With the calendar turning to May, it is time for Awards Watch to get down to business. This week we take our first look at the top three candidates in each league for the three major awards -- Most Valuable Player, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year. Next week we will begin our usual rotation by examining the top five candidates in each league for MVP. This week's roundup yields some surprising contenders, a reminder that it is still early even if a sixth of the season has already elapsed.
A quick reminder: These rankings are my take on who the most deserving players for each award would be if the season ended today; they are not predictions of the year-end winners. Also, I am not a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America and thus do not vote for any of these awards.
Note: All stats are through Wednesday, April 30. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics. Rookies are players who, prior to the current season, had fewer than 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched in the majors or spent fewer than 45 days on the active roster prior to rosters expanding on Sept. 1.
1. Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays
Season Stats: .293/.467/.598, 8 HR, 18 RBI, 24 R
In the four-plus seasons since his breakout 2010 campaign, Bautista has hit .269/.394/.571 while swatting home runs at a rate of 48 per 162 games. So much for that season being a fluke. Bautista is at the front of this race now because of his overwhelming advantage in on-base percentage, which is due mostly to his major-league-leading 30 walks. Like his fellow MVP leader this week, Bautista has been plagued by injuries in recent years, but there's no reason why the 33-year-old can't remain in the mix for this award all season if he stays healthy.
2. Mike Trout, CF, Angels
Season Stats: .321/.403/.596, 6 HR, 18 RBI, 21 R, 4 SB
Trout finished second in the AL MVP voting in each of the last two years, with a vocal contingent, including myself, believing he deserved to win the award both times. In 2012, he didn't make his season debut until April 28 and went 1-for-11 on the month. In 2013, he was in the Angels' Opening Day lineup, but hit just .261/.333/.432 with two home runs in April. Now look at his 2014 line above again. Good luck, rest of the American League.
3. Alexei Ramirez, SS, White Sox
Season Stats: .351/.375/.535, 4 HR, 19 RBI, 17 R, 4 SB
Ramirez hit safely in 27 of the White Sox' 29 games in April, setting a team record with 40 hits prior to May 1. That performance has led some to wonder what level of influence new teammate Jose Abreu, a fellow Cuban and the current major league leader in home runs and RBIs, has had on him in the early going. Most likely, the good fortune that has led to Ramirez's .365 batting average on balls in play has had a greater influence, but no matter what the source, that level of production at the plate from a fleet-footed, slick fielding shortstop has made Ramirez one of the most valuable players in the league in April, even more so than the power-hitting Abreu.
1. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies
Season Stats: .364/.477/.727, 7 HR, 22 RBI, 24 R
Tulowitzki was off to an excellent start of human proportions before he hit his second home run of the season on April 18. In his last dozen games dating back to that one, he has hit .415/.538/.976 with six home runs, which is just silly. Given his otherworldly performance at the plate, Tulowitzki would be leading this race even if he wasn't a shortstop who plays his position extremely well, but he is, which means he's lapping the field. Did I mention he has 20 walks against just 13 strikeouts? Ridiculous. It is going to be even more disappointing than usual when he gets hurt this year.
2. Charlie Blackmon, CF, Rockies
Season Stats: .374/.418/.616, 5 HR, 18 RBI, 23 R, 7 SB
If you were wondering how the Rockies got to be three games over .500 despite an uninspiring roster, an injury-plagued rotation and a slow start from Carlos Gonzalez, having the two best everyday players in the National League in April might have had something to do with it. Blackmon's six-hit game on April 4, four which went for extra bases, seemed like a fluke at the time, but the 27-year-old has hit .337/.387/.554 since while stealing six bases in seven attempts and making additional contributions in the field despite bouncing between centerfield and right. He has also struck out just seven times in 111 plate appearances.
3. Chase Utley, 2B, Phillies
Season Stats: .355/.408/.570, 3 HR, 14 RBI
Even after posting a .229/.269/.313 line over his last dozen games, the 35-year-old Utley had an April performance that is similar to that of his age-28 season, when he hit .332/.410/.566 overall and finished third in the league in wins above replacement. Given his age, Tulowitzki's injury history and Blackmon's limited major league track record, it seems unlikely that any of these three players will remain on this list through September, though Tulowitzki certainly has the talent to win the MVP if he can stay healthy.
AL Cy Young
How tightly bunched is this field right now? I could pour over the statistics of the top six pitchers in the American League thus far this season -- alphabetically: Jesse Chavez, Sonny Gray, Felix Hernandez, Scott Kazmir, Max Scherzer and James Shields -- for a week without coming up with a satisfactory top three for the AL Cy Young. I have eliminated rookies Masahiro Tanaka and Yordano Ventura as both have made just five starts to the rest of the field's six (and, spoiler alert, both get their due in the Rookie of the Year rankings below), but even that was painful given that Ventura leads the league in ERA and ERA+ and Tanaka has arguably been the league's most dominant pitcher.
