In this week's edition of Awards Watch, Cliff Corcoran explains why Bryce Harper is the no-brainer choice for NL MVP and checks in on close races for the NL Cy Young and AL ROY.
The Yoenis Cespedes-for-NL-MVP movement will find no support here. Great as Cespedes has been for the Mets since coming over from Detroit at the July 31 trade deadline—slashing .312/.357/.675 with 14 home runs and 36 RBIs—he has played just 36 games in the National League this season and still has an OPS lower than that of Bryce Harper, who has played 132. With less than a month remaining in the season, there’s simply not enough time for Cespedes to deserve much more than a down-ballot honorable mention from the New York writers, and that’s only if he remains red hot for that entire period.
What you will find below is a new leader in the NL Cy Young race, which may be the tightest of the six awards races listed below, and a surprisingly close race for the AL Rookie of the Year award—one that still doesn’t include recently slumping Twins slugger Miguel Sano.
Note: All stats are through Wednesday, Sept. 9. 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
1. Bryce Harper, RF, Nationals (1)
Season Stats: .336/.467/.657, 36 HR, 85 RBIs, 201 OPS+
If there were a knock against Harper as the slam-dunk choice for NL MVP, it was his poor performance this season against the Mets. He had hit just .214/.333/.304 against New York before Wednesday, his worst showing against any team he had faced in more than four games this season. So what did he do Wednesday? He hit two home runs and a double, matching the number of extra-base hits he'd collected against the Mets all season and raising his season line against them to .250/.357/.450.
The Nationals lost despite Harper’s effort, but there could be no better illustration of how irrelevant team performance should be to an individual award like this one. Harper, who didn’t come to bat with a runner on base all night, still came up huge in a crucial game for his team, scoring all three of their runs in the contest and driving himself in twice—and his club still lost. That loss was no more Harper’s fault than the Nationals’ collapse from first-place at the All-Star break to seven games out as of Thursday has been. Any attempt to dock him, or any other candidate, in the voting because of the performance of his team is in direct opposition to the purpose of this award, which is to reward the best individual performance of the year.
Niether Goldschmidt nor Votto has homered or driven in a run since we last checked in on this race a week ago. Votto has out-hit Goldschmidt over that span, going 6-for-19 (.316) with a double and six walks to the latter's 3-for-18 (.167) with no extra-base hits and one walk. That hasn’t been enough, however, to push the Reds' first baseman past the Diamondbacks' first baseman, who still holds the slimmest of leads in the race to be Harper’s runner-up by virtue of his fielding and base running.
In discussing Donaldson’s move into first place on this list last week, I wondered whether it would be the exact moment that Donaldson passed Trout, or if it would continue to be a close race over the final month. So far, it's the former. Donaldson went 8-for-21 (.381) with three walks, a double, a triple and a home run over the last week; Trout went 4-for-20 (.200) with four walks, a triple and a homer. This is still an extremely close race, but putting Donaldson on top was a bit easier this week than last.
The slick-fielding Cain continues to edge out the rest of the league thanks to multi-dimensional contributions, but he still has no chance of catching Trout or Donaldson.
2. Zack Greinke, RHP, Dodgers (1)
Season Stats: 16–3, 174 K, 1.68 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 5.44 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 1 CG, 224 ERA+
An argument could be made to put the top three pitchers in this race in any order. Greinke leads the trio in ERA and ERA+ by a significant distance and WHIP by a little, but Kershaw has the best peripherals and has thrown the most innings (a major league-leading 201), and Arrieta has a better ERA and ERA+ than Kershaw but better peripherals than Greinke. It’s almost a matter of taste. Is consistency and run prevention your bag? Go Greinke. Is deep-game dominance more your speed? You’re a Kershaw voter. Prefer a compromise, a little from column A and a little from column B? Arrieta, who pitches his home games in a tougher ballpark, fits the bill.
I typically fall in the second category, preferring pitchers who dominate the strike zone and eat innings, but looking for help from the advanced statistics offers little clarity. Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement has Greinke way out in front and Kershaw third. FanGraphs’ WAR, which I typically eschew, has Kershaw in front by a lot and Greinke in third. Baseball Prospectus’s Wins Above Replacement Player, informed by the new Deserved Run Average, has Kershaw in first and Arrieta in third.
The fact that Greinke has had just two non-quality starts all season and has such a large lead in ERA+ is awfully persuasive and seems likely to sway the electorate were the vote held today. However, Kershaw and Arrieta have just two fewer quality starts, and Kershaw has 8 1/3 more innings pitched in the same number of starts.
The race between the two Dodgers aces is so close it may be the men they are throwing to who are making the biggest difference. Deserved Run Average tells us that catcher Yasmani Grandal has played a key role in Greinke’s success this season. Grandal has caught 24 of Greinke’s starts compared to just 11 of Kershaw’s and has shaved nearly five runs off Greinke’s expected total with his framing, according to Baseball Prospectus’s numbers. Greinke has also had a slightly more favorable collection of ballparks to pitch in, in part due to making two more home starts this season than Kershaw (amazingly, both have a 1.41 ERA at home this season). Correct for those two factors alone by adding six runs to Greinke’s ledger and his ERA would increase to 1.96, close enough to Kershaw’s to allow his advantage in innings and strike-zone dominance push him into the lead.
