Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger could have sat out all of September last season and still won Rookie of the Year, and other award races—José Altuve vs. Aaron Judge for the AL MVP, Corey Kluber vs. Chris Sale for the AL Cy Young—had been reduced to easily digestible two-man affairs by this point a year ago.
That clarity isn’t remotely in play in 2018. With less than a month left in the regular season, none of the six major awards races have a monumental favorite, nor are any even a two-person sprint. These are all multifront battles, which adds layers of complexity to the typical debates about who had a better season and draws in philosophical questions about the nature of the sport’s end-of-season honors. So with just a few weeks left for the dozens of players still in the awards discussion to make their closing arguments, here is a breakdown of the favorites, contenders, and dark horses in each of the six debates to come, from most basic to most complex.
NL Rookie of the Year
The favorite: Ronald Acuña Jr., Braves OF
The contender: Juan Soto, Nationals OF
The dark horse: Harrison Bader, Cardinals OF
When he conducted a midseason survey of this race, my colleague Michael Baumann awarded the NL Rookie of the Year trophy to Phillies reliever Seranthony Dominguez. Since the All-Star break, Dominguez has a 5.74 ERA, and he’s no longer the most valuable rookie reliever in the NL East.
But Dominguez was more of a placeholder name in July, anyway, while the NL awaited a true star turn from a rookie, and Acuña and Soto have obliged. The former was the best non–Shohei Ohtani prospect in baseball before the season, and he has fulfilled every expectation in his rookie campaign, hitting .289/.359/.570 and batting leadoff for the division-leading Braves. He’s in the middle of one of the 10 best hitting seasons for a 20-year-old in league history.
Soto, of course, isn’t even 20 yet, and he’s in the middle of the best hitting season ever for a teen. While picking between the two wunderkind outfielders is a challenge, they both play the same position, making comparisons marginally easier, and at the moment, Acuña has a pair of advantages over his rookie rival. First, his recent home run binge is perhaps a splashier route toward productivity than Soto’s consistent, walk-heavy approach, and second, Acuña has been a solid defender while Soto rates poorly in the field. Neither player is best known for his defense, but that disparity matters.
As one of the majors’ best defenders, Bader should be a part of this conversation, but he’s not, really, because his standout skill is quieter and less reliable than Acuña’s homers or Soto’s power-and-patience combination. Bader can take some solace in knowing that Kevin Kiermaier didn’t come close in his Rookie of the Year chance either, but he then ranked among the most valuable players in all of baseball in his sophomore campaign.
The favorite: Mookie Betts, Red Sox OF
The contenders: José Ramírez, Indians 3B; Mike Trout, Angels OF
The dark horses: J.D. Martinez, Red Sox DH/OF; Matt Chapman, Athletics 3B
Betts leads all players in both Baseball-Reference’s and FanGraphs’ versions of WAR, and he’s been the most visible star on the majors’ best team. As incredible as Ramírez’s season has been, and as sturdy as Trout’s production has stayed, this vote might not end up being a nail-biter, similar to how Altuve and Judge were close on paper last season but the former won in a landslide.
A potential wrinkle is if Martinez, who currently leads AL hitters in RBI and ranks second in both homers and batting average, wins the Triple Crown. He would then become a reasonable alternative at the top of some voters’ ballots even if he isn’t the most truly valuable player on his own team. Chapman, meanwhile, could gain steam in the final month if Oakland wins the AL West and the voters cast contextual aspersions at the other contenders—Betts and Martinez for splitting the Boston vote, Ramírez for benefiting from weak competition in the woeful AL Central, and Trout for missing 20 games on a sub-.500 team. Even then, however, Chapman could provoke vote splitting within his own roster, as teammate Khris Davis could take the AL’s home run crown. It’s simplest to pencil in Betts and adjust if something drastic happens the rest of the way.
NL Cy Young
The favorite: Jacob deGrom, Mets
The contenders: Max Scherzer, Nationals; Aaron Nola, Phillies
The dark horse: None
At the moment, it’s foolhardy to pick nits between these three NL East pitchers because all it takes is one lousy start—like Nola’s four-run outing against the Cubs on Sunday, though even then, he struck out 11—to shift the dynamic. That’s how close the race is, reminiscent of 2015’s three-way clash between Jake Arrieta, Zack Greinke, and Clayton Kershaw.
This race is fascinating because it exists at the nexus of a host of questions about pitcher value. For deGrom, has the electorate evolved so far as to forget about pitcher wins entirely? In 2010, Félix Hernández won the Cy Young with a 13-12 record, while David Price and CC Sabathia—who finished second and third, respectively—combined for 40 wins, but that result was less an inflection point in voting patterns than a blip. Since Hernández’s victory, 10 of 14 Cy Young winners have won 20 games, and no honoree has won fewer than 16. That’s not necessarily a cause-and-effect pattern—typically, the deserving winners happened to have high win totals—but the point remains that voters have yet to grapple with a case quite like deGrom’s, as the Mets ace has an 8-8 record and, somehow, more WAR than wins.
For Nola, how should team defense figure into individual player analysis? Baumann and Ben Lindbergh spoke about this topic in depth on a recent episode of the Ringer MLB Show, but Nola could prove a test case for yet another tricky part of advanced baseball math. Even if the pitcher-wins debate has long been decided from a sabermetric perspective, this new territory contains ample room for discussion.
