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The 2021 MLB Awards Race Homestretch Guide

With one month remaining, barely any of the six major awards races are locked. Who has the edge? And who might be able to pull ahead?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Injuries, COVID-19 absences, and other assorted interruptions have thrown the 2021 MLB awards races out of whack. Look at the NL MVP race for one prominent example. At the All-Star break, the top three candidates were probably, in some order: Jacob deGrom, who’s now hurt; Ronald Acuña Jr., who’s now hurt; and Fernando Tatis Jr., who’s healthy at the moment but has already missed more than 30 games.

In past seasons, when I’ve surveyed the six major awards in early September, most were already effectively settled or condensed to just two realistic candidates; only a few remained chaotic, uncertain messes. That’s not the case this year—only one, maybe two, races boast real clarity with the season almost at a close.

So with a month’s worth of games left to play, let’s look at the state of the awards races—at least, before any more IL stints wreak any more havoc on the proceedings. We’ll order the races from most basic to most complex; contenders are presented in alphabetical order, when applicable. All statistics through Tuesday’s games.

AL MVP

The favorite: Shohei Ohtani, Angels DH/SP
The contender: None
The dark horse: None

Here’s the only remaining question about the AL MVP award: Would Ohtani win even if all his pitching accomplishments were ignored? Maybe! He leads the majors in home runs and the AL in slugging percentage; with a month to go, he’s on pace for 51 home runs and 27 steals, which would make him the first 50-25 player in MLB history. Meanwhile, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., his closest competitor at midseason, has faded relative to Ohtani, with an OPS more than 200 points lower in the second half (.853) than the first (1.089).

And of course, Ohtani is also pitching well enough to warrant down-ballot Cy Young consideration, meaning he’s not just the obvious MVP for 2021 but in the running for best individual season ever. There’s no easier award choice this season, and it’s not even close.

NL Rookie of the Year

The favorite: Jonathan India, Reds 2B
The contenders: Trevor Rogers, Marlins SP; Patrick Wisdom, Cubs 3B
The dark horse: Ian Anderson, Atlanta SP

As the lone rookie All-Star in the National League this year, Rogers appeared a deserving favorite for this award for months. His numbers still sparkle (2.45 ERA, 2.60 FIP in 110 innings), but Rogers didn’t pitch at all in August as he attended to a series of family emergencies; he should be back in the majors soon after making two rehab starts in late August, but India probably passed him in the interim.

The Reds’ plan to play Eugenio Suárez at shortstop has been something of a minor disaster this season—but at least that positional switch allowed India to debut on opening day, and he’s made the most of the opportunity. The most impressive statistic for the former no. 5 pick is his .381 on-base percentage; in the past decade, the only qualified rookies to reach base more often are Aaron Judge, Mike Trout, and José Abreu. Particularly if Cincinnati continues its surge into the wild-card game, this award is now India’s to lose.

The final candidates who can realistically catch him are Wisdom, who leads NL rookies with 25 home runs but has also struck out in 40 percent of his plate appearances, and Anderson, a better-known rookie because of his dazzling playoff performance last year. Anderson’s numbers have regressed somewhat in a larger sample this season, and he’s missed time due to injury—but in his first start back, he tossed 5 2/3 scoreless innings against the league-leading Giants.

AL Cy Young

The favorite: Gerrit Cole, Yankees
The contenders: Lance Lynn, White Sox; Robbie Ray, Blue Jays
The dark horse: Carlos Rodón, White Sox

This award has a weird field of contenders. By Baseball Prospectus’s pitcher value metric, eight of the top nine hurlers this year throw in the National League. The one exception is Cole, who withstood some early-summer stumbles after the crackdown on sticky stuff to return to his typical ace form. Through his past seven starts, Cole boasts a 37 percent strikeout rate.