Of course, one could flip that and say that it’s Kershaw’s preference for A.J. Ellis behind the plate that has deprived him of sharing the advantage in pitch-framing Greinke has enjoyed, but the point is that that pitch framing is an outside influence on Greinke’s performance. Speaking of which: DRA also points out that, despite his tougher home ballpark, Arrieta has had a very pitcher-friendly group of road ballparks to pitch in, with just four of his 15 road starts coming in hitter’s parks (one each at the Reds' Great American Ball Park, the Brewers' Miller Park, the Diamondbacks' Chase Field and the White Sox' U.S. Cellular Field). To wit, Arrieta has a 1.76 road ERA, all of which mitigates any correction one might make for his 13 home starts at Wrigley Field, which has played close to neutral in recent years and just underwent a renovation that appears to have brought it more toward average in terms of run scoring.
After considering all of the above, I have Kershaw into the lead in this race, and I have no qualms about it. He leads the majors in innings, strikeouts, innings pitched per start and Fielding Independent Pitching (2.09) and the NL in K/9, and he is second in the majors in K/9, K/BB (behind Max Scherzer’s 8.65), WHIP and quality starts (tied with Arrieta with 24). A week from now, however, these three playoff-bound aces could be in a different order yet again.
Gray rebounded from his disaster outing last week with seven shutout innings against the Astros on Tuesday, and now leads his division counterpart by one point of ERA while trailing by just a point in ERA+. The two are also tied in complete games and shutouts and effectively knotted in WHIP, all of which makes it easy to keep Keuchel in the top spot by virtue of his superior strikeout and walk rates and the seven extra innings he has thrown in the same number of starts.
3. David Price, LHP, Blue Jays (2)
Season Stats: 14–5, 196 K, 2.43 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 4.78 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO, 164 ERA+
Price continued his dominance for Toronto on Saturday with seven innings of one-run ball against the Orioles. All seven of Price’s starts for Toronto have been quality; six of them have lasted seven full innings or more, and five of the original seven saw him limit the opposition to two runs or fewer. He will take the hill against the Yankees on Thursday night to open the Jays’ crucial four-game set in the Bronx, his third start against New York since joining Toronto. In the first two, he allowed a total of just three runs in 14 1/3 innings.
Rookie of the Year
1. Carlos Correa, SS, Astros (1)
Season Stats: .273/.339/.500, 17 HR, 51 RBIs, 11 SB, 128 OPS+
Just a week ago, Correa’s lead in this race seemed comfortable, but Lindor’s continued hot hitting and elite fielding have closed the gap, making this a virtual tie in the wake of Correa going 0-for-8 over his last two games and 1-for-13 over his last three. In Lindor's last three starts, meanwhile, he has collected a double, two triples and a home run, the last two hits coming in a three-hit performance on Wednesday night to push his slugging percentage to a season-high .458. Having debuted just six days after Correa, Lindor has actually come to the plate four more times, has the same number of doubles, two more triples (Correa has none) and 11 more hits, and while he lacks Correa’s impact power, he makes up for it by being the superior fielding shortstop and by reaching base more often.
I still have Correa out front because of his ability to acquire extra bases, including stealing four more bags at roughly the same success rate as Lindor. But the gap between Correa, the 20-year-old former No. 1 pick, and Lindor, the 21-year-old former No. 8 pick, is virtually non-existent at this point.
3. Roberto Osuna, RHP, Blue Jays (3)
Season Stats: 16 SV, 2.08 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 10.1 K/9, 5.67 K/BB, 1.0 IP/G, 192 ERA+
With Lance McCullers again pitching effectively in Houston's rotation and Sano possibly breaking out of his slump with a game-winning–pinch-hit home run against the Royals on Wednesday night, the 20-year-old Osuna continues to feel like a placeholder in this spot.
1. Kris Bryant, 3B, Cubs (1)
Season Stats: .267/.365/.482, 23 HR, 86 RBIs, 12 SB, 130 OPS+
Bryant hit just one home run this past week, but what a home run it was, smacking three-quarters of the way up on Wrigley Field’s new leftfield scoreboard and measured by Statcast at 495 feet, making it the longest home run in the majors this year.
There are no extra-points awarded for style here, however. Bryant has earned the top spot based on his all-around contributions to the Cubs, not his efforts to restore Wrigley Field to its former glory.
Kang hit his first major league grand slam Wednesday night and has three extra-base hits, two of them homers, in his last two games. His ascension into the second spot here, however, has more to do with Matt Duffy’s slump than any upswing in Kang’s performance.
3. Matt Duffy, 3B, Giants (2)
Season Stats: .299/.336/.436, 10 HR, 66 RBIs, 8 SB, 113 OPS+
After park adjustments and credit for his fielding and base running (he still hasn’t been caught stealing), the 24-year-old Duffy is close to the 28-year-old Kang in this race, but if he continues to scuffle, he could make room for a new name on this list. After an 0-for-4 performance Wednesday night, Duffy’s on-base percentage dropped to its lowest point in the second half (he hasn’t walked since August), his batting average dipped below .300 for just the second time since late July, and his slugging percentage hit its lowest point since late June (Duffy has just two extra-base hits in his last 24 games).