The MLB season kicked off its second half Friday and two of the National League’s top MVP hopefuls squared off in the Milwaukee Brewers’ 10-7 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates at Miller Park.
Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun and Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen, two young outfielders very much in play for the NL batting triple crown, headlined the high-scoring affair.
Though Braun’s Brewers eventually won the game on the strength of an 8th-inning grand slam from Cody Ransom, McCutchen continued his dominant play with a 3-4 night at the plate that included his third home run in two games and 19th of the season.
With an MLB-leading .367 batting average and the fourth-best WAR (wins above replacement) in baseball, McCutchen has become the odds-on favorite to win NL MVP at the season’s halfway point.
A look at the top NL MVP candidates so far.
Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh
The Pirates have become the feel-good story of baseball’s first half for the second time in two seasons, but there’s an air of sustainability to this year’s club that just wasn’t there with the 2011 team. Ace pitchers James McDonald and AJ Burnett have had much to do with that, as well as the slow but steady emergence of Pedro Alvarez (17 home runs, 51 RBI) and Neil Walker (.291, 44 RBI).
However, Pittsburgh has been a club without an identity for two decades. McCutchen has supplemented his eye-popping stats by becoming the straw which stirs Pittsburgh’s drink.
That’s not to say the numbers aren’t impressive on their own. McCutchen’s .367 batting average leads all MLB hitters and is a solid .014 points better than NYM’s David Wright, who is second in NL batting average. McCutchen is in the NL top-five in WAR (4th, 4.7), batting average (1st, .367), home runs (3rd, 19), RBI (3rd, 61) and runs (t-3rd, 59), and leads the Pirates in every major offensive category.
It would be hard to measure how the Pirates might have fared without McCutchen early in the season. Through the first two and a half months of the 2012 campaign, the Pirates ranked dead last (or close to it) in every team hitting metric. They are now climbing their way up the stat sheet as players like Alvarez, Walker and Garrett Jones have found their swings, but Pittsburgh may not have escaped the first half of the season without McCutchen’s bat.
The Pirates have received outstanding first-half pitching once again, but without McCutchen’s numbers there’s a good chance this team would be below .500, let alone leading the NL Central and pushing for their first playoff berth in almost 20 years.
Ryan Braun, Milwaukee
2011′s NL MVP, Braun has continued posting outstanding numbers in 2012 even in the wake of PED allegations and without slugger Prince Fielder to help draw attention in the heart of the Brewers order.
Like McCutchen, Braun has a chance at the batting triple crown — 8th-best batting average, 1st in home runs (26) and 2nd in RBI (64) — and like McCutchen, he is the clear heart of his team.
Braun’s 4.7 WAR is also neck-and-neck with McCutchen, according to FanGraphs.com.
The Brewers are currently 41-45 and in fourth-place in the six-team NL Central. However, if they make a push, it will be because of Braun, who leads his team batting average, RBI, home runs, on-base percentage, hits, runs, slugging percentage, stolen bases and total bases.
David Wright, New York Mets
The New York Mets, still reeling from the financial Chernobyl that was Bernie Madoff’s prior ownership of the team, weren’t expected to be remotely competitive in 2012. Instead, the Mets have scratched their way to a surprising 46-41 record through 87 games thanks to renaissances from pitchers R.A. Dickey and Johan Santana, as well as the MVP-caliber play of franchise third-baseman David Wright.
The former Gold Glover (2007, 2008) and Silver Slugger (2007, 2008) has carried the underdog Mets to a winning record in the competitive AL East. He was thought to have been on the block with other Mets stars last offseason, like the now-departed Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran, but has stuck with the team and like Braun and McCutchen is now the clear leader on a surprising first-half club.
Wright’s bat has been his best asset thus far. He’s a top-ten NL producer in BA (.353), RBI (59), runs (57), walks (50), slugging percentage (.565) and on-base plus slugging (1.009), and like the other candidates leads his team in these and other offensive metrics.
If the Mets can stay competitive in a division that includes the Washington Nationals, Atlanta Braves and struggling-but-talented Philadelphia Phillies, Wright will be perhaps the single-biggest contributor to their success.
Honorable Mention – Joey Votto, Cincinnati
Votto’s Reds are in the thick of the NL Central race with Pittsburgh, and his .344 batting average again has him near the top of the National League in hitting.
The former Gold Glover and 2010 NL MVP has a good chance to lead his club to the NL Central title, as the Cardinals pitching staff has been beset by injuries and the Pirates are still a young, unproven team with a few notable holes in the lineup. If the Reds capture the division, look for Votto to finish on the short list of MVP nominees.
Honorable Mention – Carlos Beltran, St. Louis
Beltran has picked up where now-Anaheim Angel Albert Pujols left off, carrying the Cardinals offense to the best numbers in the National League. Despite standing third in the NL Central as of Saturday, the Cardinals rank 4th in runs scored, 2nd in team batting average, 2nd in on-base percentage and 5th in slugging percentage in all of baseball.
Beltran leads the NL with 65 RBI, and if St. Louis makes a push in the second half and overtakes Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, Beltran will become a serious contender for MVP honors.