|With McCutchen and Tulowitzki sidelined, the NL MVP is Puig's for the taking|
The next best candidate appeared to be last year's MVP, Andrew McCutchen, but now it seems safe to say that he won’t be the MVP again in 2014. With a fractured rib shelving him for 3-4 weeks and possibly into September, McCutchen’s hopes of repeating were effectively dashed. So with the door wide open, who’s next in line?
Clayton Kershaw’s now the odds-on favorite, and with the kind of season he's having there's a pretty good chance he pulls a Justin Verlander by copping both the Cy Young and MVP awards. (Quick aside, if those ill-fated 2011 Red Sox roll through September the way they did the rest of that season, Jacoby Ellsbury probably wins that MVP. If Boston had won 100 games while playing in baseball’s toughest division, like they were on pace to do, there's no way the MVP goes to a pitcher whose team could have won its division with an 81-81 record. And if Verlander wins 19 games instead of 24, it's not even a discussion).
But Kershaw's missed more than month and that has to be a big strike against him. Obviously if he continues to dominate down the stretch he’ll have a great case, one worth overlooking the lost time. That said, voters have always been more inclined to favor position players rather than pitchers, who already have a hard enough time as it is winning the MVP when they’re healthy. You might recall that before Verlander, a starting pitcher hadn't been named MVP since Roger Clemens in 1986. Position players can afford to miss time and still earn the hardware (see Mickey Mantle in 1962 or Josh Hamilton in 2010), but pitchers, because they pitch so infrequently, aren't granted that same latitude. I can’t remember the last time a starting pitcher missed a good chunk of time and went on to win the MVP, which leads me to believe Kershaw will have a difficult time pulling it off. But if he goes off an another scoreless innings streak, all bets are off.
I also think that in today’s offense-challenged climate, a big bat is more valuable that a good arm. It’s elite hitting, not starting pitching, that’s in short supply, so a guy who can hit .300 with good power and gets on base is especially valuable. I think if you take away Kershaw and replace him with an average pitcher, then Zack Greinke’s the ace (of a staff with Hyun-jin Ryu, Josh Beckett, and Dan Haren) and the Dodgers are still okay. Maybe they don't win the division, but they're still a playoff team. Remove Yasiel Puig from LA's lineup, however, and I’m not convinced they score enough runs to make their pitching stand up, not with injuries to Carl Crawford and Hanley Ramirez and poor seasons from A.J. Ellis, Andre Ethier, Adrian Gonzalez, and Matt Kemp (who's only been good recently).
So this is a long-winder, roundabout way of saying that the best remaining MVP candidate is Puig, who’s having a Mike Trout-lite season, so to speak. His .316/.400/.540 batting line is huge, especially for someone who plays half his games in Dodger Stadium (which is reflected by his 165 OPS+). With 4.0 bWAR, Puig has been his team's best position player by far, propping up a star-studded lineup that's under-performed its talent level. And while he doesn't lead the league in anything, he's in the top 10 for almost everything and should only climb higher with Tulo and 'Cutch on the mend.
Puig would boost his chances significantly by making up the distance between him and those two. Time is on his side and ripe for him to raise his stock. But he must keep hitting. He needs to rediscover the power stroke that has all but abandoned him since late May (two homers and 16 RBI in his last 56 games). He has to finish strong.
Because if he doesn't, then it's going to be that much easier to choose Kershaw.