The American League MVP race is wrapped up in a number of ways. If you're a traditionalist (or just a usual member of the media) your choice is Detroit Tigers 3B Miguel Cabrera; if not him, then Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim outfielder Mike Trout is probably your choice. I won't mince words: he's mine. Outside of those two, you should have a strong third-place showing by Orioles 1B Chris Davis, a vote or two for Josh Donaldson of the Oakland Athletics (who really should be getting more attention) and that will more or less be that.
The National League MVP race is a bit more open. No one there is threatening to win a Triple Crown nor adding to one of the best all-around young careers in the history of baseball -- at least not on the hitting side.
But if a hitter is what the voters want for the MVP award -- and usually it is, though postseason positioning affects these awards much more than it should by the absolute letter of the BBWAA law -- then centerfielder Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates is your man. The numbers are there; McCutchen leads all National League hitters with a .324/.404/.515 triple slash good for a .919 OPS (through Monday's action). He's third in the NL in OPS, but unlike the two men ahead of him, Cincinnati's Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo, and the man behind him, Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt, McCutchen plays in a park that favors pitchers. He also plays centerfield, and plays it well, separating him from the two first basemen on that list and Choo, who has given center field for the Reds his best effort this season, even though he really should be playing in a corner.
Most importantly, McCutchen is on a playoff team and has built national recognition over the past few years, being one of the faces of the ad campaign for the MLB The Show 13 video game -- not something that should matter as far as awards go, but sadly something that does. Even by the lax standards generally accorded awards voters, they almost certainly know who Andrew McCutchen is. In fact, there really is only one other hitter who I believe even has a shadow of a case to challenge the Pirate outfielder for the award.
That would be Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals. Much has been made about pitch framing over the past few months, and while I harbor some personal doubts about how many runs a good pitch framer saves, Molina is still the full package at the catcher position, combining great framing, elite traditional catcher defense and one of the best bats in the league from his position (he had a .317/.356/.478 triple slash line through Monday). The only real criticism may be that he has a really bad neck tattoo. While Buster Posey is having a better year at the plate and is a good defensive catcher in his own right (though Molina is better in that regard, I believe), the San Francisco Giants are not in playoff contention, and that's something that matters to awards voters. The Cardinals are almost assured to finish at least as the first Wild Card team in the National League, just about the same situation that McCutchen's Pirates find themselves in.
Of course, there is a third candidate for National League MVP (note that I didn't say there was one other player for whom there was a shadow of a case for the award, just one other hitter). If the voters want to give the NL MVP award to a pitcher this season much in the same way that Justin Verlander received the award in 2011, the stars have aligned for them to do so. Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers is the only qualified starter with an ERA under 2.00, he's a recognized staff ace with years of proven success behind him and -- despite their recent slump -- his Dodgers have the NL West locked up. Considering the year that Verlander had when he won the MVP (251 IP of 2.40 ERA ball, 172 ERA+ to Kershaw's 223 IP of 1.92 ERA ball, 184 ERA+ so far), Kershaw should be a shoe-in, but that's not really how all this works. When Verlander won in 2011, it was generally a weak year for hitters, with Ben Zobrist, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jose Bautista and Dustin Pedroia being some of the best choices out of the lot, all of whom had perceived flaws such as "not playing for a playoff team" or "undervalued by everyone except for statsheads" or "splitting the Boston vote." Kershaw certainly has the stats and the playoff narrative working for him, but with McCutchen and Molina hanging around it's hard to say how much of a window is open for him. Likely he'll have to be content with his Cy Young Award.
After those three, there are a few dark horses. Carlos Gomez of the Milwaukee Brewers has a fine case just by his statistics -- he's sustained a full season hitting as well as he ended last year, and he's supplemented it by being one of the best defensive center fielder in baseball. That makes him the third most valuable player in the National League by raw Wins Above Replacement, just behind McCutchen and Kershaw. But since the Brewers are one of the worst teams in the league, Gomez isn't going to be winning any awards this year. Outfielder Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers is another player who has been fantastic this year -- he has a .953 OPS and has delivered good defense out of right field. But he's only been in the major leagues since June, and while Rookie of the Year is pretty much a dead heat between him and Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, Most Valuable Player is more or less closed off to him barring some unexpected turn in the voting.
The Pirates could be on track, then, to have their first league MVP since Barry Bonds -- and why not? They've played more than well enough. I personally didn't think they'd make .500 this season, and I wasn't alone there. But if the MVP doesn't go to McCutchen, Molina would make a fine alternative. After all, if the metrics are correct about the value of pitch framing, then catcher is the most essential position in professional sports, even more so than quarterback, and him winning the award would reflect that. If neither of those two win it, then Kershaw's a solid third choice. Even though I don't like picking pitchers for MVP (both for parity concerns regarding the Cy Young and for simple value reasons), if I had to pick one for the award it would certainly be Clayton Kershaw. No matter what, even though this race is getting a lot less press than the Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout and Chris Davis MVP battle, it's sure to be just as interesting.