We’re less than 50 games from the finish line, and while most eyes may be on the five-team scrum for the American League Wild Cards, award races, particularly in the National League, are just heating up. Here’s how I’d vote if the season ended today:
National League Cy Young
We’ll start with the only race with no clear favorite and more than a handful of players building solid cases. Zack Greinke may have been my pick when he was with the Brewers, but he’s in the other league now, struggling to adjust to the stronger competition. Ryan Dempster, who led the NL in ERA when he was traded to the Rangers, has seen similar hurdles in the AL. That leaves at least a dozen viable candidates, the top five of whom I’d rank like this:
1. R.A. Dickey, Mets
After making a strong case to start the All-Star Game, Dickey scuffled a bit in July, but he’s back in August, striking out 19 and walking three in his two starts. Several NL pitchers are close to matching Dickey’s run prevention (2.72 ERA) and peripherals (2.88 FIP), but only Clayton Kershaw (162 2/3) has pitched more innings than Dickey (162 1/3). What’s most impressive about Dickey is that he’s putting up such remarkable fielding-independent numbers as a knuckleballer. Knuckleballers tend to rely on inducing weak contact, and can often be successful without striking batters out, but Dickey is tied for the league lead with 166 Ks, has walked just 36 hitters, and is still outperforming his FIP. It couldn’t be much closer, but Dickey’s the pick right now.
2. Johnny Cueto, Reds
Cueto took a smoke-and-mirrors approach to a very successful 2011, compiling a 2.31 ERA despite a 3.45 FIP. In 2012, he’s boosted his strikeout rate by over a batter per nine to 7.26 and reduced his walk rate to 2.05. The result is another dominant season, his 2.58 ERA trailing only Ryan Vogelsong, who’s redefining smoke and mirrors, and Jordan Zimmermann, both of whom work in much friendlier environments for pitchers than Cueto’s Great American Ballpark.
3. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
Remember the caveat if the season ended today. As rumors swirl about Strasburg approaching the innings limit that will likely shut him down for the season, it’s getting more and more certain that he won’t accumulate enough value in roughly 160 innings to be worthy of the Cy Young Award. However, in the 133 1/3 innings he’s pitched so far, he’s been pretty dominant. He co-leads the league in strikeouts with Dickey, Strasburg’s 166 coming in 29 fewer innings. His 2.71 FIP trails only the departed Greinke and teammate Gio Gonzalez, whose ERA is more than half a run higher than Strasburg’s. Don’t expect him in the top five at the end of this season, but Strasburg’s mantle may start filling up with Cy Youngs in 2013.
4. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
If I’m picking the pitcher most likely to take home the hardware, the reigning winner might be the safest pick. Kershaw leads the league in innings pitched and is one of just three NL pitchers (Dickey and Strasburg are the others) with an ERA an a FIP under three. He does everything well, from striking out hitters and not walking them to limiting hits on balls in play and stranding baserunners. Dickey or Cueto may win the real award if voters decide Kershaw shouldn’t win two in a row, but I’m guessing he’ll deserve it when October comes.
5. Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals
Something of an afterthought as Strasburg and Gonzalez headlined baseball’s best rotation early in the season, Zimmermannn now leads the team in ERA (2.35) and innings pitched (145). While Strasburg excels with the strikeout and Gonzalez is among the best at limiting homers, Zimmermannnn sets himself apart with his control. Only Cliff Lee (1.54) has walked fewer batters per nine than Zimmermannnnn (1.55).
I’m leaving out Vogelsong, who leads the league in ERA; Gonzalez, who, along with Dickey, leads in fWAR; and two relievers- Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel- who are both having seasons for the ages, each with a sub-one FIP and more than 15 K/9. Any of the aforementioned, and perhaps a few other pitchers, can become a frontrunner for this award with a strong September.
American League Cy Young
This one’s more of a two-horse race, and I’m probably being a little too generous to the second horse.
1. Justin Verlander, Tigers
The field isn’t as deep in the American League as it is in the National League, but even if it were, odds are the award would be Verlander’s to lose. It’s been less than two weeks since I tried to make a case that Zack Greinke should be in the conversation for baseball’s best pitcher, but after seeing Greinke face AL lineups, I’m ready to drop that argument. There’s Verlander and then everyone else. 175 2/3 innings- best in the majors. 174 strikeouts- best in the majors. 5.2 fWAR- best in the majors. There’s no reason not to vote for Verlander.
