Awards Watch enters the lightning round for September, as Cliff Corcoran picks his leaders in the AL and NL MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year races ahead of the season's final month.

By Cliff Corcoran
September 03, 2015

We’re in the home stretch of the regular season, which means that each week for the remainder of the year, Awards Watch will be in a lightning-round format, listing the top three contenders for the Most Valuable Player, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards in each league. We start the month with compelling races throughout, including new leaders in the AL MVP and Cy Young races and NL Rookie of the Year races, as well as a tighter competition in the NL Cy Young chase than you’ve been led to believe elsewhere.

Note: All stats are through Wednesday, Sept. 2. 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

American League

1. Josh Donaldson, 3B, Blue Jays (2)
Season Stats: .304/.372/.589, 36 HR, 111 RBIs, 161 OPS+

2. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (1)
Season Stats: .297/.397/.575, 33 HR, 74 RBIs, 172 OPS+

Since Aug. 1, Trout has hit just .229/.364/.349 with one home run and been caught in all three of his steal attempts. Over the same span, Donaldson has hit .339/.417/.732 with 11 home runs (and been successful in both of his steal attempts). As a result, the AL MVP race, which Trout was leading comfortably when we last checked in on Aug. 6, is now a dead heat.

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Some might argue that it's not actually that close: Donaldson leads the majors in RBIs, runs scored (104), total bases (304) and extra-base hits (74); is No. 1 in the AL in slugging; and edges Trout in batting average, home runs and doubles. However, an adjustment has to be made for the players’ home ballparks and the quality of the rest of their team’s lineup. Donaldson has significant advantages in both; with regard to the latter, Donaldson has come to the plate with 248 runners on base, and Trout has hit with just 220 men on. Donaldson has driven in a higher percentage of his runners, but the key difference is in how often they drive home a runner from second base. Even with Albert Pujols hitting behind him, opponents are pitching around Trout with runners on second—something his 12 intentional walks to Donaldson’s zero would seem to confirm.

The park-adjusted OPS+ suggests that, within the context of his home ballpark, Trout has actually been the more productive hitter this season by a fair margin. Can Donaldson’s fielding and baserunning make up the difference?

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Trout’s basestealing has atrophied to the point that he has now been caught in seven of his 17 attempts this season—a lousy 59% success rate. Trout’s steal attempts are detracting from his value, while Donaldson is a perfect 5-for-5 in steal attempts on the season. Trout has also run into 13 outs on the bases; Donaldson has run into one. Yes, Trout is faster and takes the extra base more often, but if you add extra bases taken to steals and outs on the bases to times caught stealing, Trout has taken 23 bases and run into 13 outs, and Donaldson has taken 32 bases and run into just one out. Donaldson’s teammates help out here as well (he has had far more opportunities to take the extra base due to the relative lack of non-homer production behind Trout), but the difference is striking.

Fielding is far more difficult to quantify. Trout plays a more valuable position and does so very well, but Donaldson is an outstanding defensive third baseman and arguably better at fielding his position than Trout at this point in their careers.

For me, Donaldson has the edge due to the sum total of his contributions, but it’s slight. The real question is whether we are checking in at the exact moment that Donaldson is passing Trout, or if this will continue to be a close race over the final month of the season.

3. Lorenzo Cain, CF, Royals (4)
Season Stats: .313/.369/.490, 13 HR, 61 RBIs, 26 SB, 133 OPS+

Cain’s 26 steals have come at an outstanding 87% success rate (26-for-30) and he is an elite defender, covering more ground on average than any other centerfielder in the game other than the Rays' Kevin Kiermaier (via a recent Statcast update). However, he’s not particularly close to the top two men in this race.

Out of top three: Manny Machado (3)

G Fiume/Getty Images

National League

1. Bryce Harper, RF, Nationals (1)
Season Stats: .331/.460/.627, 31 HR, 78 RBIs, 193 OPS+

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Harper has hit just two home runs in his last 32 games, but he still holds a convincing lead in this race. Never mind Paul Goldschmidt’s long-shot chance at a traditional Triple Crown: Harper has a far greater chance of the more significant slash-stat triple crown. If he does wind up leading the league in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging, he’ll be the first National Leaguer to do so since Barry Bonds in 2004 and the first NLer to do so other than late-career Bonds or a member of the pre-Coors Field humidor Rockies since Stan Musial in 1948.

2. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks (2)
Season Stats: .322/.437/.563, 27 HR, 97 RBIs, 21 SB, 169 OPS+

Goldschmidt has actually cooled off lately, hitting a mere .239/.343/.436 since Aug. 1. Harper was going to be near impossible to catch to begin with, but given that performance from Goldschmidt, this might be the one race among these six that is closest to being over.

3. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds
Season Stats: .316/.457/.567, 27 HR, 70 RBIs, 8 SB, 179 OPS+

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Raise your hand if you realized that Votto is out-hitting Goldschmidt on the season. Okay, now put your hand down, because I can't see you. Votto has hit .406/.582/.855 with eight home runs in his last 22 games to surpass Goldschmidt at the plate, but Goldschmidt still manages to edge out Votto here because of his superior work on the bases (his 21 steals have come at an excellent 81% success rate, compared to Votto’s 73% for his eight steals) and in the field. Buster Posey, meanwhile, has hit .298/.337/.351 since finishing third on this list on Aug. 6.

Out of top three: Buster Posey (3)

Cy Young

Bob Levey/Getty Images

American League

1. Dallas Keuchel, LHP, Astros (3)
Season Stats: 16–6, 173 K, 2.24 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 4.12 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 179 ERA+

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In four starts since we last checked in on this race, Keuchel has posted a 1.29 ERA and struck out 30 men against three walks and just one home run allowed in 28 innings. He's gone exactly seven innings in each outing, allowing no more than two runs in any of them, and all four have been Astros wins. Keuchel still has not had a start last fewer than six innings on the season, and 11 of his last 12 starts have been quality (8–3, 2.11 ERA over that span). He is second in the AL (third in the majors) in total innings and innings per start behind last year’s Cy Young award winners Corey Kluber (200 1/3 IP, 7.15 IP/GS) and Clayton Kershaw, and he leads the AL in ERA, ERA+ and WHIP. If my MVP list included a full top five, Keuchel would likely be on it.

2. David Price, LHP, Blue Jays (2)
Season Stats: 13–5, 188 K, 2.47 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 8.9 K/9, 5.08 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO, 161 ERA+

All Price has done since joining the Blue Jays is turn in six straight quality starts, posting a 2.28 ERA and striking out 50 men in 43 1/3 innings (10.4 K/9) with a 6.25 strikeout to walk ratio and a 0.97 WHIP with an average of 7.2 innings per start. Two of those starts came against the Yankees, and three others came against wild-card contenders (the Twins, Angels and Rangers). Since May 16, 17 of his 20 starts have been quality, with the entire sample yielding a 2.20 ERA, 155 strikeouts in 143 innings and 7.2 innings per start.

3. Sonny Gray, RHP, Athletics (1)
Season Stats: 12–7, 152 K, 2.36 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 3.23 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 167 ERA+

The Angels touched up Gray for six runs in five innings Wednesday night for his worst start of the season, one which inflated his ERA by 23 points and knocked him down to third on this list.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

National League

1. Zack Greinke, RHP, Dodgers (1)
Season Stats: 15–3, 169 K, 1.59 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 5.28 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 1 CG, 235 ERA+

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In the wake of Greinke’s victory over the Giants on Tuesday night, you may have seen an infographic listing Greinke’s 1.59 ERA as the fourth-best mark of the Live Ball era behind Bob Gibson’s 1.12 in 1968, Dwight Gooden’s 1.53 in '85 and Greg Maddux’s 1.56 in '94. What’s arguably more impressive is that Greinke fares nearly as well when you add the necessary context to those figures via park-adjusted ERA+, which measures ERA relative to in-season league average. By that statistic, his run prevention to this point in the season ranks sixth among qualified pitchers since 1920:

rank pitcher year ERA+
1 Pedro Martinez 2000 291
2 Greg Maddux 1994 271
3 Greg Maddux 1995 260
4 Bob Gibson 1968 258
5 Pedro Martinez 1999 243
6 Zack Greinke 2015 235
7 Dwight Gooden 1985 229

It’s nearly impossible to argue against Greinke receiving this award, though the performance of the next man on this list, who also happens to be the next man in the Dodgers’ rotation, has an increasingly compelling case.

2. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (3)
Season Stats: 12–6, 252 K, 2.18 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 11.6 K/9, 7.38 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 172 ERA+

Kershaw has thrown 7 1/3 more innings than Greinke in the same number of starts this season, has a far higher strikeout rate, has walked just two more batters (giving him a far superior strikeout-to-walk ratio), has completed more games, has a comparable home run rate (0.6 to 0.5), a competitive WHIP (0.897 to 0.846) and a huge lead in Fielding Independent Pitching (2.02 to 2.62). So is this race really over? No.

Let’s say Greinke has a start like Gray’s his next time out, allowing six runs in five innings. Suddenly, his ERA is 1.83—no longer historically significant and no longer dramatically lower than Kershaw’s. Greinke’s only real advantage over Kershaw in this race is that sparkling ERA. If he maintains it, he will absolutely deserve this award, but that’s far from a given. Kershaw is closer to Greinke in this race than anyone seems to realize.

