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The 2017 MLB Midseason Awards

Aaron Judge, Aaron Judge, and everyone else

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The All-Star break is a natural place to look back, take stock of the season so far, and since this is a midseason awards column, write Aaron Judge’s name a bunch of times.

AL MVP: Aaron Judge, Yankees

Judge is leading the American League in OBP, slugging percentage, home runs, and two of the three WAR metrics. (Chris Sale has Judge beaten by nearly a full win in WARP on Baseball Prospectus, though Judge leads all position players.) He has the numbers, and as the face of the resurgent Yankees, he has a compelling narrative case as well.

It helps Judge a little that Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson — probably the AL’s two best position players coming into the season — have both missed time due to injury, but he’s still enduring a stiff challenge on multiple fronts. In addition to Sale, Mookie Betts is having another excellent season — not quite as good as last year’s, but he’s on pace for seven or eight wins, which is the kind of year that usually earns MVP consideration. Three of the top five AL position players in bWAR are Houston Astros: José Altuve (.347/.417/.551, 18-for-22 SB), Carlos Correa (.325/.402/.577), and George Springer (.310/.380/.613). It’s the city’s second-most impressive collection of bats, after the quarter of a million Mexican free-tailed bats who live under the Waugh Drive Bridge. Any one of those three slash lines from an up-the-middle player, extrapolated out over a full season, would merit MVP consideration in a year in which Judge didn’t climb down the beanstalk to terrorize the league.

One person to keep an eye on down the stretch is Trout, who returns Friday after a six-week absence with an injured thumb. Six weeks is a long time to miss, but it’s important to remember that Trout was out-hitting Judge (.337/.461/.742) and was on pace for about 12 wins when he went down. He’s currently sitting on 3.4 WAR, eighth among AL position players — so if Judge falters and Trout picks up where he left off, the two-time MVP could conceivably chase Judge down.

NL MVP: Justin Turner, Dodgers

This looks like it’ll be a fun race, because it’s so wide-open at the break. Joey Votto leads all MLB position players in WARP by half a win, and though he’s benefiting from some stellar (and probably a little untrustworthy at this point in the season) defensive numbers for a first baseman, Votto has the exact same OPS+ (171) as he did in his MVP campaign in 2010. Votto is hitting .315/.427/.631, and Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt is putting up a similar slash line (.312/.428/.577), though Votto’s got better power numbers, which is a little weird, given Goldschmidt’s reputation as a masher and Votto’s as a high-OBP guy with mid-20-homer power, but still significant. Corey Seager and Daniel Murphy are essentially repeating their top-three MVP-finish seasons from last year, Bryce Harper is hitting .325/.431/.590, and Anthony Rendon is hitting .304/.407/.552. Nolan Arenado’s .301/.351/.554 line at the break is a little inflated by Coors Field and the juiced ball, but he’ll get more credit for his defense than anyone else I’ve mentioned except maybe Seager. All told, there are seven former top-five MVP vote-getters within half a win of the NL position player lead on one of the three WAR metrics.

My personal pick for NL MVP is Justin Turner, who’s hitting .377/.473/.583, but has three strikes against him. The first is that he missed 19 games with a hamstring injury, but he’s tied atop the Baseball-Reference WAR leaderboard, anyway. (Turner’s currently five plate appearances short of what he’d need to qualify for the batting title.) The second is that, like Murphy, he was a mediocre Mets infielder for long enough that since he didn’t turn into a monster until around age 30, it still doesn’t quite feel real. That ongoing skepticism of Turner plays into the third and most interesting criticism of his season thus far: that his MVP case relies heavily on batting average, and his batting average is fluky.

But Turner isn’t just hitting for a high average, he’s hitting .377, a mark no qualified hitter has touched since 1999, and only three hitters — Larry Walker, Tony Gwynn, and George Brett — have reached in the past 30 years. It’s far from an empty .377, too. Turner’s walking in 11.7 percent of his plate appearances and leads MLB in OBP. He’s slugging .583, which would beat Goldschmidt, Arenado, and Rendon, and he’s doing it at third base, where he’s not on Arenado’s level as a defender, but he’s more valuable on that side of the ball than first basemen like Votto and Goldschmidt.

