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  • Both the AL and NL MVP races are as tight as they've ever been. Here is why Nolan Arenado and Jose Altuve get the edge this season while Clayton Kershaw and Corey Kluber are the Cy Young winners.
By Tom Verducci
September 26, 2017

Where has all the drama gone in the eight major awards as voted by the Baseball Writers Association of America? Over the past four years, the 32 winners grabbed an average of 81% of the first-place votes, with an increased share three consecutive years, even with the narrow AL Cy Young Award win by Rick Porcello last year.

Landslides rule. Is the electorate more enlightened? Is it groupthink? Is it more transparency? Is it confirmation bias (favorites get broadly identified, like the “popularity” bar on iTunes that sells more of what’s popular because it’s been branded as such)?

Maybe this year will be different. With only five days left in a 183-day season, we have the potential for two or more cliffhangers this year. No race is more crowded than the one for National League Most Valuable Player. So as I give you my ballots—subject to change, and one of which will be an official BBWAA award ballot to be identified later—I must start with most unpredictable one of all. (Statistics entering Monday.)

G Flume/Getty Images

1. Nolan Arenado, Rockies

2. Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks

3. Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins

4. Joey Votto, Reds

5. Bryce Harper, Nationals

6. Charlie Blackmon, Rockies

7. Cody Bellinger, Dodgers

8. Anthony Rizzo, Cubs

9. Anthony Rendon, Nationals

10. Kris Bryant, Cubs

In a very deep class, and one in which as many as a half dozen may get first-place votes, there is not one “right” answer. Let’s start from the bottom why some great candidates probably won’t win.

Bryant: Not enough clutch hitting. He hit .241 with runners in scoring position, including .212 with two outs.

Rendon: By the time Harper, his teammate, was hurt, the division was salted away (Washington was up by 14 ½ games) and Harper was the presumptive MVP.

Rizzo: Relatively quiet September (one homer, 12 RBI).

Bellinger: Could have easily squeezed teammate Justin Turner in here.

Blackmon: Outstanding numbers (most total bases ever by a leadoff hitter), but they were driven by huge home/road splits. How huge? Blackmon’s home OPS (1.243) is the 15th greatest of all time, and the greatest since Larry Walker in 2001 (in Colorado), which was the greatest since … Larry Walker in 1999 (in Colorado).

Blackmon’s road OPS (.784) ranked 101st this year, below guys like Jose Reyes, Denard Span and Tucker Barnhart. Coors Field was so friendly to him that his batting average on balls in play was 72 points higher at home.

Harper: He would have been MVP, carrying the Nationals to a big lead, but because the owners and players haven’t gotten around to making bases safer (too hard and too slick), he was felled by an accidental workplace injury.

Votto: The Reds fell to last place way back on June 13, and stayed there ever since. That’s not his fault, but context matters in baseball. It’s why we care more about pennant race games, even though wins in September count the same as wins in April. It’s why every player goes to spring training thinking about winning the World Series—to play with something on the line. Votto didn’t have a consequential plate appearance for more than half the season. Hank Aaron Award to Votto as the best hitter? Great. Players’ Choice Award for player of the year? Fantastic. Just not MVP, not when we have a slew of candidates who took at-bats with consequences down the stretch.

Stanton: He kept the Marlins relevant for five months and is making a run at the first 60-homer season since 1961 that can’t be connected to PEDs. He leads the league in slugging and adjusted OPS. Alas, his shot at winning the award withered with a .224 September, his inability to hit relief pitching (.206 with .407 slugging) and lukewarm numbers with runners in scoring position (.250, with more strikeouts than hits).

Now we’re left with the best of the best, Goldschmidt and Arenado. Goldschmidt took more plate appearances with runners in scoring position than anybody else in baseball (199). But he did hit .374 in those spots. He’s the first player in six years with 120 RBI and 18 stolen bases—and only the fifth first baseman with that combination.

Arenado (35, 126) and Goldschmidt (36, 120) have nearly identical home run and RBI totals. Goldschmidt has more runs and a better adjusted OPS. Arenado has more hits and total bases. It’s very close.

