Another month is in the books, so it's time to take a look at the most valuable players in baseball according to Fan Graphs' tremendous Runs Above Replacement (RAR) stat that combines offensive and defensive contributions while comparing everyone to "replacement-level" players at the same position.
For example, how many runs would the Cardinals lose if they had to replace Albert Pujols with a random, freely available first baseman called up from the minors? RAR has the answer, and while not perfect is an excellent way to examine all-around contributions that can be used to determine the top MVP candidates based strictly on their between-the-lines performance.
Here are each league's RAR leaders through three months:
AMERICAN LEAGUE RAR NATIONAL LEAGUE RAR Ben Zobrist 41.2 Albert Pujols 45.2 Joe Mauer 38.1 Chase Utley 40.4 Evan Longoria 37.9 Hanley Ramirez 38.3 Jason Bartlett 33.3 Matt Kemp 36.6 Kevin Youkilis 32.6 Adrian Gonzalez 36.1 Ian Kinsler 31.7 Justin Upton 33.9 Ichiro Suzuki 31.6 Ryan Zimmerman 33.8 Brandon Inge 31.1 Ryan Braun 31.1 Carl Crawford 30.6 David Wright 31.1 Marco Sctuaro 29.5 Raul Ibanez 30.9
Pujols takes his rightful place as the NL leader after the bum ranked just third through April and second through May. He finished June by launching a pair of homers off Randy Johnson to become the seventh player in baseball history with 30 long balls before July 1. The other six are Babe Ruth (twice), Sammy Sosa (twice), Ken Griffey Jr. (twice), Barry Bonds, Luis Gonzalez, and Mark McGwire, with all but Ruth's seasons coming since 1994.
No big surprises in the NL, as the cream has risen to the top with the usual suspects like Chase Utley, Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Ryan Braun, and David Wright. Justin Upton is having one of the best seasons ever by a 21-year-old, hitting .320/.399/.576 with 14 homers and 37 total extra-base hits in 72 games after being benched by a since-fired manager on Opening Day. Matt Kemp has been one of the league's best players, yet has batted higher than sixth in the Dodgers' lineup just 10 times.
Ben Zobrist is the surprise RAR leader in the AL, although as I wrote about last week he's actually been putting up big numbers since last season. Tampa Bay's infield accounts for three of the four most valuable players in the league, with Zobrist leading the pack, Evan Longoria ranking third after being No. 1 through both April and May, and Jason Bartlett returning from the disabled list to claim the fourth spot. Toss in Carl Crawford at No. 9 and it's easy to see why they lead the league in runs.
In between all the Rays' infielders is Joe Mauer, who while still lacking enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title after sitting out all of April has been nearly 40 runs better than a replacement-level catcher in just 54 games. Hitting .383 with a .455 on-base percentage and .662 slugging percentage while playing the least-offensive position in baseball tends to rack up RAR in a hurry.
At the other end of the RAR spectrum, the least valuable player in baseball has been Brian Giles at 16.2 runs below replacement level, followed by Delmon Young (-15.2), Vernon Wells (-13.6), Alexi Casilla (-10.8), and Gary Matthews Jr. (-10.4). Wells is the big shocker on that list, as he never produced a negative RAR while being a combined 204.4 runs above replacement level from 2002-2008.