Sizing up the MVP races
Rockies' Troy Tulowitzki, Angels' Mike Trout emerge as early leaders
Most Valuable Player debates typically gain momentum after the All-Star break, when leaders step forward, narratives take shape and the baseball writing community begins to pay closer attention and start chronicling the "horse race" element of the proceedings.
But forewords are written and trends are established in April, and this year has been no different.
The National League has a stronger earlier field out of the gate, as evidenced by the absence of Carlos Gomez, Adrian Gonzalez, Chase Utley, Andrew McCutchen and Charlie Blackmon from this list. Flip a coin, and any of them could easily be mentioned among the group below.
Given the general lack of offense this season, we might also see some pitchers wedging their names into the conversation. The spectacular Jose Fernandez and Johnny Cueto (22 hits allowed in 47 innings) are two who spring to mind.
Other traditional questions are likely to emerge as the races takes shape: Will voters simply gravitate to the highest WAR (wins above replacement) scores, or take a more nuanced view of the landscape? And how much of an edge will candidates derive from playing on winning teams? That's always a significant part of the discussion.
The debate is very fluid at the moment, but here are the AL and NL players who've seized the initiative through the first month of the season:
National League MVP
Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
It's the same refrain each year: The Rockies are destined to have their pitching issues. But if Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez can remain healthy and stay on the field, Colorado has a chance to field a more representative team than people expect.
Through the first month, that mantra is 50 percent on target. While Gonzalez is just starting to find his stroke, Tulowitzki has shown all the attributes that prompted the Rockies to give him a $134 million contract extension in 2010 and Karl Ravech to pick him first overall in ESPN's Franchise Player Draft in 2011. (This was pre-Mike Trout, of course). Tulowitzki is first in the majors with a 1.207 OPS and has a staggering 18 extra-base hits in 92 at-bats. He's a shortstop who hits like a first baseman and plays defense like a Gold Glover. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Tulowitzki led MLB shortstops with 10 defensive runs saved in April. He even outpaced Atlanta's Andrelton Simmons in that category.
As a result of his sterling all-around play, Tulowitzki posted a WAR of 3.0 in April. For sake of comparison, Mike Trout didn't reach 3.0 in WAR for the first time last year until June 26, when he led the majors in the FanGraphs rankings.
If history is any indication, Tulowitzki will have to put up some stunning numbers to join Larry Walker as the second MVP winner in Rockies history. Tulowitzki has a 1.686 OPS in his first 11 games at Coors Field, compared to .895 on the road so far. A disparity of that magnitude tends to get noticed.
St. Louis Cardinals
Yadier Molina, Cardinals
Molina ranks first among major league catchers with a .350 batting average and 35 hits, but that doesn't begin to explain his contribution to the Cardinals. He is second to Oakland's Derek Norris with a catcher's earned run average of 2.81, and second to Tampa Bay's Ryan Hanigan with a caught stealing percentage of .429 (6-for-14). If you watch three or four innings of a typical St. Louis game, it's easy to see his calming, nurturing, game-planning and pitch-framing influence on the St. Louis staff.
"The list of the 30 best catchers should have Yadi at No. 1, and then it should be blank until you get to 13 and have 'everybody else,'" said an AL scout. "Maybe you could include Salvador Perez. I think Yadi and Perez are the two elite catchers in baseball right now."
Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
Stanton looked like a man on a mission in spring training, when he was smacking balls off roofs and other nether regions of Roger Dean Stadium, and he's carried that momentum into the regular season. He broke Moises Alou's franchise record with 31 RBIs by the end of April, and did it with a flourish: Of the nine longest home runs in MLB this season, Stanton has three of them. His 484-foot shot off San Diego's Eric Stults tops the list.
True, RBIs are a function of opportunity. But Stanton is hitting .378 with runners in scoring position, so it's not just a case of stepping in the box at the right time. He also appears to have benefited from the arrival of Casey McGehee, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and the other veterans who've added length to the Miami lineup.
Stanton and Jose Fernandez give the Marlins perhaps the most dynamic set of teammates in the game. They've helped perpetuate the sense of optimism that took hold in spring training, when scouts began buzzing about the team's dark-horse potential. The Marlins are 12-4 at home this year, and they have the second-best run differential in the NL at plus-22. If Stanton can refrain from pulled hamstrings and the other nagging injuries that forced him to miss a total of 85 games in the 2012 and '13 seasons, he's going to make a lot of noise.
Freddie Freeman, Braves
Freeman's numbers have taken a hit with a recent 6-for-42 funk, but he played a major role in getting the Braves off to their big early start. He hit .413 with a .736 slugging percentage in the first two and a half weeks while Atlanta was asserting itself in the National League East.
The Braves needed Freeman, Justin Upton and Andrelton Simmons to take the initiative, with Jason Heyward and Chris Johnson off to nondescript starts and B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla sputtering along in the low .200s.
Yankees catcher Brian McCann, who looked like the heir apparent to Chipper Jones as Atlanta's designated "face of the franchise" before Freeman assumed that role, isn't surprised by Freeman's emergence at age 24. McCann sees the same qualities in Freeman that the Braves saw when they signed him to an eight-year, $135 million contract extension in February.
"His bat speed is as good as it gets, and his hand-eye coordination is unmatched," McCann said. "He's gonna be able to do this for hopefully the next 15-18 years. He's a special breed. I could stand here and talk to you for 30 minutes about him."
Francisco Rodriguez, Brewers
K-Rod is off to an amazing start for a guy who made his big splash in spring training by stepping on a cactus. Carlos Gomez and Ryan Braun both had strong Aprils, but Rodriguez gets the nod because a shutdown bullpen has been so integral to Milwaukee's early success.
