With the second half of the season about to start, Awards Watch looks at the top three contenders for each of the major awards in each league with a first-half lightning round. There is a compelling race in every case, but a bit more star power in the National League contests, including a pair of All-Stars battling for the NL’s Rookie of the Year award.
Note: 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.
Most Valuable Player
Harper’s breakout has been one of this season’s big stories. The 22-year-old–three-time All-Star has already set career highs in home runs, RBIs and walks (63) and is leading the majors in on-base percentage, slugging, OPS (1.168), OPS+ (219) and Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement (6.2). He's also just the fourth qualified hitter to reach the All-Star break with a slugging percentage of .700 in the last 10 seasons (Albert Pujols did it in 2006 and '09, Jose Bautista in '11 and Chris Davis in '13). The last qualified hitter to reach the All-Star break with a slugging percentage that high and not finish in the top three in the MVP voting was then-Astro Lance Berkman in '01 (he finished fifth in that homer-happy season). Perhaps more significantly, from 1972 to '93—a period with scoring levels more in line with the current season—only one qualified hitter had a first-half slugging percentage of .700 or higher: George Brett, who slugged .701 in '83. Harper is having a monster season and would win this award unanimously if the season ended today.
I’ve written it in this space before, but it bears repeating: Goldschmidt, a first baseman, has been the Lou Gehrig to Harper’s Babe Ruth this season. Don't believe me? Compare Goldschmidt’s line above (which includes a 188 OPS+) to Gehrig’s career line of .340/.447/.632 (179 OPS+). Goldschmidt has arguably been the second-best player in the majors this year, leading the bigs in walks (68) and RBIs and the NL in average and runs scored (60), but this is Harper’s award to lose.
Trout caught fire in the two weeks leading up to the break, hitting .389/.507/.852 with eight home runs in the Angels’ final 15 games off the first half, helping Los Angeles slip past the Astros and into first place in the AL West. He then hit a leadoff homer in the All-Star Game, the first to do so since Bo Jackson in 1989. That homer helped Trout win Midsummer Classic MVP honors for the second year in a row, and thanks to his strong finish to the first half, he’s in an excellent position to win the AL MVP award for the second straight year, as well.
Trout’s slugging percentage, OPS (1.019) and OPS+ (188) all stand as career-highs, and he’s well on his way to posting a new personal best in home runs (he needs just 11 more in the second half). He’s no longer a significant stolen base threat (he has swiped just nine at a 69% success rate), but his speed is still a major weapon in the field. He's also leading the majors in runs scored (68) and the AL in homers, slugging, OPS+, total bases (199) and bWAR (5.9).
Machado, who turned 23 on July 6 and is just three months older than Harper, had a huge late spring surge, hitting .375/.419/.683 with 10 home runs in 29 games from May 31 to June 30 and catapulting him into the thick of this race. It will interesting to see if he can remain in the mix in the second half, but there’s no denying that he’s one of the game’s best young players. Beyond his potent bat—he has already set career highs in homers (his previous best was 14) and walks (35) this season—he’s an elite defender at third base and has stolen a career-high 13 bases at an 81% success rate.
Kipnis just edges Royals centerfielder Lorenzo Cain, who had a strong finish to the first half, and perennial MVP candidate and Blue Jays third baseman Josh Donaldson for this third spot. Attendance played a major role in Kipnis edging Cain: The former leads the majors with 403 plate appearances and has started 87 of Cleveland’s 88 games, while Cain has started just 75 of Kansas City’s 86. With their on-field value being close to equal, the fact that Kipnis has been on the field more often made the difference. Donaldson is second only to Kipnis with 394 PA this season, but he had an under-whelming June, allowing Cleveland's second baseman to slip past him.
That said, Kipnis, who overcame a lousy April with the help of an unsustainable .475 batting average on balls in play in May, was slumping heading into the break, with just four hits in his last 36 at-bats (.111). Trout and Donaldson are well established as MVP-quality players, but it will be interesting to see who of Machado, Kipnis and Cain are able to remain in this race through September.
