but it's worth noting how well he's played.

     

    Carl Crawford

    A very strong candidate for Comeback Player of the Year, but I'm not buying him for MVP just yet—especially with the Dodgers in the basement of their division.

     

    Carlos Santana

    The overall numbers (.290/.409/.529, 8 HR) look pretty solid, but he's batting just .173 with one home run in the past 15 days. He entered the season with a .247 career batting average, and he's starting to show it.

American League No. 5: Josh Donaldson

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    2013 Stats: 50 G, 7 HR, 26 RBI, 2 SB, .326/.400/.543

    Josh Donaldson is the ultimate dark horse in the MVP race. If the odds on Miguel Cabrera winning the award are 1/1, Donaldson's odds are somewhere in the vicinity of 200/1.

    Still, let's refrain from completely going to sleep on Oakland's potential All-Star third baseman. His 2.5 WAR ranks sixth in the American League. His .400 on-base percentage is good for fifth place among American Leaguers with at least 200 plate appearances.

    He's currently on pace for 22 home runs and 98 RBI.

    If he reaches those numbers and maintains his .326 batting average, he would join elite company from last season. Only two players reached those plateaus in 2012, and Miguel Cabrera and Buster Posey just so happened to win the MVP in their respective leagues for pulling it off.

National League No. 5: David Wright

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    2013 Stats: 47 G, 6 HR, 28 RBI, 11 SB, .284/.384/.467

    Recycling and refreshing a bit of research done for last week's article, David Wright is currently on pace for 21 home runs, 97 RBI, 38 stolen bases and a .384 on-base percentage.

    The only other person in the past eight seasons to either match or exceed those numbers in a single season was Matt Kemp in a 2011 season where he had a WAR of 8.4 and finished second in the NL MVP voting to Ryan Braun—most likely because Milwaukee had the second-best record in the National League, while the Dodgers finished in third in the NL West.

    Wright's MVP prospects will be damaged by that unspoken but often implied idea that the MVP should go to a member of a playoff team if at all possible. The Mets are currently 11 games below .500 and 4.5 games out of third place in the NL East.

    ESPN has the Mets listed as the fourth-least likely team in MLB to make the playoffs.

    I'm not saying it's impossible for Wright to win the award because the Mets are terrible. I'm just saying he would need to indisputably have the most impressive stats in the league to get the necessary first-place votes. He isn't there yet, but if he could get to 30 home runs and 40 stolen bases, we'll talk.

American League No. 4: Alex Gordon

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    2013 Stats: 47 G, 6 HR, 30 RBI, 1 SB, .335/.374/.503

    Alex Gordon leads the Royals in virtually every offensive category.

    It took four years of growing pains, but over the past two-plus seasons Gordon has finally fulfilled the hype of stardom so many projected when he made the Royals' Opening Day roster in 2007.

    He's batting .355 in the month of May and has marginally reduced his strikeout total. Unfortunately, his stellar play hasn't stopped the Royals from losing 16 of their last 20 games.

    His lack of stolen bases is bit surprising, especially given his better-than-usual batting average and on-base percentage. After stealing 17 bases in 2011 and 10 bases in 2012, Gordon is only on pace to attempt six stolen bases this season.

    Unless he really turns up the power or the stolen bases (or preferably both), it's going to be hard to argue for him as an MVP. Batting .335 is certainly valuable, but it would take better peripherals than 20 home runs and three stolen bases for someone in Kansas City to capture the attention of MVP voters.

    After all, Gordon's 23 home runs and 17 stolen bases were only good for three points in the 2011 MVP voting.

National League No. 4: Troy Tulowitzki

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    2013 Stats: 45 G, 10 HR, 39 RBI, 0 SB, .329/.399/.600

    As is the case with any analysis of Troy Tulowitzki, we have to preface this with the unsafe assumption that he will actually stay healthy until the end of the season. He missed 36 percent of Colorado's games over the three previous seasons with various ailments, including a broken wrist and a groin injury that required surgery.

    It was looking like déjà vu all over again when he injured his shoulder on this seemingly harmless play at the plate on April 28, but he ended up missing only two games.

    If he can stay healthy for 150 games while the Rockies remain in a playoff race, you have to like his chances of winning the NL MVP. Tulo is currently batting .329 and is on pace to hit 32 home runs. Neither of those stats seems particularly unattainable for a career .294 hitter with at least 24 home runs in four of the past six seasons.

    Excluding Manny Ramirez's 2008 season—because of the steroid allegations and the fact that he changed teams in the middle of the year—only five people in the past five seasons have hit at least 32 home runs while batting at least .329. Albert Pujols ('08), Josh Hamilton ('10), Ryan Braun ('11) and Miguel Cabrera ('12) each won the MVP that year, while Carlos Gonzalez ('10) finished third behind Joey Votto and Pujols.

American League No. 3: Manny Machado

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    2013 Stats: 50 G, 5 HR, 28 RBI, 4 SB, .329/.358/.516

    Manny Machado Mayhem is officially reaching a breaking point. It's a shame Bryce Harper is hobbled for this week's series between the Orioles and Nationals, because the media would have had an absolute field day with those comparisons.

    They probably still will anyway.

    Dave Sheinin wrote a fine piece on Machado for the Washington Post this weekend, justifying the comparisons to Alex Rodriguez and Cal Ripken Jr. while demanding inclusion with Bryce Harper and Mike Trout in the "Which youngster would you most want to build your future around?" discussion.

    In the article, Machado responds to the comparisons, saying, "I’m Manny. I’m not A-Rod. I’m going to play the game the way Manny plays and be myself."

