Thursday September 24th, 2015

This is my sixth year writing Awards Watch, and this is easily the most compelling season in terms of awards races. With just 11 days left in the regular season, only two of the six major player awards appear to be decided, but the National League Cy Young race is wide open, there's a new leader for the AL MVP, and the AL Cy Young and Rookie of the Year races remain close enough to turn in the final week. Check back next Thursday for 2015’s final regular-season edition of Awards Watch to see what’s changed.

Note: All stats are through Wednesday, Sept. 23. 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.

MORE MLB: Full playoff standings, postseason odds, magic numbers

Most Valuable Player

American League

1. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (2)
Season Stats: .294/.397/.587, 40 HR, 87 RBIs, 175 OPS+

2. Josh Donaldson, 3B, Blue Jays (1)
Season Stats: .301/.371/.574, 39 HR, 120 RBIs, 157 OPS+

Approaching season’s final week, AL East and West races just may be over

Not so fast, Josh! Just when the Blue Jays’ third baseman was starting to feel like the obvious choice for AL MVP, Trout’s bat came back alive and, to my eye, has now pushed him back on top in this race. Trout has hit .326/.423/.814 with six home runs in his last 12 games to reclaim the lead in this race, and despite playing in a less favorable ballpark for hitters, he leads Donaldson in on-base percentage by 26 points, in slugging by 13 points, in OPS by 18 points, and has even passed him in home runs. Donaldson has still been the better base runner this season and is arguably the better fielder, but his leads in RBIs, runs scored and even plate appearances (he has played one more game than Trout but come to the plate 35 more times) all have a great deal to do with the superiority of Toronto’s lineup, which turns over more often, puts more men on base in front of Donaldson and hits better behind him both to drive him in and prevent him from being pitched around in RBI situations.

This is still an extremely close race and could break in either player’s favor over the season’s final ten games, but if the vote were held now, Trout would be first on my (imaginary) ballot.

3. Manny Machado, 3B, Orioles (3)
Season Stats: .289/.360/.493, 30 HR, 77 RBIs, 17 SB, 130 OPS+

Machado continues to edge Royals centerfielder Lorenzo Cain based as much on attendance as performance. Neither player had a particularly impressive week, but the fragile Cain played just four games, missing two others due to a twisted ankle, while Machado played six. Given that a great deal of each player’s value comes from his play on the field, the fact that Machado has played 21 more games in the field than Cain on the year counts for a lot, or at least enough to keep him in a distant third place in this race.

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Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

National League

1. Bryce Harper, RF, Nationals (1)
Season Stats: .341/.472/.669, 41 HR, 95 RBIs, 205 OPS+

Of course.

2. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks (2)
Season Stats: .317/.435/.563, 31 HR, 103 RBIs, 21 SB, 167 OPS+

3. Joey Votto 1B, Reds (3)
Season Stats: .314/.462/.558, 29 HR, 76 RBIs, 11 SB, 178 OPS+

Goldschmidt, the better fielder and base runner of these two, has homered in each of his last three games and hit .325/.481/.750 over his last dozen to keep the astonishingly consistent Votto in third place.

Cy Young

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

American League

1. David Price, LHP, Blue Jays (1)
Season Stats: 17–5, 219 K, 2.34 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 4.76 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO, 169 ERA+

2. Dallas Keuchel, LHP, Astros (2)
Season Stats: 18–8, 203 K, 2.51 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 4.32 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 161 ERA+

With Sonny Gray having posted a 7.97 ERA across his four starts thus far this month, inflating his ERA by nearly 60 points, this is down to a two-man race between Price and Keuchel. In the last week, Keuchel rebounded from his season-worst outing against the Rangers on Sept. 16 with a more characteristic outing against the wild-card-contending Angels (7 2/3 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 6 K), but Price was arguably even better in an even more crucial matchup against the Yankees (7 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 7 K).

Remembering the great American life of Yankees legend Yogi Berra

If these two finish as close or closer than they are now, it will be interesting to see how many voters cite Keuchel’s disaster against the Rangers as they reason they list him behind Price, who has been nails for the Blue Jays down the stretch, on their ballots. Doing so misses the larger point that the Astros never would have been in position to blow a division lead without Keuchel’s season-long dominance leading up to that game, but I’d be lying if I said the importance of that game is easy to overlook here. For now, that disaster outing is the difference in this race—not necessarily because of the importance of the game, but because of the impact of that outing on Keuchel’s season statistics. Specifically, it inflated his ERA by 34 points, allowing Price to move into the league lead in ERA and ERA+ and adding to his already existing edge in strikeouts, strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Keuchel has just one regular-season start remaining in which to make up the difference: this Sunday in the Astros’ final game against the Rangers. A big outing there could have a huge impact on both this race and the one for the AL West crown. Price, meanwhile, will start twice more, pitching on Saturday against the Rays and the following Thursday in Baltimore. As a result, he will finish the season with one more start than Keuchel and thus stands a good chance of finishing with more innings pitched, one of the few areas in which Keuchel still holds a lead. This would seem to be Price’s award to lose at this point, but as of right now, it’s still a an extremely close race.

