Verducci: Should Cespedes be in the MVP conversation?
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Verducci: Should Cespedes be in the MVP conversation?
Thursday September 17th, 2015

With just 18 days left in the regular season, surprisingly few of the major player awards appear to be decided. Bryce Harper should be a unanimous choice as the National League’s Most Valuable Player, but this week’s edition of Award Watch finds lead changes in both Cy Young races and one of the Rookie of the Year races from just one week ago, as well as a virtual tie atop the AL MVP rankings.

The reality of the voting may differ from my takes on who most deserves each award, but it’s entirely possible that five of the six awards will be decided by what happens in the season’s final 2 1/2 weeks.

Note: All stats are through Wednesday, Sept. 16. 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.

CHEN: Bryce Harper and David Price solidify leads for MVP, Cy Young

Most Valuable Player

Ted S. Warren/AP

American League

1. Josh Donaldson, 3B, Blue Jays (1)
Season Stats: .301/.368/.580, 38 HR, 119 RBIs, 158 OPS+

2. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (2)
Season Stats: .292/.393/.572, 36 HR, 78 RBIs, 171 OPS+

I haven’t changed the order of the top two contenders for this award, but the race has gotten closer. Last week, Donaldson had opened up a clear, though still slight, lead on Trout, but this week, the defending AL MVP has out-hit his Canadian challenger, matching Donaldson’s hit total and doubling his home-run and walk totals in six fewer plate appearances. The result is that these two are once again effectively tied.

I’m keeping Donaldson in front because of what I believe to be his superior play in the field and on the bases (the latter detailed in this column two weeks ago), but I could just as easily have Trout in front at this point based on his superior hitting, illustrated above by the park-adjusted OPS+.

REITER: Yoenis Cespedes isn't alone in lifting Mets' offense

3. Manny Machado, 3B, Orioles
Season Stats: .290/.362/.498, 29 HR, 73 RBIs, 17 SB, 132 OPS+

The race for third place in this race is as tight as the race for first, with Machado and Royals centerfielder Lorenzo Cain both sporting a 132 OPS+ in addition to their elite play in the field and contributions on the bases. Cain has the edge in the last of those areas, having stolen 27 bases at an 84% success rate to Machado’s 17 at a 74% rate, but with everything else so close, I’m giving Machado the edge this week. He's played in 16 more games and come to the plate 87 more times than Cain.

Matt Slocum/AP

National League

1. Bryce Harper, RF, Nationals (1)
Season Stats: .338/.467/.670, 40 HR, 92 RBIs, 204 OPS+

This is the only one of these six races that is clearly over at this point. Harper could go 0-for-4 in each of his final 17 games and still finish with a .296/.419/.586 line. As for his NL-best 40 home runs, Harper is just the seventh player to reach that mark in or before his age-22 season and the first since Alex Rodriguez in 1998. Four of the other five are Hall of Famers: Mel Ott, Joe DiMaggio, Eddie Mathews and Johnny Bench; the lone exception is Juan Gonzalez.

The Cauldron
How the Mets and Cubs became MLB playoff contenders again

Meanwhile, the only player in the modern era ever to post a OPS+ of 200 or better in his age-22 season or earlier was Ted Williams in 1941. Take away the age restriction, which is irrelevant to the MVP race, and only nine qualified hitters have posted an OPS+ of 200 or better at any age since Williams last did it in 1957: Mickey Mantle and Norm Cash in '61, Willie McCovey in '69, George Brett in '80, Barry Bonds (six times), Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell in '94, Mark McGwire in '98 and Sammy Sosa in 2001. That’s the company Harper is keeping this season. He should win this award unanimously.

2. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks (2)
Season Stats: .315/.432/.553, 28 HR, 100 RBIs, 21 SB, 164 OPS+

3. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (3)
Season Stats: .313/.460/.551, 27 HR, 73 RBIs, 11 SB, 176 OPS+

There has been no real movement in these spots over the last week, with Goldschmidt continuing to edge Votto’s superior hitting based on his fielding and base running. Votto did steal three bases in as many attempts over the last week to close the latter gap, but Goldschmidt out-hit him on the week.