2. Jered Weaver, Angels
I’m not convinced Weaver has been the second-best pitcher in the AL, but he’s the other “horse” I referred to above because voters will be impressed- and rightly so- by his 2.13 ERA. If Verlander didn’t pitch in the same league, Weaver might be on his way to his second straight Cy Young. As it is, Weaver’s ERA starts to twinkle a little less when we consider the 44 2/3 more innings Verlander has pitched, Verlander’s .35-point FIP advantage, and the relative run-scoring environments in which they pitch. Weaver is a master at limiting walks and inducing harmless fly balls, but he’s a distant second in this race.
3. Felix Hernandez, Mariners
Third place Cy Young votes don’t mean much, but third place may be the most interesting distinction in this race. Two other pitchers- David Price and Chris Sale- have better ERAs than Hernandez’s 2.74, but King Felix’s 171 innings pitched set him apart, as only Verlander has pitched more.
4. Chris Sale, White Sox
Sale actually has a better ERA (2.59) and FIP (2.93) than Hernandez, but the 23-year-old is on an innings limit, and has been managed to just 132 innings so far. He’s done all that’s been asked of him, so it’s hard to fault him for his lack of volume, but he just hasn’t been as valuable as the guys ahead of him here. He holds off Price because US Cellular field is a much more difficult place to pitch than the Trop.
5. David Price, Rays
There’s a decent chance we’ll hear Price’s name more and more as the Rays continue their push toward the playoffs. He’s got a pretty ERA (2.50) and a lot of wins (15), and is the ace on a team making another playoff run. Don’t be surprised if he ends up swiping a trophy that should belong to Verlander.
National League MVP
This award may be decided less by the ten players I’m about to name and more by those players’ teammates, as we all know MVP voters love players on winning teams. Picking our winners now helps reduce some of that bias and focus on the players’ individual success.
1. Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
McCutchen has benefitted from his rise corresponding with the rise of the Pirates, and he may suffer from the Pirates’ likely decline, as the Cardinals seem poised to claim their playoff spot, but when we strip all that away, we see the most valuable player in the National League. McCutchen has hit .363/.423/.610, clubbing 23 home runs and stealing 14 bases, while holding his own (though not excelling) in center field. He does everything voters like to see and everything that helps a team win, including drawing walks and running the bases well. Cutch is having a monster season and will likely deserve this award regardless of how well his teammates (and the Cardinals) play down the stretch.
2. David Wright, Mets
Prior to the season, I made a list of the 100 players I expected to have the best seasons in 2012. Six of my top seven picks missed significant time with injuries this year, so my list was basically Verlander and a heaping pile of wrong. What was perhaps most wrong was my omission of David Wright. Wright was largely an afterthought, and when a reader asked why I’d left him off, I had no problem “defending the oversight” by citing Wright’s steady decline since his 2007 peak. As it turns out, that had more to do with health and adjustments than physical decline, as Wright has put up a .324/.415/.532 line in 2012, with excellent defense at the hot corner keeping him in the MVP race even as his teammates have predictably let him down.
3. Ryan Braun, Brewers
Yeah, I’m basically just reading down the NL fWAR leaderboard for this one. Braun, the defending MVP and number nine player on my preseason list, has been himself again this year, whether or not his chemical makeup has been the same. .304/.384/.582, 29 homers, 19 steals. Sounds like Ryan Braun to me.
4. Joey Votto, Reds
Votto has dropped considerably down the fWAR leaderboard during the month he’s spent on the DL, and the Reds have extended their division lead in his absence, but none of that keeps Votto from being the best hitter in the National League. His .444 wOBA is the best in baseball and his 182 wRC+ is one point behind the only viable AL MVP candidate for the top overall spot. If Votto comes back strong, he’s still a contender for the real award.
5. Carlos Ruiz, Phillies
Again, I’ll invoke the if the season ended today clause and pick the guy whose ridiculous first half has him