But Turner’s BABIP is .398, which would be the fourth-highest mark for a qualified hitter since 2000 if he keeps it up. Can he? A quick peek at the list of recent ultra-high BABIP seasons reveals an interesting mix. There are memorable flukes, like Chris Johnson in 2013 and Austin Jackson in 2010, but also great seasons from Manny Ramirez and Josh Hamilton, who hit the absolute immortal soul out of the baseball. You’ll also find Derek Jeter and Ichiro on this list multiple times. Those two might be the best spray hitters of their generation, and Ichiro did it as an 80-grade runner with a jailbreak lefty swing that got him to first base in time to beat out grounders that should’ve been routine outs.

Turner is a career .323 BABIP hitter who’s on track to set a career high in hard-contact rate, so while he’s not as fluky as Johnson, he’s also not a natural super-high BABIP hitter like Ichiro. But more to the point, it doesn’t matter that much if Turner’s batting average is a fluke. The MVP is a retrospective award — you earn it for what you do, not how you do it.

Regardless of whether Turner can sustain those numbers, one thing I can almost guarantee is that this race will change shape before season’s end. In addition to the eight-way near-tie as it stands now, Max Scherzer is having the kind of season that could elevate a pitcher to MVP, particularly without a clear front-runner among position players. And if you expand the focus to include players who don’t have a great MVP case now, but are close enough to the leaders that they could make one with a hot second half, that brings players like Kris Bryant, Ryan Zimmerman, Buster Posey, Marcell Ozuna, and The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton into the picture. There are at least 20 players who could build a serious case for NL MVP by season’s end. This is going to be absolute chaos.

AL Cy Young: Chris Sale, Red Sox

You can find pitchers who have matched individual components of Sale’s season, but the Boston left-hander is leading the league in DRA, FIP, strikeouts, and innings pitched, and he’s allowing fewer hits per nine innings than any other qualified starter. Plus, wherever he’s not atop the AL leaderboard, he’s close. WARP, which is based on DRA, the best public ERA estimator, has Sale ahead of his nearest AL rival, Chris Archer, by more than a full win.

As for the other contenders, Ervin Santana’s three complete-game shutouts are a selling point, Marcus Stroman has a narrow lead in bWAR, and Jason Vargas is leading the AL in ERA+. (If Vargas is still leading the AL in ERA+ by season’s end, I’ll get “Vargas for Cy Young” lawn signs printed up.) But all three have below-average strikeout rates. Corey Kluber and Dallas Keuchel have been at least as good as Sale on a per-inning basis, and Lance McCullers has been close, but all three have missed significant time due to injury. Archer’s been a workhorse, but his ERA doesn’t match his peripherals. No one has been as impressive as Sale, and no one has fewer flaws.

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

NL Cy Young: Max Scherzer, Nationals

I don’t think Scherzer’s passed Clayton Kershaw in, like … [pauses to take gigantic bong rip] … the cosmic sense, man, but Scherzer’s got the best numbers this year of any pitcher in baseball. He’s on track to post an ERA+ in excess of 200, which has been done by a starter only eight times in the past 20 years (four times by Pedro Martinez, twice by Zack Greinke, and once each by Jake Arrieta and Roger Clemens). He’s allowing only 5.12 hits per nine innings, which would be the lowest mark by a qualified starter in MLB history. And Scherzer’s rate stats have been that good while he’s pitched the second-most innings in the majors, trailing only Kershaw.

Kershaw’s about a win back of Scherzer, give or take, across all three WAR leaderboards, and he has the best chance of reeling him in over the second half. Greinke is not far behind Kershaw, and the last two spots on a hypothetical Cy Young ballot could go to Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Carlos Martínez, Alex Wood, Milwaukee’s Jimmy Nelson, or Arizona’s Robbie Ray, depending on whether you value ERA+, DRA, innings, strikeouts, or something else.

Wood deserves special mention because no matter how much you read BP, a 10–0 record and a 1.67 ERA at the break will make your eyes bug out of your head. Except, Kershaw and Scherzer have thrown about 50 more innings than Wood, which is a lot.

Also deserving of special mention, but not strictly relevant to a hypothetical midseason Cy Young ballot: Greinke bounced back from a down year in 2016, and Ray’s been better than anticipated, but two other Arizona pitchers, Zack Godley and Archie Bradley, are in the top 10 in bWAR among National League pitchers.