And for Scherzer, the two-time, defending NL Cy Young winner, will voter fatigue play any role in dimming his campaign for a third consecutive honor? His statistics are better almost across the board than they were the last two seasons, but the competition is fiercer, too, so he could suffer from even a minor familiarity penalty and yield the award to one of his divisional rivals.
AL Rookie of the Year
The actual favorites: Miguel Andújar, Yankees 3B; Gleyber Torres, Yankees 2B
The should-be favorite: Shohei Ohtani, Angels SP/DH
The dark horse: Joey Wendle, Rays UT
Ohtani alone complicates this race because of the difficulty in determining his unique value, as opposed to the more traditional evaluations inspired by a poor defensive slugger like Andújar and a top prospect meeting that hype like Torres. Both Yankee infielders have sizzled at the plate of late, and in any other year, in any other rookie class, they could stake real claims for the trophy, as could Wendle, the Rays utility man who has supplied copious under-the-radar value.
But this season should be remembered as The Year That Ohtani Arrived, and for an award without clear criteria—the debate over what matters for Rookie of the Year makes the debate over what “valuable” means for MVP straightforward—the historic nature of Ohtani’s rookie year should matter. We’ve seen poor defensive sluggers and top prospects who met their hype before; we haven’t seen a viable two-way player since Babe Ruth a full century ago.
The argument against Ohtani, moreover, seems narrow in scope, as it largely rests on playing time. While the two-way player admittedly hasn’t batted as much as the other three contenders due to a combination of elbow injury, pitching workload, and a semiplatoon in the Angels’ DH slot, he has influenced just as many trips to the plate when factoring in his pitching too. Adding batters faced to his plate appearance total to account for his dual contributions gives Ohtani 490 combined “events” at the plate, meaning he’s put in a full season of work even though his new elbow problem will shut his pitching down for the remainder of the month.
AL Rookie of the Year Candidates
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His combined value is also greater than or equal to that of his competitors. Ohtani’s among the handful of best hitters in the majors on a per-plate-appearance basis and has thrown 51 2/3 innings with a well-above-average ERA—there’s no staunch argument for picking a winner other than Ohtani, and in the absence of a sure favorite, he offers the most compelling tie breaker by far.
AL Cy Young
The favorite: Chris Sale, Red Sox
The contenders: Blake Snell, Rays; Trevor Bauer, Indians; Justin Verlander, Astros; Gerrit Cole, Astros; Corey Kluber, Indians
The dark horses: Edwin Díaz, Mariners; Blake Treinen, Athletics
Pick an ace, any ace, in the American League, and he has a chance at the Cy Young this year. That’s because no. 1 favorite Sale has started just once since July due to a lingering shoulder injury, and no. 2 favorite Bauer has been on the DL since mid-August because of issues with CIA nanites—er, a broken leg. The likes of Verlander, Cole, Kluber, and Luis Severino have all struggled recently relative to their standards from earlier this season, and Snell has outperformed his peripherals by more than any other member of this group while also missing time due to injury.
A pair of AL West relievers could gain support if neither Sale nor Bauer returns healthy and none of the second-tier contenders close with a strong final month, but it’s unlikely given recent voting patterns. The last reliever to win a Cy Young was Eric Gagne in 2003, when the bespectacled Dodgers closer converted a perfect 55 of 55 save opportunities, and no reliever has finished better than third since 2008. So even if Díaz sets the single-season saves record or Treinen helps Oakland reach the playoffs and leads all pitchers in win probability added, they’re unlikely to overcome the positional hurdle: Two years ago, Zach Britton set an ERA record while topping the WPA leaderboard, and he couldn’t manage better than fourth place.
The favorite: Chaos
The contenders: deGrom; Scherzer; Nola; Matt Carpenter, Cardinals IF; Nolan Arenado, Rockies 3B; Freddie Freeman, Braves 1B; Javier Báez, Cubs IF; [Deep breath.]; Lorenzo Cain, Brewers OF; Christian Yelich, Brewers OF; Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks 1B
The dark horse: None, because everyone is a contender
At Baseball-Reference, each of the three pitchers has collected more than 8 WAR; no position player is within even two wins of the trio. At FanGraphs, the gap isn’t quite so large, but all three pitchers are still ahead of any batter in the National League. The natural conclusion is that a pitcher should be the favorite for this award—but which one?
There’s another issue too: Barring a Phillies comeback, all three pitchers might miss the playoffs, which could induce a double whammy, as voters who reject pitchers for the award and voters who value team success could combine forces to spurn the trio of aces. The last pitcher to win the MVP while missing the playoffs was Bobby Shantz in 1952—and even if voters are willing to award a pitcher, they might well split that vote among three different recipients.
That leaves a half dozen, if not more, realistic candidates who are all bunched together statistically, and besides the Dodgers, every NL playoff contender has at least one player on the above list. Carpenter is probably the slight favorite if St. Louis makes the playoffs, but the race is as wide open as, well, the actual NL playoff race.
And that’s before we even get to the manager-of-the-year ballots, which could reasonably reward a manager who hasn’t sniffed a playoff spot all season (Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash) or one who didn’t take over his dugout until mid-July (St. Louis’s Mike Shildt). September will be fun—and November, when the results emerge, as contentious as ever.