Awards Watch: Dodgers Among Contenders for All Three Major Player Awards

Awards Watch: Dodgers Among Contenders for All Three Major Player Awards
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With less than three weeks remaining in the regular season, and the Dodgers facing the Diamondbacks for the second week in a row, I’m going skip the series preview and instead turn my attention to the awards races.

Despite losing a series for the first time this season over the weekend, the Dodgers remain far and away the best team in baseball, at least according to their .714 winning percentage and +98 run differential. It’s thus no surprise that their roster includes contenders for all three of the major player awards handed out by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America: Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, and Most Valuable Player. It might be surprising, at least to some Dodgers fans, however, that they don’t boast the current leader for any of those awards.

What follows is a quick look at how those races are shaping up, colored heavily by my own opinion and biases, but also based on my well-established understanding of how my fellow baseball writers tend to vote (I am a member of the BBWAA, but do not have an awards vote this year, and have been penning Awards Watch columns since 2010).

With just 18 games left on the Dodgers’ schedule, there is precious little time for their players to overtake the leaders in these races. However, due to this season’s small sample, there is much more potential for significant change at this late date than we are accustomed to. That is to say, all of these awards remain within reach for multiple players, many of them Dodgers.

All stats are through Monday, September 7. 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.

Rookie of the Year

1. Jake Cronenworth, 2B/IF, Padres

.325/.378/.561 (155 OPS+), 4 HR, 11 BB, 23 K, 135 PA

The National League award that is closest to being decided is the Rookie of the Year, as Joe Davis’s favorite player, 26-year-old Padres infielder Jake Cronenworth, is well ahead of the field.

Acquired from the Rays in December with outfielder Tommy Pham for outfielder Hunter Renfroe and two others, Cronenworth got his first chance with the Padres as the left-handed side of a first-base platoon filling in for the ailing Eric Hosmer as the calendar flipped to August. Cronenworth seized the opportunity and has settled in as the team’s primary second baseman since Hosmer’s return in the second week of August. Cronenworth can almost literally do it all on a baseball field. A shortstop by trade, he has played all four infield positions for the Padres this season and was a two-way player both at the University of Michigan and with the Triple-A Durham Bulls last year (he threw 7 1/3 scoreless innings, striking out nine, albeit with eight walks). In the majors this year, he has not only raked, but played good defense at multiple positions, run the bases well, and shown a tremendous feel for the game. Just look at his percentile rankings over at Baseball Savant. Everything is in the red. It’s certainly possible, even likely, that Cronenworth will cool off, but he hasn’t gone hitless in consecutive starts all year, and he’d have to slump pretty badly for anyone else to catch him.

Behind Cronenworth is a cluster of pitchers, including the Dodgers’ Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin. One could make an argument for ranking them any number of different ways, but here are my top five from that group:

2. Devin Williams, RHP, Brewers

0.53 ERA (883 ERA+), 17 IP, 15 G, 18.5 K/9, 5.83 K/BB, 0.5 HR/9, 0.59 WHIP, 1.03 FIP, 2.28 DRA

The 25-year-old Williams makes up for his relative lack of innings with staggering dominance. Working primarily with an upper-90s fastball and a changeup that is 11 miles per hour slower, he has struck out 35 men in his 17 innings while allowing just four hits. In his last 11 outings, he has struck out 27 men in 12 2/3 scoreless innings while allowing just one hit and three walks and stranding every runner he has inherited.

3. Tony Gonsolin, RHP, Dodgers

0.76 ERA (576 ERA+), 23 2/3 IP, 5 GS, 9.5 K/9, 5.00 K/BB, 0.4 HR/9, 0.72 WHIP, 2.35 FIP, 3.12 DRA

Gonsolin forced his way into the Dodgers’ rotation by throwing 14 2/3 scoreless innings over his first three spot starts. The 26-year-old has allowed just three runs, two earned, over his last two turns, the last his second quality start of the season, in which he struck out eight Rockies in six innings against no walks. The Dodgers are clearly believers. They traded the struggling Ross Stripling to the Blue Jays at the deadline in part to make room for Gonsolin in the rotation.

