Over in the American League, we're hearing the safe refrain we did last year: "Trout or Cabrera?" Miguel Cabrera's actually having a better year than he did last season when he won the AL's Triple Crown, but Mike Trout's also improved on his 2012. But with each team in completely different places in the standings, and Cabrera's overall offensive numbers dwarfing Trout's this year, there's probably not going to be a ton of debate, even if Cabrera doesn't reach the lofty Triple Crown perch again.
But in the National League, things are much more murky. Our midseason winner last month was Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, who hasn't played in two weeks thanks to a knee injury. A down month of July prior to the injury also brought the field back to Molina, and in advance of his return to the St Louis lineup, he doesn't appear to be the man on top anymore.
Who *is* the leading candidate for the NL MVP award with a month and a half of play left? In my mind, the favorite has to be Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates.
Just look at what McCutchen is doing this year, and try not to be amazed. His numbers have dropped a bit from last season, but he's still hitting .313/.386/.507 with 16 homers and 24 stolen bases in 30 attempts. He's also an excellent defender in center field for the Pirates, and perhaps most importantly in the minds of voters, he plays for a winning team. If Pittsburgh was 12 games under .500 instead of 23 games over, would anyone really care about the season he's having?
Probably not, and that's what's helping to set McCutchen apart from the rest of the National League. McCutchen's 5.7 fWAR is tied for the NL lead with David Wright and Carlos Gomez, both of whom play for bad teams in the Mets and Brewers respectively. Of the players ahead of McCutchen in wRC+ and wOBA, only two play for .500 clubs: Joey Votto of the Reds and Paul Goldschmidt of the Diamondbacks. The brilliance of both players is understated, but they've been losing some ink lately to another NL first baseman: Freddie Freeman.
Calling Freeman an MVP candidate is a bit of a flawed premise. After all, he's not even the most valuable first baseman in the league, with both Votto and Goldschmidt having better numbers across the board. But Freeman is getting support this year because "he's the best player on the best team", and that's a narrative that people eat up by the bucket load. Freeman's abilities have indeed taken a step forward this year, but you can't make a case for him without boosting someone else's stock. Among NL first baseman, Votto and Allen Craig have a higher batting average, Votto has a higher OBP, and Goldschmidt and Votto both have a higher slugging percentage. Even if you want to hop on the RBI train, Goldschmidt and Craig have him bested there. As for the best player on his team argument, it certainly has merit, but it's not a situation like Trout in Anaheim. Freeman's 2.9 fWAR is at the top of a cluster of five players within half a win of each other. The only slash stat he leads the team in his OBP. He's fifth on his club on homers. The only stat he leads the Braves in his RBI, and that's an argument that no one with half a brain would rely on.
A similar situation is taking hold in Los Angeles, where the team's two best hitters (Hanley Ramirez and Yasiel Puig) have combined for fewer plate appearances than Adrian Gonzalez, their third best hitter. Hell, the Dodgers' best player is probably Clayton Kershaw, and he might not even win the Cy Young thanks to the brilliant season that Matt Harvey is putting together.
The only player that really checks all of the boxes on the hypothetical MVP resume is McCutchen. He's a five tool player having a magnificent year for a contender as the best player on his team and the best player at his position in the league. There's still plenty of baseball left, and someone can definitely step up and distance themselves from the pack. After all, it was a .385/.456/.646 second half last year that propelled Buster Posey to the MVP. Maybe it'll take a second half like that from a player to win the NL MVP this year.
In the second half thusfar this year, Andrew McCutchen is hitting .357/.427/.655. No player on a contender is within 30 points of wOBA of him. The player creating distance from the pack is the one that's already the favorite.