The 2019 season has quietly produced one of the most interesting awards discussions in recent memory. There has been no shortage of remarkable individual performances across most awards categories in both leagues, and many of those races have been complicated by late-season injuries to players who might otherwise have distanced themselves from the field. With close races across the board, particularly for Cy Young and MVP in both leagues, there are multiple defensible picks for most of the contests. What follows are my picks for each award, as well as examinations of when I expect my choice to deviate from the electorate’s consensus.
AL MVP: Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels
This is Trout’s eighth full big league season. In my estimation, he’s been the best player in the American League seven times since then, including 2019, with the only exception coming in 2017, when he missed seven weeks with a torn ligament in his thumb and finished fourth in MVP voting.
But in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2018, he finished second in the MVP race to a player who had a statistically comparable season but played on a better team. That’s probably going to happen again in 2019. Trout hasn’t played since September 7. He’s recovering from surgery to remove a neuroma from his foot, and since the Angels are simply playing out the string on yet another lost season, they shut him down early. Trout’s absence has allowed Astros infielder Alex Bregman to close the gap in several key counting stats, and since Bregman is the best player on the best team in the American League, he’ll probably garner support on the basis of that narrative, as Mookie Betts did last year.
Even today, awards voting in baseball is as much a function of narrative context as personal achievement. Voters as a bloc tend not to follow the old MVP norm that pitchers and players on losing teams can’t win as much as they did 10 or 15 years ago, but those ideas still filter in. Consider last season, when Jacob deGrom was clearly the best player in the National League but earned just one first-place vote for MVP, because Christian Yelich was a position player whose hot performance down the stretch pushed his team into the playoffs.
Bregman’s numbers—41 home runs, 119 walks against 83 strikeouts, 8.2 bWAR—are phenomenal by any standards and good enough on their own to give me pause over picking Trout. But Bregman won’t win MVP based on numbers; he’ll win based on his team’s performance, or because he played 64 games at shortstop to cover for Carlos Correa’s extended injury absence (as if that’s comparable to Matt Saracen moving to receiver to accommodate J.D. McCoy, instead of shortstop being Bregman’s natural position), or because giving him the MVP is a way to coronate a player who came into the league as a huge prospect and has continued to make huge developmental strides each year.
Last Friday, the Astros released a graphic on Twitter that made the case for Bregman as MVP by listing nine categories in which he’s among the top five players in the American League—WAR, home runs, OBP, and so on.
A closer examination of those numbers reveals that Bregman still trails Trout in six of those categories, and might have trailed Trout in all nine if Trout hadn’t played 22 fewer games. It’s an impressive résumé, but absent the team’s win total, it’s ultimately an argument that Bregman was the second-most valuable player in the AL this year.
We don’t know exactly what each player’s contributions are worth, but a baseball season offers discrete events in large enough samples that we can get closer in judging these contributions than in any other sport, and in my mind it’s not fair to punish Trout for being drafted by a less competently run team than Bregman.
The statistical case for Trout over Bregman isn’t as strong as deGrom’s case over Yelich last year, so if Bregman wins, it won’t be a huge injustice—he’s a great player who’s had a great season—but Trout’s been better this year in the areas he can control.
NL MVP: Cody Bellinger, 1B/OF, Los Angeles Dodgers
This race is extremely close as it is, and it would be much closer if Yelich and Ketel Marte of the Diamondbacks hadn’t both suffered season-ending injuries this September, as Trout did. Yelich was the superior offensive player this season, as he followed up his 2018 MVP campaign with a 44-homer, 30-steal season in 2019, and still leads the NL in batting average, OBP, and slugging percentage.
Bellinger, however, put up monster numbers himself and hit .305/.406/.629 with 47 home runs and 15 stolen bases, which when you consider that Bellinger plays in a more pitcher-friendly stadium than Yelich brings him pretty close to offensive parity.
Where Bellinger distinguishes himself is defensively, and how much weight individual voters give that defensive advantage should determine the outcome of this race. Baseball Prospectus’ WARP has the two players in a dead heat overall and gives Bellinger a two-run advantage with the glove. FanGraphs WAR has Yelich up by one-tenth of a win—a margin so small as to be statistically meaningless—and says Bellinger was about seven runs better than Yelich. Baseball-Reference WAR, however, puts Bellinger 25 runs up on Yelich defensively, which gives him a lead of almost two wins overall. Given that this is the outlier in the group, I don’t think it overrides the more modest evaluations of Bellinger’s defense elsewhere, but it’s worth considering.