    (Translation: Manny being Manny?)

    The numbers on offense aren't exactly eye-popping, but you'd be crazy not to covet a guy batting .329 with some pop, some speed and the best defense in the entire league.

    Maybe he doesn't win the MVP this season, but go ahead and start etching his name onto the Gold Glove trophy for the next decade and assume he'll win at least one MVP during his career.

National League No. 3: Carlos Gomez

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    2013 Stats: 47 G, 8 HR, 23 RBI, 9 SB, .326/.368/.576

    At the start of play on Memorial Day, Carlos Gomez led all National League players in WAR. (And then he went and hit two more home runs on Memorial Day.)

    I dare you to find one person who actually predicted anything like that in the preseason. Even in fantasy baseball—where stolen bases are valued much more highly than they arguably should be—Gomez was the 30th outfielder drafted on average.

    We all knew Curtis Granderson would miss more than a month with a fractured forearm, but fantasy owners decided that 4.5 months of Granderson was more valuable than six full months of a 27-year-old Gomez coming off a season with 19 home runs and 37 stolen bases in just 415 at-bats.

    His continued unwillingness to draw walks is a bit concerning, but if he can keep up this current pace—26 home runs, 30 SB and a batting average 66 points higher than he's had in any other season in his career—it's unlikely anyone will complain that he isn't even averaging a free pass once every five games.

American League No. 2: Alex Rios

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    2013 Stats: 48 G, 10 HR, 28 RBI, 8 SB, .296/.358/.527

    One season removed from batting .304 with 25 home runs and 23 stolen bases, Alex Rios is at it again. This time, though, he's headed for bigger and better things, as he's currently on pace for 34 home runs and 27 stolen bases.

    Over his last 12 games—a stretch in which the White Sox have reentered relevance in the AL Central with a 9-3 record—Rios is batting .348 with a pair of home runs and a pair of stolen bases. Just a few days away from gaining some national attention, he had an 18-game hitting streak snapped on Saturday. During those 18 games, he increased his batting average by 48 points.

    He's done a lot of good in May, but let's not forget he finished the month of April with six home runs and six stolen bases—the only person to accomplish that feat.

National League No. 2: Paul Goldschmidt

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    2013 Stats: 50 G, 12 HR, 39 RBI, 4 SB, .320/.406/.597

    Entering play on Monday, Paul Goldschmidt was one of just two NL players with an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging) of better than 1.000.

    The last person to finish a season with an OPS over 1.000 and finish outside the top five in the MVP voting was Chipper Jones in 2008—and to be fair, Chipper still finished in 12th in the voting despite missing 34 games that season.

    Simply put, Goldschmidt is mashing the baseball right now. His 12 home runs have him in a tie for third place in the National League, and his 2.3 WAR puts him in a tie for fourth place.

    He might be a bit of a dark horse for NL MVP right now, but I can almost guarantee he'll finish in the top three in the voting if the Diamondbacks manage to make the playoffs. All due respect to Gerardo Parra, but with Martin Prado and Miguel Montero disappointing as much as they have this season, Goldschmidt has almost single-handedly kept the lineup afloat.

American League No. 1: Chris Davis

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    2013 Stats: 49 G, 16 HR, 46 RBI, 0 SB, .337/.432/.721

    Jose Bautista is the only person to have hit 50 home runs in any of the past five seasons, hitting 54 in 2010. Despite batting .260 and playing for a team that missed the playoffs by 10 games, Bautista finished fourth in the AL MVP voting that season.

    What happens if Chris Davis bats over .300 and hits more than 50 home runs for an Orioles team that makes the playoffs?

    Well, after the pigs are finished flying, one would have to assume Davis would be one of the front-runners for the American League MVP.

    With Miguel Cabrera batting .385 and on pace for 46 home runs and Mike Trout on pace for another 30 HR/40 SB season, Davis will certainly have his hands full with the favorites for the award. But with almost one-third of the regular season in the books, he is very much in the running for it.

National League No. 1: Carlos Gonzalez

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    2013 Stats: 48 G, 13 HR, 32 RBI, 9 SB, .306/.388/.602

    When I saw how ridiculous Carlos Gonzalez's stats were for this season, I thought, "Sure, he has the benefit of playing half of his games in the thin air of Coors Field."

    Au contraire, mon frère. Gonzalez is batting better on the road than he is at home.

    In 24 home games, CarGo has a respectable triple slash of .283/.376/.554 with five home runs and six stolen bases. As a point of comparison, Coco Crisp played in 24 games in April, batting .283/.388/.556 with five home runs and eight stolen bases.

    Those aren't the insane kind of numbers that guys like Justin Upton and Chris Davis put up in April, but they were good enough that a lot of people wondered if Crisp's hot start was for real.

    Meanwhile, in 24 road games Gonzalez has batted .330/.400/.649 with eight home runs and three stolen bases. That roughly equates to what Bryce Harper did in the month of April, which was pretty darn impressive.

    Extrapolating his current stats, Gonzalez is on pace for 42 home runs, 105 RBI and 30 stolen bases. Let's give him a little bit of wiggle room and call it 40 HR, 100 RBI and 26 SB. Care to guess how many times that has happened since 2000?

    Just once.

    Ryan Braun did it last year but failed to win the MVP award. (No offense to Buster Posey, but we all know that voters were skeptical about Braun after the PED do-si-do that happened before the 2012 season began.)

    If Carlos Gonzalez can put up numbers mirroring what Braun recorded last season while avoiding any sort of irreparable allegations, he could not only win the NL MVP award, but do so unanimously.