Who has been the most valuable player in the National League so far this season? Ask that question to 10 different people, you’ll probably get four or five different answers.
By this point last season, Albert Pujols had already pulled away from the pack. He was hitting .328 with 26 home runs, and an OPS of 1.159. On June 23, 2009, it was fairly clear who the National League MVP had been over the first few months of the season.
But this year? No National League batter has hit 20 or more home runs. None have an OPS over 1.000. Albert Pujols is hitting “just” .302 with “only” 15 home runs. Hanley Ramirez is having a down year. So is Chase Utley. And so is Prince Fielder.
Andre Ethier looked like the clear-cut favorite early in the season, but his offense has tailed off and his defense has been beyond terrible.
Jason Heyward had a case entering the month, with an OPS near 1.000 on a first place team, but he too has been in quite a slump.
Albert Pujols was near the league lead in several offensive categories a few weeks ago, but he’s hit just three home runs in the month of June.
Who does that leave in contention?
Let’s start with the first place Braves, and current NL batting average leader Martin Prado. Prado is the only National Leaguer among the top-10 in the league in batting average, hitting .340 to date. But Prado rarely walks and has little power. Prado is a good hitter and a solid defensive third baseman, but his overall offensive package just isn’t enough.
What about Andre Ethier? He’s dropped off just a bit, but he’s still hitting .320. He hasn’t walked quite all that much, but his SLG% of .583 leads the National League, and his .965 OPS is second. The problem with Ethier, as it has always been, is defense. He’s one of the worst right fielders in baseball.
So far this season, he’s cost his team nearly 14 runs in the field, according to UZR. Over his career, he’s lost his team more than 30 runs in right field, so this is nothing new. As great a hitter as he’s been, his poor defense has to be taken into consideration.
Marlon Byrd is hitting .323 on the season with a .521 slugging and a UZR over seven. But his lack of walks (his OBP is just .366) make him a less valuable player than his average and slugging would indicate.
Another National League Central outfielder might have a better case—Matt Holliday. Holliday has had an incredible June. He’s hitting .308, but hasn’t walked as frequently as in previous seasons, and has only 11 home runs. He’s a solid candidate, and the way he’s playing, he could put himself into contention sooner rather than latter. But right now, Holliday probably doesn’t deserve to win the award.
Joey Votto is certainly a reasonable candidate. The Reds are in first place, due in large part to Votto’s contributions with the bat. Votto is hitting .310 with a .405 OBP and 15 home runs. He has an impressive .962 OPS, and might be the favorite to win the award if it were not for another first baseman on a first place team. That man is Adrian Gonzalez.
Gonzalez is, in my mind, the most underrated player in baseball. He’s probably the second best first baseman in the league, but is often over looked, partly because he plays in San Diego, and partly...well, because he plays his home games in San Diego. Last season, his OPS was nearly 200 points higher on the road. At home, he hit just .24, and 28 of his 40 home runs came on the road.
So with that in mind, consider the fact that Gonzalez now leads the league in OPS. So far this season, Gonzalez is hitting .313 with a .411 OBP and a .559 SLG, to go along with 15 home runs and 47 RBI. His home/road splits are astounding. On the road, Gonzalez is a .353 hitter with a .664 SLG. Again, his OPS is nearly 200 points higher outside of Petco.
Gonzalez is also one of the best defensive first baseman in the league, and has won the last two National League Gold Glove Awards at first base. The Padres are in first place mostly due to outstanding pitching and defense, but Gonzalez’s offensive contribution has been extremely valuable for a team that plays half their games in offensive hell.
If the season were to end today, I have no idea who would win the National League MVP award. But I have a pretty good idea who would be deserving of that honor. That would be baseball’s most underrated player, Adrian Gonzalez.
This article is also featured on Fantasy Bullpen.