The midseason version of this column was just for fun—now it’s for real, and things have changed dramatically since July. Just like in the standings, the individual award races saw a first-half juggernaut falter down the stretch, Cleveland get red-hot, and a steady hand in Washington win out over streaky competitors.
AL MVP: José Altuve, Houston Astros
After Mike Trout tore a ligament in his thumb sliding into second base, I wanted so badly for him to storm back after missing 39 games and win the MVP anyway. It almost happened, but Trout has hit just .288/.432/.536 after the break (“just .288/.432/.536”), and the Angels slipping out of playoff contention robbed him of his best narrative case to overtake Altuve and other top challenger Aaron Judge. Trout ends up in a big group of down-ballot candidates like José Ramírez, Francisco Lindor, Andrelton Simmons, Mookie Betts, and the league’s top pitchers, Chris Sale and Corey Kluber.
Judge captured the imagination of the baseball world with his prodigious feats of exit velocity in the season’s first three months but struggled afterward. Before the All-Star break, Judge led all qualified hitters in OBP, SLG, home runs, wRC+, and wOBA. But from July 8 to August 20, he struck out at least once in an MLB-record 37 consecutive games, a span in which he hit just .176/.335/.351. Daddy Yankee had more hits this summer.
But since August 20, Judge is more or less back to normal: .284/.437/.735 with 13 home runs in 31 games, including his 50th of the season, breaking Mark McGwire’s rookie record. Judge is second to Trout among qualified AL hitters in both wRC+ and TAv, the omnibus hitting metric from Baseball Prospectus, and with 170 more plate appearances than the Millville Meteor, it’s fair to say that Judge has been the most impactful hitter in the league.
And in order to make a credible MVP case, Judge has to be the most impactful hitter, because he’s an average base runner who plays right field. He plays it well, but not Jason Heyward–level well, which is what you have to do to build a case as a defensive asset against the scarcity and increased defensive value of up-the-middle players like Altuve and Trout.
Altuve loses out to Judge on power, though with 66 extra-base hits and a .554 slugging percentage (.620 for Judge) he’s not exactly Juan Pierre either. He makes up for that gap in bits and pieces across the field. Altuve stole 32 bases in 38 attempts and is, according to FanGraphs, the 12th-best base runner in the AL. Judge is 50th. Altuve’s about even with Judge in OBP, and despite what your Little League coach told you about a walk being as good as a single, that isn’t quite true—Altuve has Judge by 65 points’ worth of batting average. Most importantly, Altuve plays an up-the-middle position, while Judge is stuck in the corner, so that makes Altuve’s offensive output more valuable.
The total picture is this: Even though they took completely different paths to the top of the MVP ballot, there’s a case to be made for either Judge or Altuve. Baseball-Reference has Altuve rated better by about half a win, Baseball Prospectus likes Judge by about half a win, and FanGraphs has the two about the same. Given two players of similar value, I’ll take the up-the-middle guy, but given how flashy his first half was and the fact that he plays in New York, it wouldn’t shock me if Judge became the third rookie, after Fred Lynn and Ichiro, to win the AL MVP award.
NL MVP: The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins
TMGS is like Judge, with slight adjustments for fewer walks and a less hitter-friendly home ballpark. Stanton’s is a pretty standard MVP case: He’s the league’s leader in home runs (57) and slugging percentage (.629), and his second-half home run binge was probably the National League’s most interesting and impressive performance all year.
The difference between the American League and the National League is that there isn’t an Altuve to challenge Stanton. The closest thing to an Altuve is Charlie Blackmon, whose raw numbers (.326/.394/.599) look similar to Altuve’s (.348/.414/.554), but the comparison doesn’t hold as well once you adjust for Coors Field, and Blackmon also isn’t as good a base runner as Altuve.
Blackmon’s teammate Nolan Arenado has a case, but only if you rate him as a plus-20-run defender at third base, which Baseball-Reference does, but Baseball Prospectus has him as about a plus-five-run defender. Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt looked like he had the inside track on this award four weeks ago, but he hurt his elbow and has hit .212/.284/.379 in September. Beyond that, Washington’s Anthony Rendon and Chicago’s Kris Bryant are both in the six-win range on Baseball-Reference, as is Cardinals outfielder Tommy Pham, who all of a sudden has racked up 5.9 bWAR in just 123 games. But a six-win season hasn’t been good enough for NL MVP since Jimmy Rollins in 2007.
Apart from Blackmon, TMGS’s strongest opposition might be Max Scherzer, who’s on pace to lead the NL in strikeouts and allow fewer hits per inning than anyone since Pedro Martínez in 2000. Scherzer’s on track to make 31 starts, and if he’d made 33 or 34 and pitched well in those extra two or three appearances, I’d probably have thrown my weight behind him—Baseball-Reference has TMGS and Scherzer tied with 7.3 WAR as it is, though BP shows Stanton at 8.3 WARP, seven-tenths of a win clear of Joey Votto.
Votto is the last player with a case. The Reds first baseman has walked in an MLB-leading 19.1 percent of his plate appearances this year while striking out just 11.7 percent of the time, tied for the ninth-lowest rate among 148 qualified hitters. Votto has 130 walks against 80 strikeouts—I used Google to divide that ratio for a Play Index search and came out with a bunch of search results for blood pressure. The results of that Play Index search are that Votto’s K/BB ratio is the best for a hitter in three years—not quite as impressive as TMGS threatening to hit 60 home runs, but still very cool.