Behind Cole is a fleet of pitchers without much separation between them. This chart shows the various WAR values for each pitcher who ranks in the AL’s top five by any of the stat’s three major providers:

AL Cy Young Contender WAR

Player Baseball-Reference FanGraphs Baseball Prospectus Average
Player Baseball-Reference FanGraphs Baseball Prospectus Average
Gerrit Cole 5.0 4.7 4.0 4.6
Robbie Ray 6.0 3.4 3.3 4.2
Carlos Rodón 4.1 4.1 3.1 3.8
Nathan Eovaldi 3.9 4.6 2.5 3.7
Lance Lynn 4.5 3.3 2.5 3.4
Chris Bassitt 3.7 3.1 2.6 3.1
Dylan Cease 2.4 3.5 2.7 2.9
Frankie Montas 2.6 3.4 2.4 2.8

Lynn leads with a 2.59 ERA; Ray leads with 202 strikeouts and a 2.71 ERA to boot. Eovaldi leads Lynn in the blended WAR figures, but even in an enlightened sabermetric age, a pitcher with a 3.71 ERA won’t win the award; the record is 3.66, from LaMarr Hoyt in 1983, and Rick Porcello’s 3.15 in 2016 is the highest winning figure in the past decade.

Finally, in a surprise breakout campaign, Rodón has the best per-inning numbers for any of Cole’s challengers, but he’s been limited to the fewest innings of the bunch. Yet Rodón returned from the injured list with a win over Toronto last week, so if Cole falters down the stretch, the South Side southpaw could emerge from the pack with a superlative September.

(Ohtani, by the way, ranks eighth among AL pitchers with 3.4 bWAR on the mound. He’s been excellent, yet with just 19 starts and 105 innings to date, he won’t actually contend for the top spot here. He’ll have to settle for a mere MVP trophy instead.)

AL Rookie of the Year

The favorite: Randy Arozarena, Rays OF
The contenders: Adolis García, Rangers OF; Luis Garcia, Astros SP
The dark horse: Wander Franco, Rays SS

Arozarena was the best-known AL rookie before the season, thanks to his record-setting home run binge last postseason, and he’s accelerated to fulfill expectations after a relatively slow start. Among qualified hitters since the All-Star break, Arozarena is tied for the majors’ third-best wRC+ with a mark of 180, meaning he’s been 80 percent better than league average; only Bryce Harper (209) and Juan Soto (197) rate better.

Like India in the National League, Arozarena combines quality (127 wRC+ for the full season) with quantity (494 plate appearances, second among AL rookies), making him a solid favorite heading into the final month. Also like India, Arozarena probably wasn’t the favorite at the All-Star break: The Rangers’ García, a castoff turned All-Star, was the unofficial leader at that time, but he’s taken the opposite trajectory this season. While García started strong, he’s tied for 125th out of 155 qualified hitters in second-half wRC+; his on-base percentage has started with a “2” every month this season except for May.

Although Adolis García’s surface stats still give him a chance (rookie-best 29 homers and 77 RBI), it’s the race’s other Garcia who might pose the greatest threat. As a consistent starter (3.23 ERA, 3.42 FIP) with a sizable workload (23 starts, 128 1/3 innings) on a World Series contender, Garcia should receive ample consideration—but given the history of the award, which has often favored position players over pitchers with equivalent value, Arozarena still holds the advantage for now.

The final wild card in this race is Franco, the sport’s consensus top prospect entering the season, who’s been on an absolute tear of late.

Wander Franco’s Tale of Two Halves

Statistic First 27 Games Next 27 Games
Statistic First 27 Games Next 27 Games
BA .220 .327
OBP .283 .390
SLG .349 .533
OPS .632 .923
K% 20.8% 7.6%

Thanks to his late call-up on June 22, Franco’s greatest issue is volume. If he plays every remaining game this season, he’ll end up with 84 total games—in the range of other winners like Wil Myers (88), Ryan Howard (88), and Yordan Álvarez (87). (Willie McCovey won with just 52 games back in 1959.) So it’s possible he can storm into the lead, if he maintains his pace from the past 27 games. But it’s more likely, at this point, that a teammate with a full season played—and some 250 extra plate appearances—will get in the way.

NL MVP

The favorite: Fernando Tatis Jr., Padres SS/OF
The contenders: Bryce Harper, Phillies OF; Max Muncy, Dodgers 1B/2B; Buster Posey, Giants C; Trea Turner, Dodgers/Nationals 2B/SS; Joey Votto, Reds 1B
The dark horse: None—they’re all in the picture already

Here’s how condensed the NL MVP field is, compared to the AL’s. Ohtani leads all other AL position players by a full 2.0 bWAR, with 7.9 compared to Carlos Correa’s 5.9. In the National League, Tatis leads all position players with 5.5 bWAR—and another 17 players are within 2 WAR of him.

