- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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September isn't just a month when pennants are won. It's also a month when MVP trophies are won.
So let's take a look at the most prominent MVP candidates in each league -- and where they stand with four weeks left in a sensational season.
Leads the league in: HR, RBIs, runs, total bases, slugging, OPS, runs created per 27 outs
Top five in: OBP, extra-base hits
Scoring position: 44 for 143, .308 (76 RBIs in 191 plate appearances)
We haven't gotten any official updates on whether A-Rod has qualified as a "True Yankee" yet. But we can say with zero hesitation that he has definitely qualified as a "Player with a Chance to Make Some Big-Time History." If his last month goes anything like his first five, he's going to finish with 53 homers, 155 RBIs and 147 runs scored. So even if he tails off to 50-140-140, here's what that would mean: Babe Ruth had three seasons like that. All the other players who ever lived have had four -- just one of them (by Sammy Sosa) in the last 69 years. So unless A-Rod hits, like, .046 in September and the Yankees go 4-20, he's your clear-cut MVP favorite.
Leads the league in: Average, scoring-position average
Top five in: RBIs, runs, doubles, total bases, OBP, slugging, OPS, multi-hit games, extra-base hits, runs created per 27 outs
Scoring position: 68 for 166, .410 (90 RBIs in 198 RISP plate appearances)
Hold on. Great as A-Rod has been, we're not authorizing anyone to engrave his name on the old MVP hardware just yet. That's because out there in Detroit, Ordonez has been practically Ty Cobb reincarnate for a Tigers team that has needed him more than ever since Gary Sheffield's shoulder started acting up. Ordonez just had his best month of the year (which is saying something) in August -- erupting for 10 homers, 31 RBIs, a bunch of mega-clutch hits and a scintillating .393 AVG/.445 OBP/.692 SLG/1.137 OPS stat line. And if he keeps up his current pace (.358, 31 HR, 143 RBIs, 121 runs, 52 doubles, 83 extra-base hits), he would be just the fourth player ever with that set of eye-popping numbers. The others: Lou Gehrig (1927), Chuck Klein (1930) and Todd Helton (2000). So if the Tigers scramble back to make the playoffs, we wish those poor voters luck trying to sort out an A-Rod versus Magglio debate that has no right (or wrong) answer.
Leads the league in: Doubles
Top five in: RBIs, extra-base hits, OPS, runs created per 27 outs, RISP average
Scoring position: 53 for 148, .358 (81 RBIs in 195 RISP plate appearances)
We're not sure how many extra points Guerrero deserves for being, essentially, the only real power threat in his lineup and The Angel No One Wants To Pitch To. But the fact that he leads the league in intentional walks by a gigantic margin (25 for him, 16 for runner-up Travis Hafner) tells you all you need to know. He isn't having quite the monstrous or historic year that A-Rod and Ordonez are having. But September is a time when contenders give their stars numerous opportunities to crank out those way-too-influential "SportsCenter" MVP Moments. So Vlad is still a big part of this argument.
Leads the league in: Hits, multi-hit games
Top five in: Average, stolen bases, scoring-position average
Scoring position: 45 for 118, .381 (51 RBIs in 142 RISP plate appearances)
We never know quite what to make of Ichiro at MVP time, because his repertoire is so much different from the other candidates, so uniquely Ichiro-esque. He has a shot to become the first player in history to pile up his third 230-hit season. He has been spectacular in center field. He's heading for the second-highest on-base percentage of his career. He'll almost certainly steal 40 bases again. And his scoring-position numbers are good enough that he actually has more hits than A-Rod with men in scoring position, in 25 fewer at-bats. But much as we love watching this guy, why can't we talk ourselves out of this feeling that J.J. Putz is actually the Mariners' real MVP?
Leads the league in: OBP
Top five in: OPS, slugging, doubles, walks, extra-base hits
Scoring position: 45 for 129, .349 (63 RBIs in 160 plate appearances)
We could go with lots of tremendous candidates in this fifth spot. But in case you'd forgotten, the Red Sox do have the best record in baseball. And Ortiz, even though he hasn't had one of those vintage Big Papi years, is still one of the most productive hitters alive. Yeah, his homers are down. Yeah, his flair for late-inning magic isn't quite so Hollywoodish. But the folks at Baseball Prospectus rank him third in the AL (behind only A-Rod and Ordonez) in VORP -- a stat that measures a player's "value" compared to what an average replacement player would be likely to produce. And that tells you the Red Sox still wouldn't be what they are without him.
