I can't think of an MLB season with two MVP races more up in the air than this 2011 campaign.
Most years, at least one playoff contender has a (position) player that is far-and-away the best on his team—or at least someone who is a clearly integral part of his team's success (basically the complete opposite of Barry Zito).
While there are plenty of great position players on contending teams this season, almost none of them have really stood out because of the quality of players surrounding them.
The few players who are having great seasons with little help surrounding them are, predictably, on mediocre teams, and the one clear-cut most valuable player on a winning team (Justin Verlander) is a pitcher.
Nobody can seem to come to consensus No. 1 MVP in either league, which makes this race incredibly compelling.
In the upcoming slides, I will write who I think the top five MVP candidates in each league should be, giving reasons for and against their candidacy, and why they are in the spot I have them.
(Would I have gotten more reads if I did an NFL slideshow? Probably, but someone has to focus on baseball, right?)
Case for: Kennedy leads the National League in wins (19), with a sub-3.00 ERA (2.90) and a solid WHIP (1.11) for the out-of-nowhere first place NL West Diamondbacks, and his season is one of the main reasons why Arizona went from last place in 2010 to first place this year. Then D-Backs have been a good hitting team the last few years but they needed some pitching if they wanted to be a playoff team. Kennedy has been one of the best aces in the National League, which has been more than enough for the surprising D-Backs.
Case against: Being a pitcher who's only pitched in 30 games this year, it's hard to say he's as valuable as a position player who has been in 100+ games (although I think this stance is a little flawed). He also might not even be in the top five for the Cy Young Award, with pitchers like Roy Halladay, Clayton Kershaw, and Cliff Lee all having great seasons. His 19 wins are impressive but if he had San Francisco's offense supporting him instead of Arizona's, he'd probably have closer to nine W's (which shows how meaningless the "win" stat is in demonstrating how good a pitcher is).
Reason he's #5: Although Kennedy might not be having a better statistical season than Halladay, Kershaw, Lee, or Cole Hamels, he is more valuable to his team than any of them. Take any of the Phillies' Big Three away from that rotation and they're still a good team. Kershaw is on a mediocre team. Kennedy isn't as valuable as some of the great National League hitters this season, but I don't think there is any more valuable pitcher in the NL.
Case for: Prince is having a great all-around season with 31 home runs (sixth in the NL), 108 RBI (second), and a .407 on-base percentage (second). He and Ryan Braun are the only two really scary hitters in the lineup of the NL Central-leading Brewers. With only a decent pitching staff, Fielder and Braun have really carried this Brewers squad.
Case against: The aforementioned Braun has been a significantly better hitter than Fielder, so Prince might not even be the most valuable player in the Brewers' lineup. Fielder also has zero stolen bases and plays average-at-best defense. He is a great hitter, but doesn't bring much else to the table like other players in this slideshow.
Reason he's #4: Fielder deserves a lot of credit for Ryan Braun's terrific season because his presence hitting directly behind Braun has surely caused pitchers to give Braun better pitches to hit, for fear of pitching to Prince. However, I don't think Prince's influence on Braun has been significant enough to put him higher on this list.
Case for: Kemp might be the best overall player in the game right now. He's a five-tool player who has had no one else supporting him in the Dodgers' lineup. With a good remaining September, Kemp could win the MLB's first Triple Crown since 1967.
Case against: Kemp is on a .500 team that has been out of the playoff race for months, so it is hard to give the MVP to a player on a non-contender. And if you compare Kemp's stats (.317 BA, 32 HRs, 107 RBI, .964 OPS, 38 SBs) with Braun's (.331, 27, 95, .981, 31), there isn't much of a discrepancy—although, Kemp does not have Prince Fielder hitting behind him.
Reason he's #3: Kemp is having a fantastic season and who knows how bad the Dodgers would be without him. Unfortunately, his team's record has to be taken into account, as there are more deserving players on winning teams. However, if he gets hot and wins the Triple Crown, he'd instantly be the most deserving of the MVP no matter how bad his team's record is.
Case for: I showed the stats for Braun on the last slide and they make the case for him. I've talked about Prince Fielder's impact on Braun's numbers, which is why I have a hard time giving Braun the #1 spot on this list, but it still takes a great player to hit over .330 with 27 HRs and 32 steals no matter who is hitting behind him.
Case against: Braun would obviously never complain about having Prince Fielder on his team hitting behind him, but Fielder might be the only reason why Braun doesn't win the MVP.
Reason he's #2: I think Braun is a bigger part of the Brewers' success this season than Fielder but because they are both so great, I don't think the Brewers would be having as much success if either one of them was on another team. The next guy on this list is much more important to his team.
Case for: The Diamondbacks have won 20 more games up to this point in the 2011 season than they did all of last season, and Upton has really been the driving force behind their surprising worst-to-first run. Like Kemp, he's a five-tool player with a very impressive .299 BA, 30 HRs, 86 RBI, and 21 SBs. The D-backs do have a strong overall lineup but none of the other hitters are nearly as well-rounded as Upton.
Case against: I basically just mentioned one of the biggest cases against Upton: his supporting cast. The D-backs would probably still have a better lineup than every NL West team other than the Rockies even without Upton, which isn't that much of an insult to the other NL West teams. Arizona has a very deep group of hitters. Also, the D-backs would be an average team without the highly improved pitching staff they've had this season, even with the season Upton is having.
