Stating the Case for Each Top 2014 MLB MVP Candidate

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistSeptember 16, 2014

Stating the Case for Each Top 2014 MLB MVP Candidate

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    MLB award talk is heating up here with just a few weeks remaining in the 2014 regular season, and this year's crop of MVP candidates in both leagues should bring about some good debate.

    In the American League, the storyline is Mike Trout once again, as he looks to finally take home some hardware after finishing second to Miguel Cabrera the past two years.

    Over in the National League, it's a wide-open race once again. The past two NL MVP winners Andrew McCutchen and Buster Posey are both viable candidates, but everyone may be chasing the game's best pitcher Clayton Kershaw at this point as he has put together a season for the ages.

    What follows is a look at the case for each of the top MVP candidates to take home the award this season. Only players with a legitimate shot at receiving first-place votes were considered "top candidates," and included is also a look at players who just missed the cut and why.

AL MVP Candidate: 2B Robinson Cano, Seattle Mariners

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    2014 Stats/AL Ranks

     BAOPSHTBHRRBIRWAR
    Stats.321.8541762561477756.2
    AL Rank6th11th3rd13th47th21st24th4th

    The Case for Robinson Cano as AL MVP

    Pitching has been the biggest factor in the Seattle Mariners' impressive turnaround this season, as their 3.03 team ERA is tops in all of baseball. But an improved offensive attack has certainly played a role as well.

    A breakout season from Kyle Seager and a big second half from Dustin Ackley has helped, but the addition of Robinson Cano has undoubtedly had the biggest impact on their offensive attack.

    The team went all-in to acquire him, signing him away from the New York Yankees with a 10-year, $240 million mega deal, and he has delivered in his first year with the team.

    His power numbers are down, with just 14 home runs after averaging 28 longballs per season over the past five years, but he has still provided elite production.

    The best case for him is the fact that the Mariners were 71-91 without him a year ago and are now in a position to make their first postseason appearance since 2001 in his first season with the team.

AL MVP Candidate: DH Victor Martinez, Detroit Tigers

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    2014 Stats/AL Ranks

     BAOPSHTBHRRBIRWAR
    2014.331.9681742983199824.8
    Rank2nd2nd6th3rd8th5th15th13th

    The Case for Victor Martinez as AL MVP

    After missing the entire 2012 season with a knee injury, Victor Martinez returned to once again provide plus production for the Detroit Tigers last season, and he really picked his game up in the second half when he hit an MLB-best .361.

    Despite that, there were some legitimate questions as to whether he could provide the same protection for two-time reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera that the departed Prince Fielder had for the past two seasons.

    Martinez quickly put those concerns to rest, though, and he has actually been the more productive hitter this season slotted in the cleanup spot between Cabrera and surprise star J.D. Martinez.

    His 31 home runs are already a career high, and his .400 on-base percentage leads the American League. But perhaps his most impressive stat of all is his fantastic 62/40 BB/K ratio.

    The biggest thing working against him is the fact that he's a designated hitter, and he could also deal with splitting some votes with Cabrera who is still putting up elite numbers despite a drop-off in power. But Martinez is a viable candidate nonetheless.

AL MVP Candidate: SP Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    2014 Stats/AL Ranks

     IPWERAFIPERA+WHIPKWAR
    2014219.0142.142.591720.922256.9
    Rank1st8th2nd3rd2nd1st4th1st

    The Case for Felix Hernandez as AL MVP

    He's not quite putting up Clayton Kershaw-type numbers, but Felix Hernandez has still been the best starting pitcher in the AL by a sizable margin, and that's enough to make him a legitimate candidate in a somewhat thin field of candidates.

    A model of consistency throughout his career, King Felix made history earlier this season when he strung together a record 16 straight starts in which he went at least seven innings and allowed two earned runs or fewer.

    All told he was 9-2 with a 1.41 ERA, 0.74 WHIP and .165 opponents batting average during that streak, and that has helped him put up the best numbers of his career overall this season.

    There is always the camp of detractors that feel pitchers should not be eligible to win MVP honors, considering they only have an impact on roughly one-fifth of their team's games, but that's a somewhat archaic view in my opinion.

    A better way to look at it may be the fact that Hernandez has faced 845 batters on the year, a number that no position player will come close to in terms of plate appearances. His ability to go deep into games also undoubtedly impacts the way manager Lloyd McClendon uses his bullpen in the games before and after he starts.

AL MVP Candidate: CF Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    2014 Stats/AL Ranks

     BAOPSHTBHRRBIRWAR
    2014.291.947166323341071087.8
    Rank11th3rd12th1st4th1st1st1st

    The Case for Mike Trout as AL MVP

    By most accounts the 2014 season has been the "worst" to date for Mike Trout, but a bad season from Trout is still an awfully good season by most standards, and dare I say an MVP-caliber year.

