It’s not technically the halfway point of the MLB season, but as someone who tends to eat lunch late to shorten the second half of the workday, I find the All-Star break to be a perfect time to sit back and reflect. The season doesn’t end today, but if it did, here’s who I’d choose for each of the eight major awards, and why:
AL MVP: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
Of course it’s Trout. He’s leading the AL in OBP, with great power (.606 slugging percentage, 25 HR), speed (15 steals in 16 attempts), and solid defense in center field. What more do you want? Boston’s Mookie Betts and Cleveland’s José Ramírez are a very close second and third, and both are in the midst of uncommon statistical achievements: Betts’s OPS+ at the break is an even 200—nobody’s had a 200 OPS+ over a full season since Barry Bonds in 2004. And Ramírez is tied for the AL lead in home runs (29) and is third in stolen bases (20). Nobody’s gone 20-20 at the break since Matt Kemp in 2011, and Ramírez is in position to become MLB’s first 30-30 man since Trout and Ryan Braun in 2012. Trout is a little behind the pace on the race to both a 200 OPS+ and 30-30, but he could reach either (or both) with a strong second half.
I’m actually starting to feel bad for Betts, who’s been no. 2 to Trout for so long and will probably wind up finishing behind Trout in MVP voting again. At almost any other point in history, Betts would have a case for being the best player in baseball. But since Trout’s in the picture, that’s become a fringe position held only by contrarians and people who sound like background players in Good Will Hunting. In 2016, Betts finished second in AL MVP voting with a 9.7 bWAR season. Setting Trout aside, the last time an American League position player had a season that good was Alex Rodriguez’s last year in Seattle.
Betts’s best path to the MVP award is the one Josh Donaldson took in 2015: get close enough to Trout statistically that award voters have an excuse to shake things up. Having the same MVP every year is boring—even if the same player is obviously the most valuable player every season—as dominant athletes ranging from Mickey Mantle to LeBron James learned firsthand. But Betts will have to keep putting up historic numbers in order to keep that door open, because Trout’s going to put up historic numbers no matter what.
NL MVP: Jacob deGrom, New York Mets
There are as many as 10 teams with a chance at making the playoffs in the National League, which is going to make this stretch run chaotic as all get out—and somehow the NL MVP race might be even weirder. By Baseball-Reference WAR, the four most valuable players in the NL are all pitchers, and the eight most valuable position players in baseball are all in the American League. Baseball Prospectus’s six most valuable position players are in the AL, and its three most valuable NL players are all pitchers, though the margin between deGrom, Aaron Nola, and the top NL position player, Freddie Freeman, is so thin as to be irrelevant.
The serious MVP candidates from recent NL seasons just haven’t shown up this year. Bryce Harper and Anthony Rizzo are having down seasons. Corey Seager, Kris Bryant, and Daniel Murphy got hurt. Giancarlo Stanton plays in the American League. Paul Goldschmidt’s been on fire for the past month and a half, but dug himself into a huge hole by hitting .144/.252/.278 in May. Joey Votto and Buster Posey have been good, but not, like, awesome. A league MVP is usually worth eight WAR or more, but we might just not get that kind of season from an NL position player this year. The top performers so far are Lorenzo Cain, Nolan Arenado, and Freeman, all guys who usually show up on MVP ballots somewhere, just generally not toward the top.
Given the choice of those three, I’d take Arenado, who’s having the best offensive season of his career and after back-to-back top-five MVP finishes might win on the “he’s been close before, and now he’s due” argument.
But I’d feel much better about voting for a pitcher, specifically one of either deGrom or Max Scherzer. Scherzer’s thrown 11 1/3 more innings and has slightly better peripheral numbers, though deGrom’s ERA is more than half a run lower (1.68 to 2.41). Even though Scherzer’s allowing fewer baserunners and striking out more batters, I’ll admit to being a little dazzled by deGrom’s ERA. A 1.68 just looks special, and it is. If deGrom keeps up his current pace, he’ll finish the season with the 13th-best ERA+ by a qualified starter in baseball history, and the seventh-best in the past 100 years. There’s time for one of the position players to catch deGrom and Scherzer, but right now, I’d go with a pitcher.
AL Cy Young: Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox
It is hilarious that two current Red Sox pitchers have won Cy Young awards and Sale isn’t one of them. His strikeout numbers have been outrageous—in 2017, Sale struck out 12.9 batters per nine innings, the third-highest mark ever for a qualified starter, and this season his K/9 is up to 13.1, which is a rounding error away from Pedro Martínez in 1999 for the second-highest mark ever. (The all-time record is 13.41 K/9, set by Randy Johnson in 2001.) Sale’s career K/9 ratio is 10.8, the highest ever for a starting pitcher with at least 1,000 innings pitched, and even if you lower the innings threshold to 500, Sale only trails Yu Darvish by a quarter of a strikeout per nine innings.
