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Awards Watch: Kershaw, Altuve lead MVP races; Sale tops AL Cy Young list

Awards Watch checks in on all three races in the AL and NL to find Clayton Kershaw leading two of them and a new but expected name atop the NL Rookie of the Year list.

With Awards Watch in its seventh season, it's time to tweak the format slightly. Rather than rotate through the three major player awards—Most Valuable Player, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year—each week, I'll be doing the column biweekly with a full survey of the competition for each award. I'll do this every other week until September, when the column will keep the all-awards format but run every week as the races go down to the wire.

What follows is the first edition of the new Awards Watch, presented in what used to be called the lightning round, and while it finds familiar leaders atop all of the races save for the National League Rookie of the Year, there are some new names below in the top three.

Note: All stats are through Wed., June 8. 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. Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros (1)
Season Stats: .336/.414/.556 (165 OPS+), 10 HR, 36 RBIs, 45 R, 134 TB, 18 SB (95%)

Altuve’s early-season power surge didn’t last into mid-May, as his game-tying three-run homer off the Rangers’ Colby Lewis on Monday broke a 29-game home run drought. Don’t confuse that homer drought with a slump, though: Altuve hit .330/.398/.400 over that span, continuing to provide value as a catalyst atop the order, on the bases and in the field. Meanwhile, the Astros have gone 22–15 since April came to a close, tied with Cleveland for the fifth-best record in all of baseball over that span.

Where Altuve and Houston go from here will be fascinating to watch. Will Altuve’s power level out or surge again? Can Houston, now just three wins away from a .500 record, climb back into the playoff hunt? I’d like to say that the Astros’ ability to regain their contender status and Altuve’s pursuit of the MVP award will be unrelated (they should be), but we all know that won’t be the case.

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2. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (3)
Season Stats: .309/.413/.553 (168 OPS+), 13 HR, 43 RBIs, 41 R, 120 TB, 8 SB (89%)

Trout and Altuve are in a virtual tie at the moment. Trout has the less friendly home ballpark for hitters—a fact reflected in his superior OPS+—and is the superior fielder. Altuve has ten extra stolen bases with no extra times caught stealing (both have been caught just once). Both have appeared in every one of their team’s games. Through a fluke of the schedule and the superiority of the lineup around him, however, Altuve has made 20 more plate appearances and four more starts in the field (Trout has started at designated hitter three times). That’s just enough to break the tie in his favor, for now.

3. David Ortiz, DH, Red Sox
Season Stats: .338/.425/.728 (200 OPS+), 16 HR, 55 RBIs, 28 R, 142 TB,26 2B

Manny Machado deserves to be on this list, but I had an easier time leaving him off than I did Ortiz this week. Despite being a designated hitter who has sat out ten games thus far in his age-40 season, what Ortiz has done is mind-boggling. While ogling all of the bold and italicized type above, pay attention to that 200 OPS+. No qualified hitter has posted an OPS+ above 200 over a full season since Barry Bonds in 2004. Since the NL expanded in 1962, just seven hitters have finished a season with an OPS+ of 200 or better in a season in which they have qualified for a batting title: Willie McCovey in '69, George Brett in '80, Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas in the strike-shortened '94, Mark McGwire in '98, Sammy Sosa in 2001 and Barry Bonds six times between '92 and '04. Ten of those 12 seasons earned MVP recognition (McGwire and Sosa are the exceptions, with the latter losing out to Bonds). So, no, Ortiz isn’t playing the field, but is that so terribly important when a batter is putting up numbers that recall some of the greatest hitting performances of the last half century?

Here’s a game I like to play: Let’s factor in Altuve and Trout’s base stealing into their slash lines. Give them each credit for their net steals in their slugging percentage (adding 17 total bases for Altuve, seven for Trout) and subtract the one time each was caught stealing from their on-base percentages. We’ll do the same for Ortiz, crediting him for the extra base from his lone steal, just to be fair. The result is a .999 OPS for Altuve and a .985 OPS for Trout. Impressive as those figures are, even with base stealing factored in, Ortiz still has a 157-point edge in OPS over Altuve, a 171-point edge over Trout and a whopping 213-point edge over Machado (who has been caught stealing three times without succeeding once).