1. Max Scherzer, RHP, Nationals
First-half stats: 10–7, 2.11 ERA, 0.78 WHIP, 10.2 K/9, 10.7 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 177 ERA+
This year’s MVP races are exciting because of the quality of the players and performances in the lead, but the Cy Young races are more compelling as competitions, and the race for the NL award might be the best of them all. On one hand, the Dodgers' Zack Greinke has posted the lowest first-half ERA since The Year of the Pitcher in 1968. On the other hand, Scherzer has out-pitched Greinke in every other way and remains the pick here as the best pitcher in the NL for the first half.
Scherzer leads the majors in WHIP, strikeout-to-walk ratio and innings pitched per start, is first in the NL in total innings (132 to Greinke’s 123 1/3, both in 18 starts) and complete games and is second to Clayton Kershaw in strikeouts per nine innings among qualified NL starters. Scherzer also leads the majors in Fielding Independent Pitching (2.20 to Greinke’s 2.66) and Deserved Run Average (1.53 to Greinke’s 1.78) as well as DRA PWARP (the nasty acronym for the version of Baseball Prospectus’s Wins Above Replacement Player incorporating deserved run average) at 5.37 to Greinke’s 4.64. He also boasts the most super-quality starts in the majors (minimum seven innings pitched, maximum two runs allowed) with 12 to Greinke’s 10. If you’re looking for something more historically significant, Scherzer turned in arguably the greatest back-to-back starts in the last 100 years in mid-June, allowing only a broken-bat single, a walk and a controversial hit-by-pitch while striking out 26 men in 18 innings against the Brewers and Pirates, the latter of which he no-hit.
It’s difficult to look past Greinke’s absurd ERA, but when one considers that he has benefited from better defense, better pitch framing and more pitching-friendly ballparks, it’s easier to see that Scherzer has indeed been the better pitcher this season.
2. Zack Greinke, RHP, Dodgers
First-half stats: 8–2, 1.39 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, 5.30 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 1 CG, 265 ERA+
Despite Scherzer's brilliance, this race is extremely close. Greinke brings a streak of 35 2/3 scoreless innings into the second half, has yet to pitch fewer than six innings in a start this season and has held his opponents to one run or fewer in 14 of his 18 starts. Those 14 starts with one run or fewer allowed lead the majors, as do Greinke’s 17 quality starts. Greinke has been more consistent than Scherzer, but Scherzer—who works deeper into games, allows fewer baserunners and gets more of his outs via strikeout—has been more dominant and therefore better.
Last year’s surprising NL Rookie of the Year, deGrom has emerged as one of the best pitchers in baseball this year. For those who weren’t paying attention to how good he is, he served notice by striking out the side on 10 pitches in his All-Star debut on Tuesday. Flip to his baseball-reference.com page and you’ll see that deGrom has now pitched 254 major league innings and struck out 256 men with a 2.44 ERA (149 ERA+), 1.04 WHIP and 4.00 strikeout to walk ratio. He’s for real, but given what Scherzer and Greinke are doing, his chances in this race aren’t.
• POWER RANKINGS: Cardinals hold off Pirates for No. 1 to end first half
Gray and the Astros' Dallas Keuchel have been leapfrogging each other atop this race since the end of May. At our last check in on July 2, Gray had fallen behind Keuchel due in part to contracting salmonella. Since then, he has regained his health and the lead, throwing his best start of the season on Sunday, a two-hit shutout in Cleveland. Gray now leads Keuchel in ERA, ERA+, WHIP, strikeouts per nine innings and strikeout-to-walk ratio and leads the AL in the first two of those categories. He also leads Keuchel in FIP and the AL in DRA (1.78) and DRA PWARP (4.65).
2. Dallas Keuchel, LHP, Astros
First-half stats: 11–4, 2.23 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 3.35 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 175 ERA+
Keuchel leads the major leagues in innings pitched (137 1/3), and that workload has been a large part of his value this season. When Keuchel pitches, the Astros' bullpen gets a break, and that, in turn, allows Houston's relievers to be more effective behind the team's other starters. Given how important the bullpen has been to the Astros' success this season, that extends Keuchel’s value beyond his own starts. Still, for what he has done on the mound, he currently falls just shy of Gray.
