Thursday September 4th, 2014

With just three and a half weeks left in the regular season, Awards Watch is moving into the lightning round, listing the top three contenders for each of the three major player awards in each league every Thursday this month. This week, we find things closer than expected in the AL MVP, NL Cy Young, and NL Rookie of the Year races. Two of those even have new leaders, thanks to the disappointing second half of one superstar, the late surge of another, and the complete lack of star power in the race for the last of those three awards.

Note: All stats are through Wednesday, Sept. 3. 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. The number in parentheses after a player's name reflects his rank on the previous list.

Most Valuable Player

American League

1. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (1)

Season Stats: .285/.369/.551, 31 HR, 98 RBI, 92 R, 13 SB

Last Two Weeks: .264/.316/.509, 4 HR, 8 RBI, 8 R, 1 SB

If Mike Trout wins this award, he'll do so in the weakest of his first three full seasons in the major leagues. That says as much about the quality of his first two seasons as it does about this one, but the fact remains that Trout, after a characteristically excellent first half, has not been the same player since the All-Star break. In 44 games since play resumed, he has hit a mere .238/.307/.448 with just three stolen bases in five attempts and has struck out in 29 percent of his plate appearances. That is not an MVP performance by any stretch, but Trout was so good in the first half (.310/.400/.606 with ten steals in as many attempts) that, when adjusting for his value in the field, on the bases, and for his offense-suppressing home ballpark, he remains the best player in the league over the course of the season as a whole.

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2. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners (2)

Season Stats: 14-5, 209 K, 2.18 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 5.65 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 170 ERA+

Last Two Weeks: 1-1, 3.92 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 5.2 K/9, 2.40 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS

Hernandez could have surpassed Trout over the last couple of weeks if not for an uncharacteristic run of three straight non-quality starts, during which he went 0-2 with a 5.09 ERA. Hernandez rebounded from that brief hiccup by outdueling fellow Cy Young contender Jon Lester on Wednesday afternoon (8 IP, 3 H, 1 R), but it was too little, too late for this week's list. Still, King Felix is a serious contender for this award in a season in which the AL lacks an undeniably dominant all-around performance from an everyday player.

3. Jose Abreu, 1B, White Sox (5)

Season Stats: .322/.383/.602, 33 HR, 99 RBI, 71 R

Last Two Weeks: .528/.605/.694, 1 HR, 9 RBI, 5 R

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The sheer difficulty of picking a third man for this list underscores why Trout is still leading and why Hernandez is such a serious challenger. It's not that the AL lacks valuable players, but among Abreu, Jose Altuve, Jose Bautista, Adrian Beltre, Michael Brantley, Robinson Cano, Josh Donaldson, Alex Gordon, Victor Martinez, and Kyle Seager, there is no player who has been as impressive in all facets of the game as Trout or as dominant as Hernandez. To me, this spot comes down to Abreu and Cano, and this week I'm giving Abreu the edge for being both the best hitter in the league this year and the hottest at the moment.

Abreu, who will take an active 13-game hitting streak into Friday's action, has hit .386/.463/.542 in the second half — that after hitting 29 home runs in the first half — and is now fourth in the majors in both home runs and batting average while leading the majors in OPS (by 17 points over Giancarlo Stanton at .985) and OPS+. More on him in the AL Rookie of the Year standings below.

Out of the top three: Robinson Cano

National League

1. Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Marlins (1)

Season Stats: .295/.402/.566, 36 HR, 102 RBI, 86 R, 10 SB

Last Two Weeks: .298/.421/.617, 4 HR, 13 RBI, 7 R

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Mike Trout may be the Best Player In Baseball, but the best player in the majors this season, at least among those still healthy enough to participate in actual baseball games, has been Giancarlo Stanton. He leads Trout in all three slash stats, hits, homers, RBI, and walks; has 10 steals in 11 attempts (a whopping 91-percent success rate) to Trout's 13 in 15; and while Stanton plays rightfield to Trout's center, Defensive Runs Saved and Fielding Runs Above Average both rate Stanton as the better fielder this season (Ultimate Zone Rating has them roughly even). For all the hype over Bryce Harper (who, it should be noted, has hit .313/.355/.566 with eight home runs in his last 26 games), Trout's NL rival/counterpart currently plays for Miami, not Washington.

2. Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates (2)

Season Stats: .303/.396/.530, 21 HR, 72 RBI, 72 R, 17 SB

Last Two Weeks: .283/.306/.565, 4 HR, 5 RBI, 8 R

McCutchen was leading this race before he suffered an avulsion fracture involving the costochondral cartilage of his left eleventh rib, possibly as a result of a retaliatory hit-by-pitch from the eye-for-an-eye Diamondbacks on Aug. 2. Not only did that injury cause him to miss 14 games, but he has been clearly diminished since his return on Aug. 19. That has allowed Stanton to open up a significant lead in this race, but McCutchen isn't completely cooked. In between a pair of 0-for-4s, one coming upon his return and one from the last two days, he hit .342/.366/.684 with four home runs over ten games. He's unlikely to catch Stanton, but I'll still take the everyday centerfielder who missed two weeks over the ace starter who missed a month for the second spot here.

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3. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers

Season Stats: 17-3, 202 K, 1.70 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 10.7 K/9, 8.08 K/BB, 7.4 IP/GS, 6 CG, 2 SHO, 210 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 3-0, 0.75 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, 10.5 K/9, 4.67 K/BB, 8.0 IP/GS

Kershaw missed all of April with a strained teres major muscle behind his pitching shoulder, but his performance since his return has been awe-inspiring. Take out his disaster start on May 17 (1 2/3 IP, 7 R) and his season ERA drops to 1.34. Wins and losses are dependent upon more than the performance of a starting pitcher, but it's hard not to marvel at the fact that the Dodgers are 16-1 in his last 17 starts, the one loss coming in a game Kershaw completed with 11 strikeouts and no walks.

From June 8 to Aug. 16, Kershaw completed six of his 13 starts, two of them shutouts, including one of the most dominant no-hitters in major league history. As of this writing, Kershaw has pitched seven or more innings in each of his last 15 starts and has allowed more than three runs just once in the entire season (in that aforementioned disaster start). With all of the other top contenders for this award, save for Stanton, some combination of slumping and injured, Kershaw easily rises into the top three.

Out of the top three: Jonathan Lucroy

Jeff Chiu/AP

Cy Young

American League

1. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners (1)

Season Stats: 14-5, 209 K, 2.18 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 5.65 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 170 ERA+

Last Four Weeks: 2-2, 3.31 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 6.3 K/9, 4.60 K/9, 6.5 IP/GS

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Hernandez's record-setting streak of 16 straight games with seven or more innings pitched and two or fewer runs allowed likely iced this award for the Mariners' ace, who previously won the AL Cy Young in 2010. The only AL pitcher to have out-pitched Hernandez this season is Chris Sale, but he has thrown 59 fewer innings, too large of a gap for his small advantages in the various rate stats to make the difference. Hernandez should claim this award with ease.

2. Chris Sale, LHP, White Sox (2)

Season Stats: 11-3, 178 K, 2.11 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 10.8 K/9, 5.74 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 2 CG, 185 ERA+

Last Four Weeks: 1-1, 2.00 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 13.3 K/9, 4.44 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS

A flexor strain in his left elbow cost Sale a month early in the season, and rain shortened one of his starts to three innings soon after his return. Add in an 11-day stretch between starts around the All-Star break to give his arm some extra rest and Sale simply can't compete with Hernandez due to all of the time he has missed. He's been so good when actually on the mound, however, that I still have him second in this race, though he's neck-and-neck with the two men behind him, all of whom are jockeying for the privilege of being runner-up to Felix in the voting.

3. Jon Lester, LHP, Athletics

Season Stats: 13-10, 191 K, 2.54 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 4.78 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 1 SHO, 153 ERA+

Last Four Weeks: 2-3, 2.36 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 4.86 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 1 SHO

In listing six Cy Young candidates this week, it would make more sense to list four in the AL, giving Corey Kluber his fair shake, and just two in the NL, which is a two-man race at best at this point. I'm a slave to my format, however, so Kluber gets the boot here as he falls just short of Lester in ERA, ERA+. WHIP, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and innings per start (though he also bests Lester in total innings, strikeouts, and strikeout rate).

