Awards Watch: Picking 2016's early favorites for MVP, Cy Young and ROY
Another season of Awards Watch has come to a close, but it’s never too early to begin speculating about who might win next year’s Baseball Writers’ Association of America player awards. Silly of an exercise as this may be, I did correctly identify Kris Bryant as the National League Rookie of the Year last November and named at least one 2015 finalist for every award except the American League Rookie of the Year. That was one of my weaker showings, dropping me to 6 for 18 in predicting awards winners a year in advance over the last three years.
Bookmark this page and check back in a year to see if I did any better in trying to predict the 2016 BBWAA awards.
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.
Most Valuable Player
Trout is just the fourth player in MVP history to finish in the top two in the voting for the award four years in a row, joining Stan Musial (1948–50), Yogi Berra ('53–56), and Barry Bonds ('90–93 and 2001–04). I’m among those who think Trout deserved the award all four years, which just happened to be his only four full seasons in the major leagues. Did I mention Trout just turned 24 in August? Picking anyone else here would amount to malpractice on my part.
If you project Correa’s rookie season over 162 games, you get 36 home runs, 111 RBIs and 23 stolen bases to go with his 132 OPS+. All of that came from a solid defensive shortstop who hit third for a contending team and was praised for his clubhouse leadership, and he produced at that rate in a season in which he didn’t make his major league debut until early June and didn’t turn 21 until late September. He also made that debut having played all of 24 games at Triple A. He’ll enter 2015 as the Astros’ Opening Day shortstop with 457 major league plate appearances under his belt (postseason included) and a Rookie of the Year award on his mantle.
One of the best fielders in the game at any position, Machado took a big leap forward at the plate in 2015, besting his career total in home runs with 35 and more than doubling his career walk rate. He also added base stealing to his bag of tricks, swiping 20 bases, albeit at a slightly sub-par 71% success rate. In each of his full major league seasons (he lost half of 2014 to a pair of knee injuries), he has won a Gold Glove and finished in the top ten in the MVP voting, including a fourth-place finish this year. I thought he should have finished third, and given that he won’t be 24 until July, I expect him to fare better in the coming season.
Goldschmidt has finished second in the MVP voting in each of his last two healthy seasons and might have finished at least that high in 2014 had a pitch not broken his hand and ended his season on Aug. 1. Over the last three seasons, he has hit .309/.412/.556 (163 OPS+), averaging 34 home runs and 116 RBIs per 162 games, and on top of that, he is by far the best defensive first baseman in the majors (he won Gold Gloves in 2013 and '15) and contributes on the bases as well (he stole 21 bags in just 26 attempts this year). Look for the Diamondbacks to crawl back above .500 in 2016 with the 28-year-old Goldschmidt leading the way and receiving MVP honors for his efforts.
Harper just posted the highest OPS+ by a qualified major league hitter since Barry Bonds in 2004, won the NL MVP award unanimously despite a disappointing performance from his team, did those things in his age-22 season, and I didn’t pick him to win next year’s MVP? Well, I am listing him second, but pessimism about the Nationals’ 2016 outlook and Harper’s ability to stay healthy (something he failed to do in '13 and '14) puts just enough doubt in my mind to make me think that next season might finally be Goldschmidt’s year.
Speaking of health: Injuries are the only thing that have kept Stanton from taking home an MVP award. He might have edged out Clayton Kershaw in 2014 had a pitch to the face not ended his season on Sept. 11; as it was, he finished second, and I thought he deserved to win. This year, a broken hamate bone in his left hand in late June turned out to be a season-ending injury, cutting short a year in which he was on a 58-homer pace through the end of June (he finished with 27 home runs in just 74 games). Over the last four years, he has averaged 45 home runs per 162 games but has failed to play more than 145 games in any of those seasons.
Stanton has matured into an outstanding rightfielder and just turned 26 earlier this month. Like the other two players on this list, he need only stay healthy to be a serious contender for MVP honors in 2016.
Sale has finished in the top six in the Cy Young voting in each of the last four years and finished fourth this year despite a disappointing second half in which his opponents hit .361 on balls in play, and he will be 27 in the coming season. Look past Sale’s career-high ERA in 2015 and you will see he led the AL in fielding independent pitching (2.73), led the majors in strikeouts per nine innings (11.8) and set career bests in that category, as well as in strikeout-to-walk ratio (an AL-leading 6.51), walks per nine innings (1.8), strikeouts (an AL-best 274) and, perhaps most importantly, games started (31). As good as Dallas Keuchel was this year, there is no more dominant pitcher in the Junior Circuit.
The man said to possess the best slider in the majors took a big step forward in his age-26 season, striking out 252 batters at a rate of 10.7 per nine innings and setting career highs in starts (34), innings (212), FIP (2.90) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.82). The result was a fifth-place finish in the Cy Young voting, and with a bit more consistency, he could fare even better next year.
The 2014 AL Cy Young was nearly as good in '15, but few noticed because of the poor work he received from his fielders early in the year (.362 BABIP through his first dozen starts) and from his offense all season (just 3.35 runs of support per game on the season). His resulting 3.49 ERA and league-leading 16 losses overshadowed his 245 strikeouts and career-best 5.44 K/BB ratio. Kudos to the three voters who were able to see through the noise to Kluber’s actual performance, giving him one fourth-place vote and two fifth-place votes in this year’s balloting. With Cleveland’s defense already improved, I expect Kluber to fare far better given a fresh start in his age-30 season.