4. Dustin May, RHP, Dodgers

2.88 ERA (151 ERA+), 40 2/3 IP, 8 GS, 6.2 K/9, 2.80 K/BB, 1.3 HR/9, 1.11 WHIP, 4.50 FIP, 4.40 DRA

The 22-year-old May has better stuff and likely a brighter future than Gonsolin, but as filthy as he is, his results this season have been more middling. May wasn’t supposed to open the season in the Dodgers rotation, but injuries to Clayton Kershaw and then Alex Wood gave him first the opportunity and then the long leash to claim both the Opening Day start and a permanent spot. Capitalizing on that opportunity, May has yet to allow more than two runs or walk more than two men in a start this season, and he didn’t allow more than one home run in a game until his last turn, a near-quality start against the Rockies in which two solo home runs accounted for the only scoring he allowed. His strikeout rate doesn’t reflect the quality of his pitches, but he is clearly still learning (he sidelined his cutter in favor of his curve in his last start) and good enough to be an awards contender despite that.

5. Kwang Hyun Kim, LHP, Cardinals

0.83 ERA (533 ERA+), 21 2/3 IP, 4/5 GS, 4.6 K/9, 1.83 K/BB, 0.4 HR/9, 0.92 WHIP, 3.56 FIP, 5.20 DRA

A 32-year-old Korea Baseball Organization veteran, Kim opened the season in the Cardinals’ bullpen, but moved into the rotation as an injury/illness replacement after just one relief outing. In four starts since making that transition in the wake of the Cardinals’ quarantine, he has allowed just two runs (one earned) in 20 2/3 innings. He’s due for some correction given his weak strikeout rate, flyball tendencies, and minuscule opponents’ average on balls in play, but the awards are performance, not projection, based.

6. Tejay Antone, RHP, Reds

2.49 ERA (198 ERA+), 25 1/3 IP, 3/8 GS, 11.7 K/9, 3.00 K/BB, 1.1 HR/9, 0.95 WHIP, 3.62 FIP, 3.15 DRA

Tejay Anthony Antone, a 26-year-old former fifth-round pick out of Texas Christian University, is not a heralded prospect. Still, his mid- to upper-90s sinker generates a ton of ground balls, and his slider misses a ton of bats, so much so that his impressive long-relief work early this season earned him a trio of spot starts in which he has posted a 3.38 ERA over 13 1/3 innings. There’s not much room for him in the Reds’ impressive rotation, but with Wade Miley hurt and Anthony DeSclafani struggling, Antone may yet claim that fifth spot and challenge for a permanent one next year.

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Cy Young

1. Yu Darvish, RHP, Cubs

1.44 ERA (309 ERA+), 50 IP, 8 GS, 6.3 IP/GS, 11.3 K/9, 7.88 K/BB, 0.5 HR/9, 0.88 WHIP, 2.01 FIP, 3.16 DRA

2. Jacob deGrom, RHP, Mets

1.69 ERA (253 ERA+), 48 IP, 8 GS, 6.0 IP/GS, 13.1 K/9, 6.36 K/BB, 0.8 HR/9, 0.88 WHIP, 2.00 FIP, 2.24 DRA

To my eye, this is a two-man race between the 33-year-old Darvish, who has improved dramatically in each of the last two seasons since his disastrous Cubs debut in 2018, and the two-time defending winner, deGrom, who is just one year Darvish’s junior.

Since allowing three runs in four innings in his season debut, Darvish has turned in seven straight quality starts without allowing multiple runs in any of them. He has walked as many as two men just twice all season, has scattered a mere three home runs, and has reached double digits in strikeouts in three of his last five turns. He has clearly been the best pitcher in the NL thus far this season, which wasn’t impossible to imagine in July, but his lead is not overwhelming.

Jacob deGrom, who is again leading the NL in strikeouts (with 70 in a mere 48 innings), has thus far out-pitched his award-winning performance of a year ago. He, too, has not walked more than two men nor allowed more than one home run in any of his eight starts, and has three double-digit strikeout performances. He has also not allowed more than two earned runs in a game all season (though he did have three unearned runs two turns ago). One quirk of deGrom’s season that could influence voters in a close race: he faced the weak-hitting Marlins in four consecutive starts from August 9 to August 31.

In the unlikely event that both Darvish and deGrom falter down the stretch, these four pitchers are best positioned to overtake them:

3. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers

1.50 ERA (289 ERA+), 36 IP, 6 GS, 6.0 IP/GS, 10.3 K/9, 6.83 K/BB, 1.3 HR/9, 0.72 WHIP, 3.26 FIP, 2.64 DRA

The back injury that delayed the start of his season put Kershaw at a disadvantage in terms of innings, but since returning on August 2, he has looked like the Clayton Kershaw of 2017, who finished second in the Cy Young voting despite a similar back-related timeout.

