Awards Watch: Terrific AL MVP race gets tighter and tighter
Two weeks have passed since the last Awards Watch, and while only one of our six leaders have changed in that time, there has been considerable action deeper on these lists, with six new players in a top-three and no top three matching the order of two weeks ago. Clayton Kershaw continues to dominate the National League awards, but compensating for the lack of drama, there is a tremendous American League Most Valuable Player race that was so close heading into Thursday’s action that I couldn’t limit my list to just three players.
Note: All stats are through Wed., June 22. 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
The race for the AL MVP award is by far the most compelling of the six awards races we’ve been following this season—so much so that I’m breaking with the format to include the top five candidates in a race that is far deeper than even that. Just to give you an idea of how competitive it is, among the players that didn’t make my top five are Robinson Cano, Jackie Bradley Jr., David Ortiz, Francisco Lindor, Ian Desmond, Michael Saunders and Salvador Perez. Players such as Mooke Betts, Mark Trumbo, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Beltran, Edwin Encarnacion and my top Cy Young candidates didn’t even receive extended consideration.
The five players I have included are all in a virtual tie in Wins Above Replacement, ranking in the top five in both Baseball-Reference.com's and FanGraphs’ versions of that stat, albeit in a different order in each case. My rankings below adhere to neither stat, but for an idea of just how close this race is, here are the WAR totals for the five players listed below:
1. Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros (1)
Season Stats: .343/.425/.551 (165 OPS+), 12 HR, 41 RBIs, 51 R, 156 TB, 18 SB (90%)
Last Two Weeks: .381/.481/.524, 2 HR, 5 RBIs, 6 R
Part of what makes this race so compelling is that the five men on this list are all excellent all-around players at skill positions. Altuve is the least valuable in the field of the five but is still an above-average defensive second baseman. He is also the leading hitter of the bunch and by far the best base stealer. The extra bases he adds with his legs increase his advantage in overall offensive contributions enough that they more than compensate for the fact that he is not an elite fielder.
2. Josh Donaldson, 3B, Blue Jays
Season Stats: .279/.391/.565 (154 OPS+), 17 HR, 46 RBIs, 61 R, 152 TB
Last Two Weeks: .388/.492/.776, 3 HR, 13 RBIs, 15 R, 2 SB
The defending AL MVP has been on fire of late, hitting .415/.508/.868 with four home runs, 16 RBIs and 18 runs scored over his last 14 games. I didn't list Donaldson’s stolen bases above because he’s still in the single digits, but he has been safe in all five of his attempts this year. In fact, Donaldson has stolen 22 bases in a row without being caught, dating back to August 2013. What’s more, despite taking the extra base in nearly half of his opportunities, Donaldson has been thrown out on the bases just once all season, that coming after he was thrown out just three times all of last year. He hasn’t been thrown out at home since 2014 or at third base since '13, which was also the last season in which he was picked off. Add in his usual outstanding play in the field, and it’s no surprise that he grades out as the best of this bunch according to the WAR stats.
3. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (2)
Season Stats: .297/.401/.529 (155 OPS+), 14 HR, 48 RBIs, 47 R, 139 TB, 10 SB (91%)
Last Two Weeks: .239/.340/.413, 1 HR, 5 RBIs, 6 R, 2 SB
Trout is the most well-rounded of the players on this list, a monster hitter with patience and power who is also an elite fielder and an asset on the bases. His production has been down this month, however—.239/.349/.408 in June with just two home runs in 83 plate appearances—keeping him behind Altuve and allowing Donaldson to sneak past him.
