Trout, Kershaw make late charge to front of MVP races

Thursday September 26th, 2013

For the second straight year, the AL MVP race has come down to Mike Trout (left) and Miguel Cabrera.
Paul Sancya/AP

The final Awards Watch of the 2013 regular season finds a new leader for National League MVP and tight races in all three American League awards. This column will return in November with a more detailed look at each award and the announced finalists, reactions to the Baseball Writers Association of America voting and a look at next year's favorites.

Note: All stats are through Wednesday, Sept. 25. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics. The number in parentheses after a player's name reflects his rank on the previous list. 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

American League

1. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (1)

Season Stats: .324/.431/.557, 26 HR, 92 RBI, 108 R, 33 SB

2. Miguel Cabrera, 3B, Tigers (2)

Season Stats: .345/.440/.637, 44 HR, 137 RBI, 103 R

Cabrerea is going to win this award. That said, this is a very close race, and after making what I believed was a slam-dunk case for Trout as last year's AL MVP, I don't hold out hope of winning any converts with things so much closer this year.

PlayerMonthsBatting averageOBPSlugging

Let's try a different way to look at it. Both players have had five great months and one down month. Trout got off to a slow start in April, hitting .261/.333/.432. Cabrera has been hobbled by injuries in September and hit .246/.380/.308. More on those two months in a moment, but first, here is what each did during the other five months of the year:

Trout has the higher on-base percentage above, and the gap in slugging isn't quite as large as it looks given that Detroit's Comerica Park is friendly to righthanded home run hitters and Anaheim's Angel Stadium suppresses power from both sides of the plate. It is my argument (and that of many others, as well as the purely objective advanced stats which measure both players according to the same criteria), that Trout's superiority in the field and on the bases combine with a park-adjustment to the two players' batting lines to make up the difference in value represented by Cabrera's advantage in unadjusted slugging.

Which brings us back to their down months (note that Cabrera's came in 19 games started and 79 plate appearances, while Trouot's came in 26 starts and 126 PAs):

PlayerMonthBatting averageOBPSlugging

Cabrera has a 47-point advantage in on-base percentage here, but Trout has a 124-point advantage in slugging. Using Gross Production Average, which improves on OPS by combining OBP and slugging in a manner that gives a proper amount of extra weight to the more-important on-base percentage, we get .248 for Cabrera and .258 for Trout. So, even after weighing the thing Cabrera did better more heavily, Trout's rate of production was still superior to Cabrera's. That's before factoring in fielding and baserunning, which increase Trout's advantage, and before considering that Trout was on the field more than Cabrera during his down month, increasing his ability to add value on both sides of the ball.

Now, this comparison only covers one-sixth of the season, so the difference isn't a huge part of the overall picture, but Trout is still way out in front here. When you add that advantage to the very close comparison between their five good months above, it pushes Trout into the lead.

3. Chris Davis, 1B, Orioles (3)

Season Stats: .285/.368/.631, 52 HR, 137 RBI, 102 R

Davis had a remarkable season, adding the major league lead in total bases (365) to the stats above, which include the Orioles' franchise record for home runs. However, he's limping to the finish line (though not as literally as Cabrera), having hit .208/.290/.427 thus far in September.

It will be interesting to see if Davis gets any votes in the top two spots on the ballot given that the O's were eliminated from the wild-card race before the Royals and Yankees and might yet finish in fourth-place in the AL East. It's not that team performance should be relevant to the MVP voting, but a lot of the support for Davis' ranking higher than third on this list seemed to come from those who gave him an excess of credit for Baltimore's success this season.

National League

1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (2)

Season Stats: 15-9, 1.88 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 8.8 K/9 (224 K), 4.31 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS (230 IP), 3 CG, 2 SHO, 190 ERA+

2. Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates (1)

Season Stats: 318/.404/.506, 20 HR, 83 RBI, 95 R, 27 SB

Last week I wrote that Kershaw is "not really threatening McCutchen anymore" in this race, but I didn't expect McCutchen to go just 3-for-24 over the next week, shedding 17 points of slugging and coughing up his OPS+ lead. Kershaw, meanwhile, threw seven scoreless innings in his one start during the past seven days, improving all of his rate stats above.

