Awards Watch: Midseason leaders for MVP, Cy Young and ROY races
For Awards Watch, this is just another Thursday, but since we're just four days shy of the All-Star break and past the halfway point of the season, the rankings below serve as my first-half awards, too. This week finds clarity and a new leader in the AL MVP race, a big gainer in the NL MVP race, two new faces in the Rookie of the Year rankings (one of whom traveled many miles to get here) and Clayton Kershaw playing the role of the hare in the NL Cy Young and MVP races.
Note: All stats are through Wed., July 6. 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. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (3)
Season Stats: .323/.425/.574 (172 OPS+), 18 HR, 56 RBIs, 62 R, 178 TB, 14 SB
Last Two Weeks: .468/.561/.830, 4 HR, 8 RBIs, 15 R, 4 SB (100%)
2. Josh Donaldson, 3B, Blue Jays (2)
Season Stats: .301/.413/.596 (165 OPS+), 22 HR, 60 RBIs, 77 R, 192 TB, 6 SB
Last Two Weeks: .415/.523/.755, 5 HR, 14 RBIs, 16 R, 1 SB (100%)
Two weeks ago, this race was a virtual tie between five players. That scrum has loosened since then, with Boston’s Xander Bogaerts slumping (.220/.339/.240 since June 23) and Baltimore's Manny Machado cooling off in July (.179/.233/.286). But while Jose Altuve has still been productive, Trout and Donaldson have done enough to move past the Astros’ second baseman, who had been my leader since mid-May.
Donaldson and Trout—who finished first and second, respectively, in last year’s AL MVP race—are both elite fielders and outstanding base runners. Just like last year, Donaldson has more impressive counting stats, but Trout leads in rate and adjusted stats. Donaldson has more home runs, RBIs, runs scored, total bases and walks; Trout has the higher batting average, on-base percentage, OPS+ and Wins Above Replacement.
The difference is the context in which they hit. Donaldson is in a more hitter-friendly ballpark and hits one spot higher (second, to Trout’s third) in a more productive lineup that puts more men on base in front of him—one that drives him in more often and turns over more often to give him more plate appearances. Both men have played in 85 games, starting 84 of them. Donaldson has come to the plate 386 times to Trout’s 369 and has hit with 417 men on base to Trout’s 341. Adjust for that context, and you find that Trout, not Donaldson, has been the better hitter this season. And while both are great all-around players, Trout is ultimately better both in the field and on the bases, at least this season, giving him a clear edge here and setting up what should remain a compelling race in the second half.
3. Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros (1)
Season Stats: .350/.422/.560 (164 OPS+), 14 HR, 49 RBIs, 64 R, 187 TB, 22 SB
Last Two Weeks: .392/.407/.608, 2 HR, 8 RBIs, 13 R, 4 SB (80%)
Altuve’s mistake was to post an OPS south of 1.200 over the last two weeks. He’s also an inferior fielder to Trout and Donaldson, which is why he ranks below the latter two despite their similar OPS+ numbers and Altuve’s significant edge in stolen bases. Altuve is still a major factor in this race, however, and given recent history—with the Angels last in their division and the Blue Jays and Astros battling for the wild-card—this race may ultimately come down to him and Donaldson, even if Trout is once again the best player in the league and the most deserving of the award.
1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (1)
Season Stats: 11–2, 1.79 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, 10.8 K/9, 16.11 K/BB, 7.6 IP/GS, 3 SHO, 220 ERA+, 1.92 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 1 GS, 0–1, 6 IP, 9 H, 4 R, 2 BB, 4 K
All Kershaw has done in the last two weeks is make his second-worst start of the year, on June 26 in Pittsburgh, and then hit the disabled list with a back injury. That he’s still not only leading this race but also doing so comfortably should tell you just how great his first half was, as well as how relatively underwhelming his competition has been.