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1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers
Kershaw’s third-place finish in the voting this year was his worst showing in the last five years, and it took historically significant performances from Zack Greinke and Jake Arrieta to push him that low. You could argue that Kershaw deserved the award in every one of those five seasons; I don’t necessarily agree (I favored Roy Halladay in 2011, when Kershaw did win the award, and Arrieta this year), but I wouldn’t have complained too loudly had Kershaw won all five. Most remarkably, Kershaw somehow seems to keep getting better: This year, he posted a career-best strikeout rate of 11.6 per nine innings and became the first pitcher since Randy Johnson in 2002 to strike out 300 men in a season. You can bet against him in his age-28 season if you want, but I’m not going to.
2. Jose Fernandez, RHP, Marlins
Over the last two seasons—the first of which saw him tear the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow and the second of which marked his first action since returning from Tommy John surgery—Fernandez went 10–3 with a 2.71 ERA (141 ERA+), 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings, a 5.52 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 2.21 FIP. If that’s what he does when his elbow is deteriorating/recovering, what might he do in a fully healthy season at the age of 23? My guess that he will at the very least best his third-place finish in the Cy Young voting from his rookie year of 2013, when he was a mere 20 years old and made the leap to the majors without ever pitching above high A.
3. Jake Arrieta, RHP, Cubs
It was tempting to go with one of the Mets’ young starters here, or Max Scherzer, or a free agent such as David Price or Greinke, but listing Arrieta even this low after the way he finished the 2015 season seems overly pessimistic. Arrieta will open 2016 with an active streak of 20 straight starts with a game score of 53 or better; since 1914, the only pitchers with longer such streaks are Bob Gibson (41 starts, including every one of his starts in 1968), Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Johan Santana (twice), Walter Johnson, Eddie Cicotte, Kershaw and Hal Newhouser. Not a bad list. Like Kluber before him, Arrieta is no fluke, and he will have a better team around him to help him get back into the top three again next year.
Rookie of the Year
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Rated the game's tenth-best prospect in July by Baseball Prospectus, Berrios was promoted to Triple A just three days before that list was published and went 6–2 with a 2.62 ERA and a 5.93 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 12 starts at that level over the remainder of the season. With the Twins’ young talent finally starting to coalesce in the majors, Minnesota has good reason to get Berrios in the major league rotation early in 2016, and he’ll find himself in a friendly pitching environment once he’s there.
2. Byung-ho Park, DH, Twins
Korean Baseball Organization slugger Park isn’t officially a Twin yet, but Minnesota won the right to negotiate with him earlier this month via a $12.8 million posting fee and has until Dec. 8 to sign him. The 29-year-old first baseman put up absurd numbers in his native Korea over the last two years, hitting .324/.434/.701 with 105 home runs in 268 games. He won’t come anywhere close to those numbers in the States, but as Jung-ho Kang proved this year, Korean hitters can succeed in the majors. Park won’t offer Kang’s defensive value, but he is a more established hitter than Kang was when he joined the Pirates for the 2015 season.
3. Tyler Naquin, CF, Indians
The 15th pick in the 2012 draft, Naquin hit .300/.381/.446 in a 2015 season split between Double and Triple A and is expected to battle for the centerfield job in Cleveland in spring training, thanks in part to star leftfielder Michael Brantley likely opening the season on the disabled list following shoulder surgery. Due to turn 25 in April, Naquin is not an elite prospect, but the 2016 AL rookie field looks a bit thin from this vantage point, and he has a clearer path to playing time than Yankees second baseman Rob Refsnyder or Astros first baseman A.J. Reed, the latter of whom topped out at Double A this year.
1. Corey Seager, SS, Dodgers
The top prospect in baseball on Baseball America's and Baseball Prospectus’ midseason lists, all Seager did after being called up to the majors in early September was hit .337/.425/.561 in 113 plate appearances. There’s some question as to whether or he’ll play shortstop or third base in 2016—that decision is largely dependent on what moves the Dodgers make this off-season—but wherever he ends up in the field, his performance at the plate in his age-22 season should carry him to this award.
2. Steven Matz, LHP, Mets
This is already shaping up to be a fantastic Rookie of the Year race. Matz held his own in the Mets’ stellar rotation in the 2015 postseason despite having just six major league starts under his belt before the playoffs, and it tells you a lot about his ability and the team’s confidence in him that he was not only chosen over Bartolo Colon for the playoff rotation, but also that he rose to the challenge. Matz went 4–0 with a 2.27 ERA in his six regular-season starts, posted a 2.19 ERA in 90 1/3 Triple A innings prior to that and will be the Mets’ fourth starter at the onset of his age-25 season.
3. Julio Urias, LHP, Dodgers
The Dodgers could have a fascinating Rookie of the Year race among themselves, particularly if they give Jose Peraza the second base job. Urias is either the best or second-best pitching prospect in all of baseball, depending on how heavily you weigh him being two years younger than Nationals righty Lucas Giolito. Urias just turned 19 in August, but he’s already cracked Triple A after excelling at Double A at the age of 18. Given Los Angeles’ rotation needs, he may get to battle for a spot out of camp and seems likely to debut no later than midseason even if the Dodgers want him to prove it in Triple A first. The exact timing of his debut may depend on how successful the Dodgers’ free-agent shopping is this winter, but we should see him in the majors before his 20th birthday either way.