How to decide? Arenado gets the edge because he was much better in September as each team tried to nail down a playoff spot (by OPS, .975-.663), is one of the game’s top defensive infielders, and as good as Goldschmidt was in the clutch, Arenado was even better. He hit .388 with RISP, second only to Daniel Murphy, with an MLB-best 1.266 OPS in those spots, the highest such number since Miguel Cabrera in 2013 (1.311). That is phenomenal.

Oh, yes, there is this, too: this Rockie actually hit more home runs on the road than at home. His road OPS was a respectable .883, 17th best in the league.

Bob Levey/Getty Images

1. Jose Altuve, Astros

2. Aaron Judge, Yankees

3. Francisco Lindor, Indians

4. Mike Trout, Angels

5. Jose Ramirez, Indians

6. Craig Kimbrel, Red Sox

7. Jonathan Schoop, Orioles

8. Andrelton Simmons, Angels

9. Mookie Betts, Red Sox

10. Nelson Cruz, Mariners

Judge closed the gap with a monster September, but it’s not quite enough to seize the award from Altuve, who has been remarkably consistent (.968 OPS in first half, .967 in second half) and helped win games in so many ways. Altuve has stolen 32 bases while slugging .555—thresholds reached by only a handful of other players in the past 94 years (Mike Trout, Alex Rodriguez, Rickey Henderson, Jose Canseco and Paul Molitor).

Said Houston hitting coach Dave Hudgens, “He’s the only player I’ve been around who I think sometimes can will himself to get a hit.”

The numbers help define such resourcefulness. Check out these comparisons between Altuve and Judge (MLB ranking based on minimum 30 PA):

Category

Altuve (MLB Rank)

Judge (MLB Rank)

Late & Close

.448 (1st)

.215 (186th)

Vs. Relievers

.369 (2nd)

.261 (171st)

High Leverage

.337 (29th)

.211 (299th)

RISP

.310 (79th)

.259 (204th)

Two Outs, RISP

.235 (160th)

.219 (188th)

Of course, Altuve is a great contact hitter who is going to out-shine Judge, a swing-and-miss power hitter, in most any batting average splits. Judge changes games with one swing—and often early in the game. This is meant not to knock Judge, but to show how difficult an out Altuve has been.

This vote will not be unanimous. This will be much closer than how it looked one month ago. Judge is worthy of his own first-place votes. Even in his worst month, August, he took his walks and posted a .353 OBP. He reached base more times this year than Altuve. And with massive home/road splits, he hit more home runs in the Bronx (31) than any Yankee in history, trailing only Babe Ruth’s 32 homers at Manhattan’s Polo Grounds in 1921 as the most ever at home by a Yankee.

Altuve, by the way, had the highest OPS on the road of any major leaguer.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

1. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers

2. Max Scherzer, Nationals

3. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals

4. Gio Gonzalez, Nationals

5. Kenley Jansen, Dodgers

If Kershaw does win this award, remember the night of Sept. 13 in Washington. Scherzer, in consultation with manager Dusty Baker, determined before the game against the Braves that he wanted to run up his pitch count well past 100 to get ready for the playoffs. The game was tied at two when Scherzer, at 97 pitches, went back to the mound for the seventh instead of calling it a night.

Thusly went the fateful inning for Scherzer: walk, walk, walk, single, intentional walk. All five runners scored, including the three inherited runners against Brandon Kintzler, who gave up a grand slam. That inning alone is responsible for Scherzer’s ERA being 2.55 instead of 2.34, and pushing the difference in ERA between him and Kershaw from 0.13 to 0.34. Does that difference matter? In a race this close, yes.

Kershaw leads the league not only in ERA, but also in wins (18), strikeout to walk rate (6.67) and adjusted ERA (189).

Scherzer leads in strikeouts (263), WHIP (.907) and bWAR (6.9).

The key question is this: does a four-start, 26-inning edge in volume for Scherzer override the quality of Kershaw?