That the A's were able to land a pitcher this high in the Cy Young rankings at the trading deadline is remarkable, but it hasn't been tremendously beneficial. Lester is a perfect 7-for-7 in quality starts as an Athletic, but due to poor run support, the A's have lost three of Lester's last four starts. He has only really pitched them to victory twice: A 3-0 shutout of the Twins on Aug. 7 and Oakland's 2-1 win over the Angels on Aug. 23, in which Lester worked seven innings.

Out of the top three: Corey Kluber

CORCORAN: Gomez-less Brewers need to snap out of funk

National League

1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (2)

Season Stats: 17-3, 202 K, 1.70 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 10.7 K/9, 8.08 K/BB, 7.4 IP/GS, 6 CG, 2 SHO, 210 ERA+

Last Four Weeks: 4-1, 1.32 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, 9.9 K/9, 5.63 K/BB, 8.2 IP/GS, 1 CG

The only qualified pitcher ever to post an ERA+ of 200 or higher with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 8.00 or higher and at least 10 strikeouts per nine innings was Pedro Martinez, who did so in 1999 and 2000, arguably two of the greatest pitching seasons of all time (Martinez's 11.7 Wins Above Replacement in 2000 have that performance tied for the fifth-best pitching season of the liveball era). Kershaw might yet fall below those numbers, but at to point his dominance has been such that it overwhelms the 37 2/3 inning gap between his workload and Johnny Cueto's.

Worth noting: The only pitcher ever to win a Cy Young award in a non-strike year with fewer than 200 innings pitched was Rick Sutcliffe, who win the NL award in 1984 after being traded from the AL midseason (Sutcliffe threw 244 2/3 innings on the season as a whole, but only 150 1/3 in the NL). Kershaw, who has thrown 169 1/3 innings thus far, may not alter that fact. If he remains on his current pace, he'll finish the season with exactly 200 innings pitched.

2. Johnny Cueto, RHP, Reds (1)

Season Stats: 16-8, 205 K, 2.26 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 8.9 K/9, 3.66 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 4 CG, 2 SHO, 160 ERA+

Last Four Weeks: 3-2, 3.31 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, 3.00 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS

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Dominant as Kershaw has been, this race isn't over. Cueto leads the National League in innings pitched with 207 and is second in ERA, ERA+, WHIP, strikeouts, complete games, and WAR among pitchers (trailing Stephen Strasburg in strikeouts and Kershaw in everything else). Cueto also leads the majors in quality starts with 25 and again trails only Kershaw in quality start percentage among pitchers with 20 or more starts (86 percent to Kershaw's 91). Given his advantage in innings, Cueto is close enough to Kershaw to make this a tough race to call should Kershaw stumble over his final four starts.

3. Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals (3)

Season Stats: 16-9, 153 K, 2.69 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 3.33 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 138 ERA+

Last Four Weeks: 3-3, 4.38 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 6.0 K/9, 2.89 K/BB, 6.5 IP/GS

Wainwright has gone 4-5 with a 4.82 ERA since the All-Star break, a stretch some blamed on Yadier Molina's thumb injury, as Wainwright pitched to someone other than Molina in his first eight post-break starts. Being reunited with Molina on Tuesday night was not a miracle cure, however, as Wainwright gave up three home runs in a game for the first time since June 2010 and failed to register a quality start, allowing four runs in six innings (which works out to a 6.00 ERA). Given all of that, I'm actually surprised to see him still in the top three. Wainwright just edges out Zack Greinke and Cole Hamels for this spot thanks to his dominant first-half performance, but he's not really a factor in the race anymore.

Jeff Chiu/AP

Rookie of the Year

American League

1. Jose Abreu, 1B, White Sox (1)

Season Stats: .322/.383/.602, 33 HR, 99 RBI, 71 R

Last Three Weeks: .468/.535/.613, 2 HR, 13 RBI, 10 R

Abreu no longer has a shot at the rookie home run record, but he's still having one of the greatest rookie hitting seasons in major league history. His league-leading 173 OPS+ currently ranks second all-time among qualified rookie hitters, behind Shoeless Joe Jackson's 193 in 1911 and ahead of Mike Trout's 168 from two years ago, the latter of which was the only league-leading OPS+ figure by a rookie in major league history. Abreu has this award locked up tight.

