Wednesday, September 10, 2014

American League Most Valuable Player

Like yesterday's evaluation of the National League Most Valuable Player candidates, and the selection of my own Top 10 vote, there is a hitter-pitcher element in the AL this season.

The starting pitcher candidate in this case is Seattle Mariners righthander "King Felix" Hernandez. Like his NL counterpart, Clayton Kershaw, the King is most certainly the runaway favorite to win his league's Cy Young Award for the top pitcher. And like his NL counterpart, to this evaluator, that is where he should rightly and properly be honored.

Winning the Cy Young Award is not a "secondary" or "lesser" honor to the Most Valuable Player Award in any way. The Cy Young goes to the best pitchers in the game. Position players have no shot at it. Winning the honor says that you are the absolute best at your most-valued of all positions.

Both Kershaw and Hernandez are just that, the best pitchers in the game today. They deserve those awards. And they deserve MVP votes because neither of their teams would likely be a contender without them. But the same can be said of each of the position players, and those position players, and to a slightly lesser extent the best closers, affect team outcomes nearly every single game.

With all that said, take a look back when you get a chance at yesterday's NL MVP evaluation, and now enjoy my personal 10-player American League Most Valuable Player ballot, were I to have one, and were the season to end today:

10)   Josh Donaldson, 3B, Oakland
The offensive leader of a team that was baseball's best for much of the season, Donaldson has emerged over the last two years as an All-Star caliber performer. This year he has 26 homers and 93 rbi, and has scored 85 runs. He provides the middle-of-the-order pop that teams need to contend. Despite their slide of recent weeks, the A's remain in control of the top AL Wildcard spot. Much as with Miggy in Detroit, whether Oakland hangs on to a post-season berth will largely depend on his continued production over the last couple of weeks.

9)   Felix Hernandez, SP, Seattle
Already covered this above: the best pitcher in the American League, the easy choice for this year's AL Cy Young Award. The King has a 14-5 record with a 1.12 ERA and an 0.92 WHIP. He has allowed just 153 hits across 212 innings. His K/BB ratio is at 217/41. There is only one other player who has been more of a difference-maker to the M's emergence as a contender this season, and he is found much higher on the list.

8)   Jose Altuve, 2B, Houston
I struggled with putting a player on a team that is 17-games under the .500 mark and in 4th place in their division, never having been a contender all season long, on the list at all. But Altuve is a special case. The Astros are an extremely young, inexperienced team that has been losing for years. Altuve has stepped up as a leader, and with a ton of good-looking prospects coming, is exactly what they need at the crest of the wave of talent. He has game-changing speed, swiping 51 bags and scoring 78 runs for one of the lowest-scoring teams in the game. He is hitting .336 and is a serious contender for the AL Batting crown, and carries a .373 on-base percentage. Not a big power guy, he still has 50 rbi.

7)   Jose Abreu, 1B, Chicago
Very rarely do I rank a player this high on a losing team, especially when that team has a decent chance to finish last in their division. Couldn't they team be that putrid without him? Yes, they could. But the White Sox could also be down battling Texas for the worst record in baseball were it not for this Cuban rookie's production. He sports a .317 average, .372 on-base percentage, and has 33 homers with 99 rbi. He is an easy choice for the AL Rookie of the Year. Just as impressively, he is one of the game's best hitters already.

6)   Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Detroit
It has supposedly been an off-year for the man who has won the last two AL MVP Awards and the Triple Crown in 2012. Bothered most of the summer by what has been revealed as heal spurs, Miggy's power was sapped by the pain in his base. But he still remained one of the game's supreme hitters, and his power outburst last week almost single-handedly drove Detroit back into a Wildcard position. Even hurt, he has managed 22 homers, 101 rbi, and 91 runs scored while hitting .311 and with a .371 on-base percentage. Whether the Tigers return to the post-season or not largely depends on what he does in these final 2 1/2 weeks of the regular season.

