One thing I find frustrating about MLB’s awards structure is that it leaves so many people out. On one hand, it does drive home the singular excellence required to win an MVP or Cy Young, but that makes it tough to comprehend the story of a season just by looking at awards. Rarely is the best player in a season also the player with the most interesting narrative, and so one of the two always gets left out. Take one of the closest and most controversial MVP decisions of the 21st century, the 2007 NL MVP race.
Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins was the choice for interesting narrative. Before the season, he declared that the Phillies were the team to beat in the NL East, even though they hadn’t made the playoffs in more than a decade. Rollins then became one of four players in MLB history to hit 20 home runs, 20 doubles, and 20 triples and steal 20 bases in the same season, and he hit .308/.362/.546 in the second half to make good on his prediction and win the division.
But he wasn’t the best player in the league—that was either Albert Pujols, who finished ninth in MVP voting, or David Wright, who finished fourth. Prince Fielder’s 50-homer season went unrecognized, as did Chase Utley’s .332/.410/.566 slash line and Chipper Jones’s NL-leading 165 OPS+ at age 35. Rollins narrowly beat out Rockies outfielder Matt Holliday, 353 points to 336, even though Holliday won the batting title, hit 36 home runs, and scored the winning run in a one-game playoff against the Padres to cap a 14-1 run by the Rockies that broke their own decade-long playoff drought.
A more complete awards system would recognize all of those achievements, and it’d be far more honest than trying to connive an MVP case for a player everyone knows is the ninth-best player in the league, but deserves more attention than he received. So let’s speak plainly here and recognize some of 2018’s most excellent and important players, even if they’ll probably go home empty-handed when the real awards are handed out.
Best Job Done Under Difficult Circumstances
Kyle Freeland, LHP, Colorado Rockies
Ever since their founding 25 years ago, the Colorado Rockies have had to contend with a unique offensive environment, as the thin Rocky Mountain air turns medium-depth fly balls into suborbital sounding rockets. MLB and the Rockies have tried to combat this effect, but each innovation has either fallen short or brought about its own problems.
Coors Field was built with tall outfield walls and gigantic dimensions to help curb the park’s propensity for home runs, but all that did was trade a few home runs for lots of space in the gaps. Coors Field now has more fair territory than any park since Kublai Khan decreed a stately pleasure dome over twice five miles of fertile ground with walls and towers girdled round. That gives batters plenty of empty outfield space to poke singles and doubles into, and creates a BABIP hell for Rockies pitchers. The Rockies also started keeping game balls in a humidor to deaden them, but even waterlogged baseballs don’t offset the deleterious physical effects of living and working at high altitude.
The long and the short of it is that Coors Field is an awful place to pitch, but Rockies lefty Kyle Freeland is doing a better job of it than anyone else in history. With a home ERA of 2.36, he’s on pace to demolish the franchise record for best home ERA by a Rockies pitcher. It’s only the second time a Rockies starter has posted a home ERA below 3.00, and only the 11th time a Rockies starter has posted a home ERA below 4.00. Freeland is also within a fraction of setting the Rockies’ overall single-season franchise ERA record, an achievement that would earn him Cy Young consideration if Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, and Aaron Nola weren’t so far out ahead of the pack. I don’t want to risk forgetting Freeland’s historic season just because it wasn’t literally the best in the NL this year.
Most in Need of Old Voting Standards
J.D. Martinez, DH/OF, Boston Red Sox
If the MVP still went to the guy with the most RBI on a playoff team, Martinez would be a shoo-in, as his Red Sox have 106 wins with almost a week to play, and his 124 RBI lead the majors. Now, of course, we know that RBI are as much a product of hitting environment and having guys on base to drive in as they are an indication of any innate talent for “run production.”
But the pendulum has perhaps swung too far the other way, because Martinez has been one of the best hitters in baseball over the past two seasons, and it still feels like he’s underrated. This year, he’s posted the third-best wRC+ in baseball. Now, he won’t get serious MVP consideration this year because the two best wRC+ marks in baseball belong to Mike Trout and Mookie Betts, who also provide value with the glove and on the bases, while Martinez is a plodding DH. Of course, that matters, but not so much that it negates Martinez’s incredible offensive campaign.
Yoenis Céspedes Award
Javier Báez, INF, Chicago Cubs
There was a time when Yoenis Céspedes, even with his arsenal of amazing outfield throws and back-to-back Home Run Derby titles, was a below-average player on the whole. After a four-win rookie season in 2012, Céspedes hit just .251/.298/.446 over the next two seasons, which isn’t great for a corner outfielder. Céspedes was only good at a few specific things, but he was a fan favorite because the things he was good at were overwhelmingly likely to land him on SportsCenter.
Then, in 2015, he put in a great first half in Detroit, then was traded to New York, where he dragged the Mets to the postseason by what looked like sheer force of will. Céspedes hit 17 home runs in 57 games and finished 13th in MVP voting despite playing only a third of the season in the National League.
That’s kind of what Javier Báez did this year. Báez was a breakout star of the world champion 2016 Cubs, thanks to his ebullience and propensity for defensive wizardry, but his game had a lot of holes, primarily his intermittent relationship with hitting for contact. Báez was roughly a three-win player in 2016 and 2017, which is good, but he was really only a complementary piece in a lineup driven by Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, who finished first and fourth, respectively, in NL MVP voting in 2016.
