The MVP race is on for Al­tuve

With only five weeks to go, Al­tuve looks like the clear front-run­ner for AL MVP award

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - SPORTS SUNDAY - By Jake Ka­plan jake.ka­plan@chron.com twitter.com/jakemka­plan

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.

Karen War­ren / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

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.

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