Thursday September 18th, 2014

With less than a fortnight remaining in the regular season, the races for five of the six major player awards have clear and deserving leaders. The one exception is both significant and fascinating: The National League's Most Valuable Player award, the race for which has been complicated by injuries and could result in the award going to a pitcher for the first time since 1968.

Note: All stats are through Wednesday, Sept. 17. 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

National League

1. Giancarlo Stanton, RF, Marlins (1)

Season Stats: .288/.395/.555, 37 HR, 105 RBI, 89 R, 13 SB

The Marlins announced on Wednesday that, although he is expected to make a full recovery, Stanton will indeed miss the rest of the season due to the injuries he sustained when he was hit in the face by a Mike Fiers pitch on Sept. 11. That means that Stanton, who had appeared in all 145 of Miami's games to that point, starting 144 of them, will miss 17 games. Stanton stays on top for now in part because he hasn't yet missed that much time, and also because his everyday contributions in all facets of the game still trump those of the other candidates. However, the door is now open wider for Clayton Kershaw or Andrew McCutchen to win this award.

2. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (2)

Season Stats: 19-3, 219 K, 1.70 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 10.6 K/9, 7.82 K/BB, 7.4 IP/GS, 6 CG, 2 SHO, 210 ERA+

Kershaw also missed significant time this year, sitting out a stretch of 32 team games at the start of the season. But if his final two regular-season starts are on par with his recent work — he has averaged roughly eight innings pitched, one run allowed and nine strikeouts per outing since the All-Star break, which is crazy — he may (WILL) vault into the lead.

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Incidentally, Wins Above Replacement stats are no help here. Baseball-Reference's WAR has Kershaw way out in front, at 8.0 to Stanton's 6.4, but Baseball Prospectus' Wins Above Replacement Player has Stanton with an even larger lead (8.1 WARP to Kershaw's 5.2). Meanwhile, FanGraphs' WAR — the least valuable of the three stats due to the shortcomings of Ultimate Zone Rating, its defensive component — has Kershaw with a slight lead (6.7 to 6.0), but that's due in part to the fact that UZR grades Stanton as a subpar fielder this year. That's in stark contrast to B-R's Defensive Runs Saved and BP's Fielding Wins Above Average, both of which confirm the consensus opinion that Stanton was excellent in rightfield before his season came to a premature end.

3. Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates

Season Stats: .309/.399/.532, 23 HR, 75 RBI, 81 R, 17 SB

Don't count the defending NL MVP out of this race just yet. McCutchen has started all but 16 of the Pirates' games this season, posting a batting line comparable to Stanton's and leading the league in on-base percentage and OPS+ (161). He has four more stolen bases than Stanton and has been caught just one more time (twice to Stanton's once), and though the fielding metrics are unanimous in grading McCutchen as below average in centerfield this season, he's still putting up those numbers further to the right of the defensive spectrum than Stanton.

Though I disregard team performance and narrative arguments in this space, because both should be irrelevant to an individual award, McCutchen benefits there as well. Pittsburgh, which currently occupies the second wild-card spot in the NL, has an outside chance at swiping the NL Central from the Cardinals (15 percent, per former Baseball Prospectus statistician Clay Davenport). That's thanks in large part to McCutchen's ability to bounce back from an August rib injury that sidelined him for the minimum 15 days by hitting .305/.345/.515 since his return.

McCutchen is still unlikely to win this award given the spectacular season Kershaw is having. But he's arguably as deserving as either of the other two men in my top-three and compares favorably to Kershaw in both WARP and fWAR, grading out as 5.9 Wins Above Replacement by both measures.

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American League

1. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (1)

Season Stats: .289/.378/.562, 34 HR, 107 RBI109 R, 14 SB, 8 3B

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Trout is cruising to the finish, having hit .333/.469/.667 in his last 14 games as the Angels have gone 12-2 to clinch the American League West. He now leads the majors in both runs scored and RBIs, as well as in total bases (324) and total bases plus net steals (edging Jose Altuve, 336 to 328). The last two of those major league-leading totals are the most significant, as those bases are purely Trout's achievement, independent of contributions from his teammates.

2. Michael Brantley, LF, Indians (3)

Season Stats: .322/.381/.498, 19 HR, 94 RBI, 90 R, 22 SB, 40 2B

Brantley is making a late surge, hitting .422/.479/.516 in September with four stolen bases in as many attempts. His season as a whole has been outstanding. His 22 steals have come in 23 attempts, he is fourth in the majors with 12 outfield assists and he has struck out just 53 times against 49 walks. He's no more likely to catch Trout than Cleveland is to sneak into the playoffs — the Indians are now five games out of a wild-card spot with 11 games left to play. But unlike his team, which has a losing record on the month, Brantley is taking his candidacy to the season's final days.

3. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners (2)

Season Stats: 14-5, 225 K, 2.14 ERA0.92 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 5.49 K/BB, 7.1 IPGS, 173 ERA+

Hernandez has been as good as ever in September and took over the league lead in ERA following Chris Sale's poor outing Wednesday night, but he falls into third place in this race because of Brantley's outstanding month.

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Cy Young

National League

1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (1)

Season Stats: 19-3, 219 K, 1.70 ERA0.83 WHIP10.6 K/97.82 K/BB7.4 IP/GS6 CG, 2 SHO, 210 ERA+

Kershaw held the rival Giants to two runs in eight innings in San Francisco on Sunday, and his ERA went up to 1.70. He'll start twice more this season, against the Cubs in Chicago on Friday and against the Giants at home on Wednesday, in the final regular-season game between the two rivals this year. If he totals 14 2/3 innings in those two starts (he has completed at least eight frames in each of his last seven starts), he'll reach 200 for the season. If for some reason he falls apart and allows 10 runs in 10 innings over those two starts, he'll finish the year with a 2.07 ERA. For the third time in four years, this award is his.

2. Johnny Cueto, RHP, Reds (2)

Season Stats: 18-9, 228 K, 2.33 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 3.56 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 4 CG, 2 SHO, 155 ERA+

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​Cueto's disaster start in Wrigley Field in his last turn (5 IP, 6 R) merely reinforced the inevitability of Kershaw's victory in this race.

3. Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals (3)

Season Stats: 19-9, 171 K, 2.45 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 7.0 K/9, 3.49 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 5 CG, 3 SHO, 150 ERA+

In his last three starts, two of which came against the contending Brewers, Wainwright has thrown 26 of a possible 27 innings and allowed just two runs. His second-half slump is clearly over. Meanwhile, his five complete games are second only to Kershaw's six in all of baseball, and there's an outside chance that he could slip past Cueto into second place in this race, which would be his third Cy Young runner-up season.

American League

1. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners (1)

Season Stats: 14-5, 225 K, 2.14 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 5.49 K/BB, 7.1 IPGS, 173 ERA+

Since the calendar flipped to September, Hernandez has posted a 1.29 ERA in three starts, two of them coming against the Athletics, who are one of the teams the Mariners are chasing in the wild-card race. On the season, Hernandez has made nine starts against the A's and Angels, the two teams ahead of Seattle in the AL West, and gone 6-0 with a 1.90 ERA. He has this award locked up.

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

Season Stats: 12-4, 198 K, 2.20 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 10.6 K/9, 5.50 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS, 2 CG, 177 ERA+

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Sale had his worst start of the season on Wednesday night, allowing five runs, all earned, in five innings in Kansas City. Four of those runs came on home runs by Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar, who entered that game with a combined total of six homers on the season. It was just the third time in 25 starts this season that Sale had allowed two home runs or five runs, and the first time this year he had allowed five earned runs. If the 51-inning gap between Hernandez and Sale wasn't enough to ice this award for King Felix, that did it.

3. Corey Kluber, RHP, Indians (3)

Season Stats: 16-9, 244 K, 2.54 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 10.0 K/9, 5.08 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO, 145 ERA+

Kluber made two starts in the week since the last Awards Watch, winning both while allowing just three runs in 15 1/3 innings (1.76 ERA) and striking out 21 men against two walks. In the latter of those two starts, he set a new career high with 14 strikeouts. He is still in a virtual tie with Jon Lester for the third spot in this race. Lester leads in ERA (2.45) and ERA+ (157), the two are tied in shutouts (one each) and, effectively, WHIP (Lester's is 1.10), and Kluber leads in all of the other stats listed above. The tiebreaker here is that both pitchers have allowed the same number of runs (earned and unearned), but Kluber has thrown 14 more innings across two more starts.

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Rookie of the Year

National League

1. Jacob deGrom, RHP, Mets (1)

Season Stats: 8-6, 134 K, 2.68 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 3.35 K/BB, 6.4 IP/GS, 129 ERA+

You can mark down deGrom's eight straight strikeouts to begin his start against the Marlins on Monday as the moment he won this award, though the truth is that he probably had it in the bag even before then. Still, by tying the modern major league record for strikeouts to start a game, deGrom caught the attention of anyone who may not have noticed the lead he had built up over this year's weak NL rookie class.

