Awards Watch: Vogt, Keuchel among surprising early-season leaders
It’s the first Thursday in May, which means it’s time to kick off the sixth season of my weekly Awards Watch column, which tracks the races for Most Valuable Player, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year in both the American and National League. Each week, I will look at the top five contenders in each league for a single award—first MVP, then Cy Young, then Rookie of the Year—on a rotating basis. When the field of candidates narrows in September, I will examine all three awards every week in our lightning round. Because this season is only a month old, that's also how we will kick off this season of Awards Watch.
Some quick guidelines: Unless otherwise stated, the rankings in Awards Watch reflect how I would vote if the season were to end on the morning the column is published. I am now a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America, the official electorate for these awards, but I do not expect to have a vote for one of these major awards this year. If and when I do find out I will be voting for an award, I will disclose that information here.
All statistics below are through the games of Wednesday, May 6. League-leading statistics 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.
Most Valuable Player
Cruz leads the majors in home runs, slugging and total bases (84) and the AL in RBIs, OPS (1.130) and OPS+ (215). But he’s also an awful defensive rightfielder, has made more than a third of his starts as a designated hitter and is 21st in the league in on-base percentage. Vogt, meanwhile, is second in the league in OBP, slugging, OPS (1.107) and OPS+ (205) and is at arguably the most valuable non-pitcher position on the diamond. He plays it well, too: Vogt has thrown out 35% of attempting base stealers (against a league average of 31%) and has been a solid pitch-framer, per Baseball Prospectus’s numbers. I don’t expect him to remain on this list come September, but to this point in the season, Vogt has definitely been the AL's most valuable player.
As for Martin, he’s a reminder of just how early in the season it is. He entered last weekend hitting .185/.349/.385 on the season, but has gone 12-for-19 (.632) with four home runs and three doubles in his last five games to leapfrog the likes of Miguel Cabrera, Lorenzo Cain, Adam Jones, Josh Reddick and Mike Trout to claim the third spot on this list. That's thanks not only to Martin's hot hitting but also to his typically superlative play behind the plate (including a 44% caught-stealing rate).
2. Joc Pederson, CF, Dodgers
Season Stats: .272/.423/.667, 9 HR, 18 RBIs
Gonzalez leads the majors in OPS (1.200) and OPS+ (230) and the NL in slugging percentage and total bases (76), and he is tied for the NL lead in home runs (with Pederson and the Reds’ Todd Frazier). He opened the season by going 10-for-13 with a record-setting five home runs in his first three games. That performance gave him the boost he needed to top this list, and though he has only four home runs in 24 games since then, he has also hit .318/.406/.557 over that span, collecting a hit in 21 of his 25 starts on the season. He could linger in this conversation for a while.
Pederson, meanwhile, has hit seven home runs in his last eight starts to slug his way onto this list over the last week and a half, though his outstanding play in centerfield also contributes significantly to his ranking.
Rizzo rounds things out by being spectacularly well-rounded for a first-baseman. He's already set a career-high with seven stolen bases (in nine attempts), which ties him for fifth in the NL with teammate Dexter Fowler. As for Rizzo's major league-leading OBP, that's partially due to his being hit by eight pitches—the most in baseball—but he also has as many unintentional walks as he does strikeouts this season.
2. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners
Season Stats: 5–0, 1.73 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 9.5 K/9, 6.29 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 1 SHO, 225 ERA+
Keuchel has been the best pitcher in baseball this season, but he isn't new to these lists, having appeared twice in my top five last June. Five of his six starts in 2015 have lasted at least seven innings, and in his worst start, he allowed two runs in seven innings; he has allowed just two runs in his other 38 innings on the year. Keuchel’s ground-ball rate hasn’t been quite as extreme this season as it was last year, but it’s still among the highest in baseball. Right alongside him is Hernandez, who has combined the second-highest–ground-ball rate of his career with an AL-leading 44 strikeouts.