4. Manny Machado, 3B/SS, Orioles
Season Stats: .317/.380/.605 (157 OPS+), 17 HR, 42 RBIs, 50 R, 164 TB, 27 2B
Last Two Weeks: .400/.415/.675, 2 HR, 5 RBIs, 9 R
While Altuve is the best base runner but weakest fielder of this quintet, Machado is the weakest base runner but arguably the best fielder; he has been thrown out on all three of his steal attempts this season, each time making the third out with Chris Davis at the plate and twice making that out at third base. He appears to have learned his lesson, however, and hasn't attempted a steal since last being thrown out on May 10. On the other hand, when J.J. Hardy landed on the disabled list in early May, Machado easily slid over to shortstop for seven weeks and continued his consistently outstanding play in the field with the usual array of highlight-reel plays. Above and beyond the quality of his play in the field, Machado gets extra points for giving his manager that flexibility. He gave some of those points back, however, when he refused to take his base after being plunked by Yordano Ventura on June 7 and instead initiated a fight that resulted in a four-game suspension, which he served this week.
5. Xander Bogaerts, SS, Red Sox
Season Stats: .351/.402/.514 (142 OPS+), 9 HR, 49 RBIs, 56 R, 142 TB, 10 SB (83%)
Last Two Weeks: .408/.463/.633, 3 HR, 13 RBIs, 10 R, 2 SB
Though Bogaerts leads the majors in batting average and hits (104), he has the weakest overall production of the five men on this list and, though above average at shortstop, is a weaker fielder by the standards of his position than Machado, Donaldson and Trout. Then again, he is the only full-time shortstop on this list, and that counts for a lot, as does his base running, as he has taken the extra base in a whopping 71% of is opportunities, per Baseball-Reference.com. In fact, FanGraphs’ WAR says he has been the best player in the AL to this point in the season. I typically take FanGraphs' WAR with a very large grain of salt (among other things, their primary defensive metric, Ultimate Zone Rating, doesn’t rate catchers and is insufficient in grading first basemen), but Bogaerts has been too good this season to cut this list off after Machado.
Off the list: David Ortiz (3)
1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (1)
Season Stats: 11–1, 1.57 ERA, 0.67 WHIP, 11.0 K/9, 20.14 K/BB, 7.7 IP/GS, 3 SHO, 246 ERA+, 1.79 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 3–0, 2.01 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, 12.9 K/9, 32.00 K/BB, 7.4 IP/GS
Never mind merely leading the MVP race; Kershaw is now running away with the award as well. I try not to let these rankings be beholden to WAR totals, but Kershaw’s 5.0 bWAR is more than a win better than the total of any other player in the NL, and his 5.3 fWAR is two wins better than the Senior Circuit's runner-up. Even Baseball Prospectus’s Wins Above Replacement Player, which has been less enthusiastic about Kershaw relative to the best hitters in the league, gives him more than a half-win lead over second place.
There’s no question that Kershaw has been having the most dominant season of any player in the league, and you don't even need to process the numbers above to let the bold and italicized text tell you that. The only question is if a player who only takes the field every five days can truly be the league’s most valuable. Kershaw, who also won this award in 2014, has answered that question with a resounding “yes.”
2. Nolan Arenado, 3B, Rockies (2)
Season Stats: .295/.369/.587 (135 OPS+), 21 HR, 60 RBIs, 50 R, 159 TB
Last Two Weeks: .326/.396/.587, 3 HR, 11 RBIs, 7 R
Arenado’s high position in these rankings has prompted numerous readers to decry the benefit that he enjoys playing his home games in Coors Field. Those readers are missing the fact that Arenado is here as much for his play in the field as his production at the plate. There have undeniably been more valuable hitters in the league this season: Arenado is 16th in the league in the park-adjusted OPS+. None of the 15 players ahead of him in OPS+, however, is even close to as valuable as Arenado is in the field. That’s one reason that Kershaw is running away with this award. The list of this year’s top NL hitters does not include the type of elite fielders and base runners found among the leading AL hitters. In fact, the best all-around player of the 15 above Arenado in OPS+ is probably Paul Goldschmidt, a first baseman.
By consensus of the advanced stats, Arenado has been worth at least a full win above replacement level in the field alone. That more than makes up for his deficit at the plate at a point in the season when 4.0 WAR is a top-two total in either league regardless of the version of WAR you chose.
