- In our latest check of the National League award races, Cody Bellinger maintains his perch atop the MVP standings, but compelling storylines are brewing in the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year races.
It’s been one month since our last awards watch for the National League, so it’s time to check back in. On one hand, Cody Bellinger (surprise!) is still the clear pick for MVP. On the other, Max Scherzer’s wild month has created a toss-up between him and Hyun-jin Ryu for Cy Young. And more…
(This piece will pick 10 MVP contenders, five Cy Young choices, and three Rookie of the Year options, just like the actual BBWAA ballots. The rookie cut-off is 130 at-bats or 50 innings from the season(s) prior. Stats in bold indicate National League leader; stats in italics and bold indicate MLB leader. We used Baseball-Reference's version of WAR below.)
1. Cody Bellinger, OF/1B, Dodgers (Last Month: 1)
.344/.441/.692 (356 PA), 27 HR, 68 RBI, 8 SB (5 CS), 53 BB, 193 OPS+, 6.6 WAR
Sure, Bellinger’s cooled off a little in the last month. But it’s a testament to just how good he’s been that he can afford to “cool off” while continuing to lead all of baseball in WAR, OPS+, and runs scored. And while he’s no longer on track to break Babe Ruth’s single-season record for WAR at 14.1… he’s on track to have history’s second-highest single-season WAR, at 13.0, which, you know, not bad.
2. Christian Yelich, OF, Brewers (Last Month: 2)
.328/.425/.713 (351 PA), 31 HR, 67 RBI, 18 SB (1 CS), 48 BB, 187 OPS+, 4.6 WAR
When Yelich won MVP in 2018, he finished with a stat line of .326/.402/.598—meaning that he’s currently hitting notably better than he did then. But in 2018, those numbers were the best in their respective categories in the National League. In 2019, they’re all behind Bellinger. Yelich does have the edge in home runs, which certainly holds some sway, but it doesn’t hold quite enough to dethrone a player whose season can reasonably be mentioned in the same sentence as Babe Ruth.
3. Pete Alonso, 1B, Mets (Last Month: Not Ranked)
.275/.370/.621 (359 PA), 28 HR, 64 RBI, 1 SB (0 CS), 37 BB, 162 OPS+, 3.7 WAR
Alonso’s scorching April (172 OPS+) faded into a comparatively lukewarm May (125 OPS+), costing him a spot on the last edition of this list. But in June, the rookie was hotter than ever before: 183 OPS+, among the very best hitting performances of the month. Overall, he now ranks third as a hitter in the NL, behind Bellinger and Yelich, and Baseball-Reference WAR has him third as an all-around player, too. Pete Alonso Busted His Slump, as it was recently put by FanGraphs. Seriously. (And it’s worth reiterating—his “slump” still involved him hitting above average!)
4. Nolan Arenado, 3B, Rockies (Last Month: 3)
.322/.387/.583 (367 PA), 20 HR, 67 RBI, 2 SB (2 CS), 130 OPS+, 3.6 WAR
Arenado got a bigger chunk of the All-Star vote for his position than any other player in either league. (Of course, this doesn’t account for the fact that outfielders functionally split the threefold vote for their position, neutralizing any threat here from Bellinger or Yelich or Mike Trout… but still! The honor goes to Arenado.) With his defense—considerably more to offer in this department than any of the three names above him on this list—and consistently solid hitting, that’s no surprise.
5. Ketel Marte, 2B/CF, Diamondbacks (Last Month: Not Ranked)
.308/.355/.565 (366 PA), 20 HR, 52 RBI, 4 SB (0 CS), 133 OPS+, 3.3 WAR
Okay, we’re getting interesting now. While Marte has always been fun to watch—speed! defense!—beyond this, he’d always been one to make you think, “man, he’d be so wildly fun to watch if he was [healthy / hitting / insert other skill here].” Now surpassed his personal best for WAR. Before the All-Star break.
6. Javier Baez, SS, Cubs (Last Month: 5)
.285/.322/.552 (357 PA), 21 HR, 57 RBI, 5 SB (5 CS), 119 OPS+, 3.2 WAR
Baez slumped in June, particularly early on, as he continued to recover from a heel injury—”slumping,” for him, meaning a simply average-ish hitting performance (96 OPS+ for the month) alongside his characteristically enthralling defense.
7. Josh Bell, 1B, Pirates (Last Month: 6)
.306/.380/.650 (366 PA), 25 HR, 78 RBI, 0 SB (1 CS), 164 OPS+, 2.7 WAR
Voters’ Con: Bell’s a fairly typical first baseman, one-dimensional more than anything else. Voters’ Pro: This one dimension is dingers, and, man, there are so many dingers.
8. Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, Padres (Last Month: Not Ranked)
.330/.399/.606 (213 PA), 11 HR, 28 RBI, 13 SB (3 CS), 166 OPS+, 3.0 WAR
Yes, the time that he’s missed due to injury means that he currently fails to meet the threshold needed for a qualified hitter… but if the rookie stays healthy going forward, he should pass the mark soon, and, anyway, this all just makes the fact that he’s been able to rack up these numbers even more impressive. (And, speaking of impressive, it can’t be restated often enough that he’s 20 years old.)
9. Ronald Acuña, Jr. OF, Braves (Last Month: Not Ranked)
.292/.375/.509 (390 PA), 20 HR, 52 RBI, 13 SB (3 CS), 124 OPS+, 3.0 WAR
The 2018 Rookie of the Year has markedly improved his defense this year, and June was his best month yet at the plate.
