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The 2020 MLB Awards Race Stretch-Run Primer

Can pitcher Shane Bieber win the AL MVP? Can Jacob deGrom win his third consecutive Cy Young? In the final week-plus of baseball’s short and strange season, plenty of intrigue remains.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For the past couple of seasons, I’ve written an MLB awards primer around the start of September, laying out the favorites, contenders, and dark horses for each of the six major individual awards. (Apologies to the managers of the year.) That timing needed to change for the 2020 season, for obvious reasons—the start of September came only halfway through this unprecedented campaign.

Yet in a normal season, the start of September is five-sixths of the way through the schedule, and now, with just a week and a half remaining, we’re finally five-sixths of the way through this regular season. So although it still feels as if this season has only recently begun—it kind of has!—it’s now the proper time to dive into these award races, ordered here from the clearest cut to the most chaotic. (All stats through Monday’s games.)

AL Cy Young

The favorite: Shane Bieber, Cleveland SP
The contender: None
The dark horse: None

For completion’s sake, the write-up of each race will include WAR values for the top 10 players up for that award, using an average of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs figures. For the AL Cy Young race, this chart serves mainly to highlight Bieber’s gap over the rest of the field.

AL Cy Young

Pitcher Baseball-Reference FanGraphs Average
Pitcher Baseball-Reference FanGraphs Average
Shane Bieber 2.9 2.7 2.80
Dylan Bundy 2.3 2.0 2.15
Lance Lynn 2.6 1.6 2.10
Hyun-Jin Ryu 2.2 1.4 1.80
Kenta Maeda 1.4 1.9 1.65
Andrew Heaney 1.4 1.8 1.60
Dallas Keuchel 1.6 1.5 1.55
Brad Keller 1.8 1.2 1.50
Zack Greinke 1.3 1.7 1.50
Lucas Giolito 0.6 2.1 1.35
Zach Plesac 1.7 1.0 1.35

Bieber leads all AL pitchers in ERA, FIP, both brands of WAR, WPA, wins, strikeouts, and strikeout rate. Adjusted for ballpark and the leaguewide scoring environment, his ERA right now is the best for any qualified starter in MLB history, narrowly edging out Pedro Martínez’s legendary 2000 campaign. Or, in 2020 terms: Bieber has allowed fewer runs all season than Marlins swingman Jordan Yamamoto did in one game last week. Bieber’s dominance has stripped this award of any last-week drama it might have inspired.

NL MVP

The favorite: Fernando Tatis Jr., Padres SS
The contender: Mookie Betts, Dodgers RF
The dark horse: Freddie Freeman, Atlanta 1B

NL MVP

Player Baseball-Reference FanGraphs Average
Player Baseball-Reference FanGraphs Average
Fernando Tatis Jr. 2.5 3.0 2.75
Mookie Betts 3.0 2.3 2.65
Freddie Freeman 2.3 2.7 2.50
Manny Machado 2.3 2.3 2.30
Trea Turner 2.2 2.3 2.25
Michael Conforto 2.2 2.1 2.15
Mike Yastrzemski 2.1 2.2 2.15
Trevor Story 1.9 2.2 2.05
Dansby Swanson 2.2 1.6 1.90
Trent Grisham 1.7 2.0 1.85

Although the WAR figures look close and both Betts and Freeman have turned in typically tremendous seasons, this award feels like Tatis’s to lose. In part, that certainty reflects the splendor of his statistics, including 15 home runs (tied with Betts for the NL lead) and league-best totals for runs and total bases. He’s also turned around his defense; after a spotty performance as a rookie, he’s now a top-10 fielder in the majors according to Statcast’s outs above average, and has tallied just two errors compared to 18 last season.

But the MVP is a narrative honor in addition to a numerical one, and Tatis buttresses his case by positioning himself at the center of the story of the 2020 season. He’s the most exciting player to watch on a nightly basis. He flaunted an unwritten rule—and forced the league to accept that he wasn’t actually in the wrong. And his Padres have transformed from a last-place club in 2019 to the second-best team in the majors, by run differential, and a real threat to the Dodgers in the NL West. Betts might sneak by Tatis in WAR by season’s end, but not by enough to overcome the latter’s narrative advantage. Tatis should become the youngest MVP ever.

NL Rookie of the Year

The favorite: Jake Cronenworth, Padres IF
The contender: Sixto Sánchez, Marlins SP
The dark horse: Devin Williams, Brewers RP

Because there are fewer players in contention for the Rookie of the Year races, those charts will include just players in the top five:

NL Rookie of the Year

Player Baseball-Reference FanGraphs Average
Player Baseball-Reference FanGraphs Average
Jake Cronenworth 1.6 1.7 1.65
Sixto Sánchez 1.8 0.9 1.35
Tony Gonsolin 0.9 0.9 0.90
Devin Williams 0.8 1.0 0.90
Ian Anderson 1.2 0.6 0.90

Cronenworth should win, with daily contributions to an unexpected contender and a gorgeous slash line (.328/.388/.562) to boot. A pair of trades between the Padres and Rays last offseason exchanged four established major leaguers and a highly touted prospect—but it’s Cronenworth, a 26-year-old rookie, who’s had the best season of the bunch.