However, TMGS comes out roughly even or ahead in most metrics, and as the first baseman on a last-place team, there’s no real position- or narrative-based case for Votto over Stanton either.
AL Cy Young: Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians
At the halfway point, this looked like Chris Sale’s award to lose. He was leading the AL in innings, strikeout rate, and opponent batting average. Nobody had been better and nobody had pitched as much. Kluber was right behind Sale in most rate stats, but he’d missed almost all of May with a back injury and trailed Sale by 34.1 innings, which is a huge gap when we’re talking about total value.
Since then, Sale’s been just as good as he was before—his ERA is 2.76 since the break (up from 2.75 before the break), his opponent OPS is .608 (compared with .562 before the break), and while he’s walking slightly more batters, he’s also striking out 13.4 batters per nine innings—up a strikeout per nine from his pre-All-Star break rate. He’s the first AL pitcher since Pedro Martínez in 1999 to strike out 300 batters. So how in the world does he wind up losing this award to Kluber?
Well, for starters, Kluber’s cut the innings gap down to 10.2. (We’re using stats through Tuesday morning, so the gap has gone up since Sale’s most recent start, but it’ll go back down after Kluber’s start this weekend). But most importantly, while Sale’s been just as good as ever, Kluber’s been the best pitcher in baseball since mid-July. Since the break, Kluber leads all MLB starters in innings, ERA, and K-BB%. In that time frame, he’s second to Sale in K% and second to Justin Verlander in WPA and opponent batting average. In Kluber’s past 14 starts, he’s 11-1 with a 1.79 ERA and 139 strikeouts against just 67 hits and 12 walks. Opponents are hitting .179/.212/.317 off him in that span. Put those numbers on top of his first-half stats and he’s got Sale beat 7.9 to 6.2 in bWAR, which is bigger than the gap from Sale to Minnesota’s Ervin Santana, who sits seventh in pitcher bWAR.
Kluber’s one more good start from becoming the second qualified starter in history, after 1999 Pedro Martínez, to post a 200 ERA+ and a 35 percent strikeout rate in the same season. (He’s currently at a 201 ERA+ and a 34.6 percent strikeout rate.) And like Pedro, he ought to be rewarded with the Cy Young.
NL Cy Young: Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals
Scherzer was on a historic pace through the All-Star break, and while his ERA is half a run higher now than it was in mid-July, he hasn’t cooled off so much as he’s gotten a little nicked up and had one inexplicably bad start against Atlanta two weeks ago. Scherzer is leading the NL in both Baseball-Reference WAR and Baseball Prospectus WARP—the only pitcher who’s less than a win behind him in either metric is his teammate Gio González, who’s thrown fewer innings than Scherzer, and on a rate basis allows more base runners and earned runs while striking out about two-thirds as many batters.
Scherzer also leads the NL in strikeouts, K/9, and H/9, and is tied for the lead in complete games. Despite missing two starts in August with a neck injury, he’s sixth in innings pitched, essentially one start behind the Giants’ Jeff Samardzija, who leads the league. Clayton Kershaw’s got Scherzer beat by 0.34 runs of ERA and the best K/BB ratio in the NL, but in only 171 innings—maybe if his back injury hadn’t kept him out for five weeks, this would be close, but it isn’t.
AL Rookie of the Year: Aaron Judge, New York Yankees
If this isn’t unanimous, I’ll be shocked. Not only is Judge having the best rookie season since Trout in 2012, there isn’t an obvious opposition candidate. Boston’s Andrew Benintendi, the preseason favorite, has been fine. After that, you’d be sticking your neck out for half a good season from Seattle’s Mitch Haniger or 144 slightly above-average innings from New York’s Jordan Montgomery, and I’m just not creative enough to think of an argument for any of them.
NL Rookie of the Year: Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers
Bellinger got out in front early and stayed there. If Philadelphia’s Rhys Hoskins had come up in June and still posted a .271/.400/.665 line, maybe he’d have a case, but Bellinger had too big of a head start to overcome. Paul DeJong of St. Louis deserves mention for hitting 24 home runs in 421 plate appearances as a shortstop, but his .318 OBP, 4.8 percent walk rate, and 28.7 percent strikeout rate make him look too much like a juiced-ball-era Bobby Crosby.
AL Manager of the Year: Terry Francona, Cleveland Indians
All things being equal, the best manager ought to get the Manager of the Year award. I’m one of those people who thinks it’s weird that Mike Babcock has never won the Jack Adams Award, even though he’s the consensus best coach in the NHL. And right now, Francona is the best manager in baseball.
Here’s what I wrote halfway through the season, when I supported Houston’s A.J. Hinch: “The Astros are so far ahead of the pack at this point … it’d take something truly bizarre to knock them off their pedestal and Hinch out of the lead for Manager of the Year.”
I think a 22-game Cleveland winning streak is sufficiently bizarre.
NL Manager of the Year: Torey Lovullo, Arizona Diamondbacks
The consensus two best managers in the NL, Dave Roberts and Joe Maddon, have both stepped in it at various points this year: The Cubs took three months to get going, and it’d feel weird to reward Roberts for the best team in baseball at the time going on a 1-16 run. Plus, not much has changed since Lovullo was my midseason pick: The Diamondbacks have never had a losing record at any point this season, and they’ve gone almost wire-to-wire in playoff position. You could make credible arguments for Colorado’s Bud Black and Washington’s Dusty Baker, but in the span of a year the Diamondbacks have gone from one of the league’s most dysfunctional teams to one of the scariest, and Lovullo deserves credit for his part in that.
Stats through Monday’s games.