Despite being nearly a third of the way through the season, the AL standings are unlike what almost anyone could have expected. The rebuilding Yankees and Twins are currently division leaders, while the Astros (41-16) are playing like the best team in the league. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays, despite a hot streak in May, still sit last in the AL East, as do the Royals in the Central. The terrific performances by some of these talented players have kept their teams afloat, and in some examples, even catapulted them directly into playoff contention for now. Some of these performances haven’t shocked anyone, while others have made you check twice to see if the numbers were real. Regardless, these players have proved to be worthy of American League MVP contention as we enter June.
1. Aaron Judge (OF, New York Yankees)
Second to only Mike Trout in WAR in all of baseball (3.3), the Yankees stud rookie right fielder has taken all of baseball by surprise in 2017, posting an elite slash line of .326/.433/.691, while leading the majors in home runs with 18, and playing his role as a big bat within a strong Yankees lineup. Despite enormous struggles in 2016, where he struck out in exactly 50% of his 84 at-bats, Judge made significant adjustments over the offseason in quieting his legs and keeping his bat in the zone longer.
In return, Judge increased his contact rate by 10%, decreased his chase rate by nearly 12%, and cut his strikeout rate by 15%. In addition to his elite offensive production, Judge’s six defensive runs saved are second to only Mookie Betts among all Major League right fielders. Judge has played up to par with the best players in the game, and his mental makeup and leadership have been heavily lauded on a Yankees team that has surprised everyone with its consistency and overall success, despite battling through injuries throughout the first two months. All in all, the 6’ 7” beast has proven worthy of being the leading candidate for AL MVP as we enter play in June.
2. Mike Trout (OF, Los Angeles Angels)
Before going onto the disabled list on May 30th with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his thumb, Trout played like the best player in baseball that he is, and then some. With a .341 BA, 16 HRs, 10 SBs, and an unheard of 1.203 OPS, the 25-year old star was easily on pace for the best season of his career. Despite minimal offensive talent around him, and an Angels pitching staff enveloped in injuries, Trout had kept the Angels hovering around the .500 mark, to the point that they could have reasonably make a run at a Wild Card spot if he had remained healthy.
While the thumb injury that he incurred sliding headfirst into second base may have put a damper on his chances to win MVP for the second straight season, Trout, over the first 48 games of the Angels season, proved once again why he is unquestionably the best player in the MLB. Unequivocally a generational talent at the height of his powers, Trout would be among the leading candidates for the award if the season ended today.
3. Dallas Keuchel (SP, Houston Astros)
The crafty left-hander struggled mightily in the 2016 season, battling injuries and a lack of control to finish the season with a 4.55 ERA. It came as a surprise to everyone after coming off a 2015 season in which he won the Cy Young Award with a 2.48 ERA, and a 20-8 record. However, through his first 11 starts of 2017, Keuchel wiped away all the concerns anyone had.
With a 1.67 ERA, and a sparkling 9-0 record, Keuchel supplanted himself right back into the Cy Young discussion, along with Chris Sale, Ervin Santana, and teammate Lance McCullers. He has been the ace of a strong Astros rotation, and the MVP of a Houston team that as of June 4th, won ten straight games, and looks like it can’t be stopped. As the current AL leader in ERA and in wins, Keuchel has been a consistent stopper in the Astros rotation, and is a prime reason they sit with what is easily the best record in all of baseball.
Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve: Houston’s top notch combination of Correa and Altuve has been as great as advertised, supplanting their .300+ averages with elite defense up the middle, as they continue to produce at a high level in a deep Houston lineup that is second in all of baseball in runs scored.
Chris Sale: While his incredible strikeout ability has been at the forefront, through the first two months of the season, Sale has consistently gone deep into games, saving precious innings from a fragile Red Sox bullpen, and pitching to a strong 2.89 ERA. The Red Sox continue to creep up on the first place Yankees, and Sale has been a central reason for their success.
Corey Dickerson: The Rays designated hitter leads the American League in hits, and has combined his elite contact ability with his usual power numbers, which has lead him to a strong .336/.378/.602 slash line. While the fact that he doesn’t play defense may hold him back in the minds of voters, he has been the leader of a consistent Rays lineup that is second in the AL in homeruns, and has been a central reason they have stayed afloat in the stacked AL East.
Miguel Sano: The big-time Twins slugger has always struggled with strikeouts, but his newfound plate discipline as led to a 5% increase in his walk rate, and he’s hitting the ball harder than virtually anyone in baseball. His average exit velocity of 96.2 MPH has contributed to an elite slash line of .302/.410/.607, and with his surprisingly solid defense at third base, the Dominican product has been the best player on the first place Twins. If Minnesota can continue to hold off the reigning AL Champion Indians, Sano will continue to be a strong contender for MVP.
Players to watch out for:
Josh Donaldson: Missing much of April and May with a calf injury, Donaldson fell behind the pack in terms of overall production. Even with his injury, however, his per game production has been right up to par some of his best some of the best players in baseball. In his 69 plate appearances through June 4th, the Blue Jays third baseman has hit .279, with a 1.002 OPS and 6 home runs. If he can continue to pull his weight, and potentially carry the Blue Jays back into contention in the AL East, he could build a solid case to garner MVP votes. After following up his MVP 2015 season with another strong campaign last year, Donaldson rising to the occasion once again would come to the surprise of no one.
Mookie Betts and Francisco Lindor: While Mookie Betts and Francisco Lindor have been two of the game’s brightest young stars early in 2017, both players have underwhelmed when it comes to their batting averages, (Betts: .264, Lindor: .268) and could certainly be hitting much better. Considering both are hitting below their career batting average on balls in play, positive regression is very likely in the near future. As they climb closer to their career .300 BAs, and continue to supply it with their power and elite defense, they could build strong cases to not only get consideration, but actually win the award. The biggest key here may actually be team performance. The Indians and Red Sox have both underwhelmed preseason projections so far, so if the two young superstars can begin to lead their teams back into the AL powerhouses they were projected to be, both Betts and Lindor will have strong cases for the prestigious award come November.