Out of the top three: Manny Machado (2)

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National League

1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (1)
Season Stats: 8–1, 1.46 ERA, 0.65 WHIP, 10.6 K/9, 18.17 K/BB, 7.7 IP/GS, 3 SHO, 264 ERA+, 1.96 DRA

Kershaw isn’t just the best pitcher in baseball; to this point in 2016, he has been the best player in baseball. It tells you something when he takes on a weak-hitting team like the Braves, as he did in his last start, and every one is surprised and disappointed when he holds them scoreless for only six innings and actually walks a batter. This race isn’t even close: By’s Wins Above Replacement, Kershaw has been nearly a full win better than Altuve, Trout and the next man on this list. FanGraphs’ WAR, meanwhile, has Kershaw as merely a half-win better than the next-best player. We're getting the privilege of witnessing one of the best pitchers in major league history enjoying what could be the finest season of his career.

2. Nolan Arenado, 3B, Rockies
Season Stats: .289/.364/.587 (133 OPS+), 18 HR, 49 RBIs, 43 R, 132 TB

Arenado is the only player to best Kershaw in any of the three major WAR statistics, edging him in Baseball Prospectus’s Wins Above Replacement Player, 3.9 to 3.6. A significant amount of the credit for that goes to Arenado’s play in the field: Per BP’s numbers, only catchers Jason Castro and Buster Posey have been more valuable in the field, and by bWAR, only outfielders Adam Eaton and Kevin Pillar have been better with the glove. FanGraphs drops Arenado to seventh in the majors in terms of defensive value, but that still makes him the highest ranked fielder to draw consideration for my top three MVP candidates.

Arenado's offensive numbers have been inflated by Coors Field, but if the worst version of him is the one in road greys, that’s still a .271/.349/.504 hitter who also ranks as one of the handful of the most valuable fielders in the game. Did I mention that the 25-year-old Arenado has already drawn more unintentional walks this year than he has in any previous major league season and has been having bad luck on balls in play? As good as he has been this season, we have yet to see his best.

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3. Daniel Murphy, 2B, Nationals
Season Stats: .376/.415/.610 (169 OPS+), 10 HR, 38 RBIs, 36 R, 133 TB

Murphy’s still a lousy fielder and seems unlikely to remain in this race over the long haul as his luck on balls in play continues to even out. But for now, I’m honoring his tremendous plate production over the first third of the season, including his continuation of his late-2015 power surge (he’s just four home runs shy of his single-season high, set last year).

Out of the top three: Aledmys Diaz (2), Bryce Harper (3)

Cy Young


American League

1. Chris Sale, LHP, White Sox (1)
Season Stats: 9–2, 2.54 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 4.33 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO, 154 ERA+, 2.55 DRA

The field of contenders for the AL Cy Young award this year is underwhelming compared to the deep and impressive list of elite pitching performances in the NL. Among Junior Circuit hurlers, only Sale has been what I would consider dominant, and even he has struggled of late, with just one quality start and a 6.48 ERA over his last three turns, all of them Chicago losses. Sale leads this race almost by default at this point, leaving this award wide open for any pitcher capable of putting together a dominant second-half run

2. Jose Quintana, LHP, White Sox (2)
Season Stats: 5–6, 2.58 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 4.18 K/BB, 6.4 IP/GS, 152 ERA+, 2.70 DRA

Quintana hasn’t been as bad as Sale was in two of his last three starts, but he has also regressed from an early-season high. Since finishing his eighth start of the season with a 1.54 ERA, Quintana has managed just two quality starts in his last four turns, posting a 4.88 ERA over that span, with the White Sox losing all four games. The Chicago offense is to blame for the losses, as the team has scored just six runs in Quintana’s last four starts, and those same players may have contributed to his struggles as well, as balls in play that were finding leather earlier in the season have been hitting grass and dirt. Still, that recent run of mediocrity might have pushed Quintana off this list entirely had there been a pitcher in the league more worthy of the spot.

