Top 10 early MLB MVP candidates

Caption: Apr 30, 2017; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon (6) celebrates with Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy (20) and Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper (34) after hitting a three-run home run against the New York Mets in the fourth inning at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Michael Dixon
Written by Michael Dixon

Two months of the 2017 MLB season are out of the way. Looking back at the last two months and looking ahead to the next four, who are the MVP candidates?

Which five players are most deserving of AL honors? Which five of their National League counterparts are most worthy?

What two New York outfielders make the list? Which two left-handed aces need to be considered for more than just the Cy Young Award in their respective leagues?  What surprising candidates does the American League Central have to offer? How many realistic MVP options come out of Washington D.C.?

Before we go any further, we have to address someone you won’t be seeing, Mike Trout. If we were trying to find an MVP for the first two months of the season, Trout would top the American League list. But we’re naming the best candidates for the award that will be given out at the end of the season.

Trout’s injury makes him a less than viable candidate. It will keep his stats from being overwhelming compared to everyone else’s and also probably keep the Los Angeles Angels from being contenders. So, Trout’s chances of producing big moments down the stretch are minimal. Unfortunately, those odds are tough to overcome, even for the game’s best player.

Fortunately, we have several other options. Who are the 10 most viable MLB MVP candidates?

Note: Stats and records are all accurate effective play at the end of the games on Wednesday, May 31. 

Aaron Judge, outfielder, New York Yankees

Aaron Judge home run New York Yankees

It’s hard to separate Judge from his power. The Yankees’ rookie has slugged an MLB leading 17 home runs, tied a rookie record for home runs in April and set a rookie record for home runs in 25 games. When Judge is batting, there is a genuine feeling that something special might happen.

Judge’s power alone makes him an MVP candidate. But to talk only about his power would be doing him an incredible disservice.

Judge is slashing at .327/.428/.690. Those totals are of course aided by his home runs, but he’s not a one-trick pony. This guy can just flat out hit. He has also stolen four bases. No, that’s not going to remind anyone of Rickey Henderson. But it is enough that opposing pitchers have to respect Judge when he’s on the bases. Attention paid to him is attention not paid to the hitter.

Additionally, while Judge is certainly known for his bat, he’s made some nice plays in the field.

Lastly, while team performance is not always the greatest barometer for an MVP in baseball, the Yankees are in first place. Not only is New York in first place, but it leads a division where four teams have a winning record, and the other is only one game under .500.

Judge deserves a great deal of credit for that.

Michael Conforto, left fielder, New York Mets

For the most part, the Mets have been disappointing in 2017 but towards the end of May, they got back into the fringes of contention. When looking at the roster, it’s hard to figure out just how this happened.

Aside from Jacob deGrom, the once revered pitching staff has been ineffective (Matt Harvey) or injured (Noah Syndergaard). The offense has been largely inconsistent. Neil Walker leads the team in hits, but is only batting .264. Yoenies Cespedes has been sidelined for much of the year. Jay Bruce has hit for good power, but the catalyst has been Conforto.

Conforto is slashing at .316/.415/.639, has 13 home runs and 34 RBI. While RBI totals aren’t always a great way to determine how well a player is hitting, 34 RBI for a lead-off man is awfully hard to do, especially in the National League.

Where would the Mets be without Conforto? They’d be like the San Francisco Giants, a team with high expectations entering the year that’s starting June essentially out of the playoff race. As it is, New York has a chance. The Mets owe that almost exclusively to Conforto.

Not bad for a guy who isn’t even on the All Star ballot.

Jose Altuve, second baseman, Houston Astros

How exactly does a pitcher go about facing Altuve? What does he try to do?

Altuve has the power to make pitchers who challenge him pay. A season ago, he hit 24 home runs. This year, Altuve has seven. That’s slightly below last season’s pace, but it is still more than enough to be taken as a home run threat. Even when the ball doesn’t go over the fence, Altuve can drive it. He has 13 doubles and two triples in 2017.

So, easy enough. Just pitch around him, right?

Well, not exactly. First of all, Houston’s lineup is stacked. Putting anyone on base is just giving dangerous hitters more RBI opportunities. On top of that, Altuve has 10 steals. Think about what we said with Judge, only multiply it. When he reaches base, pitchers have to put a good portion of their focus on Altuve. If they don’t, they’ll quickly come across a guy standing at second, or even third.

It all amounts to one of baseball’s most dangerous offensive weapons, which is exactly what Altuve’s .319/.386/.505 slash line says he is.

Altuve is again showing that he’s one of baseball’s best, most valuable players.

