This week Awards Watch finds new leaders in the American League’s Most Valuable Player and Cy Young races, as well as virtual ties atop the National League MVP and Cy Young races, significant turnover in the top three for the NL MVP and a hot-shot new entrant in the AL Rookie of the Year race.
Note: All stats are through Wed., Aug. 10. 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. The number in parentheses after a player's name reflects his rank on the previous list.
Most Valuable Player
1. Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros (2)
Season Stats: .361/.427/.570 (172 OPS+), 19 HR, 68 RBIs, 82 R, 251 TB, 159 H, 26 SB (84%)
Last Two Weeks: .405/.468/.619, 2 HR, 8 RBIs, 7 R
Altuve is an excellent up-the-middle glove and an elite base stealer, and he leads the majors in OPS+. If that doesn’t describe the league’s most valuable player, I don’t know what does.
2. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (1)
Season Stats: .312/.422/.546 (166 OPS+), 21 HR, 74 RBIs, 88 R, 219 TB, 75 BB, 18 SB (90%)
Last Two Weeks: .293/.383/.488, 2 HR, 9 RBIs, 9 R
Trout leads the majors in Wins Above Replacement according to both Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs. I can see how they get there: Trout trails Altuve by just six points of OPS+ and is arguably a better fielder and base runner than the Astros' second baseman (Trout takes the extra base more often and has made fewer outs on the bases). Altuve’s superior rate of production at the plate—in 21 more plate appearances, no less—carries the day for me, but this race remains extremely tight.
3. Josh Donaldson, 3B, Blue Jays (3)
Season Stats: .294/.405/.565 (158 OPS+), 27 HR, 77 RBIs, 92 R, 242 TB
Last Two Weeks: .239/.352/.370, 2 HR, 3 RBIs, 6 R
The defending AL MVP jumped into this race by hitting .404/.509./766 with 11 home runs over a 36-game span from June 8 to July 20, but since then he has hit just .225/.321/.394 with three more homers in 18 starts and one pinch-hitting appearance. That makes this a two-man race for now, but don’t count out another surge from Donaldson before this is over.
1. Kris Bryant, 3B, Cubs (1)
Season Stats: .284/.384/.547 (148 OPS+), 28 HR, 70 RBIs, 85 R, 229 TB
Last Two Weeks: .293/.442/.512, 2 HR, 4 RBIs, 4 R
2. Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Cubs
Season Stats: .288/.397/.569 (157 OPS+), 24 HR, 81 RBIs, 69 R, 227 TB
Last Two Weeks: .295/.404/.500, 0 HR, 5 RBIs, 9 R
3. Corey Seager, SS, Dodgers
Season Stats: .305/.360/.534 (141 OPS+), 21 HR, 55 RBIs, 73 R, 236 TB
Last Two Weeks: .327/.377/.673, 4 HR, 9 RBIs, 8 R
This is more of a three-way tie for first. Rizzo has been the most productive hitter of the three; Seager has been the most valuable in the field; Bryant splits the difference. The Cubs' third baseman has out-hit Seager and been valuable defensively than Rizzo, both by virtue of the quality of his play and his ability to move around the diamond by playing six positions this season and starting multiple games at all four corner spots. Forced to choose, I have Bryant leading the way, but this is anyone’s race going forward.
Off the list: Daniel Murphy (2), Madison Bumgarner (3)
1. Corey Kluber, RHP, Indians (2)
Season Stats: 11–8, 3.22 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 4.50 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 147 ERA+, 2.63 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 2 GS, 2-0, 1.20 ERA, 15 IP, 10 H, 2 R, 3 BB, 15 K, 0 HR
The league leader in deserved run average and fielding independent pitching (2.78), Kluber has been one of the three best pitchers in the AL via those advanced metrics—which attempt to isolate pitching from the other influences on run prevention—for most of the season. Over the last month, his results have finally started to match up with his performance, resulting in a 1.46 ERA over his last five starts, all of them quality starts that lasted a minimum of seven full innings.
On the strength of that performance and the outstanding peripherals he has posted all season, Kluber has finally ascended to the top of my Cy Young rankings. Given how well he has pitched on the year as a whole, there’s a very good chance that he will remain in or near the No. 1 spot for the rest of the year.
2. Jose Quintana, LHP, White Sox
Season Stats: 9–8, 2.85 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 7.9 K/9, 3.80 K/BB, 6.6 IP/GS, 142 ERA+, 3.26 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 3 GS, 1–0, 2.11 ERA, 21 1/3 IP, 19 H, 5 R, 3 BB, 17 K, 2 HR
Quintana has posted a 1.59 ERA in his last five starts to surge back onto this list. In addition to leading the AL in ERA, Quintana is also fourth in innings pitched with 151 2/3.
