This is shaping up to be a great awards season, full of toss-up races with multiple legitimate contenders and decisions that came right down to the last weekend of the season. Of the eight award races I’ll break down here, I’m only 100 percent certain where I come down on two: NL Cy Young and AL Rookie of the Year, and even those featured virtuosic, paradigm-shifting performances by the likely winner. Every other award comes down to what you value in a ballplayer, and there are multiple valid interpretations. Some of these races even reveal the inadequacy of popular sabermetric tools—WAR, advanced defensive metrics, ERA estimators—to draw fine enough distinctions between two players. On the whole, this looks like the most difficult and interesting awards season in recent memory.
AL MVP: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
This is the toughest race on the board, because for all practical purposes there is zero separation between Trout and Mookie Betts. The competition between Aaron Judge and José Altuve was close last year, but there’s a substantial stylistic difference between Altuve and Judge that, at least in my mind, broke the tie—Altuve is a more athletic player and proactive hitter who impacts more facets of the game.
Betts and Trout, however, are extremely similar. They’re both right-handed power hitters who also contribute defensively and on the base paths. Trout is first and Betts is second in the omnibus batting metric at all three major statistical sites—FanGraphs (wRC+), Baseball Prospectus (TAv), and Baseball-Reference (OPS+). Trout has a higher OBP, while Betts has a higher SLG, and either way, they’re 1-2 in both categories. Betts put together a 30-30 season, but Trout has seven more home runs and only six fewer stolen bases, with a better success rate.
I fully expect Betts to win the actual award for two reasons. The first is that his Red Sox have the best record in baseball, not only this year but in any year since 2001, while Trout’s Angels are on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. I don’t think that ought to matter, but it will to some voters, and the case is close enough on merit that their respective records might make a difference. The second reason is that it’s just Betts’s time. Trout’s already won two MVP awards, and has already edged out Betts once—in 2016, when Betts had a better narrative case and had put up a historic season himself. Sometimes we just get tired of voting for the same guy over and over—it happened to Albert Pujols, it happened to Barry Bonds, it happened to Mickey Mantle, and it’ll happen to Trout. In 2015, Trout finished second to Josh Donaldson in MVP voting under very similar circumstances; Trout ended up in a statistical dead heat with a similar player who played on a better team and had never won the MVP award before.
Even so, I’d vote for Trout because of one very small difference in their respective statistical profiles. All three sites grade Trout out as a better hitter, but all three grade Betts out as a more valuable defensive player, despite Trout playing a more difficult position. FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference’s WAR metrics have that defensive difference as big enough for Betts to overtake Trout in overall value.
The problem with that is both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs use zone-based defensive data, which has always thrown up weird results for corner outfielders—particularly in oddly shaped ballparks like Minute Maid Park and Fenway Park. Those numbers have become particularly imprecise in the age of extreme defensive shifts. Moreover, while Betts is an exceptional defensive corner outfielder by any standard, he’d probably be playing center field on a team that didn’t also feature Jackie Bradley Jr., one of the best defensive outfielders in the game. I don’t know whether Betts would be a better defensive center fielder than Trout or how Trout would handle right field in Fenway. I certainly don’t know that Betts is the better part of a win more valuable as a right fielder than Trout is as a center fielder, even after factoring in a positional adjustment to account for the lower offensive baseline among center fielders. Given that Trout’s offensive numbers are better than Betts’s—if only slightly—I’m not comfortable overturning that margin based on defensive metrics that are running into serious methodological problems.
With that said, the margin between Trout and Betts is vanishingly small either way. If Betts wins, as I suspect he will, it will be a richly deserved honor and a totally defensible voting outcome.
NL MVP: Jacob deGrom, New York Mets
This has been an exceptionally weird year for the distribution of hitting versus pitching talent between the two leagues. Essentially, all the elite starting pitchers are in the National League, and all the elite position players are in the American League. If I were dictator of the world, I’d give out two AL MVP awards and two NL Cy Young awards and be done with it.
But unfortunately, we’re left to grapple with a tight two-man race for AL MVP, a weird position player–versus-pitcher debate in the NL MVP race, and poor Max Scherzer, who, despite being better this year than when he won the NL Cy Young in 2016, is going home with nothing.
By any reasonable standard, deGrom has been the best player in the National League this year. He topped the leaderboard in all three WAR formulae, and according to FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference, he had huge gaps over the best position player in the NL, Christian Yelich. It was as big as 2.7 wins in B-Ref’s case, and even Baseball Prospectus had deGrom ahead of Yelich by more than half a win. Baseball-Reference had Aaron Nola over deGrom in pitcher WAR, but thanks to deGrom’s edge in defense and hitting, deGrom edged out Nola overall.
In fact, deGrom, a former college shortstop, hit .164/.211/.179 while holding opposing batters to a .196/.244/.277 batting line. For comparison, Orioles first baseman Chris Davis, who put up one of the worst position-player seasons in recent memory this year, hit .168/.243/.296. Every hitter is having a bad year when deGrom’s on the mound.