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2. Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, Yankees (2)

Season Stats: 12-4, 2.51 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 9.4 K/9, 7.11 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO, 155 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: On disabled list

Following a minor setback in his rehabilitation of his partially torn ulnar collateral ligament, Tanaka seems unlikely to throw another pitch this season, though he is expected to throw a bullpen session later this week. If that's the case, he well may be passed by someone in the next few weeks, but it hasn't happened yet. That's a testament to just how good he was in his 18 starts this year.

3. Dellin Betances, RHP, Yankees (3)

Season Stats: 5-0, 1.44 ERA, 0.77 WHIP, 13.6 K/9, 5.80 K/BB, 1.3 IP/G

Last Three Weeks: 1-0, 0.90 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 14.4 K/9, 16.00 K/BB, 1.1 IP/G

Late comers Collin McHugh and Danny Santana deserve mention here, but neither has done enough yet to bounce either Tanaka or Betances. Both of them have seen their workloads limited by injury (Tanaka) or their role (Betances), but they have been so spectacular that they demand inclusion in the top three.

National League

1. Jacob deGrom, RHP, Mets (2)

Season Stats: 7-6, 2.87 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, 2.87 K/BB, 6.3 IP/GS, 122 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 1-1, 2.84 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 8.5 K/9, 3.00 K/BB, 6.3 IP/GS

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After spending the minimum 15 days on the disabled list with rotator cuff tendinitis, deGrom returned to action on Aug. 23 and in his last two starts has allowed just two runs (one earned) in 13 innings. His start on Wednesday was his 19th of the season, meaning deGrom has now made more major league starts than Masahiro Tanaka, and in his last dozen starts he has posted a 2.07 ERA while striking out a man per inning (78 Ks in 78 1/3 IP, to be exact). Amid an NL rookie class completely lacking in exceptional performances, deGrom has risen to the top, at least in my eyes.

2. Billy Hamilton, CF, Reds (1)

Season Stats: .267/.304/.380, 6 HR, 46 RBI, 71 R, 55 SB

Last Three Weeks: .289/.349/.342, 0 HR, 3 RBI, 11 R, 11 SB

At this point, Hamilton is hanging in this race largely on the strength of his defense and the fact that he is the only qualified rookie hitter or pitcher in the Senior Circuit this season. He did improve his stolen base percentage over the last three weeks, swiping 11 bags in 14 attempts (78.6 percent), including three in as many tries in a single game against the Braves on Aug. 22, tying his season high. He pulled up his batting average and on-base percentage as well, but his overall performance has not been award-worthy in my eyes, and deGrom's emergence gives the voters a legitimate alternative.

3. Kyle Hendricks, RHP, Cubs

Season Stats: 6-1, 2.02 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 4.9 K/9, 2.83 K/BB, 6.2 IP/GS, 190 ERA+

Last Three Weeks: 2-0, 3.05 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 3.5 K/9, 2.67 K/BB, 5.2 IP/GS

When asked to name a compelling rookie on this year's Cubs, one might quickly offer up Javier Baez, Jorge Soler, and Arismendy Alcantara; when asked to name a breakout pitching performance on the team, one is likely to mention Jake Arrieta or Hector Rondon. A necessary inclusion on both lists, however, is Hendricks, who makes his first appearance in my Rookie of the Year rankings this week.

Acquired from the Rangers at the 2012 non-waiver deadline as part of the two-player package for Ryan Dempster, Hendricks went 13-4 with a 2.00 ERA and 3.76 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 2013, splitting that season between Double-A and Triple-A, and has gone 5-1 with a 1.60 ERA in nine major league starts since the All-Star break. A soft-tosser who relies heavily on an upper-80s sinker, a slower cutter, and a changeup and curve in the upper-70s, the 24-year-old Hendricks isn't particularly exciting, and his strikeout rates are a red flag. But his success thus far is enough for him to leap over the rest of the NL's disappointing rookie class.

Out of the top three: Chris Owings

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