Welcome to The Lineup! This is a weekly column that will examine — you guessed it — nine topics from the world of baseball in numbered order.
Since it’s All-Star week, it’s time for some midseason awards. We could have just chosen these by sorting the WAR leaderboard, but (1) that isn’t any fun and (2) it requires WAR to make fine distinctions, which the stat isn’t quite equipped to do. WAR is a roller, while more granular stats are brushes. Let’s use all of our tools to figure who deserves our imaginary honors.
1 AL MVP: Mike Trout
Not particularly controversial, I’d imagine. As he has been every year since 2012, Trout is the best player in baseball, and he’s produced accordingly this year: .322/.425/.567 with 18 home runs, a 15-for-16 stolen-base rate, and average (but valuable) defense at an up-the-middle position. The most important thing in baseball is to not make outs, and Trout’s done that better than anyone other than the largely stationary David Ortiz this year. Trout’s advantages in defense and baserunning more than make up for the pair’s 15-point difference in wRC+.
That said, Trout’s statistical edge isn’t so great that it’s not worth entertaining arguments for Josh Donaldson (.304/.418/.598, at third base) or José Altuve. The Astros second baseman is particularly interesting, because in the span of four seasons he’s gone from “fun but overrated” to “really good” to “truly a top-10 player in baseball.” Altuve’s .341 average and 23-for-26 stolen-base rate are nothing new, but he’s just about doubled his walk rate to 10.1 percent this year, in addition to tacking on nearly 100 points of slugging percentage. That puts him in Troutian/Donaldsonian territory with the bat alone, and if such things matter to you: He’s far more likely than Trout to make those contributions to a winning team.
The numbers favor Trout, but the narrative favors Altuve, which is fine, because the BBWAA is going to need to come up with a new reason to screw Trout this fall, after screwing him in 2012, 2013, and 2015.
2 NL MVP: Kris Bryant
From a narrative perspective, you have to thread the needle to generate real MVP heat: If a player’s team isn’t any good, certain voters will deny that he has any value; if the team’s too good, the player is just a cog in a machine, or he might split the vote with another MVP-worthy teammate. If Trout runs into the former problem, Chicago’s titanic teetotaler runs into the latter.
For my money, Bryant (.286/.384/.578) has been the best position player in the National League this year, though his teammate Anthony Rizzo (.299/.416/.591) is pretty close. I love a lot of things about Rizzo, particularly how little he strikes out for a guy with big power, but this one essentially comes down to a 30-point edge in OBP for Rizzo versus a much more difficult defensive profile — primarily third base and both outfield corners — for Bryant. For a guy who’s listed at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, Bryant is a phenomenal athlete, and defensive value is a differentiating factor in an MVP field of big bats that might otherwise blend together.
Defense also plays a role in evaluating several other top position players. Two different Giants, Buster Posey and Brandon Crawford, show up near the top of two different WAR lists (Baseball Prospectus and Baseball-Reference, respectively). The problem with both Giants is that the most favorable WAR total for each derives more than two wins of value from defense, and I just don’t trust defensive numbers that extreme, particularly over half a season and particularly when the major defensive ratings (UZR, FRAA, DRS) don’t agree with each other. And even if I did, no major metric rates Crawford higher than Bryant, and the only site that rates Posey over Bryant — Baseball Prospectus — does so by only a tenth of a win, which is a margin so small it’s not worth paying attention to.
On the other hand, all three defensive ratings agree that Bryant’s a better defender than Matt Carpenter (.298/.420/.568), whose bat would otherwise put him in Bryant’s class. I don’t trust half-season outliers, but I trust a consensus to be at least directionally correct. I don’t think Bryant jumps off the page right now, like Bryce Harper did last year, but he’s the only position player I couldn’t find a reasonable argument against.
3 AL Cy Young: Danny Salazar
I love Danny Salazar, but I don’t trust him to keep this up for a full season — not even for a second. Still, this is about what’s happened so far, not what will happen in the second half, and the Cleveland starter leads the AL in strikeout rate and is second in ERA and opponent batting average.
Salazar isn’t an obvious choice by any means. He also has the highest walk rate in the AL. And while quality is generally more important than quantity in pitching, Salazar has still thrown about 20 fewer innings than Chicago’s Chris Sale and his Cleveland teammate Corey Kluber. So while Salazar’s pulled away from those two on a rate basis, they both have produced two or three more starts of quality pitching. Meanwhile, Boston’s Steven Wright and Chicago’s Jose Quintana have put up gaudy ERA and innings numbers despite lower strikeout rates. Michael Fulmer of Detroit and Rich Hill of Oakland have been even better than Salazar, but in even fewer innings. And over about the same number of innings, Toronto’s Marco Estrada has been almost as good as Salazar at preventing runs, but he has a lower strikeout rate. While I don’t give David Price any extra credit for having a FIP about a run lower than his ERA, he might be in the thick of the Cy Young discussion come the end of the year. Salazar likely won’t be, but he gets the nod right now.