But right now, everyone’s chasing Kershaw for second place. I’d have an easier time making an MVP case for Scherzer than I would making a Cy Young case for anyone else.

AL Rookie of the Year: Aaron Judge, Yankees

Simple transitive property here — if Judge is the best player, he’s also the best rookie. Boston’s Andrew Benintendi was the heavy preseason favorite, but a 106 wRC+ looks pedestrian against a guy who’s rewriting the laws of physics. Judge’s closest competition is probably his teammate Jordan Montgomery (126 ERA+ in 91.1 IP), who in Judge’s absence would be in a dogfight with Cleveland’s Bradley Zimmer (.285/.339/.450), Baltimore’s Trey Mancini (.538 SLG), and Seattle’s outfield duo of Ben Gamel and Mitch Haniger (127 wRC+ and 133 wRC+, respectively). But Judge could probably take the second half off and still take home Rookie of the Year.

NL Rookie of the Year: Kyle Freeland, Rockies

How you feel about Freeland depends on whether you value results or peripherals. Freeland, who took a no-hitter into the ninth on Sunday, has a 5.5 K/9 ratio and a 3.4 BB/9 ratio, which would’ve been mediocre 20 years ago. In today’s game, with more strikeouts and fewer walks across the league, those peripherals are borderline unsurvivable. Of 74 qualified starters, Freeland ranks 73rd in K-BB%. On the other hand, Freeland’s thrown 107.1 innings with a 3.77 ERA while playing his home games in Coors Field, where his ERA is actually more than a run lower than it is on the road.

So, Baseball-Reference, which uses ERA in its WAR, has Freeland as the best rookie in the National League by almost a win, but FanGraphs, which uses FIP, has Freeland as the third-best rookie pitcher on his own team, behind Jeff Hoffman and Germán Márquez.

Cody Bellinger trails Freeland in bWAR in part because Freeland got called up two and a half weeks earlier. Bellinger plays on a better team in a bigger market, and his home run total is flashier than anything Freeland’s done, so I think if it came down to a vote now, Bellinger would win easily. Not only that, I think that by September, Bellinger will have passed Freeland conclusively.

But that’s all in the future, and as someone who falls on the ERA side of the ERA-FIP divide, I find what Freeland’s done, in the environment he’s done it in, slightly more impressive than what Bellinger’s done.

AL Manager of the Year: A.J. Hinch, Astros

If I were starting a team from scratch, I’d take Hinch over any AL manager except Terry Francona, and not only does Francona have two of these awards already, his Cleveland club stumbled out of the gate while Hinch’s Astros are on pace to go 109–53. With extensive front-office experience himself, Hinch is an ideal communicator for a young club assembled by a very active front office, and his creative deployment of utilityman Marwin González and middle reliever Chris Devenski shows him to be a creative tactician as well. The Astros are so far ahead of the pack at this point (BP has them at 100 percent to make the playoffs and to win the AL West), it’d take something truly bizarre to knock them off their pedestal and Hinch out of the lead for Manager of the Year.

NL Manager of the Year: Torey Lovullo, Diamondbacks

Manager of the Year is frequently a proxy for Most Surprisingly Good Team, and the Diamondbacks are on track to improve by 26 games in Lovullo’s first year as manager. It’s not a slam-dunk pick, because in the same division another first-year manager, Colorado’s Bud Black, has his team on track to improve on last year’s record by 18 games. Since Black already has a good reputation as a pitching coach, and because the Rockies have relied so heavily on rookie pitchers like Freeland, Márquez, Hoffman, and Antonio Senzatela in such a hostile home environment, you could make a compelling argument for him as well.

Dave Roberts has a case, though the Dodgers’ high expectations coming into the season will probably work against him, as will the fact that only once has a manager won Manager of the Year in back-to-back seasons (Bobby Cox in 2004 and 2005). Brian Snitker has the Braves playing way over their heads as well, but he has next to no shot if they don’t get over .500 — only Joe Girardi of the 2006 Marlins has won the award on a team with a losing record.

But considering how well the Diamondbacks and Rockies fit the Manager of the Year profile, there’s no reason to look past Lovullo and Black, and given the choice between the two, it’s close, but I’d take Lovullo.