With the dog days of August on the horizon, let us pause and reflect on the outstanding performances by some of the games best so far this 2011 MLB Season.
This season, with perennial MVP front-runner Albert Pujols slumping and injured, a mixture of old and new faces have emerged as candidates to win the National League's most coveted individual award.
This list is debatable of course, and will surely need revisions at some point, but from where I stand right now, this is the way the race looks.
*All statistics and sabermetrics referenced can be found at Baseball-Reference.
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Braun's .947 OPS is 4th in the NL.
As dangerous of a right-handed hitter as there is in baseball, Ryan Braun is truly a force to be reckon with when healthy. Despite missing time to a nagging calf-strain this season, Braun has delivered what is shaping up to be another sensational season.
In 86 games this year, Braun is hitting a tidy .316 with 16 home runs and 62 runs batted in. Already with two seasons of 30 + home runs and a .300 + average in his young major league career, Braun is one of the few players in baseball that can hit for power as well as a high average.
Acknowledging this player as one of the true superstars of Major League Baseball, the Milwaukee Brewers inked Braun to a five-year, $105 million contract extension in April that will have him in a Brewers uniform until 2020 with a mutual option for 2021.
At only 27 years old, I expect Braun to be in the conversation for the NL MVP for a long time to come.
Votto was honored in 2011 with his second All-Star selection.
I mean no disrespect to the reigning National League MVP Joey Votto, but considering his spectacular 2010 season, it's going to be tough to repeat for him. More is now expected of a former recipient. Regardless, he deserves to be on this list.
Votto, who is second to only Jose Reyes in the race for the NL Batting Title (.326 average), has displayed an even more disciplined approach at the plate this year, walking an NL-leading 67 times. His .438 OBP in 2011 is better than his 2010 MVP campaign mark of .424. In the day of Moneyball inspired MLB General Managers, Votto's value is through the roof with his ability to get on base at such a high frequency.
With Votto in their lineup and a nucleus of good, young talent, the Cincinnati Reds should remain relevant in the NL Central for the next decade.
Lee is 9-6 this season, leading the majors in shutouts with four.
Cliff Lee, in my opinion, is the most talented left-handed pitcher in baseball today. After deciding to decline an offer from the New York Yankees in the off-season, Lee has returned to Philadelphia where he made 12 starts in 2009. By teaming up with Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt, Lee has solidified what is the deepest pitching staff in all of baseball.
His performance on the field has lived up to the large expectations that come with a beefy free agent contract. His month of June is something that will be marveled at for years to come. In five starts, Lee went 5-0 with a 0.21 ERA and had a stretch of three, consecutive, complete game shutouts. Never mind that they were shutouts, but how many pitchers do you see going the distance anymore? They are few and far between now with managers wary of the 100-pitch ceiling. This guy did it three games in a row! It doesn't matter if it takes 80 pitches or 120 pitches. Lee likes to finish what he starts.
When he's hitting his spots and controlling at-bats, there are few better than Lee. He is efficient and pitches with a purpose. Considering how deep Philadelphia's starting staff is, it's hard to imagine a 2011 post-season without a deep Phillies run.
Jurrjens is 2nd among NL pitchers in WAR (wins above replacement) in 2011.
Because starting pitchers only see the field every five days, they don't get much consideration for MVP balloting. They need to have a really outstanding resume to win the title. The #7 player on my list may well be having that type of season.
Atlanta's Jair Jurrjens has returned the Braves to National League pennant contenders. A legitimate staff-ace, Jurrjens leads all NL pitchers with a 2.26 ERA. To give you some perspective, the last pitcher in Atlanta history to finish the season with an ERA under 2.50 was Greg Maddux in 1998, and I remember him as not too bad a pitcher.
If he continues on this path, Jurrjens, (12-3) will surpass his single-season win mark of 14 with ease. He will bet getting serious NL Cy Young Award consideration this year, among the likes of several other pitchers on this list. In a perennially tough NL East division, the Braves will need Jurrjens to keep dazzling the opposition if they hope to be playing in October.
His 361 career stolen bases are a New York Met record.
It's tough to leave the guy who is hitting .354 off the list. The New York Mets' shortstop Jose Reyes could be the most exciting player in baseball, and even higher on this list, but one way or another, Reyes can't seem to make it through a season unplagued by some type of injury. Recently he's been sidelined by a hamstring injury which cost him a start in the MLB All-Star Game, but before that Reyes had been the most explosive leadoff hitter in baseball.
They say that speed kills. If you don't believe it, watch Jose Reyes after he hits a ball to the gap. He's one of the fastest men in baseball. He leads the MLB in triples again this season, already with 15 three-baggers to his name. If watching him go from first to third doesn't do it for you, watch him steal a base. In 36 attempts this year, Reyes has only been caught stealing 6 times. His acceleration from a standstill to a full sprint happens so quick that if you turned a way for a split moment you would have missed it.
There have been mumblings of the Mets possibly looking to move Reyes all year but nothing serious has materialized from that. With no playoff in sight for New York this year, they have begun to move players. Reyes won't be one of them.
