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Awards Watch: Bryant takes NL MVP lead, Trout is No. 1 in AL

The first Awards Watch of the second half finds a new leader in the NL MVP race, a dynamite three-man battle for the AL MVP and Clayton Kershaw falling out of first in the NL Cy Young competition.

Awards Watch returns after a three-week absence—its own All-Star break—to find new leaders in half of the races and seven new players joining the lists. Some of that is due to Clayton Kershaw’s back injury, though those expecting him to be completely absent from the rankings may be in for a surprise.

Note: All stats are through Wed., July 27. 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

American League

1. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (1)
Season Stats: .314/.427/.553 (168 OPS+), 19 HR, 65 RBIs, 79 R, 199 TB, 17 SB (94%)
Last Three Weeks: .260/.433/.420, 1 HR, 9 RBIs, 17 R, 3 SB (0 CS)

2. Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros (3)
Season Stats: .357/.423/.565 (166 OPS+), 17 HR, 60 RBIs, 75 R, 225 TB, 25 SB (86%)
Last Three Weeks: .391/.426/.594, 3 HR, 11 RBIs, 11 R, 3 SB (1 CS)

3. Josh Donaldson, 3B, Blue Jays (2)
Season Stats: .301/.411/.589 (166 OPS+), 25 HR, 74 RBIs, 86 R, 225 TB, 6 SB (100%)
Last Three Weeks: .300/.400/.550, 3 HR, 14 RBIs, 9 R

The AL MVP chase has become a three-man race, and a thrilling one at that. David Ortiz leads the majors in slugging (.658) and OPS+ (176), but he can’t compete with Altuve, Donaldson and Trout when it comes to contributions outside of the batter’s box. All three are outstanding base runners and valuable defenders, and all three outdistance the non-Ortiz portion of the AL at the plate by enough that the conversation can be properly limited to them.

Sorting out those three is far more difficult. OPS+ has them in a virtual tie, with each leading the pack in one of the three unadjusted slash stats (Altuve in average, Trout in on-base percentage and Donaldson in slugging). Donaldson has the best counting stats, thanks in large part to the fact he has the most support from the lineup around him, but is way behind on stolen bases. Altuve matches Donaldson in OPS+ and total bases, but is an inferior fielder to the other two.

Trout tops the list not only because of his slight edge in OPS+, but also because he has been arguably the best fielder and base stealer of the group. Trout’s 17 steals are his most since 2013, tied for fourth-most in the AL, and he has been caught just once all year; Altuve has been caught four times. Supporting that ranking, Trout leads the majors in all three major wins above replacement statistics (Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus). Separating Altuve and Donaldson is tricky, but the advanced stats suggest that their value in the field this season has been closer than in past years, allowing Altuve’s advantage on the bases to carry the day, for now.


National League

1. Kris Bryant, 3B/OF, Cubs (2)
Season Stats: .283/.377/.550 (147 OPS+), 26 HR, 66 RBIs, 81 R, 208 TB
Last Three Weeks: .311/.417/.426, 1 HR, 2 RBIs, 13 R, 3 SB (0 CS)

With Clayton Kershaw out of the running due to his back injury, there is no clear favorite in my mind for the NL MVP. That’s not true for the advanced metrics, however, which unanimously have Bryant way out in front in WAR, with far less consensus about who his closest competitors are.

One thing those metrics (bWAR, fWAR and WARP) are seeing that I’m not is that Bryant has been a significant contributor in the field this year. Certainly, his versatility has been valuable: He has started at third base, leftfield, rightfield and first base, played an inning and made a putout in center, and even spent part of an inning at shortstop. Per the advanced metrics, however, his quality of play in the field has been as valuable as that versatility. Ultimate Zone Rating, which breaks down a player’s defensive performance by position, rates Bryant as well above average at his two primary positions, third base and leftfield, projecting him as being 15 runs above average or better over 150 games at each position. Overall, UZR rates him as roughly 10 runs above average in the field this season—a whole win's worth of value with his glove alone. Defensive Runs Saved rate him similarly, as 0.8 wins above replacement defensively.

Add that defensive value and excellent base running to Bryant's more plainly outstanding bat, and the result is that he is the most valuable player in the NL to this point in the season, even if it’s not readily obvious from his traditional numbers.

2. Daniel Murphy, 1B/2B, Nationals
Season Stats: .354/.390/.624 (163 OPS+), 20 HR, 75 RBIs, 60 R, 31 2B, 229 TB
Last Three Weeks: .417/.434/.958, 6 HR, 19 RBIs, 11 R

Murphy has the more obviously outstanding numbers and has shown a bit of defensive versatility by sliding to first base to cover for the injured Ryan Zimmerman and create room for top prospect Trea Turner in the lineup. That is undermined by his poor play in the field, but he still falls in just behind Bryant in this race.

Murphy enters Thursday night’s game in San Francisco with an active 13-game hitting streak that covers the entire three-week stretch broken out above. Fourteen of his 20 hits during that stretch have gone for extra bases, and he has struck out just five times.