4. Max Fried, LHP, Braves

1.98 ERA (241 ERA+), 50 IP, 9 GS, 5.6 IP/GS, 8.5 K/9, 2.76 K/BB, 0.0 HR/9, 1.06 WHIP, 2.47 FIP, 2.68 DRA

Fried hasn’t allowed a home run in 50 innings this season, a remarkable fact, particularly given that he has averaged six home runs per 50 innings in the majors prior to this year. Fried is an extreme groundballer, but it’s still a fluke that he hasn’t allowed a single round-tripper all year. That will change, and he’ll likely fade slightly in this race when it does.

5. Dinelson Lamet, RHP, Padres

2.24 ERA (193 ERA+), 52 1/3 IP, 9 GS, 5.8 IP/GS, 11.7 K/9, 4.53 K/BB, 0.9 HR/9, 0.92 WHIP, 2.88 FIP, 2.98 DRA

Lamet surged back into this race with his best outing of the year Monday night, 7 2/3 shutout innings against the Rockies in which he tied his season high with 11 strikeouts against no walks and dropped his ERA 38 points (0.38 runs). Two years removed from Tommy John surgery, the 27-year-old Lamet is reestablishing his claim to the title of Padres ace despite the emergence of Chris Paddack, the arrival of Mike Clevinger, and an almost-as-good performance by Zach Davies thus this season. Man, the Padres are good this year.

6. Zac Gallen, RHP, Diamondbacks

2.29 ERA (200 ERA+), 55 IP, 9 GS, 6.1 IP/GS, 9.8 K/9, 3.53 K/BB, 1.0 HR/9, 0.98 WHIP, 3.42 FIP, 2.80 DRA

Kyle Mooney look-alike Zac Gallen gave up four runs in five innings in San Francisco Monday night. That snapped his record-setting streak of 23 consecutive starts with three or fewer runs allowed to start his career, a streak that started as a member of the Marlins last June. Gallen wasn’t bad on Monday night, striking out six in five innings against just two walks without allowing a home run. Still, his ERA inflated by 39 points (0.39 runs). Those results from Lamet and Gallen on a single night of baseball are evidence of just how quickly and how much things can change in these races despite the late date.

7. Trevor Bauer, RHP, Reds

2.05 ERA (238 ERA+), 44 IP, 7 GS, 6.3 IPGS, 12.5 K/9, 4.69 K/BB, 1.2 HR/9, 0.86 WHIP, 3.17 FIP, 2.08 DRA

Bauer has worked hard to prove that his 2018 season was not a fluke, but since opening the season with a 0.68 ERA in four starts, including a pair of seven-inning shutouts of lousy teams in double-headers, he has posted a 4.08 ERA and allowed four home runs over his last three starts, all of them Cincinnati losses.

Most Valuable Player

As it stands, the competition for this award is a three-man race, with cluster of roughly a dozen players in the next tier. I’ll spare you individual write-ups of the second group, but it’s worth noting that there is a Dodger in both groups, making this L.A.’s best chance to land individual player hardware this season.

1. Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, Padres

.314/.405/.663 (188 OPS+), 15 HR, 21 BB, 47 K, 8 SB (0 CS), 195 PA

Emerging as the face of a young team that is proving to be nearly as exciting as Tatis himself, Tatis has been the sensation of the 2020 season thus far, which means he has both narrative and numbers on his side in the race for the BBWAA’s top award. Tatis has started all 43 of the Padres’ games this year and is on what would be a 57-homer pace over a 162-game season. He’s excelling in every facet of the game, hitting for average and power, getting on base, making great use of his speed on the bases, and playing a superlative shortstop, nothing less than the most valuable of the seven positions to line up behind the pitcher’s mound. He won’t turn 22 until January, and he’s already not just a superstar, but arguably the best player in the National League.

2. Mookie Betts, RF, Dodgers

.316/.393/.625 (171 OPS+), 13 HR, 19 BB, 28 K, 6 SB (1 CS), 173 PA

Though he does trail in most of them, Betts isn’t that far behind Tatis in any major category, he’s far more difficult to strike out, and he, too, greatly increases his value with his play in the field and on the bases. That last is why Mookie, the 2018 American League MVP, was still a top-10 finisher in the AL MVP voting last year despite a relative down year at the plate. When I posted rankings that reflected that at The Athletic, I was shocked to get pushback from Red Sox fans who argued for several of Betts’ defensively-challenged teammates. I expect better from Dodgers fans, who should recognize that Betts is not only out-hitting Corey Seager, but is vastly superior to Seager in the field and on the bases. Getting to watching Betts play on a daily basis is a privilege and has been the best part of a great season of Dodgers baseball thus far, in my opinion.