3. Aaron Sanchez, RHP, Blue Jays (1)
Season Stats: 11–2, 2.85 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 2.88 K/BB, 6.6 IP/GS, 148 ERA+, 3.52 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 2 GS, 0–1, 4.15 ERA, 13 IP, 13 H, 6 R, 3 BB, 6 K, 0 HR
The Blue Jays continue to threaten to move Sanchez into the bullpen before the end of the season to limit his innings. Indeed, they loaded up on rotation depth at the trade deadline, acquiring Francisco Liriano, Scott Feldman and Michael Bolsinger (albeit with Drew Hutchison and Jesse Chavez departing). Sanchez’s 1.67 ERA in his last eight starts before the deadline has led to some waffling on that decision, however, as he is now part of a six-man rotation, with Liriano as that sixth man, Feldman in the bullpen and Bolsinger in Triple A.
Sanchez had never thrown more than 133 1/3 innings in a season before and is already up to 145 1/3 this year. But the Blue Jays are in the thick of a pennant race—the Orioles’ loss on Wednesday put Toronto alone in first place for just the second time since early April—and Sanchez is their best pitcher. It will be fascinating to see how things play out from here for both him and the Jays, but given the realities of his innings count, he seems unlikely to be a serious contender for the Cy Young award down the stretch.
Off the list: Chris Sale (3)
1. Madison Bumgarner, LHP, Giants (1)
Season Stats: 10–7, 2.20 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 10.0 K/9, 4.53 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 4 CG, 1 SHO, 180 ERA+, 2.97 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 2 GS, 0–1, 3.46 ERA, 13 IP, 12 H, 9 R (5 ER), 4 BB, 11 K, 3 HR
2. Max Scherzer, RHP, Nationals (3)
Season Stats: 12–7, 2.80 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 11.4 K/9, 5.33 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 1 CG, 149 ERA+, 2.63 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 3 GS, 2–1, 2.05 ERA, 22 IP, 12 H, 6 R (5 ER), 4 BB, 27 K, 2 HR
It’s not difficult to argue that Scherzer has out-pitched Bumgarner to this point in the season. Both have recorded the same number of outs, leading the majors with 163 2/3 innings pitched in 24 starts, but Scherzer has faced 19 fewer batters by allowing fewer hits, fewer walks, hitting fewer batters and throwing fewer wild pitches. Scherzer has also struck out 27 more men. According to deserved run average, Scherzer bears responsibility for fewer of the runs that have scored against him than Bumgarner does, and when you look at all runs (not just earned runs), Scherzer has allowed just three more men to score on the season than Bumgarner.
Bumgarner, however, has allowed 11 fewer earned runs and not only has a sizeable lead on Scherzer in ERA and the park-adjusted ERA+ but also leads him in fielding independent pitching, 3.17 to 3.28. The reason for that? Scherzer has allowed a league-leading 24 home runs (against Bumgarner's 18).
With Scherzer having reined in his home run problems over his last eight starts (just four allowed in his last 56 1/3 innings, in which he has a 1.44 ERA), I expect he’ll have surpassed Bumgarner in these standings by the time we revisit them in two weeks. For now, though, Bumgarner retains a wafer-thin lead.
3. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (2)
Season Stats: 11–2, 1.79 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, 10.8 K/9, 16.11 K/BB, 7.6 IP/GS, 3 SHO, 217 ERA+, 2.00 DRA
Last Two Weeks: On disabled list
Kershaw hasn’t thrown a pitch since June 26 due to a herniated disc in his lower back, but he still qualifies for the ERA title and still leads the majors in the many rate stats italicized above; FIP (1.65); fewest hits (5.9), walks (0.7) and home runs (0.4) per nine innings; and shutouts. He has thrown just 5 1/3 fewer innings than the Mets' Jacob deGrom, who has made four more starts; 6 1/3 fewer than the Cubs' Jason Hammel, who has made six more starts; and is within 10 innings pitched of the Blue Jays' Marco Estrada, the Red Sox' Drew Pomeranz and the Mets' Noah Syndergaard, all of whom have made 20 or more starts to Kershaw’s 16.
This may be Kershaw’s final appearance in the top three, however, as he is ineligible to return from the 60-day disabled list until Aug. 27 and isn’t expected back until September, if at all this season. Jose Fernandez and Stephen Strasburg are the top two candidates to take his place two weeks from now.