3. Matt Carpenter, 3B/2B, Cardinals
Season Stats: .296/.416/.558 (160 OPS+), 11 HR, 45 RBIs, 48 R, 134 TB
Last Two Weeks: .394/.556/.667, 2 HR, 6 RBIs, 7 R
Carpenter is not an elite fielder, but he is the league-leader in OPS and provides additional defensive value via his flexibility: He has started multiple games at first, second and third base this season, and when Jhonny Peralta returned from a season-long disabled-list stint to find he had lost his shortstop job to rookie Aledmys Diaz, manager Mike Matheny was able to make room for him by moving Carpenter to second base. Carpenter has not only made that transition smoothly, but he has also carried his hot hitting over to his new/old position, batting .366/.536/.634 since making the switch.
Curiously, the last time Carpenter was a serious MVP candidate was the last time he was a second baseman: 2013, when he finished fourth in the NL voting. In his career, he has posted a .908 OPS at the keystone and a .820 OPS at the hot corner. That’s likely largely a coincidence, as he happened to play second base during his best season and was already raking before moving to second this year. Still, it’s an interesting pattern. Speaking of interesting but likely meaningless patterns: Entering this weekend’s action, Carpenter’s doubles totals over the last five years have been 22, 55, 33, 44 and 22. Doubles, second base, these numbers ... they must mean something!
Off the list: Daniel Murphy (3)
1. Chris Sale, LHP, White Sox (1)
Season Stats: 12–2, 2.83 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 4.86 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO, 141 ERA+, 2.43 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 3–0, 4.05 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 10.8 K/9, 8.00 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS
The AL Cy Young race is as underwhelming as the AL MVP race is overwhelming. Sale leads almost by default, not because of his major league leading 12 wins (I list wins and losses in this column for context but ignore won-loss record entirely when making these rankings) but because of his AL-leading 105 innings pitched and the fact that he has the best combination of run prevention and strong peripherals among this year’s AL candidates. Still, this is not the dominant Sale we’ve come to know in recent seasons. Just three of his last six starts have been quality, and he has yet to whiff ten or more men in a game this season, though his strikeout rate has been trending up of late. It’s not clear that Sale would even make my top 10 had he put up the same numbers in the NL this year.
2. Steven Wright, RHP, Red Sox
Season Stats: 8–4, 2.01 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 2.16 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 3 CG, 219 ERA+, 3.49 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 2–0, 1.14 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 6.1 K/9, 2.67 K/BB, 7.9 IP/GS
Wright leads the AL in ERA, ERA+ and innings pitched per start, having thrown 98 1/3 frames in one less turn than Sale has had (Wright’s next start is Saturday in Texas). He has also allowed nine unearned runs, which is a lot; only Taijuan Walker (10) has given up more unearned runs in the AL this year. Using all runs allowed per nine innings gives Wright a 2.84 RA to Sale’s 2.91, and while some may feel it’s unfair to punish a pitcher for the shortcomings of his defense, it’s also the pitcher’s job to pick up his teammates and stop the bleeding.
Still, Wright has allowed more than three runs, earned or otherwise, in just one of his 14 starts this season and leads the AL with the fewest home runs allowed per nine innings (0.4), having allowed just four on the season. His peripherals may be weak, but you can’t argue with his results. Fun fact: One of Wright’s three complete games was an eight-inning loss in Kansas City on May 18, but in his last start, he held the White Sox to one unearned run over nine innings without getting credit for a complete game as the Red Sox went on to lose in extra innings.
3. Marco Estrada, RHP, Blue Jays
Season Stats: 5–3, 2.70 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 2.27 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS, 156 ERA+, 3.38 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 1–1, 3.86 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 10.1 K/9, 2.62 K/BB, 6.2 IP/GS
Estrada makes this list for consistency more than anything else, as he owns an active streak of seven consecutive quality starts and has recorded a quality start in 10 of his last 11 turns. Among AL pitchers, only Wright and the Rangers' Colby Lewis have turned in a quality start in a higher percentage of their games this season, and Lewis just suffered a strained latsimus dorsi muscle that is expected to keep him sidelined for two months. Honorable mention goes to the top two pitchers in Cleveland's rotation: Corey Kluber, who has pitched far better than his results, and Danny Salazar, who falls off the list this week largely due to his deficit in innings after missing a start earlier this month due to shoulder fatigue.
