Posted: Friday June 15, 2012 3:42PM ; Updated: Friday June 15, 2012 4:35PM
Cliff Corcoran
Cliff Corcoran>MLB AWARDS WATCH

Votto takes over NL MVP lead while field chases Hamilton in AL

Story Highlights

Cincinnati star Joey Votto has been on fire in June for the first-place Reds

Two Mets and two White Sox are among the top five in their respective leagues

Paul Konerko and Mark Trumbo have narrowed the gap behind Josh Hamilton

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Joey Votto
Joey Votto is bidding for his second NL MVP award in the past three seasons.
US Presswire

At the end of April, Matt Kemp and Josh Hamilton looked like they were going to run away with the Most Valuable Player award in their respective leagues, but Kemp has since been knocked out of my top 10 by injuries, while Hamilton's lead has largely evaporated due to a recent slump.

Their struggles have made room in the NL for a new, red-hot leader (and former winner of the award) and in the AL an opportunity has arisen for, among others, a thrilling rookie and his slugging sophomore teammate. Also making big gains this week are three of the hottest pitchers in the game, including Wednesday's Mr. Perfect.

NOTE: All stats are through Thursday, June 13. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold italics. The number in parentheses after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list.

National League

1. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (HM)

Season Stats: .362/.485/.657, 12 HR, 44 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .507/.575/.881, 5 HR, 16 RBI

Votto, the 2010 NL MVP, is one point behind Melky Cabrera for the NL lead in batting average and two points behind Paul Konerko for the major league lead. He leads the NL in slugging by 47 points and leads the majors in on-base percentage by 25 points. He also paces the majors in doubles (27, five more than the runners up) and walks (52 against just 49 strikeouts). Votto has hit safely in all but one of his last 19 games, including a pinch-hit single on May 30, and has seven multi-hit games in June.

All that, and his line from the last three weeks above, explains why teams are starting to refuse to pitch to him (he has been walked intentionally four times in the last five games and leads the majors with 11 intentional passes). This is nothing new, of course. Since the start of the 2009 season, Votto leads all hitters with 1,500 or more plate appearances with a 166 OPS+ having hit .323/.426/.574 over that span. Oh, and he's an outstanding defensive first baseman as well.

2. David Wright, 3B, Mets (1)

Season Stats: .358/.460/.583, 8 HR, 36 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .280/.386/.547, 4 HR, 10 RBI

Wright was hitting .405/.500/.628 a day after I last checked in on the MVP races, when he was the frontrunner. He then went hitless for four games. In the 15 games since snapping that 0-fer, he has hit .316/.418/.596. The first line was clearly unsustainable, but that second isn't far from what people expected from Wright after he hit .311/.394/.534 in his age-22 to -25 seasons. His power numbers may still come down a bit, but it would be great to see Wright finally picking up at 29 where he left off in his early 20s, something he's well on his way toward doing.

3. Matt Cain, SP, Giants (N/A)

Season Stats: 8-2, 2.18 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 6.00 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS, 2 SHO

Last Four Starts: 4-0, 0.59 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, 10.0 K/9, 5.67 K/BB, 7.7 IP/GS, 1 SHO

Yes, he just turned in a perfect game that was one of the most dominant nine-inning pitching performances in major league history, but let's look at Cain's season as a whole. At its essence, a starting pitcher's job is to eat innings while preventing baserunners and runs. No one has done that better than Matt Cain to this point in the season as he leads the majors in innings per start and WHIP, leads the NL in total innings (95) and shutouts and is third in the majors in ERA. The next most important thing a pitcher can do is keep the ball out of the hands of his defense by getting his outs via strikeout. Well, Cain is third in the majors with 96 K's, having recorded roughly one per inning, and he leads the NL in strikeout-to-walk ratio. If all that doesn't make him one of the most valuable players in the National League, I don't know what would.

4. R.A. Dickey, SP, Mets (N/A)

Season Stats: 10-1, 2.20 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 4.75 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 2 CG, 1 SHO

Last Four Starts: 4-0, 0.00 ERA, 0.55 WHIP, 10.7 K/9, 13.00 K/BB, 8.2 IP/GS, 2 CG, 1 SHO

Dickey leads the majors with 12 quality starts (in 13 tries!) and has pitched so well in his last four starts that he has actually out-pitched Cain across the board over a span that includes Cain's 14-strikeout perfect game.