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Danny Salazar, RHP, Indians
Season Stats: 6–3, 2.24 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 10.7 K/9, 2.45 K/BB, 6.2 IP/GS, 201 ERA+, 2.67 DRA

Salazar is the new face on this list, and while even he has a dud in his recent history (4 1/3 IP, 4 R), at least that came against the powerful Red Sox in Boston—a tough assignment for any pitcher. Salazar has been particularly dominant against the defending champion Royals this year, holding them to a single run in 15 2/3 innings over two starts and striking out 18, and he thus deserves some rather direct credit for helping Cleveland ascend to first place in the AL Central. Still, he continues to struggle with his control (he walked five Royals in his last start and has 4.3 walks per nine innings on the season). That has undermined his high strikeout rate, inflated his WHIP and resulted in an inefficiency that has limited his ability to go deep into games.

Out of the top three: Rich Hill (3)


National League

1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (1)
Season Stats: 8–1, 1.46 ERA, 0.65 WHIP, 10.6 K/9, 18.17 K/BB, 7.7 IP/GS, 3 SHO, 264 ERA+, 1.96 DRA

In seven starts since the calendar flipped to May, all Dodgers wins, Kershaw has gone 6–0 with a 0.81 ERA, 0.54 WHIP and 23.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio, averaging eight innings per start. To put some of that in raw numbers: In 55 2/3 innings, Kershaw has allowed five runs, walked three batters, allowed 31 base runners, struck out 69 men and given up just one home run. He was good in April, too, going at least seven innings in every start that month, four of which were quality and three of which saw him strike out nine or more men. Since May began, however, his worst start, according to game score, saw him strike out 10 men against no walks as he held the Blue Jays to two runs over seven innings in Toronto. Again, that was the worst of his last seven starts.

2. Noah Syndergaard, RHP, Mets (2)
Season Stats: 6–2, 2.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 11.2 K/9, 7.92 K/BB, 6.3 IP/GS, 197 ERA+, 2.37 DRA

Syndergaard’s season took a bit of a detour when he threw a pitch behind Chase Utley two weeks ago, earning an instant ejection with one out in the third inning of what was then a scoreless game (the Dodgers went on to win, 9–1). He threw a scoreless inning of relief two days later, then returned to the mound for his next scheduled turn with a strong outing against the Marlins (7 IP, 2 R, 9 K). Nonetheless, the ejection and the lost innings from that game count against him. He has averaged 6.7 IP/GS without that abbreviated start bringing down that number, and that outing remains one of just two non-quality starts on the season. Not that he’s likely to catch Kershaw anytime soon, but Syndergaard has his work cut out for him in staying ahead of the rest of the crowded NL field.

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3. Madison Bumgarner, LHP, Giants
Season Stats: 7–2, 1.88 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 10.4 K/9, 3.96 K/BB, 6.6 IP/GS, 208 ERA+, 2.78 DRA

Bumgarner has made more headlines for his hitting than his pitching of late, which is a nifty trick given how well he has been pitching. Over his last six starts, all quality and all Giants wins, Bumgarner has posted a 0.84 ERA and 0.81 WHIP, averaging a strikeout per inning and 7.2 innings per start. He actually has made 10 consecutive quality starts (though he had two extra unearned runs in one of those), posting a 1.29 ERA over that larger span. Since allowing four home runs in his first 16 innings this season, he has allowed just three more in his last 70 frames.

Out of the top three: Jake Arrieta (3)

Rookie of the Year


American League

1. Nomar Mazara, RF, Rangers (1)
Season Stats: .321/.370/.495 (127 OPS+), 10 HR, 27 RBIs, 27 R, 97 TB

The Rangers have the best record in the AL entering Thursday’s action and are one of MLB's hottest teams, having gone 14–4 since May 20—the best record in baseball over that stretch—to surge into first place in the AL West in the process. The 21-year-old Mazara has been one of the driving forces in that rise, hitting .348/.395/.580 over those 18 games, and he enters Thursday’s afternoon tilt against the Astros with an active seven-game hitting streak.