4 NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw
5 AL Rookie of the Year: Tyler Naquin
In the long run, this is Nomar Mazara’s award to win, and I suspect he will. But Naquin is hitting .314/.374/.591 to Mazara’s .282/.330/.420, plus Naquin’s mostly been playing center field, as opposed to the outfield corners like Mazara. And despite having had about half as many plate appearances, Naquin’s already caught Mazara in FanGraphs WAR and Baseball Prospectus WARP.
However, Naquin has been getting lucky: His BABIP sits at .418, and his 29.5 percent strikeout rate is not particularly conducive to maintaining a .314 batting average. On the other hand, Mazara has more raw power and strikes out about half as much. If The Big Chill doesn’t eventually pass Naquin in the Rookie of the Year race, I suspect Hyun Soo Kim of Baltimore will.
6 NL Rookie of the Year: Corey Seager
By the numbers, this is a two-horse race between two shortstops: Seager and Aledmys Díaz of St. Louis. Once you take park factors into account, Seager (.297/.357/.521) and Díaz (.315/.380/.536) are more or less even offensively, and among the three major WAR metrics, the only one that separates the two by more than one-fifth of a win (FanGraphs) does so largely on the basis of those noisy defensive ratings. The same numbers say Seager is a better defensive shortstop than Addison Russell, and in a class with Zack Cozart and Freddy Galvis. In short: He’s not, so on merit, Seager and Díaz are about even.
The statistical dead heat makes this an appropriate place to use a narrative tiebreaker. In addition to being almost four years younger than Díaz, Seager was a much bigger prospect and represents much bigger star potential. Compared to the reverse, if it’s close and Díaz wins, there’s a much smaller chance that baseball historians will judge us for backing the wrong guy.
7 Manager of the Year: Terry Francona and Bruce Bochy
If we stick to the “Team That Most Overachieves Preseason Expectations” narrative that typically guides this award, Buck Showalter of Baltimore and Don Mattingly of Miami would probably both win, and that’d be fine. But despite coming into the season with better rosters, Terry Francona of Cleveland and Bruce Bochy of San Francisco have done better jobs.
Francona has empowered his younger players, managed around the ineffectiveness of Yan Gomes and the injury to Michael Brantley, and, most importantly, persuaded Francisco Lindor to stop bunting so much. For his part, Bochy remains baseball’s steadiest hand. He makes very few tactical mistakes, and has led the Giants not only to baseball’s best record, but the second-biggest positive differential in the National League between his team’s Pythagorean record (projected record based on run differential) and actual record. (The Giants trail only the Phillies, and even though his team’s not very good, Philadelphia manager Pete Mackanin has done an incredible job as a teacher and man-manager.) This being an even year, Bochy’s efforts will most likely be rewarded with a fourth World Series title, too.
8 Bromance of the Year: Noah Syndergaard and Yoenis Céspedes
This is an extremely important award that, in all honesty, Elvis Andrus and Adrián Beltré could win every year if they wanted to. But in the interest of spreading the wealth, it’s time to pick a new honoree. One tempting option is the aforementioned duo of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, whose Bryzzo Souvenir Co. commercial is one of this season’s most adorably goofy (or goofily adorable) contributions to baseball media:
Instead, the award has to go to two men who best encapsulate the spirit of the baseball bromance: At its purest, this multibillion-dollar worldwide industry is built around something kids do with their friends for fun, and if you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong.
Those men are Noah Syndergaard and Yoenis Céspedes, who bonded over a love of horses, then rode to work together on horses that were, well, big enough to carry the two of them:
Céspedes is rich and famous the way I want to be rich and famous — he buys fast cars and modifies them to make them even faster and more vulgar. No sense in having money if you’re going to be tasteful. Meanwhile, Syndergaard, who acts like what I imagine a golden retriever would act like if you gave its soul a human body, appreciates just how cool his job is and just how cool it is that he gets to hang out with Céspedes every day.
9 Wolf Parade Award: Rougned Odor
The Wolf Parade Award is an old holdover, given to the player who’s most likely to do something shocking.
At age 22, Odor is in his third season in the big leagues, yet he’s only a couple of months older than a rookie like Seager or a prospect like Alex Bregman. Despite being barely Altuve-sized, he’s leading the high-powered Rangers in home runs. And when he comes to the plate, he aims to hit — only eight walks against 16 home runs and 70 strikeouts this year — and in a game that involves so much hurry-up-and-wait, I appreciate players who take the action to their opponents.
Speaking of taking the action to your opponent, he punched José Bautista right in the goddamn face.
I don’t approve of violence in baseball. OK, that’s a lie. I approve very much of the occasional bit of violence in baseball, which, for all its other virtues, is a very staid game that tends to follow a routine. As long as nobody goes full Juan Marichal, watching someone sweep all the pieces off the board and flip over the table is fun every so often. And this was an all-time great fight from a guy with a history of punch-fighting on the baseball diamond. The possibilities for excitement with Odor are endless, and that’s the essence of the Wolf Parade Award.