In his last start, which came just before Cain's on Wednesday night, Dickey threw a 12-strikeout one-hitter at Tampa Bay in which the only hit was a bouncer down the third base line that David Wright was unable to corral with his bare hand. The scoring decision was the right one (it would have been a tremendous play if Wright had made it, particularly with the speedy B.J. Upton running), but it was a weak hit and the only one of the game. The Rays scored an unearned run on the ninth on a throwing error by Wright, a pair of passed balls (Mike Nickeas must have been exhausted from catching Dickey's nasty, unpredictable knuckler all night) and an RBI groundout. That was the first run Dickey had allowed since May 22, a stretch of four starts, and it was unearned.

On the season, Dickey is second in the NL in innings pitched and innings per start (to Cain), second in WHIP (to Cain), third in ERA and fourth in strikeouts (90). He is also one of just 10 qualified pitchers not to have allowed a stolen base this season. Given that he's a righthander who throws a slow, unpredictable pitch 85 percent of the time, that's remarkable.

5. Carlos Ruiz, C, Phillies (3)

Season Stats: .361/.420/.579, 8 HR, 35 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .370/.452/.556, 1 HR, 6 RBI

Ruiz is 33 years old and doing a lot of things he's never done before. His batting average is being propped up by luck on balls in play that has his current BABIP nearly 80 points above his previous career rate. Also, his fly balls are leaving the ballpark twice as often as they had prior to this year, and he is now just one home run shy of his career high. At the same time, his walk rate has been cut in half, only for those missing walks to be replaced by hit-by-pitches. Ruiz was plunked for a major league-leading 10th time on Thursday, but has drawn just 11 walks, three of them intentional. Right now, all of that adds up to a tremendously valuable performance at the plate that is made even moreso by the fact that it has come from a catcher (one, I should add, who is throwing out 39 percent of attempting basestealers, also by far a career best, against a league average of 28 percent). None of it, however, seems likely to last.

Honorable Mention

Carlos Beltran, RF, Cardinals (5): Beltran, Ryan Braun and Carlos Gonzalez are all corner outfielders with superficially similar stat lines, but Beltran, who leads the NL with 19 home runs, has assembled his while playing in Busch Stadium, a less pitching-friendly home ballpark, so he gets the edge over the other two.

Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers (HM): Braun is essentially having the same season that won him this award last year. That he's this far down on this list says more about the performances of the men above him than about the fact that he's just a hair behind last year's pace in everything but home runs.

Carlos Gonzalez, LF, Rockies (N/A): Gonzalez his hitting just .248/.307/.457 on the road this year, but it's worth noting that even that is better than the average NL hitter has done away from his home park. When Gonzalez finished third in the MVP voting in 2010, he hit .289/.322/.453 away from Coors Field, which worked out to a 118 OPS+ relative to the league's road split. Gonzalez leads the majors in runs scored (49) and the NL in total bases (144) and hasn't been caught in nine steal attempts.

Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates (HM): I wouldn't argue against putting McCutchen at the top of this honorable mention list based on the fact that he's a centerfielder playing in a tough hitting ballpark. It's also true that he's the lone everyday star on a Pirates team that recently pulled into second place in the National League Central, but I would (and do) argue against using team performance to evaluate individual performances. Sure, the Pirates wouldn't have a winning record without McCutchen, but if McCutchen was doing the same things for a team 20 games below .500 he'd be just as valuable, he'd just be on a team less capable of capitalizing on that value (which the Pirates should ultimately prove to be anyway).

Melky Cabrera, LF, Giants (N/A): Cabrera leads the NL in batting average (.363), and the majors in hits (91) and triples (7, tied with new White Sox third baseman Orlando Hudson). Those things strike me as fluky. I'm not saying that Cabrera, 27, hasn't matured into a star, but his .402 BABIP cries out for a correction in his batting average and while AT&T Park is triples-friendly, it's not so much so that Cabrera should be one away from his previous career high in the category in mid-June. I don't think the coming correction is going to be huge, but look for Cabrera's average to come back down toward .300 and his triples to turn back into doubles. Melky has done enough to convince me that he will remain a key bat in the weak Giants lineup, but don't expect him to linger too long on this list.

Off the list: Matt Kemp (2), Jonathan Lucroy (4), A.J. Ellis (HM), Rafael Furcal (HM)

 
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