Ryan Zimmerman, first baseman, Washington Nationals

Entering the year, we expected that Washington would have multiple MVP candidates. We weren’t wrong about that, either. We just weren’t expecting Zimmerman to be one of them.

Sometimes, expectations don’t quite work out. If you’re a Nats fan, that’s a very good thing.

Since the 2017 season started, Zimmerman has been nothing but a pain to National League pitchers. He’s slashing at .368/.409/.709, has 15 home runs, has scored 35 and driven in 44 runs.

He’s also provided solid protection to Bryce Harper (more on him later). We can’t overlook how valuable that is. Harper suffered through a sub par 2016 season largely because Washington couldn’t protect him. Daniel Murphy thrived batting in front of Harper but after him, the Nats lineup left a lot to be desired. Zimmerman’s presence has gotten Harper more pitches to hit.

Of course, no mention of Zimmerman would be complete without talking about his recent struggles. From 2014-2016, Zimmerman slashed at .242/.300/.420 and averaged 12 home runs in only 90 games played per year. The 2016 season was rock bottom, with Zimmerman slashing at .218/.272/.370. At 32 years old, it was fair to wonder if Zimmerman was done.

Two months into 2017, it’s obvious that Zimmerman is not done. He’s been one of baseball’s best players.

Avisail Garcia, right fielder, Chicago White Sox

While the end of May wasn’t especially kind to the South Siders, the Sox have been one of baseball’s surprises for the first two months. Entering June, Chicago is only four games out of first place in the American League Central.

Who can we thank for that? We can start with a division that’s been underwhelming. But looking beyond that, Garcia has been the focal point of the White Sox’ success in 2017.

He is slashing at .332/.374/.547 and has 22 extra-base hits, including eight home runs, giving Jose Abreu a running mate in the team’s offense. This isn’t a stacked lineup with great pitching like the Astros and Nationals enjoy, either. If Garcia isn’t hitting, Abreu is a one-man show, excluding home runs from the powerful but offensively one-dimensional Todd Frazier. In other words, if Garcia isn’t hitting, Chicago is going absolutely nowhere.

Fortunately, that hasn’t been the case. His bat has thrived, which has kept the White Sox within striking distance of a playoff spot.

While with the Detroit Tigers, Garcia reminded people of Miguel Cabrera, even earning the nickname “Little Miggy.” Garcia has certainly shown some potential in the past, but has never quite lived up to that moniker.

In 2017, though, that’s changed.

Clayton Kershaw, starting pitcher, Los Angeles Dodgers

Clayton Kershaw

At this point, there’s very little that can be said about Kershaw that hasn’t been said before. He’s the best pitcher in baseball and one of the greatest pitchers the game has ever seen. He’s not even 30 yet but if Kershaw never throws another pitch, he’s cruising to the Hall of Fame.

Unfortunately for opposing hitters, this Los Angeles ace is not retiring any time soon. He’s also showing no signs of slowing down. Two months into the year, Kershaw sports a 2.37 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and has 78 strikeouts in 76 innings.

Normally the key against top pitchers is to get pitches out of them with hopes that the pitch count will eventually catch up and knock them out of the game. But taking pitches against Kershaw only leads to a lot of 0-2 and 1-2 counts.

As a result, hitters are swinging earlier in the count. To be fair, that’s been moderately successful. Kershaw has allowed 1.2 home runs per nine innings. If he continues to allow homers at that pace, it would shatter his career high. But as his ERA and WHIP will tell you, most of those home runs are solo shots. When you’re as stingy at allowing runners as Kershaw is, solo shots just aren’t that big of a problem.

Additionally, when hitters are swinging early in counts (even if they’re successful), it keeps the pitch count down and allows Kershaw to go deeper into games. As a result, he’s gone at least seven innings in eight of his 11 starts. The Los Angeles bullpen certainly appreciates that.

It’s hard for pitchers to get MVP consideration, but Kershaw breaks the mold. He’s already claimed one NL MVP Award and if 2017 continues to go down this road, MVP No. 2 is a realistic possibility for the Dodger lefty.

Chris Sale, starting pitcher, Boston Red Sox

Of course, Kershaw isn’t the only pitcher earning MVP consideration in 2017. In his first year with the Red Sox, Sale has been missing bats at a historic clip.

Normally, a high strikeout rate comes with a lot of walks and a lot of short outings. But like Kershaw, Sale is anything but normal.

He’s walking only 1.8 batters per nine innings. That’s a solid rate for any pitcher, especially one with such a prolific strikeout total. Sale is also going deep into games. He’s thrown nine quality starts, failed to complete seven innings only twice, and six innings only once. Not even Kershaw can say that.