2. Kris Bryant, 3B, Cubs
Season Stats: .278/.369/.574 (148 OPS+), 25 HR, 64 RBIs, 68 R, 182 TB
Last Two Weeks: .333/.419/.863, 8 HR, 16 RBIs, 16 R
Bryant has hit 10 home runs in his last 19 games and eight in his last 13, an outburst spiked by his five-hit, three-homer performance in the Cubs’ 11–8 win over the Reds on June 27. But while he may be the best power hitter in baseball, but he is plenty valuable outside the batter’s box as well. Bryant is a far better base runner than his three steals (in five attempts) suggest, and over his past 13 games, he has started at four different positions (third base, leftfield, rightfield and first base), often switching positions mid-game—he played three different positions in his three-homer game. And while he isn’t an elite fielder, he’s above average at all four of those spots. That defensive utility adds significantly to his value in a way that is not fully captured by WAR, which rates him as the best non-Kershaw player in the NL this season.
3. Matt Carpenter, 2B/3B, Cardinals (3)
Season Stats: .298/.420/.568 (161 OPS+), 14 HR, 53 RBIs, 56 R, 162 TB, 5 3B
Last Two Weeks: .311/.436/.622, 3 HR, 8 RBIs, 8 R
Defensive versatility also enhances Carpenter’s value, as he shifted from third base to second to accommodate the return of regular shortstop Jhonny Peralta and the breakout performance of rookie infielder Aledmys Diaz. That value is on top of Carpenter leading the league in OPS+ and on-base percentage. Carpenter is below average at both of those positions, however, and his 30-year-old legs aren’t as spry as the 24-year-old Bryant’s on the bases.
That leaves Carpenter behind the Cubs' surging sophomore, but his bat and his ability to move around the diamond keep him ahead of surging Dodgers rookie shortstop Corey Seager (.414/.468/.700 since June 18), Diamondbacks third baseman Jake Lamb (.388/.440/.940 with 8 home runs since June 17), Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo (.353/.471/.691 since June 15), Padres first baseman Wil Myers (.375/.510/.725 in his last 11 games) and slumping Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado (.213/.245/.447 in his last 11 games). An oblique injury suffered Wednesday night, however, has landed Carpenter on the disabled list (and cost him a spot on the NL's All-Star Game roster, too), and it could drop him behind that aforementioned group by the next time I check in on this race.
Off the list: Nolan Arenado (2)
1. Chris Sale, LHP, White Sox (1)
Season Stats: 14–2, 2.93 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 8.9 K/9, 4.92 K/BB, 7.1 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO, 141 ERA+, 2.45 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 2 GS, 2–0, 15 IP, 11 H, 7 R, 6 ER, 3 BB, 16 K, 3 HR
This race remains underwhelming. There hasn’t been a truly dominant starter in the AL this season, and the field as a whole is thin; for proof, note that nine of the 14 pitchers selected to the AL All-Star team on Tuesday were relievers. Cleveland’s Danny Salazar leads the league in ERA and ERA+ but has walked four men per nine innings, resulting in a 3.31 FIP. Boston’s David Price and Tampa Bay’s Chris Archer have a ton of strikeouts, but a 4.64 and 4.50 ERA, respectively. The only pitcher in the league with a FIP below 3.20 is the Indians’ Corey Kluber, who has excellent peripherals but a 3.79 ERA.
Sale’s strikeout rate is way down from last year's major league-leading 11.8 per nine, and his home-run rate is at a career high 1.1 per nine. Still, he leads the league in innings pitched, complete games and WHIP and is third in strikeout-to-walk ratio behind Cleveland’s Josh Tomlin (1.9 home runs per nine and a 4.93 FIP) and Price. He also leads the AL in Baseball Prospectus’ Deserved Run Average, which attempts to adjust for nearly every outside factor—from ballpark to opposing lineup to catcher to umpire to weather—to determine how many runs (both earned and unearned) per nine innings deserved to be charged to the pitcher in question. In this weak field, Sale offers the best combination of quantity and quality, but the race is open enough that a strong second half could hand the award to someone who may not even be on the radar screen right now.