3. Sonny Gray, RHP, Athletics (3)
Season Stats: 13–7, 162 K, 2.72 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 2.84 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 148 ERA+

Gray has two starts left in his season, both of which will come before next Thursday's final regular-season Awards Watch. That gives him plenty of opportunity to hold off Chris Archer, who will face Price on Saturday in his penultimate start of the season, for third place on this list. It also gives him plenty of opportunity to clear room for Archer in the top three. Given how poorly Gray has pitched this month (18 runs allowed in 20 1/3 innings, including 12 runs in 8 1/3 innings with eight walks against six strikeouts in his last two outings), the latter seems more likely.

VERDUCCI: Astros prove not all playoff contenders are built alike

Jon Durr/Getty Images

National League

1. Jake Arrieta, RHP, Cubs (3)
Season Stats: 20–6, 220 K, 1.88 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 4.58 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 4 CG, 3 SHO, 210 ERA+

2. Zack Greinke, RHP, Dodgers (1)
Season Stats: 18–3, 185 K, 1.65 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 8.0 K/9, 5.14 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 1 CG, 227 ERA+

3. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (2)
Season Stats: 14–7, 272 K, 2.18 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 11.4 K/9, 6.80 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 172 ERA+

For all intents and purposes, this is a three-way tie. I didn’t think this race could get any closer, but then Arrieta went out and threw his major league-leading third shutout of the season, holding the Brewers to three hits and a walk and striking out 11. Greinke and Kershaw, meanwhile, turned in a comparatively ordinary starts (7 IP, 2 R, 3 K for Greinke, 7 IP, 3 R, 8 K for Kershaw). Adding further intrigue, Greinke was scratched from his scheduled start Wednesday due to a sore calf. In part because of that, Arrieta leads the trio in games started (31 to 30 for each of the Dodgers’ duo) and the NL in innings pitched (with 216); combined with his shrinking ERA and strong peripherals, that gives him a temporary lead in this race. However, with Kershaw scheduled to start against the Diamondbacks on Thursday, that lead may not last long.

Power Rankings: Blue Jays stay at No. 1, Cubs into top five, Astros fall

If Greinke is able to take his next scheduled turn on Monday, which the Dodgers think he will, and each pitcher stays on schedule, Kershaw will make three more starts (Thursday, Tuesday in San Francisco and on the final day of the season at home against the Padres, putting him on regular rest for Game 1 of the Division Series on Oct. 9) to two each for Greinke and Arrieta. The latter's advantages in starts and innings will indeed be short lived, but don’t count him out, as he is by far the hottest pitcher in this trio. Over his last 18 starts, dating back to June 21, Arrieta has gone 14–1 with a 0.94 ERA and is averaging 7.4 innings per start. All four of his complete games have come during that stretch, and seven of those 18 starts have seen him exit after the seventh inning or later without having allowed a run. Five of those scoreless outings have come in his last ten turns, a stretch over which he has gone 9–0 with a 0.48 ERA.

Arrieta is pitching so well that Greinke isn’t even guaranteed to finish the year with the league’s best ERA, a distinction which provides the bulk of the argument for his winning this award. If Greinke allows three earned runs in seven innings in each of his final two starts, he’ll finish with a 1.79 ERA, a mark Arrieta would match by allowing just one earned run in 15 innings in his last two starts. That might sound like a lot to ask from Arrieta if not for the fact that he allowed just one earned run in 17 innings over his last two starts and two earned runs in 54 innings over his last seven (0.33 ERA).

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I still expect Greinke to finish with the league’s best ERA, but Arrieta could make things close enough that the ERA crown won’t be enough to bring Greinke the award. Meanwhile, Kershaw has three chances to make his own case, which will be based on his likely innings lead and his significant advantages in strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio. Speaking of which: With 272 strikeouts on the season and three starts remaining, Kershaw has an outside chance to become the first pitcher to whiff 300 men in a season since Randy Johnson in 2002. As it stands, he need just six strikeouts to reach the highest total since Johnson’s 290 in 2004.

