Awards season is here, which means that it’s time for (what else) one final round of SI’s MLB Awards Watch. Check out just how far we’ve come from the first edition of this series (remember the hot start of erstwhile MVP candidate Paul deJong?), and brush up on the best bets for the whole slate.
This piece picks 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, Los Angeles Dodgers (Last Ballot: No. 2)
.305/.406/.629 (661 PA), 47 HR, 115 RBI, 95 BB, 15 SB (5 CS), 169 OPS+, 9.0 WAR
An MVP race that has been wildly close all year remains so down to the end. There’s a fair case to be made for either Bellinger or Christian Yelich, and either would be a perfectly valid choice. Since we have to pick one, however... it's Bellinger, thanks to his defense and additional playing time. Yes, Yelich has a narrow-but-clear lead in most key statistics at the plate. But turn your attention to everything else.
This is an easy defensive comparison, since the two play the same position, and no matter which metric or whose eye test you’d like to try, Bellinger should come out on top—with a lead that’s big enough to cover the gap on offense. As a result, he has a notable leg up in not only Baseball-Reference WAR, but also Baseball Prospectus’ WARP (8.0 wins to 6.5), and he’s tied with Yelich in FanGraphs’ WAR (7.8) . Throw in some of the smaller narrative factors here—an entire season of good health, the fact that he was the best player on the NL's best regular-season team, the benefit of being a more well-rounded ballplayer—and Bellinger’s case is as solid as it can possibly be against one as strong as Yelich’s.
2. Christian Yelich, OF, Milwaukee Brewers (Last Ballot: No. 1)
.329/.429/671 (580 PA), 44 HR, 97 RBI, 80 BB, 30 SB (2 CS), 179 OPS+, 7.1 WAR
And then there’s Yelich, who, had he not cut his season short by fracturing his kneecap in September, may have easily landed in the top spot (and who may still land in the top spot). To build his case, just look at all the black ink in his stat line above: Yelich was, without a doubt, the best hitter in the National League. And while his injury certainly doesn’t help him here, it doesn’t throw him out of the running; 580 PA is on the low side for an MVP, but it’s definitely not unheard of. Essentially, take the performance that won him MVP in 2018, cut it just a tad short, make it even better, and you have Yelich in 2019.
3. Anthony Rendon, 3B, Washington Nationals (Last Ballot: No. 3)
.319/.412/.598 (646 PA), 34 HR, 126 RBI, 80 BB, 5 SB (1 CS), 153 OPS+, 6.3 WAR
Rendon’s September was his weakest month at the plate, with an .820 OPS… which goes a long way in showing just how strong all of his other months were. This was the best season of his career, and had it happened in a different year—one without the twin force of Belli-versus-Yeli—it could have easily been worth its own MVP.
4. Ketel Marte, 2B/OF, Arizona Diamondbacks (Last Ballot: No. 4)
.329/.389/.592 (628 PA), 32 HR, 92 RBI, 53 BB, 10 SB (2 CS), 149 OPS+, 6.9 WAR
Marte, like Yelich, missed the end of the year with an injury—which is a shame, as it put an end to a sparkling breakout season, anchored by up-the-middle defensive versatility, and meant that he missed out on the batting title by the grand total of... .000597. (Otherwise known as “one hit.”)
5. Ronald Acuña, Jr., OF, Atlanta Braves (Last Ballot: No. 5)
.280/.365/.518 (715 PA), 41 HR, 101 RBI, 76 BB, 37 SB (9 CS), 122 OPS+, 5.5 WAR
Acuña just lost out on his chance to enter the 40-40 Club, but it stands to reason that he’ll have another one before long—and, at the rate he’s developing, an MVP, too.
6. Juan Soto, OF, Washington Nationals (Last Ballot: No. 7)
.282/.401/.548 (659 PA), 34 HR, 110 RBI, 108 BB, 12 SB (1 CS), 138 OPS+, 4.7 WAR
Of the many impressive features of the stat line above, Soto’s walks are perhaps the most so. To refresh, he was 20, in his first full season in the big leagues… and his eye is already so good that he ranked fifth in all of baseball for walks. (That’s before you get into however much value is added to his walks by the Soto Shuffle.)
7. Trevor Story, SS, Colorado Rockies (Last Ballot: No. 6)
.294/.363/.554 (656 PA), 35 HR, 85 RBI, 58 BB, 23 SB (8 CS), 118 OPS+, 6.4 WAR
You could look at some numbers. Or you could just watch this.
8. Pete Alonso, 1B, New York Mets (Last Ballot: No. 8)
.260/.358/.583 (693 PA), 53 HR, 120 RBI, 72 BB, 1 SB (0 CS), 148 OPS+, 5.0 WAR
Home runs don’t count for everything. But they count for an awful lot, particularly when you have 53.
9. Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado Rockies (Last Ballot: Not Ranked)
.315/.379/.583 (662 PA), 41 HR, 118 RBI, 62 BB, 3 SB (2 CS), 129 OPS+, 5.7 WAR
In recent years, Arenado has steadily worked his way toward MVP—eighth in 2015, fifth in 2016, fourth in 2017, third in 2018—but it stands to reason that his march ends here, with a perfectly-solid-if-not-stellar season that should land him further down the ballot. Not off. Just down.