Sale leads the AL in ERA and DRA, and he’s second in WHIP. He leads all AL pitchers in bWAR by three-quarters of a win, and while Justin Verlander has him beat in WARP, Verlander’s made an extra start. If Sale falters through the season’s second half, you could make a case for Verlander or Trevor Bauer—and Sale might falter. (Remember how in mid-May it looked like three-fifths of the Astros’ rotation would finish with an ERA below 2.00? Great pitching seasons are fragile things.) After Verlander and Bauer, Corey Kluber’s close behind based on run prevention and innings pitched, but a step behind in strikeouts, as is Luis Severino.
NL Cy Young: deGrom
The phrase “in the conversation” gets tossed around a lot in awards analysis. Usually, it’s sports-talk radio code for “we know which player is best, but we’ve got three hours and 55 minutes more of this show to fill, so who else can we strain to make an argument for?” If you think a player deserves the MVP or Cy Young, you say so. If you don’t actually believe that and are just talking for the sake of talking, you say he’s “in the conversation.”
In the case of NL Cy Young, if we’re talking about who should actually win, there are really only three pitchers “in the conversation”: deGrom, Scherzer, and Aaron Nola. Among qualified NL starters, these three pitchers rank first, second, and third (in various combinations) in ERA, WARP, and bWAR. They rank first, second, and fourth in innings pitched, with San Diego’s Clayton Richard third, and first, third, and fourth in opponent batting average, with Atlanta’s Mike Foltynewicz second. And even among those three, I’d narrow the real choices down to deGrom and Scherzer, because while Nola is among the leaders in all of those key categories, he doesn’t lead in any of them. He doesn’t have one spectacular stat to point to, like Scherzer’s strikeouts or deGrom’s ERA. I would, as I said in the NL MVP section, vote for deGrom, but Scherzer’s case is just as reasonable.
Despite the existence of a clear top tier of three NL pitchers, the actual ballot goes five deep, which means that Arizona’s Zack Greinke and Patrick Corbin will also get into The Conversation, as will Foltynewicz and possibly even Colorado’s Kyle Freeland, who’s pitched well in tough circumstances, despite not striking anyone out.
AL Rookie of the Year: Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels
As of right now, Ohtani’s been the most valuable rookie in baseball, but I expect that to change by the end of the year because even if he continues to hit at his current pace (.283/.365/.522), it’s uncertain what impact, if any, he’s going to make as a pitcher down the stretch. If Ohtani, who on Thursday was cleared to start a throwing program after suffering a UCL injury, ends up making 15 starts (he has nine already), he’ll probably be named Rookie of the Year. But if he doesn’t contribute as a pitcher, that opens the door for Gleyber Torres, who’s putting up about the same offensive numbers (.294/.350/.555) but at second base, not DH, which makes his offensive contributions more valuable. And by virtue of playing in New York, Torres might be the only other rookie of note with a fan and media following that approaches Ohtani’s.
Rays first baseman Jake Bauers and Astros catcher Max Stassi (who is somehow still rookie-eligible despite having appeared in at least one Astros game every year since 2013—talk about unbelievable achievements) have played very well in relatively limited action, but at this point, anyone but Ohtani or Torres winning AL Rookie of the Year would be a surprise.
NL Rookie of the Year: Seranthony Dominguez, Philadelphia Phillies
The current leader in WAR among NL rookies on both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference is Brian Anderson, whom I bet you’ve never heard of. There are three reasons for that: First, he plays in Miami, which means nobody’s ever seen him play. Second, he doesn’t have one exceptional skill or attribute to point to, like Juan Soto’s power or age. Anderson is hitting .288/.363/.429, which is the Sheldon Willis of batting lines: He’s got to like you, and then forget you the moment you’ve left his sight. Third, his name is Brian Anderson.
In the past 25 years, there have been three MLB players named Brian Anderson. There have also been three minor leaguers named Brian Anderson, a big leaguer named Bryan Anderson, and three more minor leaguers named Ryan Anderson. One of the previous Brian Andersons, the ex-Diamondbacks pitcher who once missed a start because his arm got stiff during a 20-minute cab ride to the ballpark, is now doing color commentary on Tampa Bay Rays broadcasts. But he’s not to be confused with the Brian Anderson who does play-by-play for the Milwaukee Brewers and certain national games on TBS. That Brian Anderson never played in the big leagues.
The point is, Brian Anderson the Younger has a good statistical case for Rookie of the Year, but he’s not going to win unless he changes his name to something more memorable. Among position players, Cardinals outfielder Harrison Bader (.272/.340/.413, nine stolen bases) has been solid, and Reds outfielder Jesse Winker is walking more than he’s striking out, which is extremely cool.