As good as Gray and Keuchel have been, it would not be a surprise to see Sale swoop in and steal this award. In fact, there's a case to be made that Sale has out-pitched the two men ahead of him on a per-game basis this season. He leads the AL in FIP (2.21), WHIP, strikeouts (157) and strikeouts per nine, is second to Michael Pineda in strikeout-to-walk ratio and is a very close third behind Keuchel in DRA (2.22 to 2.19). Meanwhile, Sale has had to contend with brutal team defense and the most run-happy home ballpark of the three. Over his last dozen starts, dating back to May 12, Sale has posted a 1.76 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, 10.08 K/BB and struck out 12.8 men per nine innings with double-digit strikeout totals in 10 of those 12 games, including a record-tying streak of eight in a row from May 23 to June 30. If his next dozen starts are as good as his last dozen, this award will be his.
Rookie of the Year
1. Joc Pederson, CF, Dodgers
First-half stats: .230/.364/.487, 20 HR, 40 RBIs
Here we have a virtual tie between two 23-year-olds who have gone from being top prospects to major league All-Stars in a matter of months. Both have a 136 OPS+ to this point in the season, but Pederson gets the edge based as much on his slight advantage in playing time (11 more games and 26 more plate appearances) and the position he plays as on the respective quality of each players’ fielding and base running. To this point, Bryant has, surprisingly, been the better base runner, and their play in the field is closer than it initially seemed, with Bryant grading out close to average while the various metrics can’t seem to agree on Pederson, who was a highlight machine earlier in the season. Both are three-true-outcome heroes who rank first and second in strikeouts in the NL (Pederson: 107; Bryant: 101), and both entered the break slumping. I’m hoping for some separation between the two in the second half, but not too much.
3. Matt Duffy, 3B, Giants
First-half stats: .293/.335/.462, 8 HR, 41 RBIs
Duffy, a 24-year-old who is a former 18th-round pick, has been a huge boon for the Giants, who wisely let Pablo Sandoval leave as a free agent but foolishly thought Casey McGehee could replace him at third base. However, Duffy also slumped heading into the break, keeping this a two-man race for the time being.
If not for a shoulder injury that cost him 36 games, Travis would be running away with this race. The Blue Jays’ surprising pick to start the season at second base, Travis homered on Opening Day and hit .325/.393/.625 in April. His injury came halfway through a poor May, but he has hit .379/.393/.466 in 16 games since returning to action on June 26. Acquired this winter straight-up for Anthony Gose and having never played above Double A, Travis wasn’t expected to impact Toronto’s roster until next year, but the 24-year-old is proving he was ready for the aggressive promotion.
2. Lance McCullers, RHP, Astros
First-half stats: 4–3, 2.52 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 9.9 K/9, 2.96 K/BB, 5.8 IP/GS, 1 CG, 156 ERA+
In his last start before the break, McCullers struck out 10 Rays in six innings but allowed four runs and took the loss. That was just the second time in his first 11 major league starts that he allowed more than three runs in a game. On the season, he has struck out 71 men in 64 1/3 innings, and his one-two combination of a high-90s heater and wicked mid-80s curve is thrilling to watch, while his 90 mph changeup isn’t that far behind the curve as a swing-and-miss pitch. It will be interesting to see how he responds as his exposure and workload increase in the second half, but thus far, the 21-year-old McCullers is another prospect who seems completely unfazed by having been promoted directly from Double A.
3. Billy Burns, CF, A’s
First-half stats: .303/.340/.399, 38 R, 17 SB
A 25-year-old who was drafted in the 32nd round in 2011 and acquired in a minor deal for lefty reliever Jerry Blevins after the '13 season, Burns was never an elite prospect, but as a centerfielder with blazing speed who would take his share of walks, he was always interesting. Injuries created an opportunity for him in Oakland's outfield early this season and, if you pardon the phrase, he ran with it. Burns went 2-for-5 in his debut and 7-for-19 in his first four games, and while he hasn’t walked as much as expected in the majors, he’s making great use of his speed. He leads the AL in infield hits with 23 (tied for second-most in the majors) and is tied for second in the league in steals with 17 (at an 85% success rate). That's not bad for a rookie who missed the first month of the season. Like fellow centerfielder Pederson, the advanced metrics are conflicted about his play in the field and in general are less favorable than they are of the Dodgers' rookie, but the total package is a valuable one.
Not listed here but expected to be a significant factor in this race in the second half is 20-year-old Astros shortstop Carlos Correa. The former No. 1 pick entered the break hitting .276/.312/.507 with seven home runs and five stolen bases in as many attempts but had gone just 3-for-26 since hitting his last home run on July 5.