Let’s examine it through the modern view of starting pitching. With the rise of relief pitching, two factors drive starting pitching more than anything else these days: facing lineups for a third or fourth time (nothing influences managers’ game management more than when a starter begins to see the lineup for a third time; starters who can be trusted that deep into a game are golden) and, while individual wins have been devalued, “giving my team a chance to win”.

So first let’s see how the top candidates do in making life easier on a manager:

Batters Faced Third or Fourth Time

 

Player

PA

PA/G

AVG

HR

K/BB

Scherzer

243

8.1

.168

7

3.61

Gonzalez

240

8.0

.223

6

3.00

Kershaw

205

7.9

.237

10

6.67

Strasburg

198

7.3

.194

3

3.92

Edge: Scherzer, when it comes to forestalling bullpen work and keeping his stuff (that disaster with the Braves notwithstanding).

If “giving my team a chance to win” is more important these days than the individual win, who gets the edge there? The answer is Kershaw.

Team Record in Starts

 

Player

W-L

Winning Percentage

Kershaw

22–4

.846

Strasburg

21–6

.778

Scherzer

21–9

.700

Gonzalez

18–12

.600

Edge: Kershaw. Okay, fine, but who are you beating when you take the mound? Not all opponents are created equal. So let’s see how many times the top candidates faced a winning team, and examine their individual records in those games.

Vs. Winning Teams

 

Player

Games Started

W-L

ERA

Kershaw

12

7–2

2.50

Scherzer

8

5–1

1.84

Gonzalez

8

3–3

2.66

Strasburg

5

2–1

1.84

(What stands out is that Strasburg has faced losing teams in 22 of his 27 starts, but pitched well in his rare starts against good teams.)

There is one more major tipping point we should examine when it comes to which team wins and loses a baseball game, and it’s the most important: the fourth run. Given three runs of support or less, a pitcher’s team wins only 20 percent of the time. But once you add the fourth run, the win percentage more than triples to 72 percent.

So let’s see how the top candidates fare in terms of their teams’ winning percentage in games they are not supposed to win (with three runs or less) and how they do in the games they should win.

Team Record in Starts According to Run Support

 

Player

Three Runs or Less

Four Runs or Less

Kershaw

7–4

15–0

Strasburg

7–5

14–1

Scherzer

6–5

15–4

Gonzalez

4–9

14–3

Numbers like this won’t totally isolate the starting pitcher. A bullpen blowup might undo a good start. But over six months, as the sample size grows and starts to reduce the noise, some generalizations start to surface.

This is a razor-thin race between Scherzer and Kershaw. If you like pure stuff—striking people out, not giving up hits, holding stuff deep into a game—Scherzer is your Cy Young Award winner.

If you like excellence within the context of the competition and the old reliable of ERA, Kershaw is your man. Among the top candidates, Kershaw is the best at winning tough pitchers’ duels, the best at winning the games his team was supposed to win, the best at beating winning teams, and the best, by a clear margin, in ERA.

Oh, and polling stations remain open; Kershaw and Scherzer have one more start remaining.

Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

1. Corey Kluber, Indians

2. Chris Sale, Red Sox

3. Craig Kimbrel, Red Sox

4. Luis Severino, Yankees

5. Justin Verlander, Astros

Take every type of pitch thrown with any regularity (at least 100 at-bats) by every starting pitcher in the major leagues. Now guess which of the many different pitches by the many different pitchers is the toughest to hit. The answer should be obvious to anybody who has watched Corey Kluber pitch even a little bit. The difficulty is in actually naming the most unhittable pitch in baseball. Pitch FX calls it a slider. StatCast calls it a curveball. Kluber calls it neither.

“It’s a breaking ball,” Kluber said.

It’s an alien—like nothing else catalogued by humankind. Kluber has thrown 769 aliens this year and given up 23 hits—that’s one hit for every 33 breaking balls he throws. Hitters have batted .096 against it, the lowest average against any pitch by any starting pitcher.