Beyond that, Hernandez has the best WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio and most innings pitched of those six contenders, but the worst ERA and ERA+ and has allowed another five unearned runs that aren't included in those figures. Gray has the best ERA and ERA+ of that group and is second to Hernandez in innings, but has the worst WHIP, strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio. Shields has strong numbers all around, but a whopping seven unearned runs on his ledger. I can find fewer complaints about the other three, which is why they're listed below.
1. Jesse Chavez, RHP, A's
Season Stats: 2-0, 1.89 ERA, 0.95 WHIP, 9.7 K/9, 5.13 K/BB, 6.3 IP/GS, 205 ERA+
Chavez rebounded from his first poor start of the season by holding the Rangers to one hit over seven scoreless innings Wednesday night, striking out eight against just one walk. In his five quality starts this season, he has allowed a total of just four earned runs (plus two more unearned) and walked six while striking out 36 men in 33 innings. All of that has come from a 30-year-old journeyman who had made just two major league starts prior to this season, both of them disasters.
Chavez is very clearly a different pitcher than the one who used to bounce around major league bullpens. In 2009, his best year as a reliever, he worked off a 95 mile per hour four-seamer with a slider and changeup. He has since introduced a curve, scrapped the slider in favor of a cutter and made a 92 mile per hour sinker his primary fastball, one he throws about half as often as he used to throw his four-seamer. As the diversification of his repertoire would suggest, he's becoming more of a pitcher than a thrower. He has also drastically improved his control and, at least in the early going, his groundball rate. Given all of that, Chavez's rebirth as a dominant major league starter appears to be for real.
2. Max Scherzer, RHP, Tigers
Season Stats: 3-1, 2.08 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 11.8 K/9, 4.64 K/BB, 6.5 IP/GS, 209 ERA+
The defending AL Cy Young award winner has effectively matched or improved all of his 2013 rates in the early going. His lone non-quality start of the season saw him strike out 10 men in five innings and he has struck out at least seven men in each of his six starts. If he keeps this up, the only thing limiting his earning potential as a free agent come November will be the fact that he'll have turned 30 by then.
3. Scott Kazmir, LHP, A's
Season Stats: 4-0, 2.11 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 5.00 K/BB, 6.4 IP/GS, 184 ERA+
Oakland lost both Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin to Tommy John surgery before either could throw a pitch this year, yet the A's will enter the weekend with the best record in the American League. How have they pulled that off? Look no further than Chavez, Gray and Kazmir, the latter a free agent addition. Like Bartolo Colon, the pitcher he replaced in the team's rotation, Kazmir has taken an improbable comeback to the next level with Oakland, falling one inning short of six quality starts on the season and posting a strikeout-to-walk ratio that is more than double his career rate (2.10) before he restarted his major league tenure with Cleveland last year. Like Chavez, Kazmir is mixing his pitches more than ever at the expense of his four-seamer. If there was a coach of the month award in baseball, A's pitching coach Curt Young would top the list.
NL Cy Young
1. Johnny Cueto, RHP, Reds
Season Stats: 2-2, 1.15 ERA, 0.77 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, 3.57 K/BB, 7.8 IP/GS, 2 CG, 1 SHO, 315 ERA+
Cueto has been the best pitcher in baseball this season, period. He has pitched at least seven full innings in each of his six starts and allowed no more than two runs in any of them. He should be 6-0, but the Reds have scored a total of one run in his two losses and his bullpen has allowed five runs in his two no-decisions. In fact, Cueto hasn't won a game this year that he didn't complete himself. In his last three starts, he has pitched 26 innings while allowing just one run and striking out 27. Not bad for a pitcher who couldn't stay healthy enough to make three consecutive starts last year. Cueto's next strikeout will be his 51st, matching his season total from his injury-riddled 2013 campaign. It's safe to say his shoulder is healthy.
2. Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals
Season Stats: 5-1, 1.20 ERA, 0.78 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, 3.82 K/BB, 7.5 IP/GS, 1 SHO, 293 ERA+
Wainwright has gone at least seven innings in each of his six starts this year and has held his opponents scoreless four times. He'll carry an active 25-inning scoreless streak into his next start, which will come on Friday against the Cubs. In his only non-quality start this year, he allowed four runs in seven innings but struck out eight and walked no one.