Leads the league in: Average, hit by pitch
Top five in: Doubles, slugging, on-base percentage, runs created per 27 outs
Scoring position: 40 for 132, .303 (66 RBIs in 157 RISP plate appearances)
It isn't so much that Utley could miss a month and still be heading for 50 doubles, 80 extra-base hits, 100 RBIs and 100 runs scored. It isn't so much that he might win a batting title, or that he has transformed himself from a defensive clunker into a Gold Glove-type second baseman. There's just something about all the energy this guy emits, the tone he sets, the relentless pace he plays at. He's one of those rare players everybody in the sport admires -- guys on his team, guys on the other team, the GMs who wish they'd drafted him and the stat guys who love crunching his numbers. Utley was the clear MVP favorite when he broke his hand. Then his team acted like it never wanted to lose again for the first week after he came back. Why do we think that's not a coincidence?
Leads the league in: No major categories
Top five in: Runs, runs created per 27 outs
Scoring position: 39 for 126, .310 (62 RBIs in 166 RISP plate appearances)
Jose Reyes seemed to be anointed early as the Mets' designated MVP candidate. But we think Wright has passed his favorite shortstop, with a season that gets better as it rolls along. Sheez, this man has a .477 on-base percentage (best in the big leagues) and .366 batting average since the All-Star break, with 44 runs scored (second only to Jimmy Rollins) and a .593 slugging percentage (better than A-Rod, Magglio or Prince Fielder). Wright also has a shot to be a 30-homer, 30-steal, 100-run, 100-RBI, .300-hitting on-base machine. And Baseball Prospectus ranks him atop every player on an NL contender (and behind only Hanley Ramirez) in VORP. So as much fun as Reyes can be on any given trip around the bases, it's the guy playing next to him who is really the Mets' MVP.
Leads the league in: Home runs, extra-base hits (tied), slugging
Top five in: RBIs, intentional walks
Scoring position: 27 for 107, .252 (50 RBIs in 143 RISP plate appearances)
There might not be a single other candidate whose fate is so intertwined with the fate of his team as the Prince of Milwaukee. If the Brewers bumble out of this race, there are so many stellar candidates that voters could easily overlook Fielder's power numbers and focus on other stuff -- such as the fact that he has just 27 hits all year with men in scoring position. If the Brewers have a fun little comeback story in them, on the other hand, those same voters will focus on the fact that Fielder has a shot at Mark McGwire's all-time record for most homers by a 23-year-old (49). And that he's almost certainly going to break Robin Yount's record for most extra-base hits by a Brewer (82). And, maybe most importantly, that Fielder has grown into a formidable on-field and off-field presence on a team with very little postseason experience -- or experience, period. So it's a big, big month for this fellow -- and all his fellow Brew Crew-ers.
Leads the league in: Runs, triples, total bases, extra-base hits (tied), multi-hit games
Top five in: Hits
Scoring position: 37 for 133, .278 (54 RBIs in 156 RISP plate appearances)
About the only two people in Philadelphia who haven't gotten hurt this year are Rollins and Harry Kalas. So Rollins gets points just for being a nonstop energizer on a team that easily could have wallowed in its own bad luck. But he gets more points for having one of the great seasons by a shortstop in National League history. He's going to obliterate the post-1900 NL records for most extra-base hits by a shortstop (83, by Ernie Banks) and most runs scored by a shortstop (132, by Pee Wee Reese) -- and has a legit shot at A-Rod's modern major-league records in both departments (91 and 141, respectively). He's the most underrated defensive shortstop in baseball. His impact on the clubhouse is undeniable. And unlike Utley, who has put up much bigger numbers at Citizens Bank Hitters Paradise, Rollins' home/road splits are almost indistinguishable. So it's hard to believe how little MVP conversation this man has generated, considering the year he's had.
Leads the league in: No major categories
Top five in: Homers, OBP, OPS, multi-hit games, intentional walks
Scoring position: 29 for 99, .296 (54 RBIs in 141 plate appearances)
This NL MVP derby is such a free-for-all, it's almost impossible just to list five names. We haven't even mentioned the league leader in RBIs (Ryan Howard), the league leader in hits (Matt Holliday), two men having big years for teams that lost contact with the race months ago (Hanley Ramirez and that Barry Bonds guy), two starting pitchers with serious MVP cases (Jake Peavy and Brandon Webb) or a guy who has held the Braves together all year (Chipper Jones). So hold those e-mails about how we're snubbing your favorite players. We were allowed to list only five, even though there might be 12 players with a shot to win this thing. But the man who sneaked in here in the fifth slot (for now) had to be Pujols. Had to be. The Cardinals have had so many offensive issues, we guarantee they'll finish the year with fewer runs scored than the Phillies have already. So if this team stomps back from nine games under.500 and 10½ games out to win the Central, it will be impossible not to look long and hard at Pujols, who has cemented this lineup together even more than usual.
Rest of our top 10: Chipper Jones, Matt Holliday, Hanley Ramirez, Ryan Howard, Jake Peavy.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.
1dJesse Rogers and Jerry Crasnick