The numbers are close enough that either choice is defensible, and I’m less sure of how this race will shake out than I am of the AL. Bellinger, like Bregman, is the best player on the best team in his league, and will likely receive a boost on that basis. Unlike Trout, Yelich was on a playoff team, but that story line is complicated by the fact that the Brewers made the playoffs on the strength of a hot streak that started after Yelich suffered his season-ending injury, in stark contrast to last year.
Marte’s remarkable breakout season—.329/.389/.592 with 77 extra-base hits and solid defense at three different up-the-middle positions—went under the radar on a mediocre Diamondbacks team. He’d be third on my ballot, ahead of my preseason pick, Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr., who flirted with a 40-40 season for the NL East champion. Given how spectacular Acuña has been to watch this year, it might seem strange that he’s not in contention for the top spot. But only one of the four 40-40 seasons in MLB history, José Canseco in 1988, was rewarded with an MVP. More relevant to Acuña’s case: his is the 20th 35-35 season in MLB history, and of those, Canseco’s 1988 campaign remains the only one to bring home the game’s biggest individual hardware.
Acuña had a spectacular season, but not a particularly efficient one. For example, he gives up 64 points of OBP and 153 points of slugging percentage to Yelich and struck out in 26.3 percent of his plate appearances, compared to Bellinger’s 16.4. Acuña will probably win an MVP at some point down the line, but he still has to develop a little bit more.
AL Cy Young: Justin Verlander, RHP, Houston Astros
This was the muddiest race at midseason, with Verlander among a group of as many as half a dozen serious contenders. Most of those have fallen away as Verlander has authored perhaps the best season of his career: 223 innings, 300 strikeouts, and a 2.58 ERA. He’s allowing just 5.5 hits per nine innings, which is not only the lowest mark of his career, but the lowest by a qualified AL starter since Pedro Martínez in 2000, and the fifth lowest ever.
But since the All-Star break, Verlander’s teammate Gerrit Cole has chased him down. Cole has won his last 16 decisions, dating back 22 starts to May 27. In that span, he’s struck out 226 and walked just 31 in 146 2/3 innings, and allowed an ERA of 1.78. Cole has broken the all-time single-season K% and K/9 records and posted 326 strikeouts, a club record.
The difference between Verlander and Cole over the full season is vanishingly small—according to Baseball Prospectus, it was two one-hundredths of a win entering their final starts. Cole leads Verlander in the AL ERA race, 2.50 to 2.58. I frankly don’t know how to pick a winner based on distinctions that thin.
If Cole edges past Verlander based on his performance in the season’s final weekend, it’d be disappointing but weirdly appropriate for Verlander, who won a dominating victory in AL Cy Young voting in 2011, but finished second in 2012, 2016, and 2018, three of the closest award races of the 21st century. We’re likely in for another race of that nature.
NL Cy Young: Jacob deGrom, New York Mets
At midseason, this looked like a battle between the incredible start-by-start precision of the Dodgers’ Hyun-Jin Ryu and the overpowering strikeout numbers and awesome inning volume of the Nationals’ Max Scherzer. But Ryu has faltered in the second half, while Scherzer has struggled with a back injury. That’s left the door open for deGrom, the defending champion, and he’s stormed through. The Mets right-hander hasn’t allowed a run since September 9, and though a few rough early-season starts set him back in April, he has a 2.07 ERA and .545 opponent OPS since May 1. That’s good for a 2.43 ERA and 11.3 K/9 ratio overall, as well as an NL-best 255 strikeouts.
There’s an argument to be made for Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg, who’s pitched a similar inning volume to deGrom and leads all MLB pitchers in WARP by nearly half a win. But while ERA estimator-based stats are useful for predicting the future, and even shed light on past events, I tend to favor runs-allowed-based stats for pitchers when evaluating awards races as they measure results instead of what the results should have been. deGrom has Strasburg beat in ERA by nearly a full run, and in bWAR by a full win, 7.3 to 6.3. It’d be cool to see Strasburg finally break through with a Cy Young win, but I can’t quite talk myself into his statistical case.
Scherzer and Ryu will be in the mix for down-ballot votes, as will Reds righty Luis Castillo, Nats lefty Patrick Corbin, and Cardinals youngster Jack Flaherty, who’s been phenomenal down the stretch; in his past 16 starts, Flaherty has allowed an ERA of just 0.93. We’ll see more of all those pitchers (except Castillo) in the postseason, but based on the entirety of the regular season, there’s a clear gap between deGrom and Strasburg and third place.