5)   Victor Martinez, 1B, Detroit
With Cabrera slightly off from his 2-time MVP pace this year, Detroit desperately needed VMart to stay healthy and produce in order to stay on top in the AL Central race. He has delivered, batting .335 with a .406 on-base percentage. He has 30 homers, 96 rbi, and 79 runs scored and is battling Altuve for the AL Batting crown in a neck-and-neck race. Despite this, the Tigers have been caught by Kansas City in the standings. They remain in a battle for another division crown, and also cling to a Wildcard berth, largely thanks to Martinez' consistent production.

4)   Alex Gordon, OF, Kansas City
Much as with Anthony Rendon in the NL, Gordon doesn't receive nearly as much attention as he should for this honor. The Royals had another strong start to the season. But unlike a year ago, KC has not only stayed in the playoff race, but they have stayed in the race for an AL Central Division crown. A big reason has been the leadership, production, and the key hits and defensive plays from the unquestioned team leader Gordon. His raw numbers don't pop out at you, one reason that he won't be a favorite to actually win the AL MVP Award outright, and isn't a Top 3 guy on this ballot. He has 19 homers, 66 rbi, 77 runs scored. But perhaps as much as anyone on this list he epitomizes what I believe the award to be all about - true value to your team, which incorporates those intangibles such as leadership, and coming through in the biggest moments.

3)   Nelson Cruz, OF, Baltimore
The Orioles took over first place in the usually rough and tumble AL East in the early weeks of the season, and have steadily pulled away over the course of the summer to a point where they own a 10-game lead, the biggest in baseball, and already have a 'Magic Number' down to single-digits. Signing Cruz as a free agent in the off-season has proven to be one of the biggest such moves in baseball. With first catcher Matt Wieters and then Manny Machado lost for the season, Cruz has delivered with 39 homeruns, 101 rbi, and 82 runs scored. He seems to deliver his biggest bombs at the important moments. Despite the presence of his outstanding fellow outfielder Adam Jones, the O's are not where they are without Nelson Cruz.

2)   Robinson Cano, 2B, Seattle
The former Yankee signed a lucrative free agent contract in the off-season to move all the way across the country to play for a team that had not reached the post-season since 2001, and had finished in 4th place eight times in the last decade, including the last four seasons in a row. The Mariners are now 14 games over .500, just a half game out of a Wildcard berth. The Yanks are 4 over .500, 5 1/2 out of the Wildcard. The difference is clearly Cano. He has hit .320 with a .386 on-base percentage, with 75 rbi and 73 runs scored. His homers are down at a dozen, but that can largely be attributed to the ballpark factor. What is clearly up is the effect that his presence has in the Seattle batting order. 

1)   Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles
The man (we have to stop referring to him as "kid" at some point) who finished as the runner-up for the AL MVP in his first two seasons should finally win it this time around. He has driven his team to the top of the standings. His Angels have not only taken charge of the AL West lead over the last month, but they now have the best record in the sport. Some of Trout's ridiculous numbers of the last two years are down, but his impact on the game and his team are not. He is hitting .288 with a .372 on-base percentage. With 32 homers and 103 rbi, he has emerged as a true major power threat. His speed has allowed him to score 99 runs, and he still has stolen 14 bases in a season that saw his team restrict those opportunities for him. For the 3rd straight season he is clearly the best all-around player in the game. Now he will be recognized as it's Most Valuable as well.

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NO APOLOGIES for not putting the following players on either my NL or AL ballots the last two days. Fact is, they absolutely deserve consideration. Fact is, they will receive MVP votes in the real voting. But you only get so many choices, and we all have to make tough decisions. A few names who deserve mentioning that I did not vote for are:

NL - Justin Upton (Atl), Adrian Gonzalez (LA), Freddie Freeman (Atl), Jayson Werth (Was), Josh Harrison (Pit), Adam LaRoche, (Was), Matt Kemp (LA), Adam Wainwright (ST)
AL - Jose Bautista (Tor), Michael Brantley (Cle), Jacoby Ellsbury (NYY), Albert Pujols (LA), Adam Jones (Bal), Ian Kinsler (Det), Melky Cabrera (Tor), Corey Kluber (Cle), Kyle Seager (Sea)

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