Reason he's #1: Upton might not be having as good of a statistical season as Fielder, Kemp, or Braun, but the "V" in "MVP" represents value, not stats. Kemp means so much to his team, but he hasn't done enough to make them a winner. And unlike Braun and Fielder, Upton is unquestionably the best player on his team. Upton has the ideal résumé of an MVP.
Case for: Ellsbury is having one of the best all-around seasons in the majors this year. He's fifth in the AL in BA (.317), fourth in SBs (36), sixth in slugging percentage (.533), and in the top 10 in HRs (26) and RBI (91). He's always been a base-stealer and a good hitter but his power numbers have come out of nowhere. He's one of, if not the best leadoff hitters in the game right now.
Case Against: The Red Sox have probably the most loaded lineup in the majors. Just imagine how good the Sox would be if Carl Crawford was having a good year. With Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz, and Kevin Youkilis all hitting behind Ellsbury, it's easy to see why he's having such a breakout year.
Reason he's #5: Ellsbury deserves to be in the conversation with his spectacular all-around play but he has too many great hitters behind him, and some would argue he hasn't even been the most valuable on his team, let alone the AL.
Case for: Everyone knew Granderson would be a solid hitter and a good base-stealer, but no one thought he would be leading the AL in RBI (111) and be second in HRs (39). A-Rod has been hurt for much of this season and players like Derek Jeter and even Robinson Cano have gone through some struggles. Other than CC Sabathia, Yankees' pitchers have been average at best, so Granderson has carried this team a lot more than most people think.
Case against: Some would argue that Granderson is not even the second-best hitter on the Yankees. Cano is having another well-rounded season, Mark Teixeira hasn't been extraordinary but is still very good, and Jeter has been one of the best hitters in baseball during the second half. Granderson's .265 BA is a little inexcusable given the quality of bats surrounding him, and I've seen home runs hit to right field at Yankee stadium that are routine outs in other stadiums, so many of Granderson's 39 HRs are products of that short porch in right.
Reason he's #4: Granderson has been the Yankees' most consistent hitter in a lineup that hasn't gotten much help from the pitching staff. However, his numbers have a lot to do with the park he plays in and the quality of hitters around him, so it's hard to think that the Yankees wouldn't still be a playoff team even if Granderson wasn't there.
Case for: Sabathia has been the only Yankees starting pitcher that opposing lineups fear. Bartolo Colon and Ivan Nova have been good but without CC, the Yankees might be in third place in the AL East instead of first in the entire AL.
Case against: Colon and Nova have been solid enough to make the case that Sabathia hasn't carried the Yankees' rotation as much as many people think. He's also benefited from having the top run-scoring lineup in the major leagues supporting him.
Reason he's #3: Ivan Nova and Bartolo Colon will probably be the #2 and #3 starters in the playoffs for the Yanks, who would almost certainly be the worst #2 and #3 starters out of every playoff team. For a team with the second-best record in the majors, CC has really been the only stable pitcher on the Yankees. However, his lineup is too loaded for him to be higher on this list.
Case for: Even with a lackluster second half, Bautista has had one of the best 2011 seasons and might be the most feared hitter in all of baseball. His .305 BA and 98 RBI are very impressive but it's his 41 HRs (first in all of baseball), and 1.070 OPS (also first) that really make him special. In a division with three very good teams, it's pretty amazing that the Blue Jays are over .500 and Bautista deserves a lot of credit for his team's success.
Case Against: Like Matt Kemp in the NL, Bautista's MVP candidacy is hurt by his team's record. Yes, the Jays are over .500 but only by one game and they're in fourth place in the AL East. He doesn't have a ton of support in the lineup, but Adam Lind and Yunel Escobar are no slouches. Matt Kemp would love to have those two guys in his lineup.
Reason he's #2: I was torn between Bautista and the next guy on this list as my AL MVP choice, but Joey Bat's mediocre second half on a fourth-place team are why he'll have to settle for second place on my list. I'm sure he's heartbroken...
Case for: Verlander has been utterly dominant this season, leading the majors in wins (22, with just five losses), WHIP (0.91), strikeouts (232), innings pitched (229), and tied for the AL lead in ERA (2.44). He's been a stopper for the Tigers (15 wins after Tiger losses) and extremely consistent (only four starts with more than three earned runs given up). For a team that hasn't gotten much else from it's pitching staff, Verlander has carried the Tigers, who have a 99.9 percent chance of making the playoffs at this point.
Case Against: Like Ian Kennedy, many people don't think a pitcher who has appeared in 31 games should get the MVP over a position player who has appeared in almost 100 more games, especially because position players do more each game than a starting pitcher does. Verlander also has great hitters supporting him like Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta, and Alex Avila, so Verlander definitely hasn't been a one-man team.
Reason he's #1: The Tigers might have an above-average lineup, but without Verlander, they would be lucky to even be contending with the White Sox and Indians for the AL Central title, much less 10.5 games up. Other MVP candidates are either on loaded teams or on non-contenders, and those are maybe the biggest reasons why Verlander is #1 on my list.