The Mets' front office is smarter than that ,and how real that notion was to begin with is questionable. They know that playing in a pitchers ball park like Citi Field, they're going to need gap-to-gap hitters like Reyes with exceptional speed. This is a guy a front office should be building their franchise around.
Halladay is averaging a career-high 8.12 SO/BB this year.
The top pitcher and fifth NL MVP candidate on my list is Philadelphia's Roy Halladay.
With a repertoire of four different pitches, there isn't anything that Halladay throws that doesn't move in one direction or another. He continues to dominate National League lineups since coming over from the Junior Circuit two off-seasons ago.
When you talk about consistency you talk about Roy Halladay. Every time he takes the ball you know your team will be in the game until the end. Halladay has done an exceptional job at pitching deep into ball games this year. His six complete games and 143.1innings pitched lead the majors and his 2.45 ERA just strengthens his case to repeat as the NL Cy Young Award winner.
I look forward to see how Halladay pitches in the second half of the season and how far he can lead the Phillies into the 2011 playoffs.
McCutchen has walked 51 times this year which is good enough for fourth in the NL.
Despite being from Pittsburgh, I don't think it's too far fetched to have the leader of the greatest story in baseball this year as my #4 leading candidate for the NL MVP.
The Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen is as gifted of an athlete as there is in the majors today. There hasn't been a five-tool player like him in Pittsburgh since Barry Bonds. He leads the team in home runs with 14, runs (54), stolen bases (15), and average (.282*). They're respectable numbers on the surface, yes, but do you really know how valuable McCutchen is to this Pirates team?
By turning to sabermetrics, you find that McCutchen has a WAR rating of 5.2. WAR, or wins above replacements, takes into account everything a player does, offensively and defensively. What the number represents is how many wins the team is losing when they have to replace Player X.**
A large reason why I have McCutchen so high is because of his value to the Cinderella story that is the 2011 Pittsburgh Pirates. Having tasted what it was like to be in first place, albeit a brief time, McCutchen is spearheading one of the most exciting seasons in recent Pittsburgh baseball history.
*Among qualified players.
**Fan Graphs glossary definition of WAR here.
Matt Kemp leads the NL with a WAR rating of 6.1
The only thing that holds me back from having Matt Kemp higher is because the Los Angeles Dodgers are terrible. Maybe they would be worse without him, but I'm not inclined to believe that the glass is half full in this scenario. Nonetheless, Kemp has been tearing up the National League this year.
He is the only legitimate Triple Crown candidate in the NL this year. His marks of 24 home runs (2nd), RBI (3rd), and .313 average (7th) have him as the only player in the National League to rank in the top 10 in all three categories.
And when you think he couldn't contribute any more, he's thrown in 27 stolen bases already this year. It is certainly plausible Kemp will surpass the 30/30 mark but if he were to go above and beyond and join the 40/40 club, he would add his name to a list that includes only one other player that has not been linked with performance enhancing drugs (Alfonso Soriano, 2006). I think that would certainly make his case as the National League's most supreme player this year.
Once known as a player for not working hard enough to achieve his max potential, Kemp is proving all the doubters wrong this year.
Berkman has carried the load for the Cards this year with a .286 average, 25 home runs, and 64 runs batted in.
The #2 player on my list will be collecting at least one piece of hardware following the 2011 season, the NL Comeback Player of the Year, but if he continues to produce at the rate he is now, Lance Berkman could win his first MVP Award.
After battling injury and inconsistency last year, Berkman hit a career-low .248 and homered a very un-"Puma"' like 14 times. Back healthy and with a new home in St. Louis, Berkman has excelled in the middle of the Red Bird's lineup, with or without much support.
The Cardinals, having battled with injuries to both Albert Pujols and Matt Holiday, have relied heavily upon Berkman for middle of the lineup type production. He has responded very well. This year Berkman leads the NL in home runs with 25 and is fourth in RBI (64). Now back to playing everyday in the field, Berkman has found a rhythm that is reminiscent to his days in Houston.
With any luck the Cardinals will get healthy, and Pujols back on track to make another run at an NL pennant.
Prince Fielder won the All-Star Game MVP award after going 1-2, with a 3-run homer in the 4th inning to propel the NL to a 5-1 win.
Atop my list of NL MVP candidates, I have Milwaukee's Prince Fielder, the fifth player from the NL Central on my list. Please don't think of me as biased, there just happens to be some studs in the division!
Fielder is having one of his most prosperous years in the majors yet. Twenty-two home runs, a league-leading 73 RBI's and an average teetering around .300 at .299, make him one of the most feared hitters in baseball. Fielder, whether facing right-handed pitching (.307) or left-handed (.291), is able to approach the at-bat the same way which is what makes him such a great, complete hitter.
He sticks out to me not only because he is a nimble fielding first baseman for his size but also because of his ability to rise to the situation when runners are on and in scoring position. This year, Fielder is hitting .330 with RISP and has 43 RBI in those situations.
As much as Berkman has meant to St. Louis, Fielder has meant just as much, if not more to the Brewers. He is a free agent at the end of this year so if this is indeed his last year in Milwaukee, he is going to go out guns blazing. The Brewers are sitting atop the NL Central currently. It will be up to Fielder to continue to deliver in critical situations for the Brewers to make a legitimate run at a division title.