2. Michael Fulmer, RHP, Tigers
Season Stats: 6–1, 2.83 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 9.3 K/9, 3.06 K/BB, 6.0 IP/GS, 146 ERA+, 3.21 DRA

Acquired from the Mets in the Yoenis Cespedes trade at last year’s deadline, Fulmer made his major league debut on April 29 and showed enough promise to remain in the Tigers’ rotation despite struggling in three subsequent starts. He found his groove with an 11-strikeout performance against the Rays on May 21 (7 IP, 1 R) and will head into his start against the Yankees on Sunday having not allowed a run since giving up a solo home run to Evan Longoria in the sixth inning of that game. That’s 22 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings by the 23-year-old, giving him a 0.32 ERA over his last four starts, all quality starts and all Tigers wins.

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3. Chris Devenski, RHP, Astros (3)
Season Stats: 0–2, 2.74 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 3.25 K/BB, 3.0 IP/G, 150 ERA+, 3.36 DRA

It only took one bad start for Devenski to get bounced from the Astros’ rotation, but since that dud (2 IP, 6 R against the Red Sox in Boston), he has allowed just one more run in 9 1/3 innings of relief, striking out 11 against three walks over that span. He even got to pitch in a game the Astros won his last time out, working the final two innings of Houston’s 12–2 victory over the A’s last Friday—remarkably the first of his 14 appearances this season to come in a winning effort.

Still, while the 25-year-old righty hasn’t thrown many high-leverage innings, his ability to eat innings is very valuable. Already this season, Devenski has three scoreless relief appearances of three or more innings, two more of two innings, as well as an appearance in which he allowed just one run in three innings of work. He has also stranded all seven of the runners he has inherited on the season. Valuable as his innings-eating may be, if he keeps pitching that well, the Astros will have no choice but to give him higher leverage work, be it in relief or the rotation.

Out of the top 3: Byung Ho Park (2)


National League

1. Corey Seager, SS, Dodgers
Season Stats: .283/.345/.524 (135 OPS+), 14 HR, 35 RBIs, 39 R, 122 TB

The only new face among this week’s leaders belongs to a player who was expected to be here all along. The top prospect in baseball coming into the season after hitting .337/.425/.561 in 113 plate appearances last September, the 22-year-old Seager got off to a bit of a slow start but flipped the switch in early May. Batting .248/.306/.386 with just two home runs on the season on the morning of May 4, he has hit .311/.374/.629 with 12 home runs since, including five home runs in three games against the Braves last weekend. That should be a wake-up call to anyone who hadn’t noticed his improvement to that point.

2. Aledmys Diaz, SS, Cardinals (1)
Season Stats: .318/.350/.527 (133 OPS+), 8 HR, 31 RBIs, 40 R, 106 TB

Incumbent St. Louis shortstop Jhonny Peralta returned from his thumb injury on Tuesday and found that his position now belongs to someone else. Diaz, the 25-year-old Cuban defector who didn’t even make the Opening Day roster, has been so good this year that Peralta is now a third baseman, with Matt Carpenter shifted back to second base, Kolten Wong sent down to the minors and Jedd Gyorko seeing his role as a platoon infielder largely eliminated. That speaks to the Cardinals’ confidence in Diaz going forward. His bat has cooled of late, however: He has hit just .269/.304/.404 over his last 13 games.

3. Steven Matz, RHP, Mets
Season Stats: 7–2, 2.69 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 4.69 K/BB, 6.0 IP/GS, 146 ERA+, 3.56 DRA

In nine starts since getting torched by the Marlins in his season debut (1 2/3 IP, 7 R), Matz has gone 7–1 with a 1.69 ERA, a 1.02 WHIP, a 5.45 strikeout-to-walk ratio and more than a strikeout per inning, averaging 6.5 innings per start. There has been no unusual luck on balls in play in that performance: That’s a 25-year-old rookie straight dealing. In four starts since missing a turn due to a sore elbow, Matz has largely replicated those rate stats, with the exception of the ERA, which has swollen to an unsightly 2.45. If Matz’s elbow is sound, this could prove to be a two-man race between him and Seager.

Out of the top three: Trevor Story (2), Kenta Maeda (3)