There are just four games left in the 2014 regular season, but as Awards Watch takes its final look at the three major player awards in each league, it finds the National League Most Valuable Player and American League Cy Young races unresolved. We also have a new contender for the AL MVP and significant turnover in both Rookie of the Year races, though the winners of those three awards, as well as the NL Cy Young, are not in doubt.
Awards Watch will return in early November with previews, predictions, and reactions to the voting results for each award. The rankings below, meanwhile, are based on my personal assessment of who most deserves each award, not how I think the players will finish in the voting, though there is some obvious overlap between the two.
Note: All stats are through Wednesday, Sept. 24. 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
Season Stats: .313/.408/.545, 25 HR, 78 RBI, 86 R, 17 SB
Season Stats: .288/.395/.555, 37 HR, 105 RBI, 89 R, 13 SB
The Pirates are in the postseason because they have gone 15-4 in their last 19 games, and in that span, McCutchen has hit .386/.488/.643, a performance that has him in the running for his second consecutive MVP award. But let's compare McCutchen to last week's leader, Stanton.
Assuming McCutchen plays in each of the Pirates' final four games, he and Stanton, whose season ended two weeks ago because of a fastball to the face, will both finish with 145 games played and very similar plate appearance totals. As things stand now, Stanton leads McCutchen by ten points of slugging, but McCutchen leads Stanton by 13 points of on-base percentage. Their stolen bases are a wash (McCutchen has four more steals, but has been caught two more times), and their defense is the subject of some debate, as McCutchen plays the more valuable position, but Stanton has generally graded out as superior in the field this year according to the advanced metrics.
Stanton has the more impressive cumulative statistics, including a league-leading 299 total bases, but McCutchen is just seven behind Stanton in that category. McCutchen could yet take over that lead in the final four games, which would add to his league-leading 167 OPS+, a category in which Stanton ranks second with a 160 mark.
That looks an awful lot like a tie to me, at least before those final four games are played, and I break that tie in favor of McCutchen. Stanton leads the league with 94 walks, but McCutchen has 73 unintentional passes to Stanton's 70 and 63 fewer strikeouts to go with those bases on balls, which accentuates McCutchen's lead in the all-important on-base percentage. The fact that McCutchen has put up all of those numbers in centerfield rather than right finishes the job ... for now.
Season Stats: 21-3, 239 K, 1.77 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 10.8 K/9, 7.71 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS, 6 CG, 2 SHO, 197 ERA+
As impressive as McCutchen and Stanton's performances have been this season, I can't convince myself that Kershaw has been more valuable in 27 games than either of those two have been in more than 140, particularly considering the decline in offense this season and the fact that all three play in pitcher-friendly home ballparks. None of that is meant to diminish Kershaw's dominance, but with absolutely no room between McCutchen and Stanton, I have nowhere else to put Kershaw on this list other than third.
Season Stats: .290/.380/.563, 35 HR, 110 RBI, 114 R, 16 SB, 9 3B
Trout has nailed down what will be his first MVP award but should be his third by hitting .352/.486/.741 in his last 17 games with 10 extra-base hits. He leads the majors in runs, total bases (334), and OPS+ (169), leads the AL in RBI, is second in the league in slugging and triples, third in home runs, and fourth in walks and unadjusted OPS. And that doesn't include his speed on the bases (16 steals in 18 attempts) or his play in centerfield.
Season Stats: .329/.387/.510, 20 HR, 97 RBI, 94 R, 23 SB, 45 2B
Another player surging to the finish line, Brantley has hit .436/.490/.585 in 94 plate appearances in September, and he helped keep Cleveland's season alive by going 3-for-4 with a double in the Indians' 6-4 win over the Royals on Wednesday night. Even that hasn't been enough to catch Trout, however.
Season Stats: .343/.379/.455, 7 HR, 57 RBI, 84 R, 56 SB, 46 2B
Felix Hernandez's disaster start in Toronto on Tuesday night has opened the door for a possible last-minute upset in the Cy Young race (see below) and dropped King Felix out of the top three in my AL MVP standings. That makes room for Altuve, who is a close second to Trout among all major leaguers in total bases plus net steals (342 to Trout's 348).
Altuve leads the majors in batting average by nine points and in hits by 23 over Brantley, with an Astros franchise record of 222 and counting. Since 2000, only Ichiro Suzuki has surpassed Altuve's current hits total, collecting 225 in 2009, and Altuve's 56 extra-base hits this year are more than Suzuki has ever compiled in a single major league season.