As a result, McCutchen has come back toward the pack of elite position player performances in the NL this season (though still topping that list by virtue of his fielding and baserunning), while Kershaw continues to stand tall above the pitchers in either league. My pick here goes to the more exceptional season, as the pitcher-for-MVP debate rages once again.

3. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks (3)

Season Stats: .303/.404/.559, 36 HR, 124 RBI, 102 R

Goldschmidt, who has an active 15-game hitting streak during which he has hit .417/.485/.817 with five home runs and 17 RBIs, is your new NL OPS+ leader at 162. He also leads the league in homers, RBIs, slugging, unadjusted OPS (.963), total bases (328) and intentional walks (19). As valuable as second baseman Matt Carpenter has been to the Cardinals by virtue of his position, flexibility and production at the top of the lineup, Goldschmidt has simply been too productive not to include in this top three.

Cy Young

American League

1. Max Scherzer, RHP, Tigers (1)

Season Stats: 21-3, 2.90 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 10.1 K/9 (240 K), 4.29 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS (214 1/3 IP), 145 ERA+

For all of the ballyhoo over Scherzer's won-loss record, his performance this year would have been deserving of the Cy Young whether he went 24-0 or 9-15. Scherzer finished the 2013 regular season with a flourish on Wednesday night, holding the Twins scoreless over seven innings while striking out 10 and allowing just two singles (though he also walked six). His next start will be Game 1 of the Division Series, a week from Friday.

2. Chris Sale, LHP, White Sox (3)

Season Stats: 11-13, 2.97 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 9.5 K/9 (221 K), 4.91 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS (209 IP), 4 GC, 1 SHO, 144 ERA+

Though Scherzer will win this award in a landslide, the gap between Scherzer and Sale is actually tiny (cover up their won-loss records and you'll see what I mean). I don't, however, think it is small enough that Sale could close it in his final start of the season, which will come at home against the Royals on Friday.

3. Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP, Mariners

Season Stats: 14-6, 2.66 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 7.6 K/9 (185 K), 4.40 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS (219 2/3 IP), 138 ERA+

Iwakuma was a regular on this list earlier in the season as he went 7-1 with a 1.79 ERA over his first 14 starts. He then raised his ERA more than a run over his next six starts and has been clawing his way back into the Cy Young conversation ever since. This is purely an honorary position because he's no threat to Scherzer, but having gone 7-2 with a 2.27 ERA over his final 14 starts, Iwakuma has pushed the Rangers' Yu Darvish out of my top three.

Four of Iwakuma's last five starts saw him pitch at least seven innings without allowing a run, and he wrapped up his 2013 season against the Royals on Wednesday night by extending his still-active scoreless streak to 23 innings, which includes starts against the Tigers and Cardinals, two of the top three offenses in baseball this season.

National League

1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (1)

Season Stats: 15-9, 1.88 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 8.8 K/9 (224 K), 4.31 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS (230 IP), 3 CG, 2 SHO, 190 ERA+

The Dodgers gave Kershaw three extra days of rest last week, and he rewarded them with his best start in his last six turns, holding the Padres to three hits and two walks over seven scoreless innings while striking out 10. Of course, it's all just gravy at this point. This award is Kershaw's, and he's very likely to win it unanimously despite his underwhelming record. He will make his final start of the regular season this weekend at home against the Rockies.

2. Matt Harvey, RHP, Mets (2)

Season Stats: 9-5, 2.27 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 9.6 K/9 (191 K), 6.16 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS (178 1/3 IP), 1 SHO, 157 ERA+

3. Jose Fernandez, RHP, Marlins (3)

Season Stats: 12-6, 2.19 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 9.7 K/9 (187 K), 3.22 K/BB, 6.2 IP/GS (172 2/3 IP), 177 ERA+

The Phillies' Cliff Lee and the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright have had excellent seasons and thrown far more innings than either Harvey or Fernandez, who haven't pitched since Aug. 24 and Sept. 11, respectively, due to Harvey's torn ulnar collateral ligament and Fernandez's innings limit. However, neither was as consistently dominant as Harvey or Fernandez.