(Oh, and if you’re wondering which reliever has the world’s nastiest pitch, that would be Kluber’s teammate, Andrew Miller, who throws a slider that has held hitters to a .083 batting average. All the more amazing that in World Series Game 7 last year the Cubs built a 6-3 by pounding Kluber and Miller for a .384 batting average, with 10 hits in 26 at-bats.)

Kluber leads the league in ERA, wins, winning percentage, WHIP, walks per nine innings, bWAR and adjusted ERA.

Sale is your strikeout king, and also has thrown the most innings, posted the best strikeout-to-walk rate and compiled the lowest FIP. He would be a great choice in almost any other year. Alas, his ERA is almost half a run higher than what Kluber has posted (2.27), thanks to Kluber’s teammates. Sale posted a 14.63 ERA in two starts against Cleveland, and a 2.34 ERA against the rest of baseball.

Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

1. Cody Bellinger, Dodgers

2. Josh Bell, Pirates

3. Paul DeJong, Cardinals

4. Kyle Freeland, Rockies

5. Rhys Hoskins, Phillies

Bellinger, who turned 22 in July, hit more home runs (39) in his debut season than any of the 19,178 players before him. (Aaron Judge hit four homers in his debut season, last year.) Bellinger also hit more homers than any player in their age 21 season or younger except Hall of Famers Mel Ott (42 in 1929) and Eddie Mathews (47 in 1953).

He played first base and all three outfield positions, started games in every batting order position but ninth, and helped Los Angeles to a 28–5 record in games when he hit a home run. Others deserving mention include German Marquez, Luke Weaver, Manny Margot and Ian Happ.

Adam Hunger/Getty Images

1. Aaron Judge, Yankees

2. Andrew Benintendi, Red Sox

3. Trey Mancini, Orioles

4. Yuri Gurriel, Astros

5. Matt Olson, Athletics

In one of the greatest rookie seasons ever, and with six games to go, Judge broke Mark McGwire’s rookie record for homers (50), broke Ted Williams’ (or Les Fleming’s, depending on your preferred records) rookie record for walks (120), and joined Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle as the only players (not just rookies) to lead their league outright in three true outcomes (homers, walks, strikeouts) and runs. Judge will win the award unanimously, while teammates Jordan Montgomery and Chad Green get squeezed off my ballot packed with solid choices.

Sarah Sachs/Arizona Diamondbacks/Getty Images

1. Torey Lovullo, Diamondbacks

2. Bud Black, Rockies

3. Craig Counsell, Brewers

Lovullo, the first-year manager, and Mike Hazen, the first-year GM, brought their Boston-based run prevention wisdom to the desert. They non-tendered bat-first catcher Welington Castillo, replaced him with defense-first catchers Chris Iannetta and Jeff Mathis, hired Dan Haren to help with game-planning pitching strategies, and traded shortstop Jean Segura for starting pitcher Taijuan Walker. The emphasis on run prevention earned Arizona a wild card home game and an improvement of at least 21 wins.

Last year the Diamondbacks posted a franchise-worst 5.09 ERA. This year? A franchise-best 3.67 mark.

Under Lovullo, Arizona also is one of the best baserunning teams in baseball. They rank second in taking the extra base (45%) while making the fewest outs on the bases (35).

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

1. Paul Molitor, Twins

2. Terry Francona, Indians

3. A.J. Hinch, Astros

No team has ever reached the playoff the year losing 100 games. Molitor’s Twins are headed there after losing 103 games last year. They’ve done it despite a pitching staff that strikes out fewer batters than any team except Texas, and despite using 16 starting pitchers, a franchise record and an ensemble that would tie the 2015 Dodgers for the most ever by a playoff team. Not bad for a team that traded its closer and a veteran starting pitcher in July, thinking a postseason berth was unlikely.

Minnesota went 30–18 after Aug. 5. Only the Indians and Red Sox played better down the stretch in the AL. Okay, playing about a third of the schedule in that run against the two worst teams in the league, Chicago and Detroit, helped boost the Twins. They went 11–4 against those two teams in that span, with three more games remaining against the Tigers.

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