Scherzer edged out deGrom in innings pitched and strikeout percentage, though his advantage over deGrom in those categories is negligible. Meanwhile deGrom lapped the field in run prevention; his ERA, 1.70, is the second lowest of the 21st century by a qualified starter and the eighth lowest in the expansion era. That’s even more impressive relative to league; deGrom beat the National League’s average ERA by 2.33 runs; when Bob Gibson posted his modern record 1.12 ERA in 1968, the league-average ERA was 2.99, a difference of just 1.87 runs. This has been an exceptional season, even if the Mets offense and bullpen were able to turn it into only 10 wins.
The best position player, Yelich, has been about as good (all three WARs put him at around 7.5 wins) as Giancarlo Stanton was in his MVP campaign last year, but it’s not a slam-dunk MVP season. (Baseball Prospectus has Trout and Betts in the neighborhood of nine wins, while B-Ref rates Betts at nearly 11 WAR.) Yelich does, however, have an exceptional narrative case. In his first season in Milwaukee, Yelich has taken a huge leap as a power hitter, going from a previous career high of 21 home runs to 36 in 2018. In fact, since statistics from the tiebreaker game between the Cubs and Brewers count as regular-season stats, Yelich has an outside shot at the triple crown. He’s been the most important player in Milwaukee’s first playoff run since 2011 and the catalyst for the season-ending seven-game winning streak that allowed them to chase down the Cubs in the NL Central and force a tiebreaker game.
Consider the four-game stretch from September 25 to September 29. Yelich went 5-for-11 (four home runs and a triple) with eight walks, seven runs scored, and 11 RBI. In four of the most important games of the season, Yelich had more runs scored than outs. That’s reminiscent of Carl Yastrzemski’s stretch run in 1967, a legendary clutch hot streak that won the AL MVP for Yastrzemski and the pennant for the Red Sox.
But Yelich’s full-season numbers don’t measure up to deGrom’s. (Even considering that Yelich played in 146 games to deGrom’s 32, deGrom took part in almost 200 more plate appearances than Yelich did.) There is no performance-based argument against deGrom for MVP. The only reason not to vote for him is either the team quality argument or the idea that pitchers have their own award and shouldn’t win the MVP. Even then, the BBWAA has given the MVP to a pitcher twice in the past decade: Justin Verlander in 2011 and Clayton Kershaw in 2014, and deGrom’s been just as good as either of them, if not better. I suspect that voters will figure that deGrom has his own award and give the MVP to Yelich, but deGrom has been the better player by far.
AL Cy Young: Blake Snell, Tampa Bay Rays
Over the weekend, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic published a column in which he pondered the role of innings pitched in the Cy Young race. Rosenthal’s argument is that starting pitchers ought to be rewarded for piling up innings, particularly as fewer pitchers are given the opportunity to do so. Justin Verlander, who’s quoted heavily in the column, said this year’s AL Cy Young race was “a game-changing vote for the future of how pitchers are evaluated.”
Verlander, perhaps unsurprisingly, stands to benefit from an emphasis on quantity—he finished a close second to Corey Kluber in innings pitched in the AL this year and, because he pitched so many innings, led the AL in both strikeouts and WARP. I’m sympathetic to the argument Rosenthal and Verlander are making—quantity has a quality all its own, and pitchers of Verlander’s stamina and durability are prized now more than ever, as only six AL pitchers even reached the 200-inning threshold this year. Just two seasons ago, I endorsed Scherzer for NL Cy Young even though he was substantially worse on a rate basis than Clayton Kershaw, because Scherzer threw 79 1/3 more innings.
In his column, Rosenthal sets up Rays left-hander Blake Snell, my pick for Cy Young, as the opposition to Verlander. If Snell wins, his 180 2/3 innings will be the least ever for a starting pitcher who won the Cy Young. It’d be an uneasy adjustment for everyone. Rosenthal quotes Verlander as saying the standard for an ace is 200 innings, and when I asked Snell about his goals for the season over the summer, he said the same thing: He was after the 200-inning threshold, not wins or strikeouts or a certain ERA.
But the innings difference between Snell and Verlander isn’t so great, just 33 1/3 innings, not 79 1/3. Snell, unlike Kershaw in 2016, made 31 starts and qualified for the ERA title. Snell wasn’t some part-time starter—he went out every fifth day and took his turn, and got yanked early from time to time on a team that devoted 183 more innings to relievers than any other team in baseball. Most important, Snell’s ERA (1.89) is almost two-thirds of a run lower than Verlander’s, and the lowest in the American League since Pedro Martínez in 2000. Snell is just the third AL starter in the past 40 years to post an ERA below 2.00. According to bWAR, Snell has been the best pitcher in the AL this year even having thrown fewer innings than Verlander.
Does it make me a little uneasy to pick a Cy Young contender who threw just 180 innings? Sure. And if Snell can win the Cy Young, why not Chris Sale, who also leads Verlander in bWAR and posted similar run prevention numbers and superior strikeout numbers to Snell’s in 158 innings? Or why not Oakland’s Blake Treinen, who had a 0.78 ERA in 80 1/3 high-leverage innings? Are we approaching a renaissance for relievers in Cy Young voting as starting pitchers’ roles are reduced? Perhaps. Uncomfortable as it can be to reconsider how we evaluate pitchers, I believe it’s better to adapt to changing times.