Rodriguez converted 13 straight save opportunities to tie the record for an opening month held by Kazuhiro Sasaki of the 2001 Seattle Mariners. K-Rod has a 0.69 WHIP, a .132 batting average against and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 23-to-4.
Rodriguez is a different pitcher than the guy who had 62 saves for the 2008 Angels, breaking Bobby Thigpen's single-season save record. His fastball, which peaked at 95 mph in 2006, is clocking in it a tick below 90 this season. But as he ages, he's gone the Trevor Hoffman route and embraced the power of the changeup. Rodriguez is throwing the pitch 33 percent of the time this year, according to FanGraphs.
Also in the conversation: Adrian Gonzalez, Dodgers; Chase Utley, Phillies; Ryan Braun and Carlos Gomez, Brewers; Justin Upton, Braves; Johnny Cueto, Reds; Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
American League MVP
Los Angeles Angels
Mike Trout, Angels
Miguel Cabrera, winner of the last two AL MVP awards, had a pedestrian April by his standards. So did 2013 third-place finisher Chris Davis, who hit two home runs in 76 at-bats before going down with an oblique injury.
Meanwhile, Trout remains oblivious to the notion that a 22-year-old player in his third full season is entitled to a bad month.
That $144.5 million contract extension certainly hasn't put a crimp in Trout's performance or zest for the game. He's first in the AL with a WAR of 2.3, and he ranks among the league leaders in runs, hits, OPS, pitches per plate appearance and isolated power. Trout is so good, he's even able to slide headfirst without breaking his thumb.
One word of caution to opposing pitchers: Trout is hitting .381 on balls in the lower half of the strike zone, so they might want to elevate it a little bit. Just make sure to put it in the perfect spot.
With his ridiculously transcendent level of play, Trout has rendered null and void any debate over who's the best all-around player in the game. Andrew McCutchen, Tulowitzki and a select few others are fighting for second place.
Toronto Blue Jays
Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
Upon arrival in spring training, Bautista revealed to reporters that he spent the winter in Tampa taking part in twice-a-day workouts with teammate Melky Cabrera. Among the items on their regimen: "Flipping tires, pushing cars" and other "crazy stuff" of that nature.
Judging from the early results, they might attract a bigger crowd of participants next spring.
Cabrera set a club record for March/April with 40 hits, and Bautista has gone into full-fledged Joey Bats mode. He leads the AL with a 1.048 OPS, and he's been a monument to selectivity with a .465 on-base percentage.
In April, Bautista joined Kevin Youkilis of the 2010 Red Sox as the second player in the last six years to amass 30 walks and 25 or more hits in a single calendar month. Bautista also joined Rickey Henderson, Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols as the fourth player in the last 100 years to have 30 walks by the end of April.
Chicago White Sox
Jose Abreu, White Sox
Abreu is a walking Elias Sports Bureau update. With 32 RBIs, he tied Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Pujols for the third-highest total in MLB history for a player in his first 29 career games. Only Mandy Brooks of the 1925 Chicago Cubs and Jim Greengrass of the 1952-53 Baltimore Orioles drove in more. He is also the first rookie to lead the majors in homers and RBIs through April since Minnesota's Kent Hrbek achieved the feat in 1982.
Abreu and fellow Cubans Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo have been major contributors to a revitalized offense that's brought a new sense of excitement to U.S. Cellular Field. It remains to be seen if the inside fastball will be Abreu's kryptonite, as a lot of talent evaluators have predicted. So far, he's earning rave reviews for his disciplined approach and willingness to hit the ball to all fields.
"He's playing like he wants to be called up to a different league," said a National League scout.
Los Angeles Angels
Albert Pujols, Angels
Pujols is a walking endorsement for what a man can achieve with a driven mindset and healthy feet. He arrived in spring training feeling physically and emotionally liberated because his plantar fasciitis was a thing of the past, and it's shown in the results.
"He's not a top-half hitter," Angels hitting coach Don Baylor told Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register. "He's a leg-drive hitter. When you have injuries like he had in his legs, you are all top side. Now it looks like he's getting his legs a lot more involved in his swing, and that's where his home runs come from."
Pujols made history last week in Washington when he became the 26th member of MLB's 500-homer club. This year marked only the second time in his career that he hit nine homers in April. The only previous occasion was in 2006, when he went deep 14 times in April on his way to a career-high 49 jacks.
Pujols, Trout, Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar have helped Los Angeles take the American League lead in home runs (38) and OPS (.767) despite slow starts by David Freese and Raul Ibanez and Josh Hamilton's extended absence from the lineup. Even though the Angels are only a game above .500, they're second in the majors to Oakland with a plus-40 run differential.
Josh Donaldson, Athletics
Donaldson, the self-proclaimed "Bringer of Rain," is the embodiment of an Oakland team that prides itself on togetherness, resilience and a blue-collar (or make that green-collar) mentality. He plays hard and he plays hurt, and he's never lost the enthusiasm that prompted him to stick around after football practice as a high schooler in Alabama and field dozens of ground balls as the sun was setting.
Donaldson had nine multihit games in April, with seven coming on the road, and Oakland won eight of those games. He seems to have a knack for winding up in the middle of everything.
If there's an early knock against Donaldson, it's those AL-high six errors at third base. But he ranks first in the league at the position in total chances, assists, double plays and range factor. If a ball is his anywhere in his vicinity, chances are he'll get a glove on it.
Also in the conversation: Nelson Cruz, Orioles; Alexei Ramirez, White Sox
MLB ON ESPN.COM
The NL MVP Award: How could you vote for ...?