With the regular season coming to an end, Cliff Corcoran gives his final predictions for this year's AL and NL MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards.
With just four games left in the regular season, only two of the six awards races have been decided. Bryce Harper should unanimously win the National League’s Most Valuable Player award despite his recent slump, and Kris Bryant should win the NL Rookie of the Year. The other four awards—including the NL Cy Young, which might be one of the most impressive races in recent memory—are still in play. Unfortunately, this will be the last Awards Watch until after the postseason, but I will return in mid-November with previews of and reactions to the awards results.
Note: All stats are through Wednesday, Sept. 30. 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
This two-man race is as compelling as any other this year, including that bonkers NL Cy Young race. I honestly believe that both Trout and Donaldson deserve the award, but that’s not how it works. Trout, who plays in a much tougher home ballpark for hitters, has quite clearly been more productive at the plate to this point, leading Donaldson by 27 points of on-base percentage and 12 points of slugging, resulting in a big edge in OPS+. Still, because the Blue Jays’ offense is better as a whole—the lineup turns over more often, providing Donaldson 33 more plate appearances; it gives him more runners on base when he hits; and his teammates drive him in more often—Donaldson leads Trout in hits (182 to 168), doubles (41 to 30), total bases (a major league-leading 350 to Trout’s 331), runs scored (a major league-leading 122 to Trout’s 101) and RBIs. Those cumulative totals, particularly the RBIs, which have long received inappropriate weight in MVP balloting, make it appear that the plate production of the two candidates is closer than it actually is.
Where Donaldson does make up ground is in base running and, more subjectively, fielding. Trout has stolen 11 bases to Donaldson’s six, but he has been caught seven times and made six other outs on the bases; Donaldson has made just three outs on the bases all year and has yet to be caught stealing. Donaldson has also taken the extra base (going from first to third or second to home, advancing on a wild pitch or passed ball, tagging up on a fly ball, advancing on a balk or defensive indifference) 33 times to Trout’s 18. Donaldson’s game awareness and deft sliding certainly come into play there, but again, his teammates have helped a great deal. Trout has taken the extra base in 66% of his opportunities to do so to Donaldson’s 38, but he has had far fewer opportunities due to the lack of non-home-run production behind him in the lineup.
As for their fielding: Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating favor Donaldson, but Baseball Prospectus’s Fielding Runs Above Average gives the edge to Trout. Per Statcast, Trout also has the most catches with a route efficiency of 97.5% or better this season, and he leads the majors in home-run-robbing catches, such as this one:
That’s Trout bringing back a three-run home run in a game the Angels would rally to win 3–2 last Saturday. The next afternoon, Donaldson did this:
That was Donaldson’s fourth walk-off hit of the year, three of them home runs.
In the last week, Donaldson has hit .278/.480/.667 with two home runs and seven walks; Trout has hit .409/.519/.635 with a homer, a stolen base and five walks. Though I think it should be irrelevant to an individual award, multiple voters will note their roles in their respective team’s success this season. Donaldson has obviously been the best player on the team with the best record in the AL. Trout, meanwhile, has kept an otherwise pathetic Angels offense in the wild-card hunt, hitting .316/.432/.653 in September as Los Angeles has gone 18–9 to match the Astros in the loss column and nearly triple its playoff chances per Baseball Prospectus’s calculations (from 9.7% on Aug. 31 to 28.1 going into Thursday's games).
A strong argument could be made for either player. Ultimately, I expect Donaldson will win the award for the wrong reasons (his superior counting stats and the Blue Jays' stronger showing), but if I had to vote today, I’d put Trout first on my (imaginary) ballot.
Machado hit just .167 over the last week, but his two extra-base hits and four walks gave him a better on-base percentage and slugging percentage than the Royals' Lorenzo Cain, his closest competitor for this spot, who had none of either on the week.
Machado and Cain, both of whom leapfrog more productive hitters such as Seattle's Nelson Cruz due to their outstanding play in the field, look very closely matched until you look at playing time. Machado has appeared in 158 games and made 694 plate appearances, while Cain has appeared in just 139 games and made 599 PA. Cain may also miss one or more of the Royals' four remaining regular-season games after fouling a ball off his knee Wednesday night. That’s unfortunate, as I’d have Cain in front if he’d only managed to take the field more often. Then again, all of the first-place votes for this award will go to Trout or Donaldson, so third place isn’t terribly important in this race.
