The MVP race is on for Altuve
With only five weeks to go, Altuve looks like the clear front-runner for AL MVP award
Jose Altuve has thrust himself into the AL MVP race again; here’s who might challenge him.
ANAHEIM, Calif. — Jose Altuve returned to the Astros’ lineup Saturday night at Angel Stadium, making possible another matchup between two of baseball’s best players.
Altuve, who missed Friday night’s series opener with a sore neck, and the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout also might represent the two players with the best chance to win the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award in November.
Altuve is undoubtedly the AL MVP front-runner with five weeks left in the regular season. The fivetime All-Star and soon-tobe three-time AL batting champion entered Saturday leading qualified AL hitters not only in batting average (.357) but in onbase percentage (.418). The 5-6, 165-pound Venezuelan ranked third in slugging percentage (.564) behind only the Yankees’ Aaron Judge (.587) and the Blue Jays’ Justin Smoak (.576).
Yet because of the existence of one particular player, it’s important to note that the aforementioned ranks include only the hitters with the qualified number of plate appearances — 3.1 per number of games their team has played. Trout lacking plate appearances
Trout, the consensus best player in baseball, doesn’t match that criterion. At least not yet. The 2014 and 2016 AL MVP missed a day fewer than seven weeks because of a torn ligament in his left thumb, the same injury from which Astros shortstop Carlos Correa is nearing his return. Trout came into Saturday night’s game with 376 plate appearances — only 2.9 per team game.
But looking beyond the varied sample sizes that bolster Altuve’s candidacy — he came into Saturday with 542 plate appearances, 4.2 per team game — Trout is on a trajectory for statistically the best of his seven seasons. He entered Saturday with a .455 on-base percentage and a .659 slugging percentage to complement a .327 batting average. Each would be career bests.
Since his July return Trout has significantly narrowed the gap in Wins Above Replacement. Altuve leads AL position players in both of the two most commonly used versions of the WAR metric, with 7.0 via Baseball-Reference (otherwise known as bWAR) and 6.1 via FanGraphs (fWAR). Trout came into Saturday having amassed 5.7 and 5.6, respectively.
It would also be premature to write off Judge, who entered Saturday with 5.4 bWAR and 5.9 fWAR. The Yankees rookie outfielder would have been the unanimous AL MVP choice had the voting taken place at the All-Star break.
Even in the wake of his second-half regression, Judge came into Saturday leading qualified AL hitters in OPS (1.001). His 37 home runs lead the AL.
Come season’s end, there may also be a contingent supporting the candidacies of Chris Sale, the Boston Red Sox ace lefthander, or surging Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber. Clayton Kershaw in 2014 and Justin Verlander in 2011 serve as recent precedent for a pitcher being voted as MVP. Yet with the caliber of position player candidates this season it’s difficult to see a pitcher winning in ‘17.
Sale’s case was stronger before August, a fivestart month that inflated his ERA from 2.37 to 2.88, but his 12.8 strikeouts-pernine innings and 1.8 walksper-nine innings are videogame like. He still leads all major leaguers in fWAR (7.4) but checks in at only 5.0 in bWAR.
Kluber, who will push Sale for AL Cy Young Award honors, has an ALbest 2.65 ERA with 12.3 strikeouts per nine and 1.9 walks. He has 5.3 fWAR and 5.8 bWAR.
Most likely, though, the AL MVP race will come down to Altuve, Trout and Judge. Altuve has been the most consistently great throughout the season given Trout missed significant time with his injury. Altuve placed third in last year’s voting, which cemented his status nationally as one of the game’s all-around elite.
Altuve has 51 multi-hit performances this season to just 26 hitless games. His 21 three-hit games are three shy of the Astros record he set in 2014. He’s on pace to become the first player to lead his league in hits outright for four consecutive seasons. In addition to his eye-popping batting clips, his 29 stolen bases came into Saturday as most in the AL. Division crown could tilt scale
And unlike last year, Altuve also will have attached to his résumé leading a division winner, though the presence of fellow stars in Correa and outfielder George Springer could diminish his case in the eyes of some voters.
Trout, though, will see his odds wane if the Angels don’t claim the second spot in the AL Wild Card race or if he doesn’t finish with the 502 plate appearances required to qualify for the batting title, which he should, especially now that he bats second in Mike Scioscia’s lineup. As of Saturday afternoon, the Angels were a game back of the Twins and 20-17 since Trout returned from injury.
Like last season, when Trout beat out runnerup Mookie Betts and the third-place Altuve, the AL MVP race probably won’t be decided until the season’s final days.
Jose Altuve has led the Astros to the best record in the American League while leading the league in batting and on-base percentage. He is third in slugging.