Already the AL leader in steals, Altuve tied Billy Hamilton for the second most in baseball behind Dee Gordon with two swipes on Wednesday night, and he leads all major leaguers in net steals with 47, having been caught just nine times, ten times fewer than Gordon and 14 times fewer than Hamilton. Meanwhile, the average major league second baseman has hit .256/.312/.372, a figure which includes Altuve's performance and ranks second base just ahead of shortstop as the weakest offensive position in baseball this season.
Out of the top three: Felix Hernandez
1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (1)
Season Stats: 21-3, 239 K, 1.77 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 10.8 K/9, 7.71 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS, 6 CG, 2 SHO, 197 ERA+
Kershaw capped his jaw-dropping, albeit abbreviated, season by holding the second-place Giants to one run over eight innings Wednesday night, striking out 11 against no walks to deliver the NL West crown to Los Angeles for the second straight season. That performance was shockingly typical for Kershaw, who has averaged 7 1/3 innings, one walk, nine strikeouts and less than a run and a half allowed per start on the year. He fell an inning and two-thirds short of 200 on the season due to his inefficient five innings in his previous turn, but the sheer fact that he came that close to 200 innings in 27 starts — or the fact that he is currently leading the league in strikeouts despite having missed a month of the season — only underlines his dominance.
With Johnny Cueto and Stephen Strasburg both scheduled to start one more time this season, Kershaw will likely lose his league lead in strikeouts, but he'll make do with the major league leads in wins, winning percentage (.875), ERA, ERA+, WHIP, K/9, innings per start, and complete games, as well as the NL lead in strikeout-to-walk ratio. His 2014 will also include one of the most dominant games ever pitched and, ultimately, his third Cy Young award in four years. Those Sandy Koufax comparisons don't seem quite so forced anymore, do they?
Season Stats: 19-9, 235 K, 2.29 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 3.62 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 4 CG, 2 SHO, 157 ERA+
Cueto was nearly Claytonian in his last start, holding the Brewers to one run on four hits and a walk over eight innings while throwing just 97 pitches and striking out seven. Cueto still leads the Senior Circuit in innings pitched with 235 2/3, but thanks to Kershaw, what could easily have been a Cy Young season in any other year will be a mere runner-up.
Season Stats: 20-9, 179 K, 2.38 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 7.1 K/9, 3.58 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 5 CG, 3 SHO, 154 ERA+
Like Cueto, Wainwright is scheduled to make one more start on the final day of the regular season, but unlike his Cincinnati counterpart, that game could mean something to Wainwright's team, as McCutchen's Pirates continue to challenge St. Louis for the division crown. Wainwright serves as a significant obstacle to Pittsburgh's goal, as he has gone 4-0 with just two runs allowed in 33 innings over his last four starts — two of which were complete games, one a shutout — and has not allowed a run in his last 21 innings pitched.
Season Stats: 14-6, 241 K, 2.34 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 9.4 K/9, 5.24 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 156 ERA+
Hernandez appeared to have this award locked up weeks ago, but on Tuesday, he turned in his worst start of the season, allowing eight runs in 4 2/3 innings against the Blue Jays in Toronto. That severely damaged the Mariners' chances of claiming a wild-card spot and raised his ERA 27 points. The impact on his team isn't relevant here, as this is an individual award, but it won't help Hernandez with the voters.
Meanwhile, the impact of that start on Hernandez's overall numbers is such that you could argue that Corey Kluber, not Hernandez, is more deserving of this award. To my eyes, the two righties are effectively even in terms of overall performance, with the tiebreaker being Hernandez's record-setting streak of 16 straight games with seven or more innings pitched and two or fewer runs allowed, which came to an end in mid-August.
2. Corey Kluber, RHP, Indians (3)
Season Stats: 17-9, 258 K, 2.53 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 10.2 K/9, 5.27 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO, 147 ERA+
Here's are some arguments for Kluber: In just three fewer innings pitched across the same number of starts, Kluber has struck out 17 more men than Hernandez with just three more walks, giving him a higher strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio. While Hernandez has not completed nine innings all season, Kluber has done so four times and has not allowed an earned run in any of those starts. Perhaps most significantly, Kluber leads the AL in Fielding Independent Pitching with a 2.38 mark to Hernandez's 2.60, a figure owing not only to Kluber's superior peripherals, but also to the fact that his opponents are hitting .319 on balls in play, while Hernandez's opponents have has posted a .264 BABIP.
In his last four starts, Kluber has gone 4-0 with a 1.39 ERA and 43 strikeouts against just three walks and no home runs. The first of those starts was a complete game in which the only run Kluber allowed was unearned, and in the last two, he first set then tied a career high in strikeouts with 14 in each outing. Both pitchers will make one more start this season, with Hernandez's final turn coming on Sunday. It's possible Kluber could pass Hernandez in the season's final weekend.