1. Bryce Harper, RF, Nationals (1)
Season Stats: .331/.463/.649, 41 HR, 96 RBIs, 196 OPS+
In Barry Svrluga’s devastating account of the Nationals' implosion for the Washington Post, Harper is quoted as saying, “I’m done,” as he headed back to the clubhouse after Jonathan Papelbon attacked him in the dugout in the ninth inning of Sunday’s game. That recent slump—Harper has hit safely in just one of his last eight games, going 3-for-26 (.115) over that span, albeit with nine walks and a still-solid .343 on-base percentage—suggests that his season did indeed end two weeks ahead of schedule. If so, that’s the 22-year-old’s immaturity rearing its head, but it's difficult to be too critical of Harper after he spent six months propping up his team. Fittingly, the Nats' only victory in those eight games came when Harper went 3-for-5 with a pair of doubles, driving in one run and scoring another in a 2–1 win.
This is a sad end to a great season, but even if Harper goes 0-for-4 in each of Washington's final four games, he’d still finish the season with a .319/.449/.625 line and a 1.074 OPS that would easily top the majors today and likely would on Sunday night, as well. Perhaps Harper will be extra motivated by facing the NL East champion Mets in the season’s final series this weekend, or perhaps he’ll be shut down by New York’s outstanding pitching. Either way, these last two weeks should not undermine what he has done all season.
There’s a legitimate argument to be made that all three of the pitchers vying for the NL Cy Young award should rank ahead of every NL hitter except Harper in the MVP voting. I think they absolutely should be the next three men on the ballot, but Goldschmidt and Votto have been so good this season that they deserve recognition here, and the precise order isn’t terribly important given that Harper should win this award unanimously.
For these purposes, Goldschmidt continues to hold the slightest of leads on Votto due to his superior fielding and base running. Votto holds a comparable edge on Harper for the NL on-base percentage crown; he's at .4630, and Harper is at .4626.
1. Dallas Keuchel, LHP, Astros (2)
Season Stats: 19–8, 213 K, 2.47 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 8.5 K/9, 4.35 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 164 ERA+
2. David Price, LHP, Blue Jays (1)
Season Stats: 18–5, 225 K, 2.45 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 4.79 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO, 161 ERA+
Price had his first poor outing as a Blue Jay on Saturday: Staked to an early 5-0 lead, he gave up five runs, four earned, in five innings against the Rays (Toronto won anyway, clinching its first playoff berth in 22 years). On Sunday, Keuchel faced the rival Rangers, against whom he had turned in his worst start of the season on Sept. 16, and delivered a gem (7 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 10 K). As a result, these two are in a virtual tie. I give Keuchel the edge this week based on his advantages in innings (5 2/3 more than Price in the same number of starts), ERA+ and WHIP, which effectively tell us that Keuchel has been better at preventing base runners and runs while eating more of his team’s innings.
This race will go down to Keuchel's final start, which will come Friday night against the Diamondbacks in Arizona. That could favor Price, who will not pitch again during the regular season, with Toronto preferring to give him extended rest heading into next Thursday's Division Series opener. Keuchel, who has gone 15–0 with a 1.46 ERA at home this year, has a 3.82 ERA on the road. What's more, he has made just one previous start in Chase Field, getting lit up in his fifth major league start back in 2012. One additional factor is that, with Keuchel starting Friday night, he’d be on just three days rest for Tuesday’s AL Wild-Card Game. If the Astros jump out to an early lead on the Diamondbacks' Rubby De La Rosa, A.J. Hinch could have a quick hook for his ace in the hope of maximizing his readiness for that start. That said, if Keuchel aces his turn on Friday, he could ice the Cy Young in the process.
Gray is done for the season after leaving his final start, a strong six innings against the cross-bay Giants, with left hip soreness. He should comfortably finish third in the Cy Young balloting, but all of the first-place votes should be split between Price and Keuchel.
3. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (3)
Season Stats: 16–7, 294 K, 2.16 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, 11.6 K/9, 7.00 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 4 CG, 3 SHO, 171 ERA+
The NL West champion Dodgers haven’t announced their rotation for their final series of the year, which they’ll play at home against a Padres team that will be without Matt Kemp (torn tendon in his right middle finger) and possibly Justin Upton (neck strain). Still, assuming Greinke and Kershaw will start—which would keep them on their normal schedule heading into the Division Series next week—each of the three pitchers above will have one more regular-season outing. Arrieta will face the Brewers in Milwaukee on Friday night, putting him on regular rest for the NL Wild-Card Game; Greinke should start Saturday night; and Kershaw should draw the start on the final day of the season, at 12:10 p.m. PT in Los Angeles.