Of course, one could use the same logic to argue for the inclusion of Bravers closer Craig Kimbrel in the top three above. However, while Fernandez threw just 73 percent as many innings as Wainwright has with one start yet to go, Kimbrel has thrown just 38 percent as many innings as Fernandez and just 26 percent as many as Wainwright.

Rookie of the Year

American League

1. Wil Myers, RF, Rays (1)

Season Stats: .292/.352/.476, 13 HR, 51 RBI, 46 R

I spent all season hoping a compelling American League Rookie of the Year candidate would emerge, but it never really happened. Myers, the pre-season favorite, has been good enough to take the award in a weak field, but he has played barely more than half a season in the majors.

If Myers plays in all four of the Rays' remaining games, he'll finish with 87 games played, which would be the second-fewest every by a hitter who won the Rookie of the Year behind Willie McCovey's 52 games in 1959. McCovey hit .354/.429/.656 in those 52 games and was the unanimous pick for the NL award. In 1978, the Braves' Bob Horner played in just 89 games, hit .266/.313/.539 with 23 homers and 63 RBIs, and just barely edged out Ozzie Smith in the NL voting. More recently, the Phillies' Ryan Howard won the award in 2005 for a season in which he played in just 88 games and hit .288/.356/.567 with 22 homers and 63 RBIs. The AL award has never gone to a hitter who played in fewer than 101 games (Bob Hamelin's total in strike-shortened 1994).

2. Chris Archer, RHP, Rays (2)

Season Stats: 9-7, 3.21 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 6.9 K/9 (97 K), 2.62 K/BB, 5.7 IP/GS (126 1/3 IP), 2 SHO, 119 ERA+

One could argue that Archer, who has spent two-thirds of the season in the Rays' rotation, is more deserving of this award than his teammate Myers. He certainly could have taken it with a strong finish. However, just two of Archer's last five starts have been quality, and he has a 4.88 ERA in September while the Rays are fighting for a playoff spot. He'll get one more turn before the playoffs come, facing the Blue Jays in Toronto on Saturday.

3. Jose Iglesias, SS, Tigers (3)

Season Stats: .310/.357/.395, 3 HR, 29 RBI, 39 R

Iglesias's appearance as a defensive replacement on Wednesday night was his first game action since last Thursday, when he was hit in the left hand by a pitch. Despite his absence and the brief slump that preceded it, he is still ahead of Rangers lefty Martin Perez, who was good but not great in two starts since last week's list.

National League

1. Jose Fernandez, RHP, Marlins (1)

Season Stats: 12-6, 2.19 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 9.7 K/9 (187 K), 3.22 K/BB, 6.2 IP/GS (172 2/3 IP), 177 ERA+

Fernandez's ERA and ERA+ will rank second in the majors behind Kershaw when the season comes to an end on Sunday. His WHIP is currently fourth. His K/9 is fifth (second in the NL). Those rankings aren't where he stands among rookies, they are where he stands among every pitcher in the majors this season. His 177 ERA+ is the eighth-best mark by a rookie who qualified for the ERA title in baseball history, third-best since 1900 and the best by any qualified rookie since 1911.

That alone should make him the unanimous choice for this award (though I suspect Yasiel Puig will get some first-place votes), never mind that he did all of the above as a 20-year-old after jumping straight to the majors from High-A.

2. Yasiel Puig, RF, Dodgers (2)

Season Stats: .325/.395/.546, 19 HR, 42 RBI, 65 R

Puig has just six hits in his last 33 at-bats (.181 batting average), though three of them have been home runs (.485 slugging). Puig probably couldn't have caught Fernandez in this race even if he had a September as hot as his June, but that slump, which dropped his on-base percentage below .400, makes the choice here all the more obvious.

3. Julio Teheran, RHP, Braves (3)

Season Stats: 13-8, 3.09 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 8.3 K/9 (167 K), 3.71 K/BB, 6.2 IP/GS (180 2/3 IP), 125 ERA+

Teheran barely edges out Dodgers lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu for this final spot, and the Cardinals' Shelby Miller isn't far behind Ryu. All three have been key members of the starting rotations of division-winning teams since Opening Day, but none have been as spectacular as Fernandez or Puig.

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