10. Kris Bryant, 3B, Cubs (Last Month: 7)
.285/.393/.528 (361 PA), 16 HR, 42 RBI, 1 SB (0 CS), 135 OPS+, 2.5 WAR
Bryant is now hitting roughly just as well as he did when he was named MVP in 2016, and if any concerns were somehow still lingering about his ability to bounce back from last year’s injury-influenced down season, those should be fully erased.
Just Missed The Cut
Paul DeJong, SS, Cardinals (Last Month: 4)
Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves (Last Month: 9)
1. Hyun-jin Ryu, Dodgers (Last Month: 1)
9-1 (16 GS), 1.83 ERA, 94 K, 7 BB, 10 HR, 229 ERA+, 3.3 WAR
Ryu is the only qualified starter in baseball with a sub-2.00 ERA, and, for that matter, the only one with a sub-2.35 ERA. He’s the only one with an ERA+ above 220, and, for that matter, the only one above 190. He’s the only one with a BB/9 under 0.7, and, for that matter, the only one under 1.1—which makes him the only starter with a strikeout-to-walk ratio above 13.0, and, for that matter, the only one with a strikeout-to-walk-ratio above 8.0.
Yes, he’s much closer to double the ratio of the pitcher in second place than he is to second place itself. By now, you should be getting the pitcher: Ryu doesn’t just lead league in so many of the stats that matter most to voters, he thoroughly dominates it. If you’re judging by most of these key leaderboards (ERA, ERA+, K/BB, even win-loss), there’s no question that your pick is Ryu...
2. Max Scherzer, Nationals (Last Month: Not Ranked)
8-5 (18 GS), 2.43 ERA, 170 K, 22 BB, 9 HR, 189 ERA+, 5.1 WAR
...but those leaderboards aren’t the be-all-end-all, and despite everything above, there’s a strong case to be made for Scherzer, too. Look at where Scherzer does lead—WAR, both at Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs—and start peeling back the layers. The two sites use different formulas to calculate their pitching WAR, but there are telling similarities behind two theories of pitching value. Baseball-Reference uses runs allowed for its base (rather than earned runs allowed) and then adjusts for the quality of a team’s defense. FanGraphs uses FIP, fielding independent pitching, which is exactly what it sounds like. Scherzer plays in front of a defense that’s struggled significantly; Ryu plays in front of the league’s very best. Strip that out? Scherzer’s been better. Decidedly better.
The 34-year-old has baseball’s lowest FIP, which makes him FanGraphs’ WAR leader not just among pitchers in the NL, but in all of MLB, and by a wide margin, too. So… what does this all mean? If voters had to pick right now, most would almost certainly go with Ryu—but there’s a very valid “true-level-of-individual-performance” case to be made for Scherzer, and if the two pitchers’ ERAs begin getting closer to their FIPs, watch out.
3. Mike Soroka, Braves (Last Month: Not Ranked)
9-1 (14 GS), 2.13 ERA, 67 K, 19 BB, 4 HR, 214 ERA+, 3.0 WAR
Mike Soroka juuuust misses the innings threshold to be a qualified starter, after a slightly delayed start to the season, which is the only factor that kept him off the last edition of this list. But Soroka’s performance-time gap with everyone else is smaller than it was last month, and it could look meaningfully smaller in just a start or two, and, beyond that, look at what he’s done! He’s having one of the best rookie pitching performances in recent memory—Soroka’s 2.13 ERA (214 ERA+) currently track above freshman luminaries like 1981 Fernando Valenzuela’s 2.48 (135 ERA+), 1976 Mark Fidrych’s 2.34 (159 ERA+), and 2013 Jose Fernandez’s 2.19 (176 ERA+)—and, beyond that, one of the best pitching performances this year.
4. Luis Castillo, Reds (Last Month: 3)
7-3 (17 GS), 2.47 ERA, 115 K, 52 BB, 188 ERA+, 3.3 WAR
Castillo has come down from his scorching start, but he still ranks near the top of most leaderboards—including, unfortunately for him, walk rate, which has been a problem for him throughout the year. But there’s an alternate take to be had here: It’s almost impressive that baseball’s walk leader can keep scoring down enough to make it through with a sub-2.50 ERA! Castillo’s left-on-base percentage is among the highest in the game; he’s bringing guys aboard, sure, but he’s been remarkably good at making sure that they don’t score.
5. Zack Greinke, Diamondbacks (Last Month: 5)
9-3 (18 GS), 2.90 ERA, 99 K, 15 BB, 154 ERA+, 3.4 WAR
Just Missed The Cut
Cole Hamels, Cubs (Last Month: Not Ranked)
Zach Davies, Brewers (Last Month: 2)
Rookie of the Year
Mike Soroka, SP, Braves (Last Month: 1)
There’s an excellent debate to be had between Soroka and Alonso, and it’s hard to definitively call for one over the other; much of it probably comes down to an individual voter’s framework for evaluating pitchers versus position players, which is what it is. Ultimately, Soroka is looking like a historically great rookie pitcher (see the comparisons above!), but health and innings management could easily become a concern here down the line, and if so—Alonso’s right next to him.
Pete Alonso, 1B, Mets (Last Month: 2)
Alonso has a real chance to break Aaron Judge’s rookie home run record of 52—or at least Mark McGwire’s second-place mark of 49.
Fernando Tatis, Jr., SS, Padres (Last Month: Just Missed The Cut)
If Tatis hadn’t gotten injured, maybe we wouldn’t even have to have the debate on Soroka-vs.-Alonso, because he could easily be dominating the conversation on his own!
Just Missed The Cut
Alex Verdugo, OF, Dodgers (Last Month: 3)
Bryan Reynolds, OF, Pirates (Last Month: Not Ranked)