Not so this year. Báez has come up huge with the bat, with a .292 batting average, 34 home runs, and 21 stolen bases, all career highs by far. For the first time, Báez has produced a good enough offensive season for his less quantifiable skills, like his defense and versatility, to generate MVP buzz. Báez might get a first-place vote or two in a weird NL MVP race, but probably won’t win for a couple of reasons. First, the three best players in the National League this year by far have been pitchers: deGrom, Scherzer, and Nola, and you could talk me into Freeland as the fourth-best player in the NL overall. But even among position players, Báez has an uphill climb.
It’s admittedly kind of a simplistic way to look at things, but the best thing a batter can do is not make outs. While Báez’s 20-point jump in batting average from last year means he’s making fewer outs than he used to, he still doesn’t walk, and his .327 OBP would be the worst by a position-player MVP in the NL since Marty Marion’s .324 in 1944. Báez’s OBP is more than 60 points lower than Freddie Freeman’s and Christian Yelich’s, and 73 points behind Lorenzo Cain, who’s also an elite defender at an up-the-middle position and a better baserunner. Báez represents the upper limits of how good you can be with a .327 OBP, but he’s still got a .327 OBP.
However, while Báez isn’t literally the best player in the National League, he’s still taken a huge leap forward as a player, and he’s been the best player on the team with the best record in the NL. That’s worthy of recognition.
Rising Star Award
Alex Bregman, 3B, Houston Astros
Bregman, like Báez, is a supporting character on a championship team who’s come into his own in 2018. While reigning MVP José Altuve and putative face of the franchise Carlos Correa have missed time—and Correa hasn’t hit very well even when he’s been on the field—Bregman has picked up the slack. The 24-year-old has increased his walk rate from 8.8 percent last year to 13.5 percent this year and dropped his strikeout rate from 15.5 percent to 11.6 percent. And while he was previously more of a table-setter, Bregman has a career-high 30 home runs and an MLB-leading 51 doubles for a .288/.395/.534 batting line. However, since he plays in a league with Trout and Betts, Bregman won’t get within 10 miles of the MVP award.
But Bregman’s in the process of becoming an incredibly important player, not just for the Astros, but for the league as an entertainment property. He seems to appreciate that he’s putting on a show, at times literally playing to the cameras. Not only that, Bregman appears to be OK playing the heel when the story line suits him. The earnest joy of, say, Mike Trout and Francisco Lindor isn’t as interesting on its own as it would be when contrasted against someone who likes to talk trash and needle his opponents. It’s redassery, but a sort of winking, kayfabe redassery—Bregman always seems like he’s in on the joke. The more the Astros win, the easier they’re going to be to hate, and their third baseman is not only good at playing the heel, he looks like he’s having a great time doing so. I can’t get enough of it.
Andrew Miller of the Year
Blake Treinen, RHP, Oakland A’s
MLB has a curious relationship with awards for relievers. We once had the Rolaids Relief Man Award, but all things pass, particularly things that are created to market an antacid, and the award was discontinued after 2012. (The Rolaids Relief Man Award was stupid anyway, since it was based on a formula that awarded points for saves and wins and deducted them for blown saves and losses.) Nowadays, a panel of retired relief pitchers gives out AL and NL Reliever of the Year awards, named after Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman respectively, but this honor pales in prestige compared to the Cy Young and MVP. And in an era of decreased emphasis on closers, it’s very difficult for a reliever to generate any meaningful buzz for either of the big awards.
So, I’m singling out one outstanding relief pitcher who, despite pitching for a playoff team and making the All-Star Game, still hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves. Blake Treinen’s been the anchor of one of the best bullpens in baseball. That’s quite a turnaround from just a year ago, when the Washington Nationals tried to fix their broken bullpen by trading Treinen away.
Simply put, Treinen’s done everything you’d ever want from a relief pitcher. He’s pitched 78 1/3 innings, seventh-most among MLB relievers, trailing Rays de facto starter Ryan Yarbrough and a coterie of innings eaters like Jesse Chavez and Treinen’s Oakland teammate Yusmeiro Petit. If you want a traditional closer, Treinen’s got 37 saves, tied for fourth-most in baseball. If you want a multi-inning fireman, Treinen’s recorded four or more outs in 19 of his 66 appearances this year. Treinen pitches in tough spots—his gmLI, or average leverage index while entering a game, is 2.06, the highest in baseball, and his 6.73 win probability added bests Seattle’s Edwin Díaz, who’s second-best among relievers, by two full wins. From a standpoint of win probability, Treinen’s been the most valuable player in baseball this year at any position, and deGrom is the only player within a win of him.
Treinen misses bats and gets ground balls—out of 148 qualified relievers, he is 20th in K% and 31st in GB%. And he does it all for a team that relies on its relievers more than any team of its quality in baseball history: This year’s A’s are going to end up devoting a lower percentage of their innings to starting pitchers than any playoff team that’s come before.
But most of all, you want your relievers to not give up runs, and Treinen’s ERA this year is 0.80, which makes him just the 12th reliever since the year 2000 to appear in at least 40 games and post an ERA of 1.00 or lower. Even then, many of those 12 pitchers were situational lefties like Oliver Pérez and Kevin Siegrist, and even among the closers to go under a 1.00 ERA in a full season—Jonathan Papelbon, Zach Britton, Wade Davis, and Fernando Rodney all make the list—none had to carry Treinen’s workload as a multi-inning reliever at the same time.
I wouldn’t dream of insinuating that Treinen’s been better than, say, Chris Sale or Justin Verlander or any other AL Cy Young front-runner, but he’s done an important job better than anyone else in baseball this year.
Statistics are current through Monday’s games.