As the calendar turns to August, the baseball season is roughly two-thirds complete. Teams have played 107-110 games and the trade deadline has established roughly what rosters will look like for the remainder of the season. Let’s take a look at the players who have distinguished themselves as candidates to win this year’s MVP and Cy Young Awards.
This award is as unpredictable as they come, for various reasons. From an objective analysis standpoint, the best players are bunched up, with four players within .3 fWAR of the league lead. From a practical standpoint, MVP voters love to support players whose teams support them, and of the three best candidates, none plays for a division leader or a team likely to make the playoffs. Let’s handicap the three best players in the NL so far, and a few other likely contenders:
On the surface, Matt Kemp looks like he’s been the best player in the NL this year. A center feilder with a .428 wOBA and 28 stolen bases in 31 attempts is immensely valuable, and his league-leading 6.7 rWAR*** back that up. Fangraphs, however, isn’t so high on Kemp’s defense, rating it 6.5 runs below average based on his ugly -24 Ultimate Zone Rating. Depsite that negative adjustment, Kemp rates just a tenth of a win behind Jose Reyes in fWAR.
***Since I started this blog, I’ve been referring to baseball-reference’s WAR as bWAR. I’ve noticed around the blogosphere that the prevailing convention is to call it rWAR. And yes, I’m as excited as you are about my first posterisk.***
Reyes has a few advantages over Kemp in the MVP race. His team is above .500 (if only by a game), and he’s a unanimously good defensive shortstop and an elite baserunner (32 steals in 39 attempts and 3.6 baserunning runs above average, third best in the NL). Throw in a .340/.380/.508 slash line (.391 wOBA) and you’ve got an ideal candidate. Or you would, at least, if Reyes hadn’t missed 15 games for a team that’s been out of playoff contention in the tough NL East since April.
Considering the aforementioned candidates’ distance from a playoff race, the NL MVP favorite until last week may have been Andrew McCutchen. A .375 wOBA combined with excellent center field defense rank McCutchen second in rWAR and fourth in fWAR, and it can’t hurt that he plays for America’s Team in Pittsburgh (I can’t believe I just typed that). But the Pirates are fading, now 5 1/2 games out in the Central and hoping to finish above .500, which means McCutchen would have to stand head and shoulders above the pack to win an MVP. It’s impressive that a 24-year-old playing in the Steel City is in the pack, but he’s not standing above it.
That leaves us with a few options among the next-best players. Justin Upton is a fine fielder with a .399 wOBA, playing for another surprising contender in Arizona. He would be the likely frontrunner if the Diamondbacks made the playoffs, but I don’t see that happening. Ryan Braun’s Brewers are more likely to play in October, and Braun’s offensive numbers (.324/.395/.558, along with 21 homers, 68 RBI, and 19 steals) scream MVP. He’s a poor fielder, but that hasn’t hurt many past MVP candidates, and isn’t likely to hurt Braun. He may split some votes with teammate Prince Fielder (.294/.413/.551), but Braun is probably the player most likely to take home the hardware at this point.
If we’re looking for an enormously valuable player on a team that’s guaranteed to make the playoffs, a solid case can be made for Roy Halladay, who leads all NL players in fWAR at 5.6. We’ll look deeper into his qualifications in the Cy Young section below.
My ballot, as of today, based not on whom I expect to win, but on whom I would vote for:
5. Troy Tulowitzki
8. Matt Holliday
9. Shane Victorino
10. Brian McCann
If you’d asked me three months ago, one month ago, or a week ago, I would have said the AL MVP race doesn’t even justify a conversation. Jose Bautista had been so good that to consider anyone else a contender for this award was just argument for the sake of argument. Despite his recent cold streak, which includes a 15-game homerless drought, Bautista has still been the best offensive player in the game this year, wire to wire. He’s slashing .324/.459/.656 with 31 home runs. He’s not a great fielder, but he’s been an excellent baserunner, his 3.1 BRAA ranking sixth in the AL.
How can anyone compete with what Bautista’s done? They’d have to be an on-base machine with some power. They’d have to be excellent on the basepaths and extraordinary in the field, offsetting Bautista’s superior offense with far superior defense. One player has done all that. After a slow start, Dustin Pedroia is now hitting .310/.406/.487. He has 15 home runs, 25 doubles, and 21 stolen bases in 24 attempts. Most impressively, he’s been the best defensive infielder in the major leagues, saving a ridiculous 14.6 runs above average, per fangraphs.
Bautista and Pedroia are tied with 6.8 fWAR. It’s hard to distinguish between a far superior offensive player and a far superior defensive player, but I’m braking the tie based on this:
fWAR by Month:
April 2.6 1.0
May 2.1 0.8
June 0.7 2.0
July 1.4 2.9
That’s right- Pedroia’s July was even better than Bautista’s legendary April, when he had a .366/.432/.780 slash line that would have made Barry Bonds jealous. Pedroia in July hit .411/.465/.723 and saved 3.8 defensive runs. I’m not saying that June and July are more important than April and May; only that there are two more months of the season, and I’m betting on the guy who owned June and July to be the better player in August and September.
My ballot, as of today:
3. Jacoby Ellsbury
4. Adrian Gonzalez (the Red Sox are pretty good, aren’t they?)
5. Ben Zobrist
6. Curtis Granderson
7. Justin Verlander
8. Jered Weaver
9. CC Sabathia
10. Asdrubal Cabrera
NL Cy Young
In the Year of the Pitcher redux, there have been several stellar pitching performances in both leagues. Considering the success Clayton Kershaw and two other Phillies pitchers have had, it’s amazing that Roy Halladay can stand out from the pack as much as he has. Halladay leads the National League with:
162 1/3 innings pitched
1.05 walks/9 IP
8/1 strikeout/walk ratio
That’s enough for me to eliminate everyone else from consideration. It hurts a little that my pitching metric, Season Score, puts Halladay behind teammate Cole Hamels. Hamels is having a phenomenal year himself, but he trails Halladay in all the categories above, plus ERA and strikeouts/9 IP. Hamels’s only advantage is that he’s given up 23 fewer hits. His .262 batting average on balls in play suggests that he may regress slightly, while Halladay’s .296 is above league average, meaning he’s pitching even better than his raw numbers indicate. For Season Score’s sake, I wish Hamels’s seven-point edge were enough for me to give him the edge, but it’s really not that close.
My ballot, as of today:
3. Clayton Kershaw
4. Cliff Lee
5. Johnny Cueto
AL Cy Young
This may be the most compelling of all the races, as three candidates have fascinating cases. Jered Weaver set a historic pace in April and hasn’t let up much. Justin Verlander took the reins in June and has been just as dominant. July’s hero was CC Sabathia, who hasn’t given up more than two runs or pitched fewer than seven innings in any of his last eight starts.
Let’s see where the candidates rank in a few important metrics:
This really comes down to personal preference. Do you prefer to evaluate pitchers based on true outcomes (strikeouts/walks/home runs) or run prevention? How much value is there in a few additional innings pitched? Should quality of competition factor in, and if so, is it easier to pitch in the softer AL West or Central, or in the tougher AL East, but never against the Yankees? I expect one of these three pitchers will create some separation between now and the end of the season, but at this point, I wouldn’t argue with any of them winning the Cy Young Award. For now, I’m standing behind Season Score, not because I think it’s any more accurate than the metrics listed above, but because it’s easy to justify going with my own metric when there’s no wrong answer. metric.
4. Josh Beckett
5. James Shields