3. Jose Fernandez, RHP, Marlins
Season Stats: 4-1, 1.59 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 12.5 K/9, 6.88 K/BB, 6.6 IP/GS, 232 ERA+
The 21-year-old Fernandez barely edges out 38-year-old veteran Tim Hudson of the Giants, who is 2-1 with a 2.17 ERA and 31 strikeouts against just two walks. Fernandez, though, is proving to be even more dominant than during his NL Rookie of the Year campaign in 2013. Over his final 18 starts last year, he went 10-3 with a 1.50 ERA and 0.86 WHIP while averaging 6.7 innings per start. Compare those numbers to the stats above, which have come in six starts. The difference this year is that Fernandez has been even more dominant in the strike zone. In those last 18 starts a year ago, he had 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings and a 3.65 strikeout-to-walk ratio, numbers he has significantly improved in the early going this season.
Fernandez has allowed seven earned runs this season and six of them came in his one poor start. He hasn't allowed an earned run in any of his last three outings and hasn't allowed a run of any kind in his last 17 innings, 16 of which came against the NL East-leading Braves.
AL Rookie of the Year
1. Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, Yankees
Season Stats: 3-0, 2.27 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 11.6 K/9, 7.67 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 186 ERA+
Tanaka's best start so far came on April 16, when he threw eight shutout innings against the Cubs, allowing two hits and striking out 10 against just one walk. Good luck trying to decide which was his worst. Was it his major league debut, one of only two outings in which he has allowed three runs, but walked no one and struck out eight in seven innings? Was it the only one in which he allowed three earned runs, when he went seven innings and struck out 10? Was it the one with the lowest strikeout total and the most home runs, when he went 7⅓ innings, allowed just two runs and didn't walk anyone while striking out seven? Or was it the shortest, when he allowed just two runs and struck out 11 in 6⅓ innings? Believe the hype.
2. Jose Abreu, 1B, White Sox
Season Stats: .270/.336/.617, 10 HR, 32 RBI
Abreu leads the majors in home runs, RBIs and total bases (71) and the American League in slugging percentage and has already established himself as a streaky hitter whose at-bats are must-sees when he's hot. Abreu hit his first four major league home runs over the course of three games in the season's second week, then went 1-for-25 over the next week. On April 19, he broke out of that funk with a pair of singles, kickstarting a 12-game run in which he has hit .360/.385/.820. Eleven of his 18 hits in that time went for extra bases and six were home runs, including a walkoff grand slam.
3. Yordano Ventura, RHP, Royals
Season Stats: 2-1, 1.50 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 9.3 K/9, 2.82 K/BB, 6.0 IP/GS, 288 ERA+
The 22-year-old Ventura has his work cut out for himself in this race, chasing two veterans of foreign leagues, the 25-year-old Tanaka from Japan and the 27-year-old Abreu from Cuba. If not for those two, Ventura would be way out in front of the extremely deep American League rookie field. Ventura, the AL ERA leader, has allowed just six runs in five starts, four of those coming in his one poor outing. In the other four, he has allowed just two runs, one unearned, in 19 innings. Ventura is hardest throwing starting pitcher ever recorded, but when you watch him, which every baseball fan should make a point of doing, it's clear that his triple-digit fastball isn't his best pitch. He has a curve and changeup and can ease off the heater to increase its movement. He's 22, he leads the league in ERA and he's still learning.
NL Rookie of the Year
1. Chris Owings, SS, Diamondbacks
Season Stats: .313/.367/.398, 0 HR, 4 SB
Owings had fine April, largely replicating his solid debut last September (.291/.361/.382), and he has claimed the shortstop job in Arizona outright from Didi Gregorius, Still, the 22-year-old is in the lead here as much because of his lack of competition as because of his own performance.
2. David Hale, RHP, Braves
Season Stats: 1-0, 2.10 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 6.0 K/9, 1.55 K/BB, 5.8 IP/GS, 175 ERA+
The 26-year-old Hale pitched well in three of his four starts as a replacement starter in the thinned-out Braves rotation. Still, with Mike Minor and Gavin Floyd both set to return this weekend, he has already been be bounced to the bullpen, from which he contributed two scoreless innings against the Marlins Wednesday night.
3. Tommy Kahnle, RHP, Rockies
Season Stats: 2-1, 1.93 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, 2.17 K/BB, 1.4 IP/G, 219 ERA+
A Rule 5 pick out of the Yankees' organization, the 24-year-old Kahnle (pronounced: KAYN-lee) skipped over Triple A but has excelled in long relief for the Rockies, stranding all six of his inherited runners. He hadn't allowed a home run in 14 innings until Miguel Montero hit a walk-off shot against him Wednesday night.