Awards races are on, and no one has a bigger lead than Matt Kemp
Awards Watch is a column dedicated to following the races for the three major player awards -- Most Valuable Player, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year -- as they develop throughout the season. So, while the horses may have just come out of the gates, the race is on, and Awards Watch is keeping track. However, rather than dive into the deep end with the usual in-depth look at the MVP races, let's ease into things this week with a quick look at the top three contenders for each award in each league.
As it will be throughout the season, the idea is not to predict who will win the award in November (I'll save that for the end of the season, when I'm 12-for-12 over the past two seasons in predicting how the writers will vote), but to assess who the leaders are at the moment. This year, however, I'm altering the formula just a bit. Rather than rank the candidates according to who is most likely to win the writers' vote (I am not a voter), I'll be raking them according to who
Kemp should have won this award last year, regardless of Ryan Braun's test results, and seems determined to prove it this year. He has been by far the best player in the majors this April, leading baseball in all three slash stats (batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage), home runs, RBIs, total bases and extra-base hits and ranking second in hits and runs scored, all while playing a solid centerfield for the Dodgers. Kemp, who has stolen just one base in three tries, is not going to have the 50/50 season he had somewhat unrealistically hoped for this offseason, but he seems capable of just about everything else right now.
Altuve is one of the most compelling players in the game right now. Last year, at the age of 21, he hit .389/.426/.591 between High-A and Double-A, then made the leap to the majors where he became the Astros starting second baseman in late July and held his own until slumping badly in September. This April, still shy of his 22nd birthday which is a week from Sunday, he's been one of the best players in the majors by posting a slash line similar to his minor league performance of a year ago while playing a solid second base for the Astros and being perfect in four steal attempts. That would make him compelling in and of itself, but what makes Altuve stand apart is that he's generously listed at 5-foot-5.
Posey should have more staying power in this race than Altuve because he has higher slash stats across the board, hits in a tougher park and is also a solid defender at a challenging position. However, thus far, Altuve has come to the plate 21 more times than Posey, which significant, so I'm giving Altuve the edge this week.
I'm putting Hamilton above Jeter here because of the relative quality of their play in the field, but I could easily be convinced to flip the two. Jeter, who has played in all 18 of the Yankees' games this year and picked up a hit in all but one of them, is certainly hotter right now. He went 8-for-13 in the just-completed series between New York and Texas (Hamilton went 2-for-10) and is heading back to the Bronx to face the Tigers and Justin Verlander on Friday with an active 15-game hitting streak. Hamilton's injury history and Jeter's age (he'll turn 38 in June) make both longshots to remain on this list in September, so be sure to enjoy both at their best while they're still there.
Kinsler's numbers aren't the sort of beer-league softball stats you'd expect from an April MVP, but I have him ahead of men like David Ortiz and Josh Willingham, who are putting up those sorts of numbers right now, because of their relative contributions in the field and playing time. I'll also admit to having a soft spot for the fact that he has walked nearly twice as many times as he has struck out. April has been Kinsler's best month over the course of his career, so he, too, seems unlikely to remain toward the top of this list into the dog days of the season.
For those who missed it on Monday, here's what I wrote about Lohse after his start on Sunday:
"Despite consistently sitting below 90 mph on the radar gun, [Lohse] has been one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball in the early going. In 27 1/3 innings over his first four starts, he has walked just two men, one intentionally, and has yet to allow a home run. I've watched two of Lohse's starts and he's just pounding the strike zone at the knee, throwing everything with a tail or a wrinkle in it, and changing speeds beautifully between his high-80s sinker, mid-80s slider and 80 mph changeup while mixing in the occasional mid-70s curve. The 33-year-old Lohse's 12-year history of major league mediocrity would normally leave me skeptical of his hot start (which has benefited from a .175 BABIP and three of his four starts coming against the scuffling Reds' and Pirates' lineups), but he was pretty good last year, too (14-8, 3.39 ERA) and even briefly poked his head into my Cy Young rankings on Awards Watch."
Here he is again, as expected. I don't have much to add to the above other than the fact that he has struck out 11 men over 14 frames in his last two starts and still hasn't cracked 100 pitches in a game this season. I'd be shocked to see Lohse stay on this list well into the season, but what he's done thus far has been real and impressive.
Strasburg allowed just one run in 13 innings in his two no-decisions, and the Nationals won both of those games. He is just one of five pitchers to have turned in a quality start in all four of their games this season (the others: Lohse, Roy Halladay, Jake Peavy and Colby Lewis). In his last start, he needed just 82 pitches to hold the Cubs to one run over seven frames. In the start before that, he ran up his pitch count by striking out nine Mets in six frames. Even after the Tommy John surgery, he's as good as he's been projected to be since becoming the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft.
After four starts, Zimmermann has yet to go fewer than six innings or allow more than one earned run in a game. He has allowed just one home run, a solo shot, and has walked just two men, both coming in the same game, in 27 innings. He's also been remarkably efficient. Twice he has needed less than 90 pitches to complete seven innings, and he threw just 82 in his six-inning win on Wednesday. Short of striking out a few more batters -- and he did record six Ks in those six frames on Wednesday -- it would be hard to pitch much better than Zimmermann has thus far this season. Now, it's on the Nationals to score some more runs for him early in the game so he can max-out his pitch count before manager Davey Johnson feels compelled to pinch-hit for him.