2. Danny Salazar, RHP, Indians
Season Stats: 10–3, 2.36 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 10.3 K/9, 2.57 K/BB, 6.2 IP/GS, 197 ERA+, 2.69 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 3 GS, 2–0, 18 1/3 IP, 17 H, 6 R, 6 BB, 17 K, 2 HR
Walks have really been Salazar’s only shortcoming this season, but they have a wide-reaching impact, undermining his strikeout-to-walk ratio and WHIP and his ability to pitch deep into games, thus limiting his innings. With 99 frames in 16 starts, he’s the only pitcher considered for this list who has yet to reach 100 on the season. Sale, meanwhile, has thrown 21 more innings in just one more start. Consuming innings is a major part of a pitcher’s value, and Salazar has come up short thus far. Still, DRA tells us that his league-leading ERA is no fluke, earning him a return to the list this week.
3. Jose Quintana, LHP, White Sox
Season Stats: 6–8, 3.06 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 3.70 K/BB, 6.6 IP/GS, 134 ERA+, 2.56 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 1–1, 2 GS, 14 IP, 8 H, 5 R, 3 BB, 12 K, 3 HR
I always ignore won-loss records when evaluating pitchers, listing them in their stat lines only out of custom. Given that Quintana and his 6–8 record are here over Toronto’s Aaron Sanchez (9–1), Texas’ Cole Hamels (9–2) and Boston’s Steven Wright (10–5), however, a little explanation might be in order. Quintana has received just 2.9 runs per start from his offense this season, dead last among qualified AL starters. By comparison, Salazar (6.0), Sanchez (5.5), Wright (5.2), Sale (4.9) and Hamels (4.7) have all gotten much more support. Meanwhile, Quintana is second in the league in DRA, second in FIP (3.21), has a significantly better strikeout-to-walk ratio than every other pitcher just mentioned except Sale and is in the top 10 in the league in innings pitched.
Off the list: Steven Wright (2), Marco Estrada (3)
1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (1)
Season Stats: 11–2, 1.79 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, 10.8 K/9, 16.11 K/BB, 7.6 IP/GS, 3 SHO, 220 ERA+, 1.92 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 1 GS, 0–1, 6 IP, 9 H, 4 R, 2 BB, 4 K
As mentioned in the MVP discussion, Kershaw made just one start in the last two weeks before landing on the disabled list, and it tied his shortest of the season at just six innings. Ten days have passed since then, and he’s still second in the majors in innings pitched, behind Giants workhorse Johnny Cueto. That’s a good indication of how large Kershaw’s lead was in this race, and it remains significant.
The Dodgers haven’t yet put a timetable on Kershaw’s return from what was diagnosed as a mild disc herniation in his lower back, but he played catch on Wednesday and is said to be ahead of schedule. The best-case scenario is that he returns in late July after missing roughly a month of the season. That would not torpedo his awards chances: Kershaw missed all of April in 2014 due to a strained muscle behind his left shoulder and still won both the NL Cy Young and MVP awards. He was so good over the first three months of this season that a similar scenario could play out this year.
2. Madison Bumgarner, LHP, Giants (2)
Season Stats: 9–4, 2.09 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 9.8 K/9, 4.26 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS, 2 CG, 191 ERA+, 2.76 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 3 GS, 1–1, 18 2/3 IP, 16 H, 7 R, 3 BB, 17 K, 3 HR
Unlike the Cy Young race in the AL, the NL is thick with outstanding performances that stand out as award-quality seasons. It’s almost embarrassing to leave the likes of Jake Arrieta, Jose Fernandez, Stephen Strasburg, Noah Syndergaard and Julio Teheran off this list, but all of them fall short of the top two men in the Giants’ rotation due to one thing: the amount of innings pitched.