The 26-year-old deGrom finished that game with a career high 13 strikeouts, which gives him one per inning on the season (134 Ks in 134 1/3 innings). He is now 8-2 with a 1.93 ERA in his last 14 starts, a performance good enough to grow hair on Mr. Met's head.

2. Kyle Hendricks, RHP, Cubs (2)

Season Stats: 7-2, 43 K, 2.28 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 5.2 K/9, 3.07 K/BB, 6.3 IP/GS, 168 ERA+

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Hendricks' strong outing against the Reds on Wednesday night (7 IP, 1 R, 0 BB) was his best since mid-August, fortifying the 24-year-old's position in this race as one of the few NL rookies who is truly excelling.

3. Chase Anderson, RHP, Diamondbacks

Season Stats: 9-6, 100 K, 3.70 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 2.63 K/BB, 5.5 IP/GS, 104 ERA+

I just can't keep Billy Hamilton on this list anymore. The Reds' speedy centerfielder has just five hits in his last 44 at-bats, only one of those going for extra bases, and has been caught in four of his last seven stolen base attempts, dropping his success rate on the season to 71 percent. Since the All-Star break, he has hit .212/.266/.274 with a 69-percent success rate in 26 steal attempts. I don't care how good his fielding is, that's not an award-worthy player.

The 26-year-old Anderson, who has been a solid league-average starter for Arizona and is second only to deGrom in games started by an NL rookie this season, gets this spot by default. That is not meant as a slight to other rookie pitchers such as the Rockies' Tyler Matzek, the Padres' Jesse Hahn, the Mets' Jeurys Familia or the Phillies' Ken Giles. Nor is it a slight to Anderson's teammates — shortstop Chris Owings, centerfielder Ender Inciarte or rightfielder David Peralta — or even to the Cardinals' Kolten Wong. But it is very much meant as one to Hamilton.

Out of the top three: Billy Hamilton

American League

1. Jose Abreu, 1B, White Sox (1)

Season Stats: .319/.382/.594, 35 HR, 103 RBI, 77 R

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The only possible argument against Abreu winning this award is that, as a veteran of a foreign league, he shouldn't be eligible. There are multiple problems with that argument. The first is that Abreu is eligible. The second is that there is ample precedent for a player in his situation winning the award, with Ichiro Suzuki (AL, 2001), Kazuhiro Sasaki (AL, 2000) and Hideo Nomo (NL, 1995) having all won it after coming to the majors as established Japanese stars. The third is that such an argument comes from a place of ignorance, as it assumes that Cuban baseball is equivalent to the major leagues and ignores the difficulty Cuban players have adjusting to a new culture and the emotional impact of defecting. The 27-year-old Abreu, who is less than six months older than the next man on this list, is as legitimate a rookie as any other man in this race and should win this award unanimously.

2. Collin McHugh, RHP, Astros (3)

Season Stats: 10-9, 151 K, 2.66 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 3.78 K/BB, 6.2 IP/GS, 147 ERA+

Since the calendar flipped to August, McHugh has gone 6-0 with a 1.50 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 8.2 strikeouts for every walk and just two home runs allowed in nine starts while the Astros (the Astros!), have gone 7-2 in those games. He has now thrown 19 1/3 more innings than Masahiro Tanaka on the season. With the exception of his strikeout-to-walk ratio and lack of complete games, McHugh's stats are comparable to those of the Yankees' ace, who had been one of the best pitchers in baseball before suffering a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament.

3. Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, Yankees (2)

Season Stats: 12-4, 135 K, 2.51 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 9.4 K/9, 7.11 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO, 155 ERA+

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The Yankees have Tanaka tentatively scheduled to start against the Blue Jays on Sunday after he tossed five scoreless innings in an instructional league game on Monday. He will be limited to 70 to 75 pitches in that game, but if he gets through it without discomfort in his elbow, he could make another before the season ends. With New York effectively out of the wild-card race (it is six games back with 11 to play), Tanaka's effectiveness won't matter in those starts, only his health.

As far as the impact of those starts on this race, Abreu has the award won, and Tanaka will likely only hurt his standing, given that he hasn't pitched in an actual game since early July. That could allow fellow Yankees hurler Dellin Betances (1.33 ERA and 132 strikeouts in 87 2/3 innings) to slip past him in Awards Watch's final regular-season rankings next week.

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