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The 2019 Homestretch MLB Awards Race Guide

One month remains in the baseball season, and plenty of awards-centric drama does as well. Who will claim the AL and NL MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year crowns? 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In exactly one month, MLB teams will play their 162nd and final regular-season games of the 2019 season, and with the schedule’s end comes the end of award angling from the majors’ best players. As we did last year, let’s take the opportunity to survey the six major award races and run through the favorites, contenders, and dark horses for each one.

Last season, three of the favorites with weeks to go won their awards. But late surges from Christian Yelich (.352/.500/.807 in September), Blake Snell (6-0, 1.26 ERA), and Shohei Ohtani (.310/.371/.632) proved decisive in races for the NL MVP, AL Cy Young, and AL Rookie of the Year, respectively. So there’s ample room to maneuver for the players listed below—or even a true dark horse who hasn’t yet entered the conversation. For now, at least, here is how the main races look, as ordered from most basic to most complex. (All WAR figures are through Tuesday’s games.)

AL MVP

The favorite: Mike Trout, Angels OF
The contender: None
The dark horse: None

Forget WAR for a moment. Trout is the MVP by more traditional stats, too, as he leads the American League in home runs and has already reached triple-digit runs and RBI totals. Now fold in WAR and see Trout’s lead in the race grow. At Baseball-Reference, Trout leads AL position players with 8.1 WAR; second-place Alex Bregman (6.4) is closer to 10th place than he is to Trout. At FanGraphs, Trout’s in first with 8.4 WAR; second-place Bregman (6.0) is as close to 16th place as he is to Trout. The Angels center fielder is so far ahead of the field that he could sit out the entire month of September and still be positioned to win the award—his third of the decade.

AL Rookie of the Year

The favorite: Yordan Álvarez, Astros DH
The contender: None
The dark horses: John Means, Orioles SP; Spencer Turnbull, Tigers SP

This race looked like an amorphous blob for months; no AL rookie stood out like members of the NL class, and touted prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Eloy Jiménez didn’t hit as well as expected. Even a second-half surge has boosted Guerrero’s season total to just a 117 wRC+.

But Álvarez, who didn’t debut until June, has been a fixture of the Astros lineup and the majors’ second-best hitter ever since, and in such a weak field, his playing time won’t be disqualifying. At 61 games now, he’ll end somewhere between 80 and 90, and both Wil Myers and Ryan Howard have won the award this century with 88 games played. Heck, Hall of Famer Willie McCovey won with just 52 games, when his performance at the plate (185 wRC+) resembled Álvarez’s (189 wRC+).

Álvarez’s potential September competition is also lacking. Tampa Bay’s Brandon Lowe, who ranks second to Álvarez in WAR among AL position players, hasn’t played since July 2 due to a leg injury that will keep him out for the rest of the year. And with all respect to Means and Turnbull, it’s impossible to imagine the voters awarding pitchers with middling surface stats from the two worst teams in baseball over a phenom from the first-place Astros. Álvarez seems as strong a bet as Trout to win.

NL MVP

The favorite: Cody Bellinger, Dodgers OF
The contender: Christian Yelich, Brewers OF
The dark horses: Ronald Acuña Jr., Braves OF; Anthony Rendon, Nationals 3B

What has appeared a two-man race since April maintains that shape. Bellinger and reigning MVP Yelich are the two best hitters in the NL, pairing elite on-base skills (.425 for Yelich, .409 for Bellinger) with massive power (a tied-for-league-best 42 homers for Bellinger, 41 for Yelich) and plenty of other skills, too. Yelich has stolen 25 bases and been caught just twice; Bellinger leads all right fielders with 10 assists. If they remain so closely bunched on the batting leaderboards by season’s end, Bellinger’s defensive advantage should be the tiebreaker in his favor, as he leads all non-catchers in defensive runs saved.