    The 23-year-old is striking out more than he has in past seasons, and his walks are down as well, with the result being a significant dip in his on-base percentage from .432 a year ago to .378 this season.

    However, he has already set career highs in home runs (34) and RBI (107) and should have new personal bests in doubles (39) and total bases (323) before the season is over.

    His WAR currently sits at 7.8, as he'll likely fall well short of the 10.8 and 8.9 marks he's put up the past two seasons, but that's still tops among all position players.

    Looking at OPS+, which may be the best gauge of overall offensive production relative to the rest of the league, his 170 mark trails only Jose Abreu (174) and is actually better than the 168 he posted during his impressive rookie season.

    The numbers in support of Trout go on and on, but the simplest way to state his case as the AL MVP front-runner is that he is undoubtedly the best player on the best team in baseball. The Angels missing the postseason was the biggest strike against Trout the past two years, and now that they look like a lock win the AL West, it becomes a point in his favor.

Why the AL Player You're Getting Ready to Ask About Was Not Included

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    Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

    1B Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox

    The White Sox struck gold when they signed Cuban defector Jose Abreu to a six-year, $68 million deal this past offseason, as he has quickly emerged as one of the game's top power threats.

    He's currently hitting .323/.384/.602 with 35 home runs and 102 RBI, and he leads the AL with a .986 OPS and 174 OPS+. Unfortunately, he plays for a sub-.500 team, and only five times in MLB history has a player on a losing team claimed MVP honors. Chances are he won't be No. 6, but his future is bright.

    2B Jose Altuve, Houston Astros

    Altuve currently leads the AL in batting average (.342), hits (209) and stolen bases (52), and if he keeps that up he will be the first player since Ichiro in 2001 to pace his respective league in all three categories.

    Alas, he too plays for the sub-.500 team in the Astros, so a top-five finish is probably the best he can hope for.

    RF Jose Bautista, Toronto Blue Jays

    Finally healthy after missing significant time the past two seasons, Bautista has anchored the offense for a Blue Jays team that remains in the hunt for a wild-card spot.

    He's hitting .285/.399/.521 with 32 home runs and 97 RBI, leaving him short of the numbers he put up in 2010 and 2011 when he finished fourth and third in the voting, respectively. If the Blue Jays find a way to sneak into the playoffs it would help his case, but at this point that looks like a long shot and so do his chances.

    1B Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers

    Cabrera has provided elite production once again this season with a .313/.375/.520 line to go along with 23 home runs and 102 RBI, but if a Tigers player is going to win MVP here in 2014 it's going to be Victor Martinez.

    He could still finish in the top 10, especially if the Tigers end up winning the AL Central, but it's fair to assume we won't be seeing an AL MVP three-peat.

    LF Nelson Cruz, Baltimore Orioles

    His power numbers look great, and he's perhaps the best bargain of 2014 on a one-year, $8 million contract, but Cruz is not quite having an MVP-caliber season.

    His 39 home runs are tops in the AL, but his .265/.332/.526 slash line and lack of any sort of defensive contribution leave him short of being a legitimate candidate to win the award.

    3B Josh Donaldson, Oakland Athletics

    The sabermetrics crowd can certainly get behind Donaldson this season, as he ranks second in the AL with a 7.2 WAR, but that lofty number is due in large part to his elite defense at third base.

    Whether or not you agree, offensive production is generally what wins MVP honors, and his numbers don't quite stack up there. He's hitting .254/.341/.455 with 27 home runs and 95 RBI, making him the best candidate on the A's roster, but not quite a serious threat to win the award.

    LF Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals

    Much like Josh Donaldson, Gordon has an impressive 6.1 WARgood for eighth in the ALbut it's largely on the strength of his phenomenal defense in left field.

    He too is the best candidate from a potentially playoff-bound team, but his .270/.352/.442 line that includes 19 home runs and 68 RBI just is not good enough for him to claim top honors.

NL MVP Candidate: C Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants

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    Ralph Freso/Getty Images

    2014 Stats/NL Ranks

     BAOPSHTBHRRBIRWAR
    2014.311.8501592502085684.7
    Rank3rd9th10th13th17th8th32nd12th

    The Case for Buster Posey as NL MVP

    Buster Posey likely would not have even cracked a list of the top 20 NL MVP candidates at midseason, as he hit an uninspired .277/.333/.423 with 10 homers and 46 RBI in the first half.

    The second half has been a different story, though, as the 2012 NL MVP has hit .361/.406/.585 with 10 home runs and 39 RBI to again rank as one of the most productive backstops in all of baseball.