JAFFE: Votto's return to form isn't enough to carry Reds to contention

Cy Young

Brandon Wade/Getty Images

American League

1. David Price, LHP, Blue Jays (3)
Season Stats: 16–5, 212 K, 2.42 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 4.71 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO, 163 ERA+

Disaster outings by Dallas Keuchel and Sonny Gray have slung Price into the lead for this award, which he previously won in 2012. Price had his only non-quality start as a Blue Jay against the Yankees last Friday, with his night ending after 96 pitches and two runs allowed in five innings with seven strikeouts, but he likely would have stayed in the game had Toronto not been leading 9–2 at the time. He then held the Braves to one run over seven innings in his next start, striking out nine.

If Price does win this award, he would be the first pitcher ever to do so after being traded within his league during the season. As it stands, the only pitcher ever to win the Cy Young after being traded in-season was Rick Sutcliffe, who was dealt from the Indians to the Cubs on June 13, 1984 and won the NL Cy Young—unanimously, no less—for his performance over the remainder of the season (16–1, 2.69 ERA).

POWER RANKINGS: Blue Jays take over first place from Cardinals

2. Dallas Keuchel, LHP, Astros (1)
Season Stats: 17–8, 196 K, 2.56 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 4.26 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 159 ERA+

Prior to Wednesday night, Keuchel had completed at least six innings in each of his 29 starts on the season and had allowed no more than five runs in any of them. Taking the hill against the Rangers on Wednesday night with a chance to pitch the Astros back into first place, however, he had the first disaster outing of his season. Keuchel gave up six runs in the first inning alone, five of them on home runs by Mike Napoli and Rougned Odor, and ultimately got the hook after 4 2/3 innings with nine runs on his ledger.

Keuchel’s most important start of the year was his worst by far, and it delivered a serious blow to both his Cy Young chances and Houston’s hopes of winning the AL West. Of greatest concern, the ground-balling lefty, who is now 11 1/3 innings past his previous career high, has allowed six home runs in his last three starts after giving up just ten through his first 27.

CHEN: Prince Fielder turns back clock to help Rangers top Astros

3. Sonny Gray, RHP, Athletics (2)
Season Stats: 13–7, 160 K, 2.56 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 3.02 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 157 ERA+

Gray gave up seven runs in three innings against the White Sox in his only start last week and has now had a disaster outing in two of his last three starts. His ERA has increased by 43 points in September, and he has allowed 24 runs in his last 35 innings (five of them unearned). Given that he has weaker peripherals than the other pitchers in this race (including those just beyond this list such as Corey Kluber and Chris Archer), he is dangerously close to falling out of the top three altogether.

Gene J. Puskar/AP

National League

1. Zack Greinke, RHP, Dodgers (2)
Season Stats: 17–3, 182 K, 1.61 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 5.35 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 1 CG, 231 ERA+

2. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (1)
Season Stats: 14–6, 264 K, 2.12 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 11.4 K/9, 6.95 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 176 ERA+

3. Jake Arrieta, RHP, Cubs (3)
Season Stats: 19–6, 209 K, 1.96 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 4.46 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 201 ERA+

By game score, Arrieta’s outing against the Pirates on Wednesday night was the worst start by any of these three pitchers in the last week. Here’s his line: 8 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 5 K. Greinke threw eight scoreless innings in his only start on the week, and Kershaw allowed just one run in seven frames in his lone outing. Arrieta did have another eight-inning appearance in Philadelphia that was marginally better than the one outlined above (1 R, 7 K).