In his first two full seasons on the South Side of Chicago, Peavy went 14-13 with a 4.77 ERA and spent 155 days on the disabled list (per Baseball Prospectus's injury history). His hot start this year, then, must be especially sweet for the White Sox and their fans, not to mention Peavy himself, as his 2007 NL Cy Young win must feel like a lifetime ago at this point. Starting with a bare-minimum quality start in his first outing (6 IP, 3 R), Peavy has gone deeper into each game and allowed fewer runs each time out leading up to a three-hit shutout of the A's this past Monday. Of course, the lineups he's faced have gotten progressively weaker -- from the Rangers to the Tigers to the Orioles to the A's -- but then it's no small thing to have faced both the Rangers and Tigers and still have the numbers he does above.
A year after throwing more than 270 innings between the regular and postseasons, Verlander leads the majors in innings per start with 7.8. He lasted at least eight frames in each of his first three starts, throwing 131 pitches while going the distance against the Royals in his third turn. He has yet to strikeout fewer than seven men in a game this year or allow a home run, but one wonders just how durable his right arm is. I've often repeated the assertion by former Baseball Prospectus analyst Keith Woolner that durability is part of what separates the great pitchers from the rest. Verlander, who has made 30 or more starts in each of his six full major league seasons, has thus far passed nearly every test of greatness. If he passes this one, he just might go down as one of the greatest of all time.
After four turns, Lewis has yet to allow more than two runs in a game or walk his second man of the season. He's four-for-four in quality starts, struck out 22 men in 19 2/3 innings in his first three starts, and held the Red Sox and Tigers to four runs over 14 innings over his last two. He hasn't been as dominant as some of the pitchers above, but he has been nearly flawless.
Cozart is the only NL rookie who opened the season with a starting job and has acquitted himself well thus far. That line above is a good match for what the 26-year-old is likely to do over the full season, as he hit .310/.357/.467 at Triple-A last year. Cozart isn't the most talented rookie in the NL, but solid and steady could well win this race given the thin field.
Nieuwenhuis opened the season in the minors, but was called up after Andres Torres pulled a calf muscle in the opener. He quickly shook off a platoon with righty Scott Hairston and has now started the Mets' last 11 games, leading off five of the last seven. The question is what happens when Torres returns from the disabled list, which is expected to happen on Sunday. Nieuwenhuis has played well enough to keep the centerfield job, and the rebuilding Mets would be wise to invest playing time in the 24-year-old over the 34-year-old Torres. However, there are questions about Nieuwenhuis' viability in the field over the long haul. Most likely, Nieuwenhuis will shift to left in place of the injured Jason Bay (fractured rib) for the short term, but that only delays the problem.
Carpenter is another rookie who is getting to start thanks to a veteran's calf injury, starting at first base for the Cardinals in place of Lance Berkman for the time being, but unlike Nieuwenhuis, he's not making the most of the opportunity. Carpenter is 3-for-24, all singles, since Berkman got hurt, and the bulk of the production above came in a single game against the Cubs back on April 15. Carpenter went 4-for-4 with a triple, a homer and five RBIs in that game. Take that performance out, and his season line drops to .182/.269/.273. That he's third on this list tells you how well the rest of the NL rookie field had performed thus far.
Cespedes struck out twice in a game six times in his first 10 major league contests, but hasn't had multiple strikeouts in any of his last nine games and has hit .324/.385/.529 over that more recent stretch. So far, Cespedes seems to be winning the battle of adjustments against major league pitchers, but it's a long season.
Milone, a soft-tossing, 25-year-old lefty whose fastball has averaged less than 87 miles per hour this season, was something of a throw-in in the Gio Gonzalez trade with Washington, a low-ceiling, back-end starter whose primary selling point was that he was ready to be exactly that in the major leagues right away.
In two of his first four starts for the A's, however, he has held his competition scoreless on just three hits over eight innings, doing it to the Royals without the benefit of a strikeout on April 9, and doing it to the White Sox without issuing a walk on Tuesday. He didn't reach 100 pitches in either game. Neither of his starts in between was quality, but they didn't miss by more than an inning or a run, neither by both. Since that quirky, no-strikeout start against the Royals, he has struck out a more respectable 6.2 men per nine innings, he has reduced his walks each time out, from three to none, and he has allowed just one home run all year. I don't expect Milone to be a serious competitor for this award, but he could poke his head onto the fifth spot on my extended list from time to time.
Since giving up four runs in his first major league inning, Darvish, the celebrated import from Japan, has allowed just four more, three earned, in his last 25 frames. That works out to a 1.08 ERA over that stretch. His first quality start came against the Tigers two turns ago (6 1/3 IP, 1 R), and his first truly impressive outing came against countryman Hiroki Kuroda and the Yankees on Tuesday, when he held the Bronx Bombers scoreless in Arlington for 8 1/3 innings while striking out 10 and finally getting his walks under control by passing just two. He has proven he can rise to the occasion. The question now is, did that last start mark the arrival of the pitcher we've all been expecting to see, or will there be more ups and downs in his adjustment to the major leagues?