3. Mike Yastrzemski, CF/RF, Giants

.301/.411/.577 (169 OPS+), 8 HR, 26 BB, 42 K, 185 PA

Yastrzemski’s performance this season would be even more shocking if he didn’t have that last name. This is a player who was drafted in the 15th round and didn’t make the majors until he was 28. He turned 30 last month, and he’s in just his second season. But what a season! In addition to his tremendous hitting, masked a bit by his home ballpark but revealed by adjusted statistics such as OPS+, Yastrzemski has been an above-average centerfielder (he mostly played the outfield corners as a rookie last year), and an excellent baserunner, as well. There’s no way the Giants would be in the hunt for that final NL playoff spot without him. Not that that is relevant in my rankings (individual awards should only consider individual performances), but it will likely help the out-of-nowhere non-prospect Yastrzemski generate the voter support he clearly deserves.

Runners-up (in rough, but unofficial order):

Juan Soto, LF, Nationals

.354/.453/.758 (213 OPS+), 11 HR, 17 BB, 16 K, 117 PA

Ian Happ, CF, Cubs

.304/.420/.659 (185 OPS+), 12 HR, 26 BB, 39 K, 163 PA

Trea Turner, SS, Nationals

.362/.413/.626 (171 OPS+), 9 HR, 13 BB, 26 K, 5 SB (4 CS), 179 PA

Manny Machado 3B, Padres

.295/.363/.572 (153 OPS+), 12 HR, 20 BB, 30 K, 190 PA

Trevor Story, SS, Rockies

.294/.372/.544 (126 OPS+), 9 HR, 20 BB, 41 K, 12 SB (1 CS), 180 PA

Corey Seager, SS, Dodgers

.331/.377/.634 (168 OPS+), 11 HR, 10 BB, 24 K, 154 PA

Michael Conforto, RF, Mets

.348/.436/.561 (174 OPS+), 7 HR, 18 BB, 38 K, 179 PA

Jake Cronenworth, 2B/IF, Padres

.325/.378/.561 (155 OPS+), 4 HR, 11 BB, 23 K, 135 PA

Dominic Smith, 1B/LF, Mets

.322/.390/.636 (178 OPS+), 7 HR, 12 BB, 32 K, 136 PA

Marcell Ozuna, DH/LF, Braves

.311/.403/.636 (167 OPS+), 13 HR, 24 BB, 42 K, 176 PA

Brandon Belt, 1B, Giants

.330/.430/.660 (195 OPS+), 7 HR, 17 BB, 28 K, 114 PA

Final thought: Traditionally, separate awards are given in the American and National Leagues because of the (now relative) lack of interplay between the two leagues. This year, there is no interplay at all between the three geographic regions. So, it would actually make more sense to give out three awards, one each for the East, Central, and West. If that were the case (it is not), it wouldn’t change the outlook too much for the Dodgers in the MVP and Rookie of the Year races. The top three MVP contenders and obvious Rookie of the Year leader above are all from the NL West. Adding the AL West would bring in Mike Trout, but he hasn’t been obviously better than the top three NL MVP contenders this year, in part due to an apparent decline in his fielding. The Mariners’ Kyle Lewis would rival Jake Cronenworth for Rookie of the Year, but that’s probably the longest shot of the bunch for L.A.

The biggest change would be in the Cy Young race, where Darvish and deGrom would be competing for the awards in the Central and East, respectively, and the Angels’ Dylan Bundy would join Kershaw, Gallen, and Limet in a much tighter race than the one described above. I might like Kershaw’s chances there as the member of that quartet with the longest track record of excellence. Instead, Betts is likely the Dodgers’ best hope this year.

Cliff Corcoran covers baseball for The Athletic and is a former lead baseball writer for The co-author or editor of 13 baseball books, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he has also written for USA Today, SB Nation, Baseball Prospectus, Sports on Earth, The Hardball Times, and, among others. He has been a semi-regular guest analyst on the MLB Network and can be heard more regularly on The Infinite Inning podcast with Steven Goldman. Follow Cliff on Twitter @CliffCorcoran.