Beyond Cronenworth, the most interesting case for NL Rookie of the Year belongs to Williams for sheer quality, if not quantity, of play. The record for highest single-season strikeout rate (minimum 10 innings) belongs to Aroldis Chapman, who struck out 52.5 percent of opposing batters in 2014. Right now, Williams’s strikeout rate is 52.6 percent.

Yet as a relief pitcher with no counting stats of note, Williams could struggle to receive top-of-the-ballot support from voters. Here’s a list of every pitcher (other than two-way star Shohei Ohtani) to win Rookie of the Year with fewer than 100 innings pitched:

  • Steve Howe, 1980; 17 saves
  • Gregg Olson, 1989; 27 saves
  • Scott Williamson, 1999; 19 saves
  • Kazuhiro Sasaki, 2000; 37 saves
  • Huston Street, 2005; 23 saves
  • Andrew Bailey, 2009; 26 saves
  • Neftalí Feliz, 2010; 40 saves
  • Craig Kimbrel, 2011; 46 saves

Williams, for comparison, has zero saves. He’s also pitched just 20 innings. So even if Cronenworth falters in the final week and a half, Williams might not be the best positioned to take over. Sánchez has dazzled in his first five starts as a Marlin, amassing a 1.69 ERA and beating Washington, Atlanta, and Philadelphia for a team in the playoff hunt—and by the end of the season, Sánchez will roughly double Williams’s innings total.

AL Rookie of the Year

The favorite: Luis Robert, White Sox CF
The contender: Kyle Lewis, Mariners CF
The dark horse: None

AL Rookie of the Year

Player Baseball-Reference FanGraphs Average
Player Baseball-Reference FanGraphs Average
Luis Robert 2.2 1.8 2.00
Kyle Lewis 1.8 1.8 1.80
Sean Murphy 1.0 1.3 1.15
Ryan Mountcastle 1.1 0.9 1.00
Cristian Javier 1.3 0.3 0.80
Justus Sheffield 0.3 1.3 0.80

There’s a clear gap between the top two and every other AL rookie, as top prospects like the Angels’ Jo Adell and the Athletics’ Jesús Luzardo have underperformed. But the two-man race is still compelling, featuring two young center fielders who have arrived at nearly the same overall value via very different routes.

Lewis has been a better hitter, on the strength of his .390 on-base percentage against Robert’s .318. Robert’s all-or-nothing approach gives him, well, a whole lot of highlights (11 homers, eight doubles, and six steals) and a whole lot of nothing: FanGraphs tracks swing-and-miss data going back to 2002, and in that span, Robert has the highest swinging-strike rate of any qualified player in any season, and not by a small margin.

But Robert is a better defender, ranking no. 1 among all players, not just rookies, in Statcast’s outs above average stat. And in addition to his all-around play, Robert likely has the lead in this race for two contextual reasons, through no fault of Lewis’s. First, Robert’s White Sox have the best record in the American League, versus the Mariners’ sub-.500 mark, so any voter using team success as a tiebreaker will surely swing Robert’s way. And second, Robert was the no. 2 prospect entering this season, according to Baseball America, while Lewis ranked just 67th, and thus would attract voters using the chance of future stardom as a tiebreaker.

NL Cy Young

The favorite: Jacob deGrom, Mets
The contenders: Yu Darvish, Cubs; Trevor Bauer, Reds; Aaron Nola, Phillies
The dark horses: Dinelson Lamet, Padres; Zack Wheeler, Phillies; Corbin Burnes, Brewers; Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers

NL Cy Young

Pitcher Baseball-Reference FanGraphs Average
Pitcher Baseball-Reference FanGraphs Average
Jacob deGrom 2.5 2.3 2.40
Max Fried 2.9 1.8 2.35
Yu Darvish 2.3 2.2 2.25
Trevor Bauer 2.2 2.1 2.15
Aaron Nola 2.6 1.7 2.15
Dinelson Lamet 2.1 2.0 2.05
Zack Wheeler 2.6 1.5 2.05
Corbin Burnes 1.8 2.2 2.00
Max Scherzer 2.0 1.6 1.80
Zac Gallen 2.2 1.2 1.70

Now we’ve arrived at a much more congested race. The NL sports eight pitchers with an average between 2.0 and 2.4 WAR, and though Fried, currently on the injured list with a back injury, can’t conceivably win at this point, there are still seven other players with a shot at taking the WAR lead.