    He's only getting better too, hitting a ridiculous .449/.473/.673 with 14 RBI in 13 games here in September, and that production has played a big role in the San Francisco Giants getting their season back on track.

    It's been a roller coaster ride of a season for the Giants, as they opened the year 42-21 to build a 10-game lead in the NL West, but unraveled from there. A 21-36 record followed, and they saw that 10-game lead turn into a five-game deficit.

    Things are back on track now though, as they look like a lock to at least claim a wild-card spot after going 19-11 in their last 30 games. Posey has been right at the middle of it all, too, hitting .409/.426/.696 with 28 RBI during that stretch.

NL MVP Candidate: CF Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    2014 Stats/NL Ranks

     BAOPSHTBHRRBIRWAR
    2014.310.9321582722375805.6
    Rank4th3rd11th4th8th17th11th6th

    The Case for Andrew McCutchen as NL MVP

    The reigning NL MVP, McCutchen has put together another dynamic all-around offensive season for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and he has them in position to make a return trip to the postseason after finally snapping a 21-year playoff drought a year ago.

    He has posted very similar numbers across the board this season, actually improving his OPS (.911 to .932) and OPS+ (157 to 161), and there is little question he is one of the most productive players in the league.

    His stolen base total is down from 27 to 17, but he has been far more successful on the bases. He was caught stealing 10 times for a 73.0 percent success rate last year, but he has been caught just twice this season for an 89.5 percent success rate.

    Add in an NL-best .399 on-base percentage, and that McCutchen has shouldered even more of the run-production load with Pedro Alvarez falling off drastically after a big 2013 season, and it's easy to see why he's a serious candidate once again this season.

    Overall, the Pirates are 72-61 when McCutchen is in the lineup and 7-9 without him, and it's hard to imagine they'd be anywhere near contention if he were to have missed a significant amount of time. That's the type of impact an MVP-caliber player has on his team.

NL MVP Candidate: C Jonathan Lucroy, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    2014 Stats/NL Ranks

     BAOPSHTBHRRBIRWAR
    2014.303.8481642581367716.3
    Rank6th10th8th9th39th33rd22nd3rd

    The Case for Jonathan Lucroy as NL MVP

    Jonathan Lucroy was one of the most underrated players in baseball entering the 2014 season, after quietly hitting .280/.340/.455 with 25 doubles, 18 home runs and 82 RBI in a breakout season a year ago.

    He's taken his game to another level entirely this season, though, and there is little question he's been the best all-around catcher in baseball.

    At the plate, he has become the first catcher in baseball history to eclipse the 50-double plateau, as his 51 two-baggers are tops in all of baseball. His 71 runs scored are also a career high and tops among all catchers this season.

    On the defensive side of things, his 11 Defensive Runs Saved (per FanGraphs) and his 1.9 dWAR both rank No. 1 at the position, and with Yadier Molina missing significant time this year, there's a good chance he takes home his first Gold Glove.

    The Brewers' second half slide is going to hurt his candidacy, as they may very well wind up missing the playoffs, but Lucroy has continued to produce, and it's hard to imagine they'd be anywhere near contention without his contributions this season.

NL MVP Candidate: RF Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    2014 Stats/AL Ranks

     BAOPSHTBHRRBIRWAR
    2014.288.95015529937105896.3
    Rank19th1st13th1st1st2nd7th2nd

    The Case for Giancarlo Stanton as NL MVP

    An easy comparison to make when talking about the MVP candidacy of Giancarlo Stanton this year is Arizona Diamondbacks slugger Paul Goldschmidt a year ago, but that may not be a fair one.

    Goldschmidt led the NL in home runs, RBI, OPS and total bases much like Stanton is doing at this moment, and he did it playing for a team that hovered around .500 all season and eventually wound up at 81-81.

    However, consider for a moment what kind of impact each slugger's production had on their respective team's win-loss record compared to the year prior.

    The Diamondbacks posted an identical 81-81 record in 2012 and 2013, so while Goldschmidt undoubtedly emerged as one of the top hitters in the National League, his increased production had little impact on the team's overall success.

    On the other hand, the Marlins were a 62-100 team a year ago, with Stanton missing a total of 44 games to injury. They got off to a promising start this year before losing ace Jose Fernandez for the season, but they still managed to hang around on the fringe of contention and have already improved by 11 wins at 73-76.

    There are a few things that could work against Stanton, namely the fact that despite their significant improvement the Marlins are still going to fall short of the playoffs. It is also likely he will miss the remainder of the season after suffering a gruesome injury when he was hit in the face with a fastball last Friday.

    All that said, he still looks like a better candidate than Goldschmidt was a year ago when he finished second in the voting, so Stanton has to be considered a legitimate contender to take home the award.

