The All-Star break is a great opportunity to take stock of award races. Not only does the time off offer an opportunity for everyone to catch their breath and look around, but by this point we have enough information to tell the difference between one good month and half of an MVP-caliber season. With that said, the first half of 2019 produced some fairly tricky award races to handicap, with exciting one-on-one races for NL MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year, and total chaos in the AL Cy Young discussion. That’s to say nothing of the changing statistical landscape in baseball as a result of changes in pitcher use and the supercharged baseball. So let’s dig in and see who’s in pole position for MLB’s major awards, and who’s in good position to make a charge in the second half.
AL MVP: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
Since Trout’s first full season in 2012, the AL MVP race has usually pitted Trout against some other candidate having a career year both by the numbers and by the narrative: Miguel Cabrera in his Triple Crown year, Josh Donaldson when he led the Blue Jays back to the playoffs in 2015, Mookie Betts posting a 10-win season on a 108-win team last year.
No such antagonist exists this year. Trout leads the AL in home runs, OBP, walks, and slugging percentage while playing good defense at an up-the-middle position. As a result, he not only leads the American League in all three major versions of WAR, he leads by so much as to render irrelevant the normal prevarications about the imprecision of such metrics. Trout is at least a win up on the next-best AL position player in every WAR metric, and leads second-place Alex Bregman 6.2 to 3.8 on FanGraphs. Adding pitchers into the equation brings a pair of Texas Rangers into the mix: Lance Lynn, who’s second among all AL players in fWAR, but still more than two wins behind Trout, and Mike Minor, who trails Trout 5.9 to 5.7 in bWAR. Still, there’s no 2018 Jacob deGrom in this mix. Even if there were, deGrom himself proved last year that pitchers and position players aren’t treated equally in MVP voting—if they were, the Mets right-hander would’ve been the NL MVP, not Christian Yelich.
Bregman would probably be second on my ballot; he’s writing a worthy sequel to his breakout year in 2018 with a .393 OBP and 23 home runs, and he’s held down the fort in Houston as José Altuve, Carlos Correa, and George Springer have all spent time on the IL. It’s also nice to see a breakout campaign from Boston’s Rafael Devers, who’s hitting .324/.377/.546 after a disappointing sophomore season in 2018. Betts and Oakland’s Matt Chapman would end up getting downballot votes, as always, but unless Trout takes the second half off to hang out at Eagles training camp, the only race here is for second place.
NL MVP: Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers
Right now, this is a two-horse race between Bellinger, who has a Trout-like command of the NL leaderboard (OPS+, runs scored, all three WARs), and last year’s winner, Christian Yelich. Bellinger is walking more than ever, striking out less, and hitting for a higher average and more power than ever. Yes, the guy who hit 39 homers as a rookie and looks like he could throw a moose over a house has developed even more power in his third season in the majors. Bellinger has also transformed into a superb defensive right fielder, maybe the best in baseball.
The argument for Yelich is that he’s having essentially the same offensive season as Bellinger: Yelich is hitting .329/.433/.707 with 31 home runs and a 180 wRC+, while Bellinger is at .336/.432/.692 with 30 home runs and a 184 wRC+. By the way, we’re more than a year into this whole Christian Yelich Is an Elite Power Hitter thing, and it’s still weird. The guy had never even slugged .500 until last year. This is like when Jonah Hill made Mid90s and everyone was like “Oh yeah, the nerdy kid from Accepted is an auteur now!” while I was still getting used to him being an acclaimed prestige drama actor.
Anyway, back to the argument for Yelich. The reigning MVP is having a better season on the basepaths; Yelich is 19-for-21 in stolen base attempts, while Bellinger is just 8-for-13. Moreover, the difference between Bellinger and Yelich across all three WAR metrics is based on advanced defensive metrics, which are imprecise, particularly in (1) corner outfield positions and (2) partial-season samples.
It’s not a terrible argument, but I’m not sure I find it convincing. Bellinger’s defensive advantage follows him from site to site, which doesn’t eliminate the possibility that his gaudy numbers are a statistical mirage, but it substantially decreases the likelihood of it being a mirage. Furthermore, even the most charitable reading of Yelich’s statistics versus Bellinger’s leaves the two in essentially a dead heat. Take out defense entirely and Bellinger is two tenths of a win ahead of Yelich in WARP, one tenth ahead in bWAR, and tied to the tenth of a win in fWAR. There’s a case to be made that they’re neck and neck, but no such case exists to put Yelich conclusively ahead.
If a third person belongs in the NL MVP discussion, it’s Max Scherzer, who sits between Bellinger and Yelich on all three WAR leaderboards. Scherzer leads all NL pitchers in innings, FIP, strikeouts, and K% (by a staggering 35.2-to-30.7 margin over second-place deGrom), and is a close second in DRA- to his teammate Stephen Strasburg. Scherzer has finished exactly 10th in NL MVP voting each of the past three seasons, but he should have been much higher each time. But again, deGrom’s 2018 season was better than Scherzer’s 2019, and he finished only fifth despite facing a weaker class of position player candidates. That’s not a good sign for Scherzer’s MVP hopes.
AL Cy Young Award: Charlie Morton, Tampa Bay Rays
From a statistical standpoint, this is as confused an award race as you’re likely to see, and I’m picking Morton not because I expect him to continue to pitch this well through the end of the season and win it (I don’t), but because I need to pick a name.
When I’m evaluating Cy Young candidates, I look at a variety of numbers to determine pitchers’ strengths and weaknesses. These numbers are often interconnected, i.e. a high strikeout rate and weak contact lead to a low DRA, which correlates with a low ERA, and if a pitcher has a low ERA for enough innings he’ll end up posting a high WAR total. Most of the time, a winner emerges through these numbers like the chupacabra through a thick fog. But not always. To illustrate this point, here are the leaders in various relevant statistical categories among AL and NL pitchers.
Pitching Leaders in Each League
Morton leads in four of these categories, including ERA and the best ERA estimator (DRA-), and is the only pitcher to appear in the top three of all three AL WAR leaderboards. But where he leads, it’s not by much, and where he trails, it’s by a lot: He gives up two full wins to Minor in bWAR, he’s thrown almost 20 fewer innings than Bauer, and he trails Verlander in opponent OBP by 50 points. It’s the same story with the other candidates: Lynn’s DRA and FIP-based numbers are great, but his ERA is almost double Morton’s. Verlander is the opposite: He’s kept runners off base better than any pitcher in the AL, but he’s given up more home runs than any other pitcher in baseball this year, which has tanked his peripheral-based numbers, even as his ERA, 2.98, is quite competitive. Lucas Giolito has a good all-around case but doesn’t shine in one particular category.
It’s probably easier to predict who will win this award at the end of the season than it is to tell who’s ahead now. I’d expect a high-strikeout, high-inning pitcher on a winning team to take this award at season’s end, which means Cole, Verlander, or maybe even Chris Sale, who’s recovered nicely from a rocky start. Morton has my favorite case for now, but it’s so wide open I can’t be any more certain than that.
NL Cy Young: Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals
Two weeks ago, I was all set to hand this over to Ryu, who was in the midst of a historic season, with an ERA that dropped as low as 1.26 and a K/BB ratio that peaked at 17. Then he gave up three home runs to the Rockies in his last start in June, and walked three Padres in his first start of July. Ryu still leads the league in those categories, but now that they’re merely exceptional and not record-setting, Scherzer is not only back in the Cy Young picture, he’s in the lead.
Scherzer has more than a 20-inning advantage on Ryu, and an advantage of 11.5 percentage points worth of K%. Of the 12 categories I listed above, Scherzer leads six and is no worse than fourth in the other six. Ryu is 10th in innings and 18th in K%, closer to last place than first; Scherzer has a much more well-rounded case. Cincinnati’s Luis Castillo also has Scherzer beat in a few categories, and is in line for the traditional third-place Cy Young finish for an up-and-coming pitcher, which went to Aaron Nola last year, Luis Severino in 2017, and Kyle Hendricks in 2016. Strasburg, who by Baseball Prospectus’s advanced metrics has been roughly as good as Scherzer this year, should also receive consideration.
AL Rookie of the Year: John Means, Baltimore Orioles
So Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has been fine since being called up, but a .249/.328/.413 batting line and 98 wRC+ aren’t exactly light-the-world-on-fire numbers from a bat-first third baseman. He even trails his teammate and fellow son-of-a-Hall-of-Famer, Cavan Biggio, in fWAR despite playing 23 more games. Now, everything we know about Vladito points to an ability to flip the switch, hit 30 home runs in the second half, and walk away as AL Rookie of the Year anyway, but he hasn’t done it yet. Or, if his performance in the Home Run Derby is any indication, he could stop the Earth’s rotation, dial the calendar back to April, and try his rookie season over again. Anything is possible.
Right now, the most productive position player among AL rookies is Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe, who’s hitting .276/.339/.523 with 16 homers, five steals, and decent defense. But with Vladito still warming up, this is just not a very impressive crop of AL rookie position players overall.
So for the moment, I’d give the award to Orioles left-hander John Means. He isn’t a sexy candidate: He plays for a last-place team, he’s 26 years old, and his peripherals are awful—as in his ERA is about a run and a half lower than either his DRA or his FIP—but he’s got a 2.50 ERA in 82 2/3 innings, which is the best performance in a mediocre field.
If Vladito goes berserk in the second half, we can revisit this discussion.
NL Rookie of the Year: Pete Alonso, New York Mets
What I’d like to do is just have the AL loan this award to the NL for a year, because I’m not sure any of the best AL rookie performers so far—Lowe, Means, and Tigers righty Spencer Turnbull—would finish any higher than sixth on my entry for a hypothetical unified Rookie of the Year ballot. I’d choose not only Alonso but Padres shortstop Fernando Tatís, Dodgers outfielder Alex Verdugo, Padres righty Chris Paddack, and Braves righty Mike Soroka over anyone from the AL.
With 30 home runs at the break, Alonso is on track to challenge Aaron Judge’s rookie home run record of 52, and the former Florida Gator put on a showcase of his game-breaking power by winning Monday night’s Home Run Derby. Alonso is also the fourth rookie in the expansion era to qualify for the batting title and post an OPS+ of 166 or better. The other three—Judge, José Abreu, and Trout—all won Rookie of the Year. Alonso has not only been productive, but is also fun to watch on the field and charming off it, which probably shouldn’t count but does in practice. If he wins, nobody will complain.
However, this race is much closer than a quick perusal of Alonso’s historic CV would indicate. Tatís missed the whole month of May with a strained hamstring, which has kept him off the list of qualified hitters, but when he has been in the lineup, he’s posted exactly the same OPS+, 166, as Alonso. And while Alonso is a first baseman who is built like Babe Ruth in 1921 and runs like Babe Ruth in 1941, Tatís is an average defensive shortstop who’s stolen 13 bases in 16 attempts.
Given equivalent offensive output during half a season, playing 34 more games is a bigger deal than playing a tougher position, and all three WARs agree. But while Alonso is the most valuable rookie position player across the board, Tatís is within a win on all three leaderboards, despite playing only 55 games to Alonso’s 89. Right now, Tatis has played only 62 percent as many games as Alonso, which is a big difference. But if both players stay in the lineup pretty much every day until season’s end, Tatis will end up having played 75 or 80 percent as many games as Alonso. If he keeps hitting like this, Tatis could easily make up in quality what he lacks in quantity.
AL Manager of the Year: Rocco Baldelli, Minnesota Twins
Manager of the Year tends to be an award for the team that overachieves most based on preseason expectations, which nobody’s done more than Baldelli’s Twins. But more than that, Minnesota’s rookie skipper—the first millennial to manage in MLB—represents a marked departure from his predecessor, Paul Molitor. Baldelli has been a conduit from Minnesota’s front office to the clubhouse, and helped turn one of baseball’s most intransigent clubs into a modern organization.
This year, Martín Pérez, Jake Odorizzi, Byron Buxton, Jonathan Schoop, and Miguel Sanó have all turned their careers around, and while it’s impossible to know how much credit for that should go to Baldelli, or pitching coach Wes Johnson for that matter, the Twins on aggregate are having the kind of season that usually ends in a Manager of the Year award.
NL Manager of the Year: Dave Roberts, Los Angeles Dodgers
Because Manager of the Year is an award for perceived overachievers, it’d be unusual if the skipper of the two-time defending league champions won it, particularly since Roberts already won in 2016 and finished second the next year. Turning a losing team into a winning team is the most obvious way for a manager to distinguish himself. All Roberts has done is take the helm of the best roster in the National League and not screw anything up.
Turns out, in this year’s National League, that’s a bigger accomplishment than one might think. Roberts’s low-drama Dodgers stand in contrast to the disappointing Brewers and Cardinals, the malaise surrounding the Phillies and Cubs, and the total societal collapse of the Mets. The next-best manager this year is probably Atlanta’s Brian Snitker, who won the award last year for earning a division title as a second-year skipper; any argument against Roberts on the basis of novelty would also apply to Snitker. Besides, Roberts is far from a silent push-button caretaker; he’s an adept tactician and is skilled at navigating one of the biggest media circuses in the sport. Keeping everyone happy on a star-studded team in a high-pressure market is not easy, and Roberts has always done that job well.