Cody Bellinger vs. Christian Yelich on Defense

Player Defensive Runs Saved Ultimate Zone Rating Outs Above Average (as Outfielder)
Player Defensive Runs Saved Ultimate Zone Rating Outs Above Average (as Outfielder)
Cody Bellinger 23 10.8 8
Christian Yelich -2 0.8 -5

If both players falter in September, the most likely beneficiaries would be Acuña (if he boosts his stolen base rate and achieves a 40-40 season) and Rendon (if he continues his torrid pace to reach Bellinger and Yelich atop the batting leaderboards). But the two-man race will likely remain as such for another month.

NL Rookie of the Year

The favorite: Pete Alonso, Mets 1B
The contender: Mike Soroka, Braves SP
The dark horse: None

If they played for an AL team instead of in the Senior Circuit, nearly a dozen more rookies would have a chance at the honor; among the top 12 rookie position players in FanGraphs WAR, 10 play in the NL. But with apologies to Pittsburgh’s Bryan Reynolds, Milwaukee’s Keston Hiura, L.A.’s Will Smith, and others, none of them have the combination of results and playing time to catch Alonso. (San Diego’s Fernando Tatís Jr., who like Alonso started on Opening Day, had a shot, but he is out for the season with a back injury.)

The Mets slugger is the favorite because he has the most outstanding top-line number. As I noted when picking Alonso to win this award before the season: “Since the introduction of the Rookie of the Year vote, 24 rookies have crushed at least 30 home runs; 17 won the award, and another five lost to a different 30-homer rookie. (The other two played in 1963 and 1964.)” Alonso, as it turns out, didn’t just reach 30 homers; he eclipsed 40, setting the NL rookie record in August, and won the Home Run Derby for good measure. Only Aaron Judge (52) and Mark McGwire (49) have hit more home runs as a rookie, and Alonso still has a month to pass them both.

Alonso will also likely benefit from a bias toward hitters in Rookie of the Year voting; in the award’s history, position player winners outnumber pitcher winners by a roughly three-to-one margin. That’s not necessarily fair to Soroka, who with a strong September could become just the third pitcher since the 1980s to record 6 bWAR as a rookie. In a year in which everyone seems to be allowing home runs—the possible AL Cy Young winner has allowed the joint-most in his league—Soroka has by far the lowest HR rate of any qualified pitcher, and a 2.44 ERA to boot. But it’s hard to overcome a slugger and his accordant headlines, so Alonso is still the favorite with a month to go.

NL Cy Young

The favorite: Max Scherzer, Nationals
The contenders: Jacob deGrom, Mets; Hyun-Jin Ryu, Dodgers
The dark horse: Stephen Strasburg, Nationals

Here is how every qualifying pitcher who’s posted an ERA below 2 since 1990 has fared in Cy Young voting:

  • 2018: deGrom, won
  • 2018: Snell, won
  • 2015: Jake Arrieta, won; Zack Greinke, finished second to Arrieta
  • 2014: Clayton Kershaw, won
  • 2013: Kershaw, won
  • 2005: Roger Clemens, finished third
  • 2000: Pedro Martínez, won
  • 1997: Martínez, won
  • 1996: Kevin Brown, finished second
  • 1995: Greg Maddux, won
  • 1994: Maddux, won

Clemens and Brown both lost in large part because of inferior win-loss records when such things mattered a great deal to the electorate: Clemens went just 13-8 in 2005 and finished behind two 20-game winners, while the 17-11 Brown placed second behind 24-8 John Smoltz, who also led the majors in strikeouts.

So were this article written two weeks ago, before Ryu allowed 11 runs in 10 innings across two starts, and before his ERA jumped from 1.45 to 2.00, he’d be the favorite. But now that his ERA is not quite as special, and now that the Dodgers are considering an innings limit for Ryu’s September, the dynamic has shifted.

For an initial look, this chart shows the WAR values for each pitcher who ranks in the NL’s top five by any of the stat’s three major providers.