Remember when Bumgarner gave up 14 runs and four home runs in his first three starts of the season and there were questions about whether or not his heavy workloads in recent seasons (particularly in the 2014 postseason) had finally caught up to him? Since then, he has posted a 1.72 ERA in 15 starts, allowing just eight more home runs. Entering Thursday’s action, he is tied for third in the majors in innings pitched with the Nationals’ Max Scherzer (who has a 132 ERA+), trailing only Cueto and Kershaw.
3. Johnny Cueto, RHP, Giants (3)
Season Stats: 13–1, 2.47 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 7.9 K/9, 4.79 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS, 4 CG, 2 SHO, 162 ERA+, 3.64 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 3 GS, 2–0, 22 IP, 20 H, 11 R, 3 BB, 19 K, 3 HR
Cueto looked like he might fall off this list after allowing six runs in six innings against the Phillies on June 26, then allowing four runs in seven innings in Arizona in his next start. He bounced back by tossing a complete game against the Rockies on Wednesday night, allowing just one run on five singles and a walk and striking out eight. That was his major league-best fourth complete game of the season and pushed his innings total to a major league-leading 131 1/3; no other pitcher who has made as many starts (18) as he has this season has thrown more than 120.
While Cueto is here more because of the quantity of his pitching than the quality, he is fourth in the league in FIP, WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio, sixth in ERA+ and in the top three in WAR. DRA thinks he’s had a comparatively easy schedule, both in terms of opponents and ballparks, and docks him for it. Those who agree and prefer Arrieta or Strasburg because of their won-loss records most likely didn’t read this far.
Rookie of the Year
1. Michael Fulmer, RHP, Tigers (1)
Season Stats: 9–2, 2.11 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 8.5 K/9, 2.67 K/BB, 5.9 IP/GS, 200 ERA+, 2.95 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 2 GS, 2–0, 13 IP, 7 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 12 K
Over his last nine starts, Fulmer has allowed just four earned runs for a 0.63 ERA. He has had a great deal of luck on balls in play in that time (.182 BABIP), but he has also turned in the longest scoreless streak by a rookie starter since Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 (33 1/3 innings, compared to Valenzuela's 35) and tied the longest streak of starts with one or fewer runs allowed, regardless of innings pitched, since Bob Gibson in '68 (eight, to Gibson’s 11).
Both of those streaks are over, but they helped make Fulmer one of the top stories of the first half and by far the best rookie in the AL despite his late arrival (April 29) and his slow start (6.52 ERA in his first four starts).
2. Chris Devenski, RHP, Astros (2)
Season Stats: 0–2, 2.34 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 7.2 K/9, 3.29 K/BB, 2.6 IP/G, 179 ERA+, 3.52 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 6 G, 8 1/3 IP, 10 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 3 K
It’s surprising that the Astros’ unheralded long reliever has stuck around this long in the Rookie of the Year race, but he continues to be a valuable innings eater out of the Houston bullpen. Devenski has stranded all 15 of his inherited runners this season and been charged with a run in just three of his 18 relief appearances, posting a 0.95 ERA and averaging more than two innings per appearance in working out of the bullpen.
3. Tyler Naquin, CF, Indians
Season Stats: .320/.383/.578 (144 OPS+), 7 HR, 19 RBIs, 24 R
Last Two Weeks: .325/.400/.650, 2 HR, 5 RBIs, 6 R
Selected out of Texas A&M with the 15th pick in the 2012 draft, the lefty-hitting Naquin won a job this spring as the long side of a centerfield platoon with Rajai Davis. He was a consistent .300 hitter in that role for the first month of the season but drew just one walk and hit for little power before the returns of Lonnie Chisenhall and Michael Brantley from the disabled list squeezed him down to Triple A. Recalled when Marlon Byrd’s performance-enhancing drug suspension took effect, Naquin resumed his platoon role and has since hit .321/.412/.702 in 99 plate appearances, proving to be one of the stars of Cleveland’s franchise-record 14-game winning streak.