The toughest call here was the third spot, where I have Archer just edging out the Athletics' Sonny Gray. Archer leads Gray in ERA, ERA+, WHIP, strikeouts-per-nine, and strikeout-to-walk ratio, but the Oakland righty has been more consistent, falling just one run shy of going 6-for-6 in quality starts. Archer has only three quality starts on the season, though his other three were all near misses.
1. Zack Greinke, RHP, Dodgers
Season Stats: 5–0, 1.56 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, 3.78 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS, 234 ERA+
The last week of games altered this list significantly. On Tuesday, Miller turned in the first Maddux of the season, shutting out the Phillies on 99 pitches to drop his ERA to 1.66. That was two days after the Reds' Johnny Cueto—who had completed a minimum of seven innings in each of his first five starts, posting a 1.95 ERA, 0.73 WHIP and 7.60 K/BB along the way—gave up five runs in six innings against the Braves, inflating his ERA to 2.72. Cueto has out-pitched Miller on the season, but the sizable difference in their ERAs was too much for the peripherals to overcome, given that this list is based on past performance and not projection.
The day after Miller’s gem, Scherzer gave up five runs in seven innings against the Marlins, spoiling what had been a sparkling if ill-fated start to his Nationals career (1.26 ERA through his first five starts). Scherzer still struck out 10 men without walking a batter in that game, and his first five starts—all quality even though Washington won just two of them—were strong enough that he remains on the list. But Greinke, the NL leader in WHIP and the only pitcher in baseball other than Keuchel with six quality starts on the season, sneaks ahead of him to take a likely temporary lead.
Honorable mention here goes not only to Cueto but also to the Mets' 41-year-old Bartolo Colon, who has five quality starts and has walked just one of the 158 batters he has faced this year, that coming on the penultimate hitter he faced in his Opening Day start. Colon has since gone 136 batters without walking a man and leads the majors with a comical 34.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
1. Devon Travis, 2B, Blue Jays
Season Stats: .297/.366/.574, 7 HR, 23 RBIs
2. Mark Canha, LF/1B, A’s
Season Stats: .267/.330/.442, 4 HR, 14 RBIs
3. Carson Smith, RHP, Mariners
Season Stats: 14 G, 1.42 ERA, 0.79 WHIP, 9.9 K/9, 3.50 K/BB, 280 ERA+
This isn’t close. Smith, a 6'6" sinker/slider reliever who has pitched his way into a setup role for Seattle, is a place-holder. Canha is a 26-year-old Rule 5 pick who hasn’t hit much since a hot first week and whose playing time is going to shrink in the wake of Coco Crisp’s return from the disabled list. The 24-year-old Travis, however, looks like the real deal. He made the leap directly from Double A and then put up the best April of any second baseman in the game. The usual process of adjustments by and to the league are still to come, but the talent is there. The competition, however, is not.
1. Joc Pederson, CF, Dodgers
Season Stats: .272/.423/.667, 9 HR, 18 RBIs
2. Anthony DeSclafani, RHP, Reds
Season Stats: 2–2, 2.03 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 2.36 K/BB, 6.2 IP/GS, 184 ERA+
3. Kris Bryant, 3B, Cubs
Season Stats: .297/.444/.391, 0 HR, 13 RBIs
This isn’t close, either, but there’s at least more promise in this race than in the AL competition. DeSclafani, who was excellent in his first three starts but roughed up in his last two, may not last on the list. The other two names here, however, are elite prospects and pre-season favorites who could make this one of this year’s most compelling races.
Pederson is obviously out to a huge lead in terms of slugging, but you know Bryant’s elite power will kick in sooner or later. The delayed start to his season, meanwhile, is already close to a non-factor: Bryant, who leads Pederson in batting average and OBP, will likely be a qualified hitter by the end of next week. If Bryant can find his power stroke as Pederson has done over the last week and a half, the tie-breaker could wind up being Pederson’s stellar defense.