3. Madison Bumgarner, LHP, Giants
Season Stats: 10–6, 2.09 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 10.2 K/9, 4.72 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO, 189 ERA+, 2.84 DRA
Last Three Weeks: 4 GS, 1–2, 2.10 ERA, 30 IP, 20 H, 8 R (7 ER), 5 BB, 38 K, 3 HR

Spoiler alert! Pitchers catch my eye for MVP not only by being dominant but also by devouring innings. Bumgarner makes this list in large part because of his major league-leading 150 2/3 innings pitched. He doesn’t get any extra points for his hitting, however. Yes, he came through with a key double in his first at-bat when the Giants gave up the designated hitter in Oakland and has hit two home runs this season, but on the year, he’s hitting just .164/.242/.309 (49 OPS+). He’s been the third-most valuable player in the NL on the strength of his pitching alone.

Off the list: Clayton Kershaw (1), Matt Carpenter (3)

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Cy Young

American League

1. Aaron Sanchez, RHP, Blue Jays
Season Stats: 11–1, 2.72 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, 2.95 K/BB, 6.6 IP/GS, 153 ERA+, 3.25 DRA
Last Three Weeks: 3 GS, 2–0, 1.42 ERA, 19 IP, 14 H, 3 R, 4 BB, 16 K, 0 HR

As has been the case in the AL Cy Young race all season, this top spot is more of a compromise between results and performance than a full-throated endorsement. Sanchez has been outstanding over his last seven starts: 5–0 and a 1.53 ERA, with six of them quality and two or fewer runs allowed in all of them. He leads the league in ERA, is third in ERA+ and is six innings shy of the league lead in innings pitched. He hasn’t pitched better than the next two men on this list, however; he’s just had better results, thanks in large part to the Blue Jays’ excellent team defense (second in the majors in park-adjusted defensive efficiency).

2. Corey Kluber, RHP, Indians
Season Stats: 9–8, 3.44 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 4.45 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 3 CG, 2 SHO, 136 ERA+, 2.64 DRA
Last Three Weeks: 3 GS, 1–0, 1.64 ERA, 22 IP, 16 H, 4 R, 4 BB, 24 K, 2 HR

In terms of his isolated performance—removed from the vagaries of fielding, ballparks, luck, etc.—Kluber has arguably been the best pitcher in the AL this year. He is second in the league in innings pitched (136, 2 1/3 innings behind Justin Verlander) and a close third in WHIP. The only qualified AL pitcher with a higher strikeout-to-walk ratio and a lower ERA than Kluber is the Royals’ Danny Duffy, who has thrown 35 1/3 fewer innings. Kluber also leads the league in FIP (2.91) and is second only to rotation mate Danny Salazar, who has thrown 20 2/3 fewer innings, in Deserved Run Average. Still, that 3.44 ERA is hard to get past, even if his ERA+ ranks seventh in the league. If Kluber can bring that ERA down closer to his FIP by the end of the year, this award could be his again.

3. Chris Sale, LHP, White Sox (1)
Season Stats: 143, 3.18 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 8.7 K/9, 4.45 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO, 128 ERA+, 2.84 DRA
Last Three Weeks: 2 GS, 0–1, 5.54 ERA, 13 IP, 11 H, 8 R, 5 BB, 11 K, 3 HR

July was not a good month for Sale. He gave up 13 runs (12 earned) in a dozen innings in his first two starts of the month. In his third start, he dominated the Mariners, allowing just one hit in eight scoreless innings, only to get a no-decision in a White Sox loss. Then came last weekend’s incident, in which Sale cut up his and several teammates' throwback uniforms before being sent home and suspended by the team for five games.

No matter how much Sale may argue that his objection to the uniforms was practical and that he was trying to put on-field results above merchandise sales, he still let his team down by effectively refusing to pitch, and that’s a serious strike against his candidacy for any award this season. He drops down to third place on this list on the numbers alone, but in a close race against any other candidate in what remains a wide-open competition, that outburst could tip the balance away from him.

Off the list: Danny Salazar (2), Jose Quintana (3)

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National League

1. Madison Bumgarner, LHP, Giants (2)
Season Stats: 10–6, 2.09 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 10.2 K/9, 4.72 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS, 3 CG, 1 SHO, 189 ERA+, 2.84 DRA
Last Three Weeks: 4 GS, 1–2, 2.10 ERA, 30 IP, 20 H, 8 R (7 ER), 5 BB, 38 K, 3 HR

Bumgarner has thrown 8 1/3 more innings than any other pitcher in the majors this season (150 2/3 to rotation mate Johnny Cueto’s 142 1/3) with the second-best ERA+ in the majors, 21 points ahead of third-place Kyle Hendricks’s 168 mark. A pitcher’s job is to eat innings and prevent runs, and no one in either league has done those two things in combination better than Bumgarner.

2. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (1)
Season Stats: 11–2, 1.79 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, 10.8 K/9, 16.11 K/BB, 7.6 IP/GS, 3 SHO, 216 ERA+, 1.92 DRA
Last Three Weeks: On disabled list

Kershaw hasn’t thrown a pitch since June 26, and there’s a chance that he may be lost for the season due to a herniated disc in his lower back. Regardless, he still has more innings pitched this season than Jose Fernandez, Noah Syndergaard and Hendricks and almost as many as Stephen Strasburg and Jake Arrieta. Kershaw will fall off this list if he doesn’t return soon, which he’s unlikely to do, but his performance in his first 16 starts was so utterly dominant that not even a month of inaction could drop him out of the top two spots in this race.

3. Max Scherzer, RHP, Nationals
Season Stats: 10–6, 2.92 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 11.5 K/9, 5.17 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS, 1 CG, 143 ERA+, 2.74 DRA
Last Three Weeks: 3 GS, 1–0, 1.29 ERA, 21 IP, 13 H, 4 R (3 ER), 3 BB, 26 K, 1 HR

I wrote last month that Scherzer’s sudden case of gopheritis was keeping him out of the Cy Young race. Over his last five starts, he has allowed just two home runs and posted a 1.05 ERA, so here he is in the top three in my rankings. Going back a bit further, Scherzer’s home-run rate has been a better-than-average 0.9 per nine over his last ten starts, and he has posted a 1.71 ERA over that span. On the season as a whole, he is third in the majors in innings pitched (having recorded just two fewer outs than Cueto), leads the majors with 181 strikeouts, is second in the majors in WHIP and strikeout rate, is fourth in the NL in strikeout-to-walk ratio and is fifth in the league in DRA, besting Bumgarner and Strasburg, among many others.

Off the list: Johnny Cueto (3)

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Rookie of the Year

American League

1. Michael Fulmer, RHP, Tigers (1)
Season Stats: 9–2, 2.50 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, 2.80 K/BB, 6.1 IP/GS, 165 ERA+, 3.16 DRA
​Last Three Weeks: 3 GS, 0–0, 3.92 ERA, 20 2/3 IP, 19 H, 10 R (9 ER), 3 BB, 12 K, 3 HR

Fulmer has a 1.50 ERA in his last dozen starts, with Detroit going 11–1 in those games. He has roughly another dozen starts to go this season barring an innings limit from the Tigers, so this race is far from over, but if the voting took place today, he’d likely win this award unanimously.

2. Tyler Naquin, CF, Indians (3)
Season Stats: .330/.390/.634 (159 OPS+), 12 HR, 32 RBIs, 33 R, 121 TB, 212 PA
Last Three Weeks: .364/.417/.818, 5 HR, 13 RBIs, 9 R

Since being recalled from Triple A and reinstalled in centerfield on June 2, Naquin has hit .336/.414/.742 with 12 home runs in 147 plate appearances. That performance hides a lot of strikeouts (28% of his PA), some luck on balls in play (.413 BABIP) and sub-par play in the field. A 1.156 OPS and a 50-homer pace over nearly two months are too much to ignore, however, and he hasn’t cooled off one bit in his last three weeks.

3. Ryan Dull, RHP, A’s
Season Stats: 5–2, 2.04 ERA, 0.72 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 5.40 K/BB, 201 ERA+, 294 DRA, 53 IP
Last Three Weeks: 9 G, 3–0, 1 SV, 10 1/3 IP, 5 H, 2 R (2 ER), 2 BB, 9 K, 1 HR

It’s not just his name; it’s difficult to get excited about a 26-year-old rookie reliever who is 5’9”, tops out at 93 mph and was drafted way down in the 32nd round in 2012. Dull has been too good for too long this season to continue to ignore, however, and having replaced the injured Sean Dootlittle as the eighth-inning man in Oakland’s bullpen hierarchy, he slips past Astros long reliever Chris Devenski to make his first appearance on this list this season.

Off the list: Chris Devenski (2)

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National League

1. Corey Seager, SS, Dodgers (1)
Season Stats: .303/.358/.517 (136 OPS+), 17 HR, 46 RBIs, 65 R, 203 TB
Last Three Weeks: .304/.328/.393, 0 HR, 5 RBIs, 6 R

2. Aledmys Diaz, SS, Cardinals (2)
Season Stats: .312/.377/.513 (136 OPS+), 13 HR, 53 RBIs, 62 R, 176 TB
Last Three Weeks: .281/.356/.422, 1 HR, 9 RBIs, 8 R

3. Trevor Story, SS, Rockies
Season Stats: .269/.341/.573 (121 OPS+), 27 HR, 71 RBIs, 65 R, 207 TB
Last Three Weeks: .333/.424/.807, 8 HR, 20 RBIs, 18 RBI

This race isn’t quite as close as it looks. Seager is the best fielder of this bunch, followed by Story, so there’s a clear gap between him and Diaz despite their matching OPS+ figures.

Things are much tighter between Diaz and Story, with the latter having come on very strong after the All-Star break, with six home runs in seven games from July 18 to 24. Over his last ten games, Story has hit .343, and half of his hits have been home runs. His last nine home runs, however, have all come at Coors Field; his last road homer was in Miami on June 20, and he is hitting just .227/.289/.459 away from home. That, along with his park-adjusted OPS+, explains why he’s third in this race despite his fine play in the field and tremendous counting stats.

Off the list: Junior Guerra (3)