Rookie of the Year
1. Michael Fulmer, RHP, Tigers (1)
Season Stats: 9–3, 2.43 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, 2.94 K/BB, 6.2 WHIP, 170 ERA+, 3.18 DRA
Last Two Weeks: 2 GS, 0–1, 1.98 ERA, 13 2/3 IP, 10 H, 3 R, 2 BB, 10 K, 1 HR
Fulmer has gone 7–2 with a 1.57 ERA over his last 14 starts. That performance has normalized a bit over the last month, as he has posted a 2.90 ERA in his last six starts with some correction in his luck on balls in play—.254 BABIP over those six starts compared to .171 over the previous eight. Still, the 23-year-old righty seems more likely to find himself in the top three for the AL Cy Young ballot than to fall out of the top spot on this list.
2. Max Kepler, RF, Twins
Season Stats: .259/.342/.526 (133 OPS+), 15 HR, 49 RBIs, 39 R, 122 TB, 267 PA
Last Two Weeks: .348/.456/.674, 5 HR, 13 RBIs, 12 R, 2 SB
Before the season, it seemed like a sure thing that Minnesota would have someone on this list, given the potential of centerfielder Byron Buxton, righthanded starter Jose Berrios and Korean import Byung-ho Park. All three have been awful in their major league opportunities, but the Twins, as bad as they’ve been this season, have no shortage of young talent. Enter Kepler, the 23-year-old German-born son of ballet dancers who was signed as an international free agent in July 2009.
Like his fellow Twins rookies, Kepler got off to a poor start this season, spending all of May in the minors and taking a while to get going after being handed the rightfield job in June. Since June 15, however, he has hit .280/.365/.594 with 14 home runs in 48 games (a 47-homer pace over 162 contests). Kepler has never showed that kind of power in the minors—he hit just one home run in 128 plate appearances during his Triple A stint in May and averaged 12 homers per 162 games across parts of seven minor league seasons—but scouts saw the potential for 20-plus homer seasons in his bat. He may fulfill that projection in roughly four months' worth of playing time as a rookie.
3. Tyler Naquin, CF, Indians (2)
Season Stats: .311/.379/.589 (146 OPS+), 13 HR, 35 RBIs, 38 R, 129 TB, 245 PA
Last Two Weeks: .179/.303/.286, 1 HR, 3 RBIs, 5 R
A 25-year-old former first-round pick, Naquin hit .343/.425/.731 in June and July with 12 home runs and a .430 batting average on balls in play. Thus far in August, however, he is 2 for 22 (.091) with a single and a home run. Given his poor play in centerfield, he’ll need his bat to recover to remain on this list.
Off the list: Ryan Dull (3)
1. Corey Seager, SS, Dodgers (1)
Season Stats: .305/.360/.534 (141 OPS+), 21 HR, 55 RBIs, 73 R, 236 TB
Last Two Weeks: .327/.377/.673, 4 HR, 9 RBIs, 8 R
Seager is in a virtual tie for the NL MVP, and his primary rivals for this award both hit the disabled list at the end of July. As good as his competition may have been this season, the 22-year-old could win this award unanimously.
2. Aledmys Diaz, SS, Cardinals (2)
Season Stats: .312/.376/.518 (138 OPS+), 14 HR, 57 RBIs, 64 R, 183 TB
Last Two Weeks: 3 for 10, 2B, HR, HBP
Diaz suffered a hairline fracture in his right thumb when he was hit by an Andrew Cashner pitch on July 31, the day before his 26th birthday. It’s unclear when he will return from the disabled list, but it most likely won’t be until September.
3. Trevor Story, SS, Rockies (3)
Season Stats: .272/.341/.567 (120 OPS+), 27 HR, 72 RBIs, 67 R, 211 TB
Last Two Weeks: 4 for 11, SB
The day before Diaz was hit by that pitch, Story tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb, prompting season-ending surgery. That injury cost him a chance to break Nomar Garciapparra’s record for home runs by a rookie shortstop; instead, he’ll finish third behind Garciaparra’s 30 in 1997 and Cal Ripken’s 28 in '82, but ahead of fourth-place Troy Tulowitzki’s 24 in 2007. It’s worth noting that all three of those other shortstops had a least 655 plate appearances their rookie seasons; Story had 415. The only other rookie shortstop with fewer plate appearances in the top 20 in home runs is ... Diaz, who ranks 16th with 14 in 401 PA. All of that said, Seager, who has 21 homers in 483 PA, may yet surpass not only Story but also Garciaparra.