AL Rookie of the Year: Yordan Álvarez, DH, Houston Astros
At midseason, I picked Orioles right-hander John Means as the front-runner, with the caveat that I expected Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to heat up and overhaul him for the lead by season’s end. I didn’t even mention Álvarez, who debuted on June 9 and played just 19 games before the break, but he’s been not only the best rookie hitter in the AL in the second half, but maybe the best hitter in baseball full stop.
Owing to his late debut, Álvarez has featured in just 87 games and batted just 369 times, and is therefore nowhere close to qualifying for rate stat leaderboards, but in those 87 games he’s hit 27 home runs and drawn 52 walks en route to a slash line of .313/.412/.655. If he had enough plate appearances to qualify, he’d have the second-best slugging percentage and wRC+ in baseball. He’s been so much better than the competition I can’t even make a devil’s advocate case for anyone else.
NL Rookie of the Year: Pete Alonso, 1B, New York Mets
Alonso’s gaudy home run total—his 53 dingers are a new MLB rookie record and by far the most by a Met in a single season—somewhat obscures the holes in Big Pete’s game. He doesn’t add anything with the glove, doesn’t hit for average, and strikes out a ton. San Diego’s Fernando Tatís Jr. put up better offensive rate stats than Alonso, and is not only a good defensive shortstop, but one of the most daring baserunners in the game.
But Tatís couldn’t stay healthy and played only about half as many games as Alonso. Tatís’s teammate, right-hander Chris Paddack, couldn’t keep up his electrifying early-season performance over a full season, and Alonso just kept chugging along, socking dinger after dinger for 161 games, and 53 home runs makes up for a lot of deficiencies elsewhere.
That consistency made Alonso the clear best rookie in the National League this year, even in a crowded season of standouts. In addition to Tatís and Paddack, Braves right-hander Mike Soroka posted a 2.68 ERA in 174 2/3 innings and has a better statistical argument than he’ll get credit for, and I’d be remiss not to at least mention Official Ringer Cousin Tommy Edman, who came out of nowhere to hit .304/.350/.500 in 92 games for the Cardinals, but neither will challenge Alonso, whom I expect to win in unanimous fashion.
❄️ ❄️ ❄️ ❄️— New York Mets (@Mets) September 29, 2019
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AL Manager of the Year: Aaron Boone, New York Yankees
Any manager of the year discussion comes with caveats about how little of the manager’s job we actually see, and those apply here. But Boone held the Yankees together through a literally unprecedented run of bad injury luck to not only win the AL East but do so without making it look particularly difficult. A lot of the credit for the Yankees’ resiliency should actually go to GM Brian Cashman, who assembled a roster with enough depth to withstand those injuries, but it’s hard not to be impressed by Boone’s ability to keep morale up even as the Yankees were seemingly losing a new All-Star every week.
Rays manager Kevin Cash also led a team to the playoffs in the AL East despite injuries to key players and enormous roster turnover, and it’s worth mentioning that he did so despite having a team that cost about a third as much as Boone’s. Twins manager Rocco Baldelli also deserves credit for cementing Minnesota’s turnaround in his first season. Either would be a deserving winner, but I think the sheer volume of the injuries Boone had to navigate, and the hysterical media environment in which he had to do so, gives him a slight edge.
NL Manager of the Year: Craig Counsell, Milwaukee Brewers
Last postseason, Counsell double-switched and Curly Ogden Maneuvered his way to Game 7 of the NLCS. Counsell’s performance was so impressive not just because it was flashy, but because of the felicity with which he used all of his roster every game, while even now some managers sometimes struggle to get their relievers up in the pen in time.
This year, Counsell’s Brewers lost two of their three top relievers from 2018 (Jeremy Jeffress and Corey Knebel) to injury. They traded their second-best hitter from last year’s team (Jesús Aguilar) and cut their top starting pitcher (Jhoulys Chacín) from last year, lost de facto no. 2 starter Wade Miley to free agency, and lost reigning MVP Yelich to a broken kneecap on September 10. And yet the Brewers made the playoffs with room to spare. Counsell’s performance stands out all the more because a few of his erstwhile competitors—Philadelphia’s Gabe Kapler and Chicago’s Joe Maddon—could do nothing to keep their clubs from falling apart down the stretch. Counsell’s combination of creative tactics and a steady hand on the tiller is a huge part of the Brewers’ success the past two seasons, and he’s due to be recognized for that effort.