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Assessing the top six candidates for NL MVP

The competition for the National League Most Valuable Player award appeared likely to be a close race for the rest of the season. But then Andrew McCutchen was drilled by a pitch, suffered a broken rib and was put on the disabled list.

Putting the perceived favorite on the sidelines has blown the NL MVP race open. With McCutchen possibly out of consideration now, have new favorites emerged? Or has his absence now made the competition too close to call?

MVP voters have to list 10 players on their ballots. Some fringe candidates like the Nationals’ Anthony Rendon, Freddie Freeman of the Braves and the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright will probably fill out those final spots on the ballot. But realistically, they won’t win the award. That leaves the following six (actually, it’s more like five) as the most likely to earn serious consideration by the end of the season.

Clayton Kershaw
There are plenty of people who think pitchers shouldn’t be considered for the MVP award. The Cy Young Award honors each league’s most valuable pitcher. But we’re only three years removed from Justin Verlander winning the AL MVP, so it’s not like this glass hasn’t been broken recently.

This hasn’t been a season during which an everyday player has put up numbers far above his peers. And the candidates that come closest to that play for teams that either aren’t playoff contenders or could finish well below .500.

Such circumstances open up the opportunity for a pitcher to win MVP again. But Kershaw’s performance would also earn the award on merit. The Dodgers left-hander leads the NL with a 1.78 ERA and 0.86 WHIP, and his .201 opponents batting average ranks second. Both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference have him at or near the top of the league in WAR.

However, Kershaw’s cause is hurt by him missing the first month of the season. As a result, he’s thrown 40 fewer innings and made six fewer starts than NL leader Johnny Cueto. Yet consider that Kershaw still has the fourth-most strikeouts in the NL (136), resulting in a rate of 10.8 Ks per nine innings that leads the league.

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Giancarlo Stanton
Tying team performance to MVP candidacy is always a controversial topic in awards balloting. But it’s clear that a club’s record is influential among voters. Ask Mike Trout about that.

So if the Marlins don’t stay in the NL East and wild-card races, that could affect Stanton’s chances for winning MVP. Yet his numbers should keep him in the discussion. Stanton leads the NL with 31 home runs and 82 RBI. His .947 OPS ranks second in the league, while a .394 on-base percentage is fourth-best among NL batters. The slugger’s tape-measure homers also regularly put him on the nightly highlight shows, which should help keep him on voters’ radar.

As of right now, Miami is six games behind the Nats in their division and 3.5 games from the NL’s second wild-card spot. That puts the team on the fringe of contention, despite a 59-60 record as of Aug. 13. But with the Braves and Reds struggling, it’s not difficult to imagine the Marlins getting closer to a postseason bid. Stanton could be the beneficiary of that success.

Andrew McCutchen
If not for the rib injury that’s sidelined him since Aug. 4, this entire post probably wouldn’t be necessary. The reigning NL MVP is once again the top player on a contending Pirates team while putting up some of the best numbers in the league. His .311 batting average, .411 on-base percentage, .536 slugging percentage and .947 OPS all rank among the top four batters in the NL.

Missing up to a month (if not more) due to injury will hurt McCutchen’s chances among voters, but if that can be overlooked for Kershaw, there’s no reason to think the same standard can’t apply here. There’s also some precedent in Josh Hamilton winning the 2010 AL MVP despite being sidelined for nearly all of September that season.

The Pirates currently hold the top wild-card spot in the NL and could overtake the Brewers in the NL Central. Staying in contention obviously helps McCutchen’s chances, though some voters might try to apply warped logic and wonder how valuable he can truly be if Pittsburgh continues to play well without him. Hey, I said that logic was warped.

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Yasiel Puig
Puig’s chances of winning MVP obviously aren’t helped by the sentiment that Kershaw could win the award this season. But he is the best everyday player on the team that could finish with the best record in the NL, and that won’t be overlooked. However, Puig is also an extremely polarizing figure because of his showboating at the plate and in the field, and that could turn some old-school voters off.

Yet Puig’s case for MVP should be similar to McCutchen. The Dodgers outfielder ranks among the NL’s top five batters with a .309 batting average, .393 on-base, .522 slugging and .915 OPS.

He’s also been valuable in the outfield, moving from right field to center when needed. Though Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) says Puig is below average at both positions, he’s the best the Dodgers have and his willingness to move should nullify any nonsense about what unwritten rules or buttoned-up sensibilities he violates.

Jonathan Lucroy
The Brewers have been one of the best teams in the NL all season and should have some representation in MVP voting because of it. Yet Milwaukee actually has two MVP candidates, which could hurt the chances of either player. Carlos Gomez has had a strong season, though no individual number jumps out. (He’s only among the top five NL batters in stolen bases.)

Lucroy has a better batting average, on-base percentage and OPS than his teammate. He also has the same number of hits and has driven in nearly the same amount of runs.

Gomez plays the premium defensive position of center field well, ranking third in UZR. But Lucroy is arguably more important at catcher, and he’s done an excellent job there. He hasn’t done so well against opposing basestealers, throwing out only 27 percent (21-of-89). But Lucroy has also allowed just three passed balls and 21 wild pitches this season.

Troy Tulowitzki
The Rockies’ shortstop put up such outstanding numbers before getting hurt that he still has to be in the MVP discussion. He leads all NL batters with a .340 average, .432 on-base, .603 slugging and 1.035 OPS. At the time of his injury, his 21 homers and 52 RBI were near the top of the league as well.

But Tulowitzki hasn’t played since July 19 and could miss the rest of the season with a hip injury. Eventually, his 375 plate appearances won’t be enough to qualify him for batting title consideration. Additionally, Tulowitzki’s batting average is 160 points worse and his OPS drops 435 points away from Coors Field.

Along with Colorado’s abysmal record and fast-track toward the worst record in MLB, and there’s really no longer a chance for a Tulowitzki MVP. Yet his performance before getting hurt deserves recognition and should get him listed on most ballots.

Ian Casselberry

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is a columnist for The Outside Corner and the editor of The AP Party. He has written for Yahoo! Sports, MLive.com, Bleacher Report and SB Nation, and provides analysis for several sports talk radio shows each week. He currently lives in Asheville, NC.

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