Harper, Buchholz are early headliners as Awards Watch returns
Welcome to the fourth season of Awards Watch, my weekly column which tracks the races for the three major player awards -- Most Valuable Player, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year -- throughout the season. In the last three years, I have correctly predicted all 18 winners of those three awards in each league at season's end, while also accurately forecasting where 50 of the 54 top-three finishers would place.
During the season, however, my rankings reflect not my projection of who will win the Baseball Writers of America Association vote but who, in my opinion, is the most deserving of the award to that point in the season. Beginning next week I'll take on each award on a rotating basis, starting with the MVP candidates in both leagues on May 9, followed by the Cy Young challengers on May 16 and the Rookie of the Year hopefuls on May 23. This week, however, I'll set the stage with a quick look at the top three candidates in each league for all three awards.
Most Valuable Player
Harper set the tone for his season by homering in his first two at-bats on Opening Day. He then went on to post the seventh-highest single-month OPS by a player in his age-20 season with at least 100 plate appearances in the month in question. Here's that list:
1.356 -- Ted Williams, September, 1939
1.259 -- Mike Trout, July, 2012
1.233 -- Alex Rodriguez, August, 1996
1.211 -- Mel Ott, June, 1929
1.192 -- Mel Ott, May, 1929
1.164 -- Alex Rodriguez, July, 1996
1.150 -- Bryce Harper, April, 2013
Looking at adjusted OPS + relative to the league in the month in question, Harper's April ranks fourth on the above list, behind Rodriguez's August. Here's hoping the bruised left side that caused Harper to leave Wednesday night's game doesn't prove to be a season-altering injury.
Upton's 12 home runs in April were two shy of the record for that month and five shy of his total for all of last season, a season in which he played through a thumb injury that clearly sapped his production. Upton's critics point to the fact that 11 of his 12 longballs were solo shots and that he has hit .176/.348/.235 with runners in scoring position on the season, driving in just seven runners other than himself all year. However, he's also reaching base nearly half the time with the bases empty and is one off the National League lead in runs scored while leading the NL in total bases.
Prior to 2012, Gomez's career-high in home runs was eight, and his .250/.305/.463 line last year represented career-highs in all three categories, so he is set up for a larger fall than most here. Still, one has to recognize how valuable he has been so far this season. After all, the reason Gomez didn't wash out of the majors after hitting .243/.291/.357 in his first five seasons was that he is one of the best defensive centerfielders in the game. Add elite defense at that position to his stat line above and it's no surprise that Gomez leads NL regulars in Baseball-Reference.com's version of Wins Above Replacement (bWAR).
In the first four games of the season, Davis hit four home runs (one in each game) and drove in 16 runs (three or more in each game), both of which were records for the first four games of a season. That pace was impossible to maintain, but he has remained hot, hitting .288/.404/.538 with five home runs and 12 RBIs since; those counting totals are comparable to the season-to-date effort of the next man on this list.
In direct contrast to Davis' hot four games, Santana missed four starts after being hit in the left thumb by a pitch in the season's second week. As a result, he has had just two-thirds as many plate appearances as Davis, which is why he's listed behind Davis here despite the fact that Santana leads the majors in all three slash stats.
Among everyday players, defending AL MVP Miguel Cabrera, perennial MVP contender Robinson Cano, annual hot-starter Ian Kinsler and A's centerfielder Coco Crisp, who is now on the disabled list with a hamstring strain, all merited consideration here. Buchholz, though, is the American League leader in bWAR and has been so dominant (see his Cy Young mention below) that he deserved the final spot this week.
Zimmermann didn't throw a single eighth-inning pitch all of last season, but this year he has completed that frame in half of his six starts and is the only pitcher in baseball with more than one complete game as well as one of only eight to twirl a shutout in the season's first month. His shutout remains the season's only complete-game one-hitter.
It's not that the Nationals are letting him throw more pitches, either. Zimmermann has only cracked 100 pitches twice, topping out with 107 in his eight scoreless innings against the Braves on Wednesday night. That "inflated" pitch total came because Zimmermann had a season-high eight strikeouts in that game. He has allowed three hits, two walks and no runs in his last 18 innings pitched.
In his second year back from Tommy John surgery, Wainwright has thrown at least seven innings in each of his last five starts, didn't issue a walk this season until his fifth start (when he fell two outs shy of his second shutout of the season) and has yet to allow a home run. Meanwhile, the Cardinals have scored a total of three runs in his two losses.
Having thrown 59 1/3 innings last year, Harvey is no longer a rookie, but he may not need his rookie eligibility to bring home some hardware this year. Yes, his last two starts were the worst of his season, but he struck out seven men in both games against a total of three walks, the first of those two starts was quality and the latter saw him allow just one run in an admittedly inefficient 5 1/3 innings. Sixteen starts into his major league career, he owns a 2.26 career ERA, a 1.01 WHIP and 116 strikeouts in 99 2/3 innings.
Buchholz has gone at least seven innings and allowed no more than two runs in all six of his starts this season. He hasn't allowed a home run since his first start and has struck out eight or more men in four of his last five outings. In three of his last five starts he allowed three or fewer hits. What's more, he has made every start this season in a hitter-friendly ballpark (four at Fenway Park, one at Yankee Stadium and Wednesday night's outing at Rogers Centre). He has been hands down the best pitcher in the AL so far.