The 25-year-old Naquin is a subpar fielder in center, and his platoon role and May demotion have limited his playing time, but he leads all major league rookies with 100 or more plate appearances in OPS and OPS+. He could yet pose a threat to Fulmer in the second half.
Off the list: Nomar Mazara (3)
1. Corey Seager, SS, Dodgers (1)
Season Stats: .303/.363/.537 (142 OPS+), 17 HR, 41 RBIs, 59 R, 181 TB
Last Two Weeks: .380/.446/.640, 1 HR, 4 RBIs, 12 R
Seager didn’t make my top three for NL MVP, but he’s easily in the top 10 in that race and possibly in the top five. He’s tied for tenth in the league in OPS+, is an above-average fielder at the most important defensive position behind the pitcher and leads all major league rookies in plate appearances by 35 over Rockies shortstop Trevor Story. This race isn’t as close as it looks.
2. Aledmys Diaz, SS, Cardinals
Season Stats: .319/.382/.534 (142 OPS+), 12 HR, 44 RBIs, 54 R, 149 TB
Last Two Weeks: .378/.500/.784, 3 HR, 9 RBIs, 7 R
Diaz has reversed a long decline at the plate by hitting .417/.533/.792 over his last 13 games, collecting 11 walks and seeing half of his 20 hits go for extra bases, including four home runs. That has brought him up into a tie with Seager in OPS+, but Diaz is inferior defensively and has made nearly 60 fewer plate appearances on the season, due in part to his having to earn the starting shortstop job on the fly in April. Those two things prevent the 25-year-old Diaz from being a real threat to the 22-year-old Seager for now, but he’s certainly within striking distance heading into the second half.
3. Junior Guerra, RHP, Brewers
Season Stats: 6–1, 2.93 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 7.9 K/9, 2.91 K/BB, 6.4 IP/GS, 145 ERA+, 3.12 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 2 GS, 2–0, 15 1/3 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 4 BB, 14 K
Guerra makes this list in large part due to his performance in his last three starts. Each of those lasted at least seven innings and included at least seven strikeouts, no more than five hits, two walks and six total base runners, and saw him allow a total of two runs in 22 1/3 innings as he defeated the Athletics, Dodgers and Nationals and outdueled Max Scherzer in a 1–0 Brewers win. That’s not to say he hadn’t been pitching well before that: Guerra had a 3.19 ERA in the seven starts prior to his last three and struck out 11 Cubs in a 5–3 Brewers win on May 19.
Far more interesting than any of that, however, is just how long it took Guerra to make it to this point. Born in Venezuela in 1985, Guerra was signed by the Braves at 16 in 2001 but didn’t pitch in the United States until his age-21 season in '06. Released at the end of spring training in 2007, he sat out that season before signing a minor league deal with the Mets that October. He pitched far better in the low minors for the Mets in 2008, but a performance-enhancing drug suspension prompted New York to release him the next June, after which his primary baseball outlet for several seasons was the Venezuelan Winter League.
Guerra converted to starting while pitching in Spain in 2010, caught on with the Wichita Wingnuts of the independent American Association in '11, made five starts in the Mexican League in '12, returned to Wichita in '13 and pitched in Italy in '14. In total, he spent six years out of affiliated baseball, pitching in five countries on three continents, before the White Sox, who were impressed with his work as a starter in Venezuela, signed him to a minor league deal in October 2014.
A 30-year-old who had never pitched above high A ball, Guerra impressed enough as a swing man in Double and Triple A last year to get a three-game stint in the majors in mid-June, after which he returned to Triple A, where he soon took over as the Charlotte Knights’ closer. Claimed off waivers by the Brewers last October, Guerra made four starts in Triple A in April before getting an extended look in the rebuilding Brewers’ rotation. Now, at the age of 31, he’s a Rookie of the Year candidate in the major leagues. I don’t expect him to remain on this list for very long, but his being here at all is a remarkable achievement.
Off the list: Steven Matz (2), Kenta Maeda (3)