3. Jake Arrieta, RHP, Cubs (5)
Season Stats: 176, 190 K, 2.11 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 9.3 K/9, 4.32 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 184 ERA+

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​Arrieta’s no-hitter on Sunday marked the fifth time in August that the Cubs’ actual ace turned in a start of six or more innings without allowing an earned run and the fourth time that he did so without allowing a run of any kind. Stretching back to June 21, a span of 14 starts, all quality, Arrieta has held his opponents scoreless six times, posting a 1.07 ERA. He’s been lucky over that stretch, with his opponents hitting just .215 on balls in play, but he has also struck out 101 men in 101 innings (7.2 IP/GS) and allowed just one home run in that time (congratulations, Ryan Howard).

Out of top three: Max Scherzer (2)

Rookie of the Year

Bob Levey/Getty Images

American League

1. Carlos Correa, SS, Astros (1)
Season Stats: .276/.345/.513, 16 HR, 45 RBIs, 11 SB, 133 OPS+

Find me one thing Correa, a 20-year-old rookie, doesn’t do well at the major league level. His current numbers project to 37 home runs, 103 RBIs, 66 walks and 25 stolen bases (at a 79% success rate) over 162 games. He’s a strong defensive shortstop whose head is always in the game. He’s a five-tool stud who puts all five tools on display nightly. He’s the second-youngest player in the majors (behind No. 3 on this list) and already arguably one of the best.

2. Francisco Lindor, SS, Indians (N/A)
Season Stats: .308/.347/.437, 7 HR, 31 RBIs, 6 SB, 112 OPS+

Since Aug. 5, Lindor has hit .410/.451/.560 to raise his season numbers to the line you see above. There’s a lot of batting average and luck on balls in play (.448 BABIP) in that surge, but the combination of that hot streak, his outstanding play in the field and what remains a relatively thin rookie class has propelled him up to second on this list.

The 22-year-old Lindor, by the way, is every bit as heady a player as Correa. One outstanding recent example is his expert slide in a key spot against the Blue Jays on Tuesday night, which was made possible in part by Lindor’s speed and hustle out of the box:

3. Roberto Osuna, RHP, Blue Jays (3)
Season Stats: 16 SV, 1.99 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 10.1 K/9, 5.50 K/BB, 1.0 IP/GS, 199 ERA+

Miguel Sano (.296/.405/.620 in 215 PA, 179 of them as a designated hitter) is coming, but he’s just not here yet. In the meantime, the 20-year-old Osuna’s season-long dominance out of the Blue Jays’ bullpen continues to occupy the third spot on this list.

Out of top three: Nathan Karns (2)

Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

National League

1. Kris Bryant, 3B, Cubs (2)
Season Stats: .269/.369/.487, 22 HR, 84 RBIs, 12 SB, 132 OPS+

You might be surprised to learn that this is the first time all season that I have had Bryant—my preseason and pre-off-season pick to win this award—ranked first on this list. Joc Pederson led this race for the entire first half, and while I had Bryant in a near-tie with Pederson at the All-Star break, it was Matt Duffy who was on top when I revisited the list two weeks ago. Bryant has been on fire since then, however, hitting .386/.435/.789 with six home runs in 15 games to emerge as the leader in this race.

2. Matt Duffy, 3B, Giants (1)
Season Stats: .302/.341/.441, 10 HR, 61 RBIs, 8 SB, 116 OPS+

While Bryant has put up the absurd line above since Aug. 19, Duffy has hit .276/.333/.276 and has now gone 76 plate appearances since his last extra-base hit. Correcting for ballpark and factoring in defense and base running (both players have eight net steals, but Duffy has them without having been caught once) makes this race closer than it might appear from the raw numbers, but Bryant is still the clear leader. In fact, Duffy is much closer to third place than first right now.

3. Jung Ho Kang, SS/3B, Pirates (4)
Season Stats: .287/.360/.461, 13 HR, 49 RBIs, 124 OPS+

You could argue for putting Kang, the 28-year-old Korean import, ahead of the 24-year-old Duffy. Kang has clearly out-hit Duffy thus far, and while his fielding doesn’t grade out as well, Kang has spent half of his time at shortstop, a more difficult and more valuable position. I still have Kang in third largely because of the gap in playing time between the two: Despite being in the majors all season, Kang has come to the plate just 417 times to Duffy’s 483. That’s just enough to give Duffy the edge, for now.

Out of top three: Randal Grichuk (3)

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)