The American League MVP race is shaping up to be a two-man competition between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout for a second consecutive season. The battle lines were drawn last season as far as what writers value what numbers and we will be in for another round of those debates as the season winds to its conclusion.
For the second straight year, the Orioles have multiple players who are good enough to find themselves into the MVP conversation, even if it's just starting in third place. Chris Davis and Manny Machado are both playing well enough to be deserving of votes in the top five.
What would it take for Davis to somehow play his way into the same level of discussion as Cabrera and Trout?
The batting lines through August 12 for the players in question:
In Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Trout has 7.8 to Cabrera's 7.4. Davis has 5.6 WAR. This is a significant gap, though if there is one thing in Davis' favor, the BBWAA electorate showed last year that WAR is not important to them. One thing that stands out just looking at the batting lines is that Davis' on-base percentage is significantly lower than either of the other two. He also strikes out nearly twice as much while having a walk rate about 70% of Cabrera's.
Could Davis overcome that disadvantage between now and the end of September to be deserving in the eyes of BBWAA writers of the MVP award?
To get things started, the Orioles should make the playoffs to maximize the chances that Davis will get consideration, no matter how well he performs. Last season demonstrated that there are significant numbers of BBWAA voters who may penalize a player for an individual award based on the performance of his team.
Never mind that Cabrera gets into the playoffs in part thanks to Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer whereas Davis' team has had Jason Hammel, Freddy Garcia, Zach Britton, and Jake Arrieta start a combined 42 games, which is roughly 2/5ths of the team's games.
This same factor is probably why it's Cabrera's race to win, again, even if Trout has once again been the better player. Entertaining the notion of what would make Davis be able to win the MVP award is really figuring out what would have to happen for him to be seen as better than Cabrera - fair or not to Trout.
Another big part of Cabrera's triumph last season was his winning of the Triple Crown. Davis has a lead of 43 home runs to Cabrera's 37 with about six weeks' worth of games left to play. He has led Cabrera in RBI at different points since the All-Star Break, though he currently trails by one, 111 to 110. In a perfect world, RBI would not play any significant role at all in MVP discussion, but we do not live in a perfect world. Davis leading in two of three categories, rather than Cabrera, would likely carry weight with some voters.
Davis has virtually no shot at passing Cabrera in batting average, so his winning the Triple Crown outright is not likely at all. However, Cabrera winning the Triple Crown last year wasn't important because of the Triple Crown itself but because of the rarity of a baseball accomplishment not seen since the halcyon days of yore.
Where the Orioles slugger does have a chance at something special is his home run total. The idea of Davis taking a run at the so-called "clean" home run record of 61 by Roger Maris is something that has been bandied about at different points through the season. He was on pace to tie or pass Maris until an eleven-game homerless streak from July 19 to July 30 and still is on pace for the high fifties. One hot streak - he's homered in three of his past five games - and he's right back to having a chance to pass Maris.
As baseball writers fall over themselves to condemn Alex Rodriguez, Davis hitting 61 home runs or more would shine like a beacon and probably represents the biggest chance for Davis to get himself an MVP award.
Such a scenario is unlikely, because Davis probably won't hit 61+ home runs, and in the event that he did, he would probably not deserve an MVP award on the purely statistical merits. The award will likely come down to the same as last year, with the RBI crowd lining up behind Cabrera and newer-wave thinking lining up behind Trout. To both crowds, Davis is probably the third-best.
Third-best player in the American League is still quite a distinction, even if they don't give you an award for third place. Davis has had a special season so far, one without which the Orioles would not be as close in the playoff race as they are. He could go the rest of the season without homering and it would still be one of the best seasons for a hitter in Orioles history.
Still, it's fun to dream. What if he hits 50 homers, or 55, or 60? Those homers themselves could be something to help elevate the team into the playoffs, and if he managed to hit that many, he might elevate himself to the first MVP award given to an Orioles player since Cal Ripken Jr. won the 1991 MVP.
Whether or not Davis is the most valuable player in the AL, which he probably won't be, he is undoubtedly one of the most valuable players in the league. For Orioles fans stuck watching teams full of washed-up veterans and nobodies for a decade and a half, it doesn't matter what awards they give him. Getting to watch Davis and have him on our favorite team is a treat.