WAR isn’t everything, of course, especially in a shortened season, and especially when such small gaps separate the contenders. The stat isn’t so precise that it can properly distinguish between pitchers who are mere tenths of a win apart.

But it’s not as if the other stats that go into WAR offer a picture that’s any clearer. For instance, deGrom leads in ERA—but if he allows a two-run homer in the first inning of his next start, he’ll drop behind Bauer, Darvish, Burnes, and Fried. Or, Burnes leads in batting average allowed—but if he allows just four more hits, he’ll drop behind Bauer, Kershaw, Lamet, and deGrom. (Kershaw spent the start of the season on the IL, so he hasn’t pitched enough innings to sit among the WAR leaders.)

For now, the slightest edge goes to deGrom, both for his consistency—he hasn’t allowed more than two earned runs in any game this season—and his track record, since the last two NL Cys are also his. In addition to a league-best ERA, his underlying numbers are probably the best in the group, though even here, of course, the margins are infinitesimally small. Both Bauer and Burnes are within a percentage point of deGrom for the league lead in strikeout rate.

Even with just a week and change left in the season, deGrom is far from a solid favorite. Each of these pitchers has two or three starts left to make his case to surpass the leader. It might be a tad easier for a pitcher with more established name recognition, like Darvish and Nola, than a newcomer in the Cy Young conversation, like Burnes and Lamet. But it’s hard to quibble with the latter’s cases, given their pitching performances this season. Whoever ultimately wins this award will have earned it.

AL MVP

The favorite: Bieber
The contenders: José Abreu, White Sox 1B; Tim Anderson, White Sox SS; Mike Trout, Angels CF
The dark horses: Nelson Cruz, Twins DH

AL MVP

Player Baseball-Reference FanGraphs Average
Player Baseball-Reference FanGraphs Average
José Abreu 2.4 2.0 2.20
Tim Anderson 2.1 2.2 2.15
Anthony Rendon 1.9 2.4 2.15
Luis Robert 2.2 1.8 2.00
Nelson Cruz 1.7 2.0 1.85
Kyle Lewis 1.8 1.8 1.80
José Ramírez 1.4 2.1 1.75
Brandon Lowe 1.7 1.8 1.75
Mike Trout 1.1 2.3 1.70
Alex Verdugo 1.9 1.5 1.70

Note that for this chart, like the NL MVP chart above, only the top 10 position players are included. That’s because Bieber was born in 1995, and in his lifetime, only two pitchers—Justin Verlander in 2011 and Clayton Kershaw in 2014—have won the MVP award. In the past 50 years, only four starting pitchers—those two, plus Vida Blue in 1971 and Roger Clemens in 1986—have.

In other words, a pitcher needs an inordinately special season to be named MVP, given some voters’ belief that the Cy Young is for pitchers and MVP for position players; Pedro Martínez infamously lost the 1999 MVP race despite receiving the most first-place votes because he was left off two ballots entirely. But Bieber’s season is certainly special enough, for all the reasons stated above, and he also benefits from a relatively lackluster pack of position players in the AL this season. Comparing the WAR totals on this chart to Bieber’s, the Cleveland pitcher has a half-win lead on any competitor.

And that pack of position players is itself a strange group for voting purposes. Abreu and Anderson could split votes among voters unsure of which Chicago hitter to credit most for the team’s play: Anderson has a better slash line and a much more demanding defensive position, but Abreu has played more, hit more homers, and recorded a league-leading RBI total.

Other decisions for this ballot aren’t any easier than splitting hairs between Abreu and Anderson. A different pair of teammates, Rendon and Trout, actually ranks first and second in FanGraphs WAR—Trout is dragged down on B-Ref by porous defensive numbers—but the Angels haven’t played a meaningful game in weeks. Neither the division-leading Rays nor division-leading Athletics can point to a clear top player responsible for the broader team success. With the best slash line of any qualified hitter, Cruz could garner some consideration, but it’s hard to imagine a DH-only slugger eclipsing Abreu when the latter also fields at first base and plays for a better team.

If Cruz’s Twins pass the White Sox and he wins the home run title outright—he’s currently tied with Trout and the Yankees’ Luke Voit—maybe that calculus changes. But for now, it seems like Bieber has the edge even when accounting for his position. In 2014, Kershaw won the Cy Young/MVP double because he finished more than a full WAR clear of the closest position player and recorded a 1.77 ERA en route to a unanimous Cy Young vote; right now in 2020, Bieber is well clear of the closest position player in WAR, with a lower ERA than Kershaw’s and a path to a unanimous Cy Young finish. It’s the rare pitcher who contends for the MVP, but Bieber’s nearing the end of a mighty rare pitching season—he just needs every voter to actually place him on a ballot.