Prince or Braun for NL MVP a tough decision
The 2011 National League Most Valuable Player Award race could become a two-man, one-team discussion.
Which Milwaukee Brewer, Prince Fielder or Ryan Braun, is more deserving? Will the one who is more deserving actually win the award? What about the rest of the field, a player from, for instance, one of the other 15 NL clubs?
We can all look with admiration and respect at the breakthrough season being forged by Matt Kemp of the Dodgers. If this were the Most Outstanding Player Award, Kemp could win. But it's that "Most Valuable" verbiage that becomes the sticking point.
In recent years, the voters have tended to interpret "Most Valuable" as pertaining directly to a player whose performance helped his team qualify for the postseason. The days when, for instance, an Ernie Banks could win back-to-back MVP Awards playing for Cubs teams that averaged 73 victories are gone, in more ways than one.
Thus, Kemp, playing for a non-contender, becomes an unlikely winner. If he were hitting .350 with 50 home runs, this might be a different story. But he's not, and this isn't. Kemp will get sincere congratulations for lifting his level, but he probably won't receive the MVP.
Jose Reyes of the Mets has been an impact player when he has played. Reyes may be the single most exciting player in the game today, but then there are the days when he isn't playing. Reyes will appear in fewer than 130 games this year, and his team is a truly distant fourth in the NL East. He will be included on many MVP ballots, but not in first place.
Albert Pujols of the Cardinals has made a second-half surge that will bring him MVP support. Only by the lofty standards that he has set does his work this season seem to be anything other than outstanding. And if the Cardinals manage to come from far off the pace and find a spot in the postseason, Pujols' MVP stock will rise accordingly. But at the moment, this would not seem to be the season for his fourth NL MVP Award.
There also is no NL version of Justin Verlander to add another dimension and another argument to the NL MVP Award debate. There are plenty of NL pitchers having commendable seasons, Cy Young-worthy seasons. But the argument about whether a single pitcher can make enough difference to be the MVP will this year be limited to the American League MVP Award, Verlander's truly dominant work, and his impact upon the success of the Tigers.
That brings us back to Fielder and Braun, Braun and Fielder. Their club is on the verge of winning the NL Central. It has been 29 years since a Milwaukee team has won a division. The impact of this dynamic duo is clearly visible. They are a one-of-a-kind combination in the third and fourth spots in the batting order.
Following Wednesday's 7-1 loss to the Cubs, Braun, the Brewers' No. 3 hitter, is leading the league in OPS and slugging percentage, is tied for first in batting average and is second in runs. Fielder was third in RBIs, but only one off the lead, tied for third in home runs, third in on-base percentage and second in walks.
Braun may make the deeper impression with the voters on the basis of some statistical landmarks. He has become a 30-30 player this season, with 31 steals and 31 homers. This is an achievement that does not explore new territory, but does retain some significance. In the past 10 seasons, it had been achieved 16 times.
And if Braun were to win the batting title, that would be an obvious, tangible factor on his side of the discussion. No matter what weight or lack of weight you attach to batting average, this would be another illustration of Braun's ability and versatility. He is, without question, a player of more dimensions than Fielder.
But on Fielder's side of the ledger, if you examine Milwaukee's lineup, he is there every day, batting directly behind Braun, providing protection for Braun. But where has the protection been for Fielder himself? With Casey McGehee having a substandard season, there had been little help for Fielder from the No. 5 spot in the order. Manager Ron Roenicke seemed to have fixed that by inserting Rickie Weeks into that position in the lineup, but then Weeks was out for an extended period with an ankle injury. Weeks is back now, but for much of the season, there hasn't been significant protection for Fielder. Teams have often and understandably refused to pitch to him.
That factor is why this race may be closer than the numbers indicate. Either one of these players would make a completely deserving Most Valuable Player. This partnership may be coming to a close after this season, as Fielder is likely to depart via free agency, but for the Brewers, particularly in 2011, it has been something to savor.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.