Season Stats: 12-4, 208 K, 2.17 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 10.8 K/9, 5.33 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS, 2 CG, 178 ERA+
On a per-start basis, Sale has arguably out-pitched both Hernandez and Kluber, but due to an early-season stay on the disabled list, he hasn't racked up as many innings as either competitor. He won't get a chance to get any closer, either, as his start Wednesday night was his last of the season.
As good as he has been, Sale has not out-pitched the other two by enough to compensate for his deficit in innings, though he does sneak in ahead of fourth-place Jon Lester, who gave up five runs (three earned) in a loss to the Angels in his final regular-season start Wednesday night.
Rookie of the Year
Season Stats: 9-6, 144 K, 2.63 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 3.35 K/BB, 6.4 IP/GS, 131 ERA+
If deGrom didn't already have this award locked up, holding the Braves to two runs (one earned) while striking out 10 in six innings on Sunday did the trick. That will prove to be deGrom's final start of the season, as he has hit his innings limit for the season (178 2/3 between Triple-A and the majors), but he didn't need another turn to pick up this award. Having gone 9-2 with a 1.90 ERA, more than a strikeout per inning, and a 4.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his last 15 starts, deGrom has this one in the bag.
Season Stats: 3-1, 63 K, 1.21 ERA, 0.78 WHIP, 12.7 K/9, 5.73 K/BB, 1.0 IP/G, 308 ERA+
Though they have been compiled in just half as many innings (44 2/3 to be exact), Giles' numbers are comparable on a per-inning basis to those of Dellin Betances in the AL. To the above, you can add the fact that Giles has not blown a save this season despite entering 13 games in save situations, has allowed just two of his 16 inherited runners to score, has allowed a home run to just one of the 162 batters he has faced, and has a FIP (1.33) nearly as low as his actual ERA. Amid an extremely weak NL rookie class, Giles' three-and-a-half months of dominance demand recognition.
Season Stats: 7-2, 47 K, 2.46 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 5.3 K/9, 3.13 K/BB, 6.2 IP/GS, 155 ERA+
Hendricks allowed three runs in 5 1/3 innings against the Cardinals Tuesday night and will make his 14th and final start of the season on Sunday against the Brewers.
Out of the top three: Chase Anderson
1. Jose Abreu, 1B, White Sox (1)
Season Stats: .316/.381/.580, 35 HR, 105 RBI, 79 R
This race was over the moment doctors found a torn ulnar collateral ligament in Masahiro Tanaka's pitching elbow.
Season Stats: 5-0, 135 K, 1.40 ERA, 0.78 WHIP, 13.5 K/9, 5.63 K/BB, 1.3 IP/G, 277 ERA+
I'll almost always favor a good starting pitching season over a great relief pitching season, due largely to the relative innings totals involved in each. But I had a change of heart about Betances's place on this list when he hit 90 innings pitched on the season on Tuesday night, becoming just the sixth pitcher to throw 90 or more innings of pure relief in the last seven seasons.
Betances' 277 ERA+ is the ninth-highest in major league history among pitchers with 90 or more innings pitched, and if he can sustain that figure through three more innings of work, he'll surpass the innings totals of two of the eight men ahead of him on that list. Even though it has come exclusively in a set-up relief role, Betances' season ranks as one of the greatest relief pitching seasons of all time. That's not enough to trump what Abreu has done as an everyday player, but it is enough to put Betances ahead of the excellent partial seasons of the two starting pitchers I had fleshing out this list last week.
3. Masahiro Tanaka, RHP, Yankees (3)
Season Stats: 13-4, 139 K, 2.47 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 9.3 K/9, 7.32 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO, 157 ERA+
Something happened in the last week that I did not expect. I knew Tanaka was going to come off the disabled list to test his partially torn UCL in a start this past Sunday. I did not imagine, however, that he would pitch as effectively as he did, holding a powerful Blue Jays lineup to just one run. Tanaka went 5 1/3 innings and walked no one, lowering his ERA and WHIP while raising his strikeout-to-walk ratio and boosting his innings and strikeout totals.
In beating Toronto, Tanaka arguably out-pitched fellow AL ROY contender Collin McHugh, who turned in a rote quality start that raised his ERA by seven points. I've thus flipped the two, dropping McHugh to fourth place just ahead of the Twins' Danny Santana and the Royals' Yordano Ventura, both of whom deserve mention here. McHugh, incidentally, has hit his innings limit and will not start again this season. Tanaka, however, is expected to make one more start on Saturday in Boston, working with a limit of 85 pitches.
Out of the top three: Collin McHugh