Those starts could yet determine the winner of this award, but for now, I’m sticking with last week’s rankings. In his lone start last week, Arrieta held the Pirates scoreless on a single and a hit by pitch for seven innings, striking out nine. That was the fourth time in his last six starts that he didn’t allow a run in seven or more innings, and he has now allowed an earned run in just three of his last 11 starts, all of them lasting six innings or more and eight of them lasting seven innings or more. To my eye, his ERA+ is now close enough to Greinke’s that his edge in innings (8 1/3 more), strikeout and home-run rates (Arrieta has allowed 10 home runs to Greinke’s 13 in fewer innings) and complete games are enough to overcome the gap.
Kershaw has an even larger advantage in innings (14 1/3 more than Greinke) and strikeout rate and has matched Arrieta’s totals of complete games and shutouts. However, he also has a much larger gap in ERA+ relative to Greinke, a slightly higher home-run rate (0.59 to Greinke’s 0.55 and Arrieta’s 0.40) and just 27 quality starts to Arrieta’s 28 and Greinke’s 29. Kershaw’s division-clinching shutout against the Giants on Tuesday, in which he allowed only a single and a walk and struck out 13, was his best start since his near-perfect no-hitter against the Rockies in June of 2014. However, in his other start last week, Kershaw allowed three runs in just five innings, giving him two non-quality starts since the last by either of his rivals; Greinke’s lone non-quality start of the season came back on Aug. 6.
Kershaw has a chance to reach 300 strikeouts in his final start on Sunday. Greinke could reach 200 strikeouts on Saturday. Arrieta could drop his ERA below 1.80 on Friday with a scoreless outing of three or more innings, or an eight-inning outing in which he allows just one earned run. None of those would guarantee the pitcher in question this award. This race is so close that the only thing that could provide any clarity for the voters would be if one or more of these three has his worst start of the year.
Rookie of the Year
2. Carlos Correa, SS, Astros (2)
Season Stats: .277/.343/.504, 21 HR, 63 RBIs, 12 SB, 129 OPS+
The conventional wisdom still seems to be that Correa will win this award. However, if you take a clear-eyed look at the numbers of the two players listed above with the knowledge that Lindor is the superior fielder, there’s little basis for listing Correa first. In effectively the same amount of playing time (95 games and 421 plate appearances for Lindor, 96 games and 417 PA for Correa), the two have nearly identical OPS+ figures, with Lindor leading by 17 points of on-base percentage and trailing by just eight points of slugging. Correa has also needed four more attempts to steal just one more base than Lindor. Digging deeper into their base running statistics, both have made six outs on the bases and taken the extra base in roughly 50% of their opportunities (52 for Correa to 50 for Lindor, though with Lindor taking the extra base 17 times to Correa’s 11).
All totaled, their offensive contributions, though different in shape (Lindor gets more singles and triples, Correa more walks and home runs) are practically identical in value. Lindor’s fielding thus breaks the tie in his favor. He is also the hotter hitter right now: Since last week’s Awards Watch, he has gone 11-for-28 with a double, a triple, two homers, three walks and three stolen bases in as many attempts for a .393/.438/.714 line to Correa’s .269/.296/.500 over the same span. If those trends continue, the choice should be clear to the voters by Monday.
As productive as the 22-year-old Sano has been in his 76 major league games, he’s a distant third in this race and just barely ahead of the likes of Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna, injured Toronto second baseman Devon Travis and Astros starter Lance McCullers.
1. Kris Bryant, 3B, Cubs (1)
Season Stats: .279/.369/.495, 26 HR, 99 RBIs, 13 SB, 135 OPS+
Bryant went 8-for-24 (.333) with a double and a pair of walks over the last week, but what he does over the Cubs’ final four games is irrelevant here. This award is his.
2. Matt Duffy, 3B, Giants (2)
Season Stats: .300/.339/.436, 12 HR, 76 RBIs, 12 SB, 113 OPS+
Duffy had a nice week, going 11-for-31 (.355) with two doubles, two homers, a walk and three stolen bases in as many attempts, but Bryant is beyond his reach at this point.
3. Jung Ho Kang, SS/3B, Pirates (3)
Season Stats: .287/.355/.461, 15 HR, 58 RBIs, 123 OPS+
That’s Kang’s final line due to the knee injury he suffered due to a take-out slide by the Cubs' Chris Coghlan on Sept. 17. It compares favorably to Duffy’s stats, but Kang's deficit in games (19) and plate appearances (128) will ensure he finishes second.