I was going to make a crack about the Baseball Writers Association of America handing out multiple NL Cy Young awards this year, but as things stand, I think there’s a very real possibility that we could see a tie in the voting. It has happened before: In 1969, back when the writers still voted for just one pitcher rather than ranking five as they do today, the Orioles' Mike Cuellar and the Tigers' Denny McLain both received ten first-place votes and tied for the AL Cy Young award. The voting system was changed to its current format the next year, but in 1979, the NL MVP vote resulted in a tie despite using a ranked voting structure. If it were ever going to happen again, this could be the year.

Rookie of the Year

Jason Miller/Getty Images

American League

1. Francisco Lindor, SS, Indians (1)
Season Stats: .317/.354/.478, 10 HR, 44 RBIs, 8 SB, 121 OPS+

2. Carlos Correa, SS, Astros (2)
Season Stats: .278/.346/.504, 19 HR, 58 RBIs, 12 SB, 131 OPS+

Correa went 9-for-27 (.333) with four doubles, a home run and three walks in the last week to close the gap on Lindor, who remains in the lead due in large part to his exceptional play in the field. Time is running out on Correa, as Houston has just nine games left to Cleveland’s 11, but this race is close enough, and Correa’s bat is potent enough, that we could see another lead change between now and next Thursday.

3. Miguel Sano, DH, Twins
Season Stats: .282/.399/.563, 17 HR, 49 RBIs, 159 OPS+

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Some may think this is overdue, but the 22-year-old Sano cracks the top three in my Rookie of the Year rankings for the first time this week. That’s due in part to Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna’s September struggles (6.23 ERA with one save, one loss and one blown save). Another reason for Sano’s ascension is that he is finally significantly ahead of injured Toronto second baseman Devon Travis in playing time, enough that I think the combination of Sano’s production at the plate and playing time have overcome his deficit with regard to defensive value.

The irony is that Sano is actually a fine third baseman, but because he’s blocked at the position by Trevor Plouffe, he’s forced to fight this battle with his glove tied behind his back, so to speak. His lack of contributions in the field is the main reason why it took him this long to crack this list and why he’s not a serious threat to Lindor and Correa, but he is a serious threat to AL pitchers, and he should be for a long time to come.

Out of the top three: Roberto Osuna

Paul Beaty/AP

National League

1. Kris Bryant, 3B, Cubs (1)
Season Stats: .276/.369/.501, 26 HR, 98 RBIs, 13 SB, 135 OPS+

Bryant went 10-for-25 (.400) with four doubles, a pair of home runs and three walks over the last week to push his slugging percentage over .500 for the first time since April and has now hit .333/.405/.617 with 12 home runs since Aug. 1. He’ll soon become the first NL rookie to drive in 100 runs since Ryan Zimmerman in 2006 and already holds the Cubs’ rookie record for home runs, besting Hall of Famer and (soon-to-be-fellow) Rookie of the Year Billy Williams’s 25 in 1961. This race is over; all that’s left is for Bryant’s coronation to become official.

2. Matt Duffy, 3B, Giants (2)
Season Stats: .297/.337/.426, 10 HR, 71 RBIs, 9 SB, 110 OPS+

Jung Ho Kang’s season-ending injury likely locks Duffy into second place in this race, but it is an increasingly distant second place, as he went just 3-for-18 (.167) in the last week without an extra-base hit and has hit .262/.314/.297 in his last 35 games.

3. Jung Ho Kang, SS/3B, Pirates (3)
Season Stats: .287/.355/.461, 15 HR, 58 RBIs, 122 OPS+

Jung Ho Kang's injury shows need to change rules on takeout slides

Kang’s year is over due thanks to Bryant’s teammate Chris Coghlan, who last week hurt Kang in an attempt to break up a double play. He will thus climb no higher in these rankings, though he also faces little threat from below this deep into the season. Kang suffered a torn medial collateral ligament and meniscus and a fractured tibia when Coghlan slid into his left leg, an injury which threatens his availability for Opening Day in 2016 and could have lingering effects beyond his return. We obviously hope that Kang makes a full and speedy recovery.

Beyond his impressive debut, the 28-year-old Kang is a historically significant player as just the third Korean-born hitter to play in the major leagues and the first everyday player to make the jump from the Korean Baseball Organization to the major leagues (Hee-Seop Choi and Shin-soo Choo both signed with major league teams as amateurs).

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