Ranking This Year’s AL MVP Candidates

Much like I did last night for the NL, it’s about time to take a first look at which AL players are the most likely (if not necessarily the most deserving) to win the 2015 Most Valuable Player Award. From five to one:

5. Nelson Cruz, Mariners
Nelson Cruz plays for a bad team. He’s a defensive liability and offers no baserunning value. He’s not going to win the MVP, this year or ever. That said, the dude is raking. He’s got 39 home runs, and might make a run at 50. He’s batting .314 and draws the occasional walk. Let’s just say this: if the top two guys are struck down by meteors in the next week or two, there is reason to believe some voters might be swayed by Cruz’s impressive bat.

4. Dallas Keuchel, Astros
Sonny Gray (2.13) has the better ERA. Chris Sale (2.38) has the better FIP. It’s hard to argue that Keuchel has been the best pitcher in the league this year, let alone the best player. He does have a 2.28 ERA, though, and a 2.66 FIP, both good for second in the league, and his Astros have a healthy lead in the AL West. We’re really splitting hairs about third-place votes here, and Keuchel’s a reasonable option for a bronze.

3. Lorenzo Cain, Royals
This would be such a Golden Era pick, wouldn’t it? If not for divisions, wild cards, and playoff games, the Royals would be lapping the field for the AL pennant, waiting for another I-70 showdown against the Cardinals in the World Series. Why are the Royals 13 games up in the AL Central? Well, relief pitching and defense, I suppose, but those don’t make for sexy MVP candidates. How about a center fielder hitting.312/.368/.483 with 12 homers, 26 stolen bases, and a good chunk of that aforementioned defensive acumen? As Cain goes, so go the Royals. #narratives

2. Mike Trout, Angels
Is this the year the Best Player in Baseball™ meets his match? I mean, aside from the voters who like ribbiez and batting crowns? Since Trout joined the league in 2012, there’s never been a player all that close to equaling his performance over a full season. 2015 just might be that year somebody does better. Sure, Trout is hitting .298/.397/.581. That’s good for a 171 wRC+, better than every American Leaguer except Cruz and part-timer Miguel Cabrera. Sure, he has 33 homers, 10 stolen bases, and a handful of highlight-reel catches. Sure, he’s been worth 7.1 WAR per fangraphs and 7.4 per Baseball Reference. But somebody’s been better.

1. Josh Donaldson, Blue Jays
It’s the 36 homers. It’s the .301/.369/.584 slash line that looks an awful lot like Trout’s. It’s the third-base defense that grades out better than Trout’s by just about any measure. It’s the slight edges in both versions of WAR (7.4 and 7.6, respectively). More than any of that, though, it’s the narrative. Trout’s always awesome. We’ve known that since he was a teenager. Donaldson, though, was a non-prospect who overachieved for two seasons with the A’s. All-knowing Billy Beane dumped him in the offseason for pennies on the dollar, either not willing to put up with his attitude or certain that his recent success was a fluke.

Then Donaldson brought the rain to Toronto. Bautista, Encarnacion, Martin, and Reyes were there waiting for him. Tulowitzki and Colabello joined the parade. Donaldson outperformed them all. The Blue Jays have scored 718 runs on the season, 89 more than the second-place Yankees. That’s not just in the AL East- it’s an 89-run advantage over any other team in baseball. Donaldson’s in the middle of it all, more than doubling any other Blue Jay’s WAR.

If it feels like Donaldson’s been clutch, the numbers back it up. His 5.43 Win Probability Added leads all AL position players, more than a win ahead of Trout’s 3rd-place 4.11. The Blue Jays are 24-5 after a 50-51 start, scoring almost six and a half runs per game over that stretch. Credit the acquisition of Troy Tulowitzki, but Tulo has batted .237 with four homers as a Blue Jay. Donaldson, since the All-Star break, has hit .320/.408/.707 with 15 home runs in 39 games. If he keeps hitting like he did in August, Donaldson might turn one of the great MVP races in recent memory into a laugher.

Honorable Mentions: J.D. Martinez, Manny Machado, Chris Sale

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