Off the list: Jose Quintana (2), Danny Salazar (3)
1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (1)
Season Stats: 11–1, 1.57 ERA, 0.67 WHIP, 11.0 K/9, 20.14 K/BB, 7.7 IP/GS, 3 SHO, 246 ERA+, 1.79 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 3–0, 2.01 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, 12.9 K/9, 32.00 K/BB, 7.4 IP/GS
Fourteen of Kershaw’s 15 starts this season have been quality, and all 14 of those have been Dodgers wins. In 12 of those starts, he has pitched at least seven innings and allowed no more than two runs (earned or unearned). Nine times he has reached double-digits in strikeouts in a game. All of those are major league-leading totals you can add to the italicized statistics above. Kershaw has also not walked multiple batters in any of his 15 starts this year and hasn’t issued a walk in consecutive starts since his first two games of the season. He did issue one walk in the three starts summarized by his last two week numbers above—one.
2. Madison Bumgarner, LHP, Giants (3)
Season Stats: 8–3, 1.85 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 10.1 K/9, 4.11 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 2 CG, 214 ERA+, 2.77 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 1–1, 1.69 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 5.33 K/BB, 8 IP/GS, 1 CG
3. Johnny Cueto, RHP, Giants
Season Stats: 11–1, 2.06 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 7.9 K/9, 4.57 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 193 ERA+, 3.50 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 2–0, 1.66 ERA, 0.74 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, 11.50 K/BB, 7.2 IP/GS
This would be a thrilling race if not for Kershaw, though his performance is thrilling in its own right. Among the pitchers who didn’t fit in this top three: Jake Arrieta (11–2, 1.74 ERA), Noah Syndergaard (8–2, 2.08 ERA, 9.17 K/BB), Jose Fernandez (9–3, 2.36 ERA, league-leading 12.8 K/9), Jon Lester (9–3, 2.06 ERA), Stephen Strasburg (10–0, 2.90 ERA), John Lackey (7–3, 2.78 ERA), Max Scherzer (11.4 K/9, 5.12 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS) and Julio Teheran (2.66 ERA, 0.91 WHIP).
To my eye, Bumgarner has clearly been the second-best pitcher in the league this season after Kershaw. Cueto, meanwhile, has thrown 11 1/3 more innings than Arrieta in the same number of starts and seven more than Scherzer, who leads that list of eight pitchers who missed this list in innings pitched. Deserved Run Average (DRA) dings Cueto for having faced weaker lineups and pitched the vast majority of his games in pitcher’s parks, the latter of which can also be said of Bumgarner. It’s difficult to discount 109 1/3 innings of a 2.06 ERA, however, and Bumgarner and Cueto still rank third and fifth in the league in ERA+ and rank third and second in the league in innings pitched.
Off the list: Noah Syndergaard (2)
Rookie of the Year
1. Michael Fulmer, RHP, Tigers (2)
Season Stats: 7–2, 2.40 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 8.5 K/9, 2.50 K/BB, 5.8 IP/GS, 172 ERA+, 3.28 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 1–1, 1.13 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 6.2 K/9, 1.38 K/BB, 5.3 IP/GS
Fulmer had a 33 1/3-inning scoreless streak snapped by a Salvador Perez solo home run last Friday; that streak was the longest by a rookie starter since Fernando Valenzuela incited Fernandomania with 35 consecutive scoreless innings in 1981. He has still not allowed more than a single run in any of his last seven starts, posting a 0.61 ERA over that span. The 23-year-old’s effectiveness has degraded some over that span, however, as his control has become a growing problem: He walked three men in six innings in consecutive starts on June 6 and 12, then walked four in the outing that ended his scoreless streak, getting pulled after throwing 100 pitches in just 5 1/3 innings. In his last turn, he got the hook with one out in the fifth after walking the leadoff man, then, after a groundout and a single, hitting consecutive batters to force in a run. As impressive as Fulmer’s scoreless streak was, this race is far from over.