NL Cy Young: Jacob deGrom, New York Mets
If deGrom is the best player in the National League, it stands to reason he’s also the best pitcher. Apologies to Scherzer, Nola, Colorado’s Kyle Freeland, and Arizona’s Patrick Corbin, who under normal circumstances would at least merit substantial discussion.
AL Rookie of the Year: Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels
Let’s start with this: Ohtani was the best hitter among American League rookies this year. His 152 wRC+ was first among all AL rookies with at least 200 PA, and his 22 home runs were fourth, behind Miguel Andújar, who got more than 200 more plate appearances; Daniel Palka, whose OBP is almost as low as Ohtani’s batting average; and Gleyber Torres, who could probably give Ohtani a run for his money in value as a hitter, since Ohtani DH’d all year and Torres played in the middle infield.
But Torres didn’t also throw 51 2/3 innings with a 29.9 percent strikeout rate and an 80 ERA-, which would have been eighth and tied for 19th among MLB starters, respectively, if Ohtani had thrown enough innings to qualify. Under normal circumstances, this would probably be a race between Torres and Andújar, the two Yankees, with some outside support for Rays utility man Joey Wendle, who quietly hit .300/.354/.435 in 545 plate appearances while playing at least 10 games at four different positions. Maybe Royals starter Brad Keller, who overcame pedestrian strikeout numbers to post a 141 ERA+ in 140 1/3 innings, will get a down-ballot vote or two.
But nothing Ohtani touches counts as “normal circumstances.” Ohtani’s been the best, most discussed, most talented, most promising, and most important rookie this season. He’ll go home with the hardware, and deservedly so.
NL Rookie of the Year: Ronald Acuña Jr., Atlanta Braves
About six weeks ago, I compared the NL East’s two big rookie outfielders, Acuña and Juan Soto, and I determined that given the choice between the two, I’d take Soto going forward because of his unprecedented plate discipline and feel to hit for a player of his age. I still would, but Acuña’s made me think about it.
Since that column was published August 17, Acuña hit .303/.394/.521 and Soto hit .291/.386/.486. That isn’t a big difference, but coupled with Acuña’s superior speed and defense, it tipped the scales in Acuña’s favor in terms of the NL Rookie of the Year race. Acuña leads all NL rookies in both bWAR and fWAR, though only by a fraction of a win in both cases. I value excitement in Rookie of the Year in a way that I don’t for Cy Young and MVP, and that’s the deciding factor between two similarly valuable players. Maybe that’s not a good reason, but it’s better than flipping a coin, which is what you’d have to do to separate Acuña and Soto otherwise.
Dodgers right-hander Walker Buehler would probably be third on my ballot, thanks to his 141 ERA+ and 28.6 K% in 130 2/3 innings, with the Cardinals’ duo of outfielder Harrison Bader and starting pitcher Jack Flaherty not far behind.
AL Manager of the Year: Bob Melvin, Oakland Athletics
This award usually goes to the manager of the club who overachieves most, and that’s Oakland. But the way in which the A’s overachieved speaks well of Melvin. Oakland has a mixture of youngsters and veterans on their last chance, and under Melvin, they were not only competitive, but they kept pace with the Yankees and Astros all year long. And when Oakland’s best (and perhaps only good) starting pitcher, Sean Manaea, went down, I thought it would spell disaster for the A’s, but thanks to Melvin’s bullpen management, they didn’t miss a beat. Melvin had a lot of work to do, and he pushed all the right buttons.
His biggest competition will probably come from Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who took over a 93-win Red Sox team and led them to a 15-game improvement. However, Cora’s predecessor, John Farrell, was undone by playoff failures, so while Cora’s regular-season achievements are laudable, he’ll be judged by what happens in the next month, rather than what’s happened over the past six. Voting will be over by the time the playoffs start, but the fact the expectations for Cora’s Red Sox lie in October might dampen enthusiasm for the job he’s done thus far.
NL Manager of the Year: Bud Black, Colorado Rockies
This is a wide-open race, with three overachieving teams in the playoffs and last year’s NLDS participants—the Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Nationals, and Cubs—all taking a step back in one form or another. Black, who won this award with the San Diego Padres in 2010, is my pick out of a crowded field that includes Atlanta’s Brian Snitker and Milwaukee’s Craig Counsell. A former pitching coach, Black oversaw breakout seasons for Freeland and German Márquez and shepherded the Rockies through the de facto loss of their own best pitcher, Jon Gray.
What I like best about Black’s Rockies is that they got stronger as the season went on. Six weeks ago, Phillies manager Gabe Kapler would’ve had a shot at this award, but his team cratered during a pennant race and Kapler couldn’t right the ship. The Rockies, meanwhile, played their best ball down the stretch; they were 51-45 before the All-Star break and 40-26 after it, including an eight-game winning streak in the final third of September to secure a share of the NL West title.