10. Josh Donaldson, 3B, Atlanta Braves (Last Ballot: No. 9)
.259/.379/.521 (659 PA), 37 HR, 94 RBI, 100 BB, 4 SB (2 CS), 127 OPS+, 6.1 WAR
Donaldson bounced straight back from his injury-ridden 2018—with a performance that wasn’t quite reminiscent of his MVP 2015 but pretty close to, say, his down-ballot 2014.
1. Jacob deGrom, SP, New York Mets (Last Ballot: No. 4)
11-8 (32 GS), 204 IP, 2.43 ERA, 0.971 WHIP, 255 K, 44 BB, 5.80 K/BB, 19 HR, 167 ERA+, 7.3 WAR
Entering September, deGrom was on the periphery of the race, which had long seemed set for a showdown between Max Scherzer and Hyun-Jin Ryu. But deGrom’s final three starts shifted that: 21 IP, zero runs, nine hits, one walk, 24 strikeouts. He didn’t end up with a single gaudy stat along the lines of Scherzer’s K-rate or Ryu’s ERA. But he finished remarkably close to both of those, with the added benefit of a full season of good health (absent for both Scherzer and Ryu), and a well-rounded performance that made him the WAR leader in both Baseball-Reference’s runs-allowed formula and FanGraphs’ FIP-based version. He’s low on wins, but if Félix Hernández didn’t tear down that barrier in 2010, then deGrom did it himself in 2018. As an all-around solid candidate, you couldn’t ask for more.
2. Max Scherzer, SP, Washington Nationals (Last Ballot: No. 1)
11-7 (27 GS), 172 ⅓ IP, 2.92 ERA, 1.027 WHIP, 243 K, 33 BB, 7.36 K/BB, 18 HR, 157 ERA+, 5.8 WAR
Beyond deGrom, ordering the rest of the ballot is a matter of ordering your own values. And if you primarily value style, Scherzer is the clear choice. His 12.7 K/9 is the fifth-best all-time for a starter (behind only Gerrit Cole, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Chris Sale), paired with a low walk rate (lower than each of the aforementioned pitchers’ save Pedro) and a sub-3.00 ERA. While the time that he missed with a back injury is detrimental, it’s not disqualifying, and Scherzer’s overpowering performance out-shines his innings total.
3. Stephen Strasburg, SP, Washington Nationals (Last Ballot: No. 5)
18-6 (33 GS), 209 IP, 3.32 ERA, 1.038 WHIP, 251 K, 56 BB, 4.48 K/BB, 24 HR, 138 ERA+, 6.3 WAR
Strasburg, meanwhile, is the volume candidate. He, like deGrom, was bolstered by a stand-out performance in his final few games (a 1.88 ERA across his last four starts in September), which catapulted him to league-leading inning and win totals. The result? A candidacy that firmly rebukes any of the durability concerns that chased him earlier in his career.
4. Hyun-Jin Ryu, SP, Los Angeles Dodgers (Last Ballot: No. 2)
14-5 (29 GS), 182 ⅔ IP, 2.32 ERA, 1.007 WHIP, 163 K, 24 BB, 6.79 K/BB, 17 HR, 179 ERA+, 5.1 WAR
Then there’s Ryu, who was truly excellent in terms of run prevention and perfectly solid in terms of everything else. His ERA can carry him quite a long way in this race—but the fact that it’s not rounded out with any other standout figures (he’s last among these five in both strikeout rate and WAR), and that it came with a lower innings total, pushes him down a bit.
5. Jack Flaherty, SP, St. Louis Cardinals (Last Ballot: Not Ranked)
11-8 (33 GS), 196 ⅓ IP, 2.75 ERA, 0.968 WHIP, 231 K, 55 BB, 4.20 K/BB, 25 HR, 155 ERA+, 5.9 WAR
Flaherty’s second half was among the best of all-time (0.91 ERA, 11.2 K/9, 0.71 WHIP). But, stacked up against the rest of this slate, that’s still not exactly enough to overcome his merely fine first half.
Rookie of the Year
1. Pete Alonso, 1B, New York Mets (Last Ballot: No. 1)
.260/.358/.583 (693 PA), 53 HR, 120 RBI, 72 BB, 1 SB (0 CS), 148 OPS+, 5.0 WAR
It’s hard, if not impossible, to argue with picking the all-time rookie home run leader.
2. Mike Soroka, SP, Atlanta Braves (Last Ballot: No. 2)
13-4 (29 GS), 174 ⅔ IP, 2.68 ERA, 1.111 WHIP, 142 K, 41 BB, 3.46 K/BB, 14 HR, 169 ERA+, 5.7 WAR
In a different year, Soroka may have won not just Rookie of the Year but also potentially the Cy Young. Unfortunately, it’s this year.
3. Fernando Tatis, Jr., SS, San Diego Padres (Last Ballot: No. 3)
.317/.379/.590 (372 PA), 22 HR, 53 RBI, 30 BB, 16 SB (6 CS), 152 OPS+, 4.2 WAR
There’s an interesting question in what would have happened to this race had Tatis not gone down with a back injury in August—because he was so good that he makes for a compelling candidate even in a partial season.