NL MVP Candidate: SP Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    2014 Stats/NL Ranks

     IPWERAFIPERA+WHIPKWAR
    2014185.1191.701.862100.832198.0
    Rank11th1st1st1st1st1st3rd1st

    The Case for Clayton Kershaw for NL MVP

    The last time a pitcher put together a season as dominant as the one Clayton Kershaw is enjoying this year was probably Greg Maddux back in 1995.

    Maddux also missed almost all of April that year, as the season started late coming out of the strike, and he made a total of 28 starts on the year. That was enough for him to go 19-2 with a 1.63 ERA, 0.81 WHIP and post a career-best 9.7 WAR.

    He finished a close third in MVP voting, earning seven first-place votes and 249 total vote points to finish just behind Barry Larkin (11, 281) and Dante Bichette (6, 251).

    Kershaw is currently working on a streak of 17 consecutive quality starts, and he's gone 14-1 with a 1.18 ERA and 0.76 WHIP during that span, seemingly improving his case for NL MVP honors with each start.

    The detractors will argue that starting pitchers only impact one-fifth of their team's games, but Dodgers manager Don Mattingly himself disproved that notion when talking to our very own national MLB columnist Scott Miller for a recent article.

    As a manager, you see the value in stopping losing streaks and extending winning streaks. And the day before he pitches, you can count on him going six innings, for sure, even if he's getting knocked around. Then when he pitches, you're definitely not going to need a lefty (reliever) that night. And the day after he pitches, your pen is rested. There's definitely value in what he does.

    There is immense value in having someone you can hand the ball to every fifth day and not only expect a quality start, but expect sheer dominance. Kershaw has provided that this season, and on top of a third NL Cy Young in four years, he may very well be adding an MVP award to the trophy case.

Why the NL Player You're Getting Ready to Ask About Was Not Included

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    David Maxwell/Getty Images

    Carlos Gomez, Milwaukee Brewers

    Gomez has been a dynamic offensive player once again this season, posting his second straight 20/30 season and earning his first All-Star Game start in the process.

    That said, if someone is going to take home the award from the Brewers, it's going to be catcher Jonathan Lucroy. Not to diminish the contributions that Gomez has made in any way, but there is little doubt who the MVP of that team has been this year.

    Adrian Gonzalez, Los Angeles Dodgers

    With Giancarlo Stanton injured, Gonzalez has moved into the lead for the NL RBI title with 106, and he has a decent cushion over Justin Upton who is in third place with 97.

    He's picked things up in the second half, posting a .930 OPS with nine home runs and 46 RBI, but his overall numbers are not quite good enough. He's hitting .277/.336/.473 with 38 doubles and 23 home runs this season.

    Josh Harrison, Pittsburgh Pirates

    A compelling argument can be made for the versatile Harrison being the most indispensable player on the Pirates roster this season, but in the end it's Andrew McCutchen who will likely garner the attention once voting rolls around.

    That's not to say Harrison doesn't have a chance to finish in the top 10, as he is currently pacing the NL with a .317 batting average and ranks ninth with a 5.2 WAR. He's played at least eight games at five different positions, and it's hard to quantify just how valuable that kind of defensive flexibility is for a team.

    Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves

    Heyward leads the NL with a 6.5 WAR, but like Josh Donaldson and Alex Gordon on the AL side, that number is inflated by his elite defense.

    He's hitting .274/.353/.390 with 11 home runs and 58 RBI on the season, which should leave him well short of the top five once voting rolls around.

    Yasiel Puig, Los Angeles Dodgers

    Puig looked like a legitimate candidate to win the award at the All-Star break, as he hit .309/.393/.522 with 27 doubles and 12 home runs in the first half.

    However, he has hit just .229/.321/.264 with zero home runs and five RBI since the beginning of August, and at this point he may not even be one of the three best candidates to win the award on his own team.

    Anthony Rendon, Washington Nationals

    There is no clear-cut MVP candidate on the Nationals roster, despite their dominance in the NL East, but there is little doubt that Rendon has been their best player all season.

    His numbers should be good enough for him to see a fair amount of support on the back end of ballots, as he's hitting .287/.348/.476 with 38 doubles, 20 home runs and 80 RBI while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense at third. But he won't see any first-place votes.

    Justin Upton, Atlanta Braves

    Upton has turned in arguably his best all-around season this year, hitting .277/.351/.502 with 33 doubles, 27 home runs and 97 RBI as one of the more productive hitters in the NL.

    Those numbers could be enough to get him in the top 10 in voting, especially if the Braves can right the ship and secure a wild-card spot. But they leave him short of being a serious contender to win the award.

    Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and cover games through Monday, Sept. 15. Ranks reflect where a player stands among other qualified position players or pitchers in their own league.

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