The Cauldron
Kershaw, Greinke could go down as one of the 10 greatest duos ever

With these three practically tied coming into the week, that cluster of dominance has not provided much clarity in this race. Still, I’ve moved Greinke back into the lead, as he not only had the best outing of the week, but also did so without the advantages that contributed to my moving him to second place a week ago: Yasmani Grandal’s pitch framing and a friendly ballpark (Greinke threw to A.J. Ellis at Chase Field).

How good is this race? Jake Arrieta could end the season with more than 20 wins, 220 strikeouts and an ERA+ above 200, and finish third.

Rookie of the Year

Tony Dejak/AP

American League

Francisco Lindor, SS, Indians (2)
Season Stats: .317/.357/.478, 9 HR, 41 RBIs, 8 SB, 123 OPS+

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Starting the week in a virtual tie with Correa, Lindor went out and hit .429/.500/.762 against the Tigers and Royals to take the lead in this race, a performance capped off by going 3-for-4 with a home run on Wednesday night. Lindor has now hit .357/.399/.557 in 268 plate appearances since homering against Houston on July 9. He has also now come to the plate three more times than Correa on the season despite debuting six days later. Add in Lindor’s superlative play in the field, and there is no longer a virtual tie in this race. Lindor is the clear leader.

Carlos Correa, SS, Astros (1)
Season Stats: .273/.343/.497, 18 HR, 52 RBIs, 12 SB, 128 OPS+

The Astros went 1–5 over the last week, losing the first three games of their showdown against the Rangers, and are now two games back in the loss column in the division they had led for most of the year. But don’t blame Correa: He had a solid week, hitting .273/.385/.455 with his usual heady play in the field. It wasn’t enough to keep Houston afloat, however, and it wasn’t enough to keep Lindor at bay.

Roberto Osuna, RHP, Blue Jays (3)
Season Stats: 16 SV, 2.02 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 9.8 K/9, 5.23 K/BB, 1.1 IP/G, 196 ERA+

Miguel Sano’s pinch-hit home run on the eve of my last list didn’t quite have the slump-breaking impact one might have hoped: He went 0-for-6 in his next two games and managed just two extra-base hits, both doubles, on the week. Given his late start and lack of defensive value, he’s still hanging around the injured Devon Travis in this race, just beyond my top three.

Osuna, then, occupies the third spot for yet another week. He only pitched once in the last week, but that outing saw him work as a proper fireman, coming into a one-out jam in the eighth inning to strand the go-ahead runs against the Yankees in the Bronx, then return in the ninth to complete 1 2/3 scoreless frames in a game the Blue Jays ultimately won in extra innings.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

National League

1. Kris Bryant, 3B, Cubs (1)
Season Stats: .270/.364/.486, 24 HR, 93 RBIs, 13 SB, 131 OPS+

Bryant’s challengers aren’t that far behind him, but it would probably take an extended slump for Bryant to lose this award at this point. That didn't happen last week, as Bryant hit .323/.344/.548 and rebounded from an 0-for-7 in Tuesday’s doubleheader by going 3-for-6 with a pair of doubles and a stolen base on Wednesday.

2. Matt Duffy, 3B, Giants (3)
Season Stats: .301/.340/.435, 10 HR, 71 RBIs, 8 SB, 113 OPS+

3. Jung Ho Kang, SS/3B, Pirates (2)
Season Stats: .287/.355/.461, 15 HR, 58 RBIs, 123 OPS+

Duffy had a nice week, going 9-for-26 (.346) with a pair of doubles, three walks and multiple hits in four of his six games. Kang, meanwhile, had a fairly empty one, hitting .292 but with no walks and just one extra-base hit. Kang also started just five of the Pirates' seven games over the past week; Duffy has started every one of San Francisco’s games since July 6 and has appeared in every game (starting all but two of them) since May 24. As a result of that, as well as Duffy’s place in the top third of the Giants’ batting order, he has come to the plate 76 times more than Kang on the year. That, as well as his rebound at the plate, is why I’ve switched him and Kang in the rankings again this week.

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