Had Tatis not suffered multiple shoulder injuries this season, he’d have a much more comfortable advantage; extrapolate his 5.5 WAR in 101 games to 131 games and he’d be up at 7.1 WAR, well clear of second place. But because Tatis has missed so much time and because Acuña is out for the year, this year’s NL MVP race is full of players enjoying very good but not transcendent seasons.

Other than in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, nobody has won MVP with fewer than 7 bWAR since Jimmy Rollins (6.1) in 2007. But it looks unlikely that any NL player will hit that mark in 2021.

So while Tatis has the lead now, it’s not a prohibitive gap—and after him, pick your favorite from among the various playoff contenders. This final month could offer an old-fashioned MVP race, in which team outcomes matter almost as much as individual performance. These days, an MVP doesn’t have to come from a playoff team—see: Ohtani, or teammate Mike Trout—but that element certainly adds a narrative tiebreaker in such a congested race as this one.

Potential narratives abound among past MVP winners alone. Harper won the award in 2015, Posey in 2012, and Votto in 2010. Since the introduction of the modern MVP award in 1931, the only players to go more than five years between wins are Willie Mays (11), Cal Ripken Jr. (8), Barry Bonds (8), Robin Yount (7), and Joe DiMaggio (6).

If the Reds beat out the Padres for the second wild card, for instance, Votto could beat out Tatis for the award. Harper could receive a necessary boost if the Phillies catch Atlanta for the NL East title. If the Giants finish the season with the majors’ best record, Posey (or teammate Brandon Crawford) could claim a solid case. Ditto Muncy if the Dodgers pass the Giants. Turner’s candidacy has an extra wrinkle: No player has ever won the MVP in the same season he was traded midseason.

Still, at least the NL MVP race has a favorite at this point. The final award to discuss doesn’t even have that much clarity.

NL Cy Young

The favorites: Walker Buehler, Dodgers; Corbin Burnes, Brewers; Zack Wheeler, Phillies
The contender: Brandon Woodruff, Brewers
The dark horse: A healthy Jacob deGrom, Mets

Here’s the NL version of the AL chart above, showing the top five pitchers from any of the major WAR providers:

NL Cy Young Contender WAR

Player Baseball-Reference FanGraphs Baseball Prospectus Average
Player Baseball-Reference FanGraphs Baseball Prospectus Average
Zack Wheeler 6.1 6.0 5.0 5.7
Corbin Burnes 4.6 6.3 4.4 5.1
Walker Buehler 5.9 4.6 4.0 4.8
Brandon Woodruff 5.2 4.3 4.1 4.5
Jacob deGrom 4.5 4.9 3.3 4.2
Kevin Gausman 4.7 3.8 3.5 4.0
Charlie Morton 3.3 3.4 3.8 3.5
Wade Miley 5.9 3.2 0.8 3.3

DeGrom has the best per-inning stats of anyone, but he won’t throw enough innings to contend seriously for the top spot. In his stead, a fascinating three-way race has emerged; Michael Baumann wrote about this race in depth for The Ringer just a couple of weeks ago, and not much about the dynamic has changed since then. As he said, “right now, there are at least three front-runners for the award, depending on who you ask” and what metrics you use for pitcher evaluation.

Buehler has the shiny ERA (MLB-best 2.05) and win-loss record (MLB-best 13-2). Wheeler has the workload (MLB-best 182 2/3 innings and 208 strikeouts). And all Burnes has done is post the second-best FIP (1.58) in the entire live ball era, behind only Pedro Martínez’s legendary 1999 campaign.

Among these three pitchers, the best September will probably carry the day—but they’re all throwing so well that they might not gain any separation over the next month. Every turn through the rotation, it seems, a new favorite emerges. Just this week, Burnes threw a six-inning, one-run gem to beat division-leading San Francisco on Monday, only for Buehler to respond Tuesday with a seven-inning, two-run outing against division-leading Atlanta.

Every start from the trio is worth watching because they’re all enjoying magnificent seasons—and now, every start is doubly worth watching to see how the cofavorites jostle for the award.