2. Chris Devenski, RHP, Astros (3)
Season Stats: 0–2, 2.37 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, 3.31 K/BB, 3.1 IP/G, 174 ERA+, 3.22 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 0–0, 0.00 ERA, 0.30 WHIP, 5.4 K/9, 4.00 K/BB, 3.3 IP/G, 1 SV
A long reliever, Devenski isn’t in a role that typically results in Rookie of the Year votes, but he is fourth in the AL in innings pitched by a rookie (behind only Fulmer and Orioles starters Tyler Wilson and Mike Wright) and has been lights out when coming out of the bullpen. In 12 relief outings on the season totaling 29 2/3 innings and averaging 2.5 innings per appearance, Devenski has allowed a grand total of two runs, posting a 0.61 ERA and 5.40 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The 25-year-old has pitched well in three of his four starts as well, compiling a 2.55 ERA in those outings, two of which were quality. A disaster start against the Red Sox in Boston is the only blight on his record, and he has a 0.56 ERA and 0.63 WHIP in 16 relief innings since that one stumble.
3. Nomar Mazara, OF, Rangers (1)
Season Stats: .288/.333/.440 (102 OPS+), 11 HR, 30 RBIs, 30 R, 110 TB
Last Two Weeks: .167/.193/.241, 1 HR, 3 RBIs, 3 R
It’s probably just a coincidence, but Mazara’s recent slump coincided with the return of incumbent Shin-soo Choo from the disabled list, a move that pushed the 21-year-old to leftfield. Mazara is 5 for 37 (.135) since Choo’s return, though he does appear to be climbing out of that funk, having reached base by his own volition in each of the last four games, three of them via a hit. Nonetheless, the slump has brought his season line down near the league average, dropping him below the more exceptional performances of Fulmer and Devenski.
1. Corey Seager, SS, Dodgers (1)
Season Stats: .289/.348/.519 (135 OPS+), 16 HR, 37 RBIs, 47 R, 149 TB
Last Two Weeks: .315/.362/.500, 2 HR, 2 RBIs, 8 R
That slash line above is Seager playing at his expected level: He hit .307/.368/.523 in parts of four minor league seasons and, with his cup of coffee last September factored in, has now hit .201/.368/.530 across 429 major league plate appearances. Whether or not he will build on that performance in future seasons remains to be seen—he is only 22, after all—but there is no correction coming this season. This is who Seager is, and this award, barring injury, should be his.
2. Steven Matz, LHP, Mets (3)
Season Stats: 7–3, 2.74 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 4.87 K/BB, 6.0 IP/GS, 144 ERA+, 3.62 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 0–1, 4.50 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 6.00 K/BB, 6 IP/GS
Matz made two starts in the last week, one good (6 IP, 2 R), one bad (6 IP, 5 R), both against bad teams (the Braves and Brewers, respectively). As a result, the 25-year-old lefty is just barely keeping his nose out ahead of Kenta Maeda in this race.
3. Kenta Maeda, RHP, Dodgers
Season Stats: 6–4, 2.64 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 3.29 K/BB, 5.8 IP/GS, 146 ERA+, 3.74 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 1–0, 2.31 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 10.8 K/9, 3.50 K/BB, 5.8 IP/GS
Maeda has posted a 1.52 ERA over his last five starts to leapfrog the other two shortstops in this race (St. Louis’ Aledmys Diaz and Colorado’s Trevor Story) and pull just shy of even with Matz. It’s still not entirely clear what the Dodgers can expect from the 28-year-old Japanese import going forward. He posted a 0.36 ERA in his first four starts, a 6.08 ERA in the five after that, and then that 1.52 mark. One thing he has avoided so far has been an ugly disaster start: He hasn’t allowed more than four runs in any of his 14 starts on the season and has only once failed to complete five innings, going four frames in the exception. Thus, as up and down as his season has been, he has offered some level of consistency and reliability.
Off the list: Aledmys Diaz (2)