Back in the mid-1980s there was a great trivia question about players who won back-to-back MVPs. The trick was that the nine players who had done so by then formed a full team: a starting pitcher (Hal Newhouser), a catcher (Yogi Berra), a player at each infield spot (Jimmie Foxx, Joe Morgan, Mike Schmidt, Ernie Banks) and three outfielders (Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Dale Murphy). Barry Bonds shattered that symmetry in 1993 by winning his second straight award. Three other sluggers (Frank Thomas, Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera) have since followed in Bonds's footsteps.
Andrew McCutchen has a chance to join that group of 13 stars. The Pirates' centerfielder, who ran away with the 2013 honors and finished third in '12, is once again a tremendously productive offensive player, batting .307/.402/.532, with a fantastic 17 steals in 18 attempts. Sabermetrically speaking, he's been the best hitter in the National League, first in stathead favorites like adjusted OPS and offensive WAR, second to the Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton in batting runs and weighted on-base average. He has an edge on Stanton, a rightfielder, because he plays center, but gives back some value because he missed two weeks following a rib injury in August. The best estimates of McCutchen's defensive performance, using systems such as Defensive Plus-Minus and Ultimate Zone Rating, show that he's had an off year in the field, so his overall value may be behind Stanton and a handful of other candidates such as the Brewers' Jonathan Lucroy.
It's a strange year in the NL, though, with no healthy position player having a season that demands the MVP award. Troy Tulowitzki would have had a strong case had a torn labrum in his hip not ended his season after 91 games played, and Paul Goldschmidt may have lost the award to a broken hand. The best teams in the league, the Nationals and the Dodgers, have no position-player candidates. The most valuable player in the NL through five months is Los Angeles ace Clayton Kershaw, but he faces an uphill battle with the voters; not only is he a pitcher but he also missed a month of the season. No NL starter has won an MVP award with fewer than 22 wins. Kershaw has 16 with five starts left.
There's room for McCutchen to steal this award with a big September, especially if his play can lift the Pirates into the postseason. MVP voters are, as a group, more aware of sabermetric value than they once were, but they're still partial to "narrative" candidates. McCutchen may not be able to bridge the gap on Kershaw on the stat sheet (Kershaw has 5.9 WAR to McCutchen's 5.0 according to FanGraphs), but if he can be the best position player in the league to make the playoffs, that could be enough for him to join Mickey Mantle and Dale Murphy as the third centerfielder to win back-to-back MVPs.
TOM DIPACE (STANTON)
IN THE MIX Stanton (left) and Kershaw (right) are among the NL's strongest MVP contenders.
TOM LYNN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (KERSHAW)
[See caption above]