Sanchez threw five scoreless innings in his first start of the season and has turned in a quality outing in all five starts since, three times throwing seven or more innings, four times striking out eight or more batters and only once allowing three earned runs in a game. He has yet to allow a home run, and in the three games he started that the Tigers lost, his offense scored a total of just five runs.
All of his other accomplishments thus far this season are overshadowed, however, by his dominance of the first-place Atlanta Braves on April 26. In that game, in which the Braves had use of a designated hitter, Sanchez threw eight scoreless innings, allowing just five hits and a walk while striking out 17 men. Prior to Sanchez, the last man to strikeout at least that many was Toronto's Brandon Morrow, who K'd 17 Rays in August 2010.
Hernandez's rotation-mate Hisashi Iwakuma, Rays sophomore Matt Moore and 2011 winner Justin Verlander deserve mention here. I passed on Moore because, unlike the rest, he has yet to make his sixth start of the season. That's not his fault (he'll make that start on Friday), but at this early stage being a start behind is like missing a month of the season come October. I passed on Iwakuma because he hasn't thrown more than 93 pitches in a game and has averaged less than 6 1/3 innings per start. And I passed on Verlander because his only real advantage over King Felix is in ERA and ERA+ while Felix has had three starts last longer than Verlander's longest and has allowed one or fewer earned runs in each of those outings.
Rookie of the Year
The 22-year-old Miller is a blue chip prospect who is living up to the hype. Drafted 19th overall in 2009, he was considered a top 10 prospect prior to the 2012 season. After a handful of relief outings last September, he made his first major league start on the final day of the 2012 season and limited the powerful Reds to no runs on one hit over six innings, earning a spot in the postseason bullpen.
Since winning the fifth-starter's job in camp, he has yet to allow more than three runs in any of his five starts, the best of which saw him hold the Brewers scoreless on one hit and a hit batsman for seven innings while striking out eight. Having relied almost exclusively on his mid-90s fastball and curve, he could stand to give hitters more different looks (he also has a changeup, cutter and sinker which he has thrown a combined total of 13 times in five starts per BrooksBaseball.net), but they might have to give him a reason to mix things up first.
I was dubious when the Dodgers gave Ryu, a 26-year-old South Korean lefty, a six-year, $36 million contract in December. Thus far, though, Ryu has proven worthy of the investment by putting up numbers as good or better than what he did for the Korea Baseball Organization's Hanwha Eagles last year. He has gone six or more innings in each of his first six major league starts and only once allowed more than three runs, serving as a rock in an unexpectedly fragile Dodgers rotation that has already sent Zack Greinke, Chad Billingsley, Chris Capuano and Stephen Fife to the disabled list.
The man nicknamed El Oso Blanco has become El Oso Frío, hitting .178/.229/.400 since April 16. That doesn't bode well for the 26-year-old's continued presence on this list given that Brian McCann is on a minor league rehab assignment and likely to take his job back next week. Still, of Gattis' eight hits over that span, six have gone for extra bases and bad luck on balls in play has contributed to his slump. He's listed here just ahead of the Diamondbacks' A.J. Pollock, the Reds' Tony Cingrani, who has made just three starts, and new Brewers closer Jim Henderson in what is shaping up to be a compelling rookie of the year race, which is more than can be said for the AL competition thus far.
Despite the excitement of prospects Jackie Bradley Jr., Aaron Hicks, Brandon Maurer and Brad Peacock opening the season with major league jobs, Tepesch, the 24-year-old non-prospect who was the Rangers' surprise pick for fifth starter coming out of camp, has been the only AL rookie to begin the season with a major league job
Tepesch split 2012 between High-A and Double-A, posting an unexceptional 4.28 ERA and 1.36 WHIP in 14 starts and two relief appearances at the higher level. He actually began 2013 with one start in Triple-A as he waited for the Rangers to need a fifth starter. Called to action on April 9, he aced his major league debut (7 1/3 IP, 1 R vs. Tampa Bay), exited the third in the second inning after being hit by a comebacker and recovered nicely in his fourth (6 1/3 IP, 1 R vs. Minnesota). His other two starts were less impressive, though a quicker hook from Texas manager Ron Washington could have polished up his line in both considerably.
Gillaspie, who homered off Tepesch Wednesday night, took over third base for the White Sox when Gordon Beckham broke his hand early in the season's second week and third baseman Jeff Keppinger was moved to the keystone as Beckham's replacement. The 25-year-old Gillaspie actually made his major league debut back in 2008 just months after being drafted by the Giants with their compensation pick for losing Pedro Feliz to the Phillies, an opportunity given to him in exchange for his willingness to sign for the designated slot value. He returned to the majors for cups of coffee in 2011 and 2012, but retained his rookie status.
He was flipped to the White Sox in late February of this year for a low-A relief pitcher of no distinction, but has run with the opportunity provided by Beckham's injury and Chicago's perennial struggle to find a successor to Joe Crede (yes, seriously) at third base. Gillaspie hit .289/.368/.447 for Triple-A Fresno over the last two seasons, so his line above isn't wildly out of character, but he seems destined to return to the bench after Beckham's return.
Grimm, who has started three games, and Astros outfielder Brandon Barnes, who has made 46 plate appearances, have both played roughly half as much as a full-time player to this point in the season. Both have excelled (Barnes has hit .372/.450/.512 and stolen three bases), but the 24-year-old Grimm, who will start for Texas on Thursday night against Jake Peavy and the White Sox, seems more likely to continue to compete for this award than Barnes, who turns 27 on May 15 and is still in a part-time role.