But for me, this is a two-horse race between Soto and Phillies reliever Seranthony Dominguez. (You know who has a memorable name? Seranthony Dominguez.) Soto isn’t in the headlines every night anymore, but he’s still hitting .301/.411/.517. And the reason he isn’t up near the top of the rookie WAR leaderboards is because he’s only played in 51 games (compared to 97 for Anderson) and because he’s getting killed by the advanced defensive metrics, which are notoriously unreliable, particularly in small samples and particularly for corner outfielders.
Right now, Baseball-Reference has Soto at seven runs below average in 51 games, which prorates to about minus-20 through a full season. Soto is not Mookie Betts, but Carlos Lee on crutches wouldn’t put up a minus-20 in left field. I expect that Soto will win this award, and everyone will walk away happy.
Even so, I’d vote for Dominguez instead. Every so often we have a conversation about what it’d take for a reliever to win the Cy Young, since relievers pitch so few innings they’ll never lead the league in WAR. Dominguez, a reliever who’s thrown just 33 2/3 innings, is leading all rookie pitchers, AL and NL, in fWAR, and he trails only Oakland’s Lou Trivino in bWAR. Dominguez has a 1.60 ERA and nine saves against six walks, and he’s pitching in incredibly high-leverage innings. Dominguez is third among rookie pitchers in WPA, trailing Arizona’s Yoshihisa Hirano and Trivino, both of whom pitch in much lower-leverage roles and have thrown more innings. Dominguez’s gmLI (the average leverage index when he enters the game) is not only highest among rookies, it’s fourth-highest among all relievers.
Dominguez, a multi-inning stopper, is Philadelphia’s bullpen. Closer Héctor Neris got himself demoted after his ERA neared 7.00, lefty killer Adam Morgan and veteran setup man Tommy Hunter have both blown up in big moments, and free-agent signing Pat Neshek missed the first three months of the season due to injury. The Phillies, having just missed out on Manny Machado, are rumored to be interested in veteran relievers like Zach Britton because Dominguez has been forced to hold the roof up pretty much all on his own.
AL Manager of the Year: Alex Cora, Boston Red Sox
The only constant of Manager of the Year voting is that we don’t know enough about the inner workings of the clubhouse to make informed choices. That’s why Manager of the Year is usually a proxy for “team we didn’t think was good at the start of the year but turned out to be good anyway.” By that logic, Seattle’s Scott Servais feels like the frontrunner.
But I’d go in a different direction. Each of the past two years, the Red Sox won 93 games, but capitulated in the first round of the playoffs. So Boston fired manager John Farrell last offseason and replaced him with Cora, a first-time manager. And lo and behold, the Sox are on pace to win 112 games, and as far as I know, there’s been no clubhouse-destroying drama. I have no idea how much of that is Cora’s doing, but from a results perspective, it feels like you can’t ask for much more from a manager.
NL Manager of the Year: Dave Roberts, Los Angeles Dodgers
All but six of the teams in the American League are bad. Of those six exceptions, the Astros, Red Sox, Indians, and Yankees were all expected to be really good, which makes it tough to find a compelling Manager of the Year narrative. Not so in the National League, which is wide open on all fronts.
There are three managers with a shot to take young teams to the playoffs for the first time after their franchises’ extended absences: Milwaukee’s Craig Counsell, Atlanta’s Brian Snitker, and Philadelphia’s Gabe Kapler. Kapler is the flashiest and manages in the biggest market, and just like in state and local elections, name recognition matters in the Manager of the Year race. But even though the Phillies are successful now, Kapler is still polarizing, and he’s still shaking off the bad first impression he made as a manager. Jim Riggleman also deserves a lot of credit for taking over a Reds team that started the season 3-15 under Bryan Price and going 40-38 in his first three months on the job, but Manager of the Year winners tend to come from playoff teams, and a 40-38 pace down the stretch isn’t getting Cincinnati to the postseason this year.
So I’d go with Dave Roberts. After last season’s 1-16 stretch and a heartbreaking World Series loss, the Dodgers’ 16-26 start to the season should’ve broken them, particularly considering that during that time, many of the team’s cornerstone players—Kenley Jansen, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Turner—were hurt, ineffective, or both. In spite of all that, the team has turned it around and is in first place in the NL West at the All-Star break. Roberts, who’s been in the Manager of the Year conversation every year since taking over the Dodgers (and won in 2016), seems like a very calm, reassuring figure. He’s level-headed without being aloof, which feels like exactly the kind of leader you’d want to bring a club out of a tailspin. You could argue that, unlike Riggleman, Roberts was at the helm when his club dug its hole, and therefore shouldn’t get as much credit for digging them out. But it would have been very easy to let the first six weeks of the season turn into a death spiral, and Roberts didn’t let that happen.