Moreover, Sale has really helped Boston stay in the mix in what’s been a competitive American League East. The Red Sox are only two games behind the Yankees and sit atop the American League Wild Card race. This is despite an offense that’s last in the American League in home runs, and a pitching staff that’s seen David Price hurt for most of the year, as well as a regression season from Rick Porcello.

Despite that, the team is fine. Sale deserves a great deal of credit for that.

Paul Goldschmidt, first baseman, Arizona Diamondbacks

MLB teams

Our best guess is that the 2009 MLB Draft got a lot of scouts fired. In it, Mike Trout was selected 25th overall. Other stars drafted after Trout include but are not limited to Nolan Arenado and Jason Kipnis (second round), Wil Myers (third round), Dallas Keuchel and Khris Davis (seventh round) and Goldschmidt (eighth round).

Goldschmidt has done nothing but hit since making his Major League debut and 2017 has been no exception.

He’s slashing at .303/.429/.564, has 12 home runs, 39 RBI and a league leading 46 runs scored. Even that only tells part of the story. Goldschmidt is also a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman and can steal bases. In fact, Goldschmidt’s 12 steals are more than anyone on this list from either league, including Altuve. He’s on pace for 35 home runs and 35 steals, which has only been done 19 times by 14 players.

For the second year in a row, the Diamondbacks have been one of baseball’s biggest surprises. In 2016, it was negative. After an aggressive offseason, Arizona crashed and burned on the field, going 69-93. In 2017, the Diamondbacks are 33-22, tied for first place in the National League West and the second-best record in the entire senior circuit.

The struggles in 2016 came despite a fantastic year from Goldschmidt (24 home runs, 95 RBI, 106 runs, 32 steals, .297/.411/489). In 2017, Goldschmidt has been even better and is leading one of baseball’s best teams. He’s quite high on the list of NL MVP candidates.

Miguel Sano, third baseman, Minnesota Twins

While we’re on the subject of surprises in 2017, we can’t forget about the Twins. Minnesota’s 59-103 mark in 2016 was by far the worst in baseball. Heading into June, 2017, the Twins sit at 26-23, only one-half game out of first place in the American League Central.

This is happening despite the continued offensive struggles of Byron Buxton, a regression year from Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer continuing to have little power. The ringleader of Minnesota’s resurgence in 2017 has been Sano.

By some metrics, he’s having a historically great Twins season, at least for a player of his age.

Sano showed some promise in 2016, hitting 25 home runs and slugging at .462. But he also had a .236 batting average, .319 OBP, and struck out 178 times in only 437 at-bats.

In 2017, he’s been a more balanced hitter. The power has been there (12 home runs, 39 RBI), but he’s not so one-dimensional. Even with a high strikeout total (73 in 161 at-bats), Sano is hitting .292/.406/.590. He’s also made only four errors at third (two-time Gold Glove winner Manny Machado has made five). So, while Sano won’t be winning any Gold Gloves at the hot corner, he’s not a liability.

If you thought Sano would be an MVP candidate at the beginning of the year, we’re calling you a liar or saying that you should be buying Lottery tickets. But Sano is certainly having a season worthy of being an MVP candidate.

Bryce Harper, right fielder, Washington Nationals

Bryce Harper Hunter Strickland Giants Nationals

In the days since Memorial Day, essentially every conversation about Harper was around his brawl with Giants reliever Hunter Strickland and deservedly so. It was a big moment. It gave us more landed punches than we normally see in baseball fights and has triggered discussions about the unwritten rules of baseball.

In that fight, Strickland was the more responsible party. He was clearly throwing at Harper, trying to settle a three-year-old grudge. But at the same time, Harper can’t go to the mound to fight, get himself suspended and risk injury. He’s just too good and even on a loaded team, too valuable.

Harper is slashing at .328/.438/.655, has 15 home runs, 43 RBI and 44 runs scored. That puts him on pace for 47 home runs, 134 RBI and 137 runs scored.

By comparison, Harper hit .330/.460/.649 with 42 bombs, 99 RBI and 118 runs in 2015, when he won the NL MVP.

The Nationals lead the senior circuit in runs scored with 286 and trail only the Astros (292) in all of baseball. Zimmerman is  having fantastic year and since the 2015 postseason, Murphy has emerged into a genuine star.

But make no mistake, Harper is the straw that stirs the drink in Washington.

About the author

Michael Dixon

Michael Dixon

Bay Area born and raised, I have extensive experience in both the print and online worlds. There are few things in this world I love doing more than talking sports.