In the more powerful American League, the one often referred to as the “superior league” by MLB observers, we all know that Texas’ Josh Hamilton is the most talented player you’ll find.
This year, talent is meeting health is meeting motivation…and Hamilton has propelled himself to the very top of the early-season MVP discussion.
Josh Hamilton: Early AL MVP Favorite
Hamilton may be the definition of a 5-tool player, especially because of the impressive balance that he has between each aspect of his game. While there are a lot of multi-tool players out there, you rarely see them put it all together and have the success that Hamilton has had since making it to the big leagues in 2007.
In 2010 the former Tampa Bay Devil Rays prospect really burst onto the scene with the Rangers and was named the AL MVP. He held a .359 BA and clubbed 75 XBH with 100 RBI after injuries limited him to 89 games in 2009.
Like with all players that dominate so greatly, the question of whether or not the opposition could figure him out and slow him down lingered. And in 2011 while the production stayed up, his average dropped by .61 points and his OBP by .65 points.
Many wondered if Hamilton was coming back down to Earth for good.
But 2012 has been like the story of old for Hamilton, who is hitting with the same level of consistency he showed in 2010, yet with even better power and production numbers. Actually, substantially better power numbers.
So far this season, Hamilton is hitting .354, getting on base 41% of the time, all while holding the shockingly impressive line of 21 HR and 57 RBI.
Since we’re one third of the way through the season, that puts Hamilton on pace (taking into consideration that he takes days off) for 55-60 round-trippers and 140-160 driven in. Now obviously that’s a high-end projection, and there are plenty of factors that could prevent Hamilton’s production the rest of this year from being as impressive as it was in April and May.
The one thing we do know about Hamilton’s campaign is that he is head and shoulders above the pack in the AL MVP race after two months. Can others challenge him for the award? Certainly.
So let’s take a look at who will give him a run for his money, ranking their likelihood of doing so.
Last week, I took a look at the AL Cy Young race, using an “A-Class,” a “B-Class,” and a “C-Class” to rank all of the candidates. So let’s do the same for the my MVP standings with one third of the regular season behind us.
Class A: The Top Challengers
This most prestigious class of 2012 American League performers consists of Adam Jones, Paul Konerko, Miguel Cabrera, and David Ortiz.
From that short list, you have the super-athlete similar to Hamilton in Adam Jones, who has a .315 average, 16 homers, and 34 RBI so far this season. While this seems to finally be Jones’ coming out party, as it’s his best season to this point by far, there are two reasons why it will be pretty tough for Jones to bring in the award.
One, he’s too similar to Hamilton. I assume that if voters do choose to go against Hamilton for the award, it would have to be because that player possesses something very different and unique in contrast to Hamilton, and Jones doesn’t have that going for him.
But most of all I don’t see Jones being able to pull in the award because he will likely finish behind Hamilton in every offensive category.
Jones doesn’t get on base nearly as much as Hamilton, which will make it pretty tough for him to catch up to any of the Texas slugger’s numbers. Not to mention, Jones’ highest BA going into this season is .284, which he posted back in 2010.
As a die-hard White Sox fan, I’d love nothing more than to see Paul Konerko win an AL MVP award late in his career. And while he is probably 2nd in contention to Hamilton to this point, and has been the best first baseman in the American League, he doesn’t have a very good chance at winning the honor.
The longtime Chicago All-Star could likely hit for a higher average and get on base more consistently than Hamilton, but his power numbers are nowhere near as good. At this point in his career,
Paulie is a line drive hitter that occasionally just hits a line drive high enough to get over the outfield wall. He’s a 30-home run guy, give or take. And with the likes of Adam Dunn, A.J. Pierzynski, Dayan Viciedo, and Alex Rios in the lineup with him, it’s hard for him to drive in as many runs as he has the ability to.
Konerko could very well end up having the best year of his career, but unfortunately for him, chicks dig the long ball, and Josh Hamilton is far ahead of PK in that category.
Miguel Cabrera and David Ortiz
So that leaves Detroit and Boston sluggers Miguel Cabrera and David Ortiz, respectively. I think these two guys are the most likely to contend with Josh Hamilton for the 2012 AL MVP award.
Cabrera is off to only a decent start by his own otherworldly standards. He is somehow flying under the radar with a .318 average and 44 runs batted in. Big Papi is hitting .315 with 37 RBI and 31 XBH. I fully expect both of these veterans to continue driving in lots of runs and hitting for a high average.
But it seems clear that even if everybody stays healthy for most of the year, Hamilton’s numbers will far exceed theirs (granted his health). And there’s a very good chance that they will.
The reason I think that Big Papi and Miggy have decent chances to give Hamilton a competitive race is because of the teams that they’re on. The Tigers and Red Sox have both underachieved to this point, but if they can perform well throughout the summer months and reach the playoffs, I think these guys would be the ones that propel them to October.
So while it’s a big “if,” depending on how certain teams perform from here on out, we certainly could have a solid MVP race on our hands between Hamilton in these Class A candidates.
Class B: Don’t Rule These Guys Out Yet
A few years back, the Toronto Blue Jays acquired 3B Edwin Encarnacion from the Cincinnati Reds. After six years of being a big leaguer, he has not lived up to his potential.
But this year, Encarnacion is bursting onto the scene, as he’s on pace for around 50 home runs and 120 RBI. Now of course I just multiplied his numbers by three to make his outlook seem better than it really is, but he really has been one of the best power hitters in the AL on a consistent basis in 2012.
I expect him to be solid for the rest of the year but to come down to Earth more in the 2nd half. I just buy more into the large sample size of statistics we see from him spanning back to 2005 in the big leagues than what he’s done over a few months in 2012. Nevertheless, he deserves respect for what he’s done so far, and if he can somehow keep it up, he’ll be in the discussion.
The next two guys in this class are Prince Fielder and Adrian Beltre.
If I had to choose, I’d obviously say if a Tiger were to win the award this year, it’d be Cabrera. Fielder hasn’t shown much power in Comerica Park yet, but we all know he does have the ability to go on a power tear, so keep your eyes out for that.
As with Cabrera, if the Tigers can pull off a comeback and make the playoffs four months from now, Fielder will have to have been a pretty big reason why.
As for Adrian Beltre, it is unlikely that any of Hamilton’s teammates are going to push him for the award. None of their numbers are close enough, and with Hamilton being the undisputed most valuable player to his own team, no one else that plays at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington really has much of a shot.
But if people higher on the list were to go down with injuries, especially Hamilton, Beltre’s impressive numbers would come to the public’s attention more, so I figure he’s at least worth mention.
Class C: Longshots, Pick Your Yankee
Before the season started, my pick to win the World Series was the New York Yankees. That decision was based upon the strong starting pitching that I thought they’d have though, so I’ve become skeptical.
Still, they are only 1.5 GB in the divisional standings, so I am sticking to my prediction.
If they are able to play well throughout the summer and make the playoffs, at least a couple of hitters will have to have played a very big role. But to be completely honest, I don’t know who that will be.
Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson are off to a great starts, Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano are hitting pretty well, and Mark Teixeira is struggling at the plate. If I had to choose, I guess I’d predict A-Rod to be the only one who has raw ability to really explode the rest of the way. But it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.
We all know how talented each of these hitters are, so, heck, if somehow one of them is able to make a push at the award, I’d like to be able to say I saw it coming.
Follow Zach on Twitter @zach_gropper and @Grab_Some_Bench!