NL Cy Young Contender WAR

Player Baseball-Reference FanGraphs Baseball Prospectus Average
Player Baseball-Reference FanGraphs Baseball Prospectus Average
Jacob deGrom 5.4 5.6 6.0 5.7
Max Scherzer 5.4 5.7 5.2 5.4
Stephen Strasburg 4.5 4.5 6.7 5.2
Patrick Corbin 5.1 4.3 4.7 4.7
Mike Soroka 5.2 3.9 4.4 4.5
Hyun-Jin Ryu 4.6 3.8 4.7 4.4
German Márquez 3.6 3.5 5.1 4.1
Walker Buehler 2.0 4.6 4.9 3.8
Jon Gray 4.6 3.0 3.4 3.7

The top is the same as last year, when deGrom won and Scherzer finished second. The chart shows deGrom as the favorite for the second consecutive year, but WAR isn’t precise enough that such small gaps convey meaningful differences in performance, so it makes sense to look closer at the pitchers’ numbers—and at this point, a vote for 2019 deGrom would be, essentially, a vote for workload. Comparing just the two leaders, deGrom has thrown 19 1/3 more innings, but Scherzer looks better via ERA, FIP, strikeout rate, walk rate, and home run rate. And now that Scherzer is back from the back injury that cost him nearly six weeks’ worth of starts, that innings gap shouldn’t grow much larger.

Strasburg remains a strong candidate even if he falls behind his Washington teammate in most metrics, if only because he leads the NL in wins and could conceivably add a shiny 20-win total to his overall résumé. Even with a less win-conscious electorate, that factor has helped push the likes of Snell, Rick Porcello, and others to claim the award in recent years.

AL Cy Young

The favorites: Justin Verlander, Astros; Gerrit Cole, Astros
The contenders: Lance Lynn, Rangers; Mike Minor, Rangers; Charlie Morton, Rays
The dark horses: Lucas Giolito, White Sox; Shane Bieber, Indians

The final race starts as a fascinating debate between two Astros. Cole might set the single-season record for strikeout rate; Verlander might set the single-season mark for WHIP, as it appears that the only way to score against him this season is with a solo home run.

  • Verlander: 16-5, 184 innings, 2.69 ERA, 3.55 FIP, 34.5 K%, 4.8 BB%, 1.61 HR/9
  • Cole: 15-5, 170 1/3 innings, 2.85 ERA, 2.91 FIP, 37.9 K%, 6.2 BB%, 1.32 HR/9

Verlander probably has the slight edge now, given his advantages in workload and run prevention. But this race is so close that it seemingly shifts with every trip through the Astros rotation, and another second-place finish for Verlander would fit his career: The future Hall of Famer has just one Cy Young win to his name, along with three second-place finishes and one third-place result.

Zooming out, here’s that same top-five chart for the AL.

AL Cy Young Contender WAR 

Player Baseball-Reference FanGraphs Baseball Prospectus Average
Player Baseball-Reference FanGraphs Baseball Prospectus Average
Lance Lynn 5.6 5.8 5.1 5.5
Justin Verlander 6.0 4.6 5.8 5.5
Mike Minor 7.0 4.0 4.2 5.1
Lucas Giolito 5.5 4.7 4.8 5.0
Gerrit Cole 4.6 5.0 5.4 5.0
Charlie Morton 4.3 5.2 5.3 4.9

As strong as Lynn’s underlying numbers and resultant WAR totals appear, it’s difficult to imagine him winning with his bloated ERA, which sits at 3.85 after a seven-run implosion last week. The highest ERA for a Cy Young winner is 3.66, from LaMarr Hoyt in 1983, so Lynn’s case might rely a bit too much on voters’ understanding of the vagaries of park factors and BABIP to warrant true consideration. His Texas teammate Minor, meanwhile, leads in bWAR but has also overperformed his peripherals a bit, with worse strikeout and walk numbers than Verlander or Cole.

Either Ranger can still win, of course, as can former Astro Morton—there’s something about pitchers in the state of Texas, huh?—and less heralded breakout arms like Giolito and the hard-charging Bieber. Even more surprises might be in store, pending September’s results, but also Lance Lynn is a realistic candidate for Cy Young, with perhaps the AL’s best WAR total. This particular award race has had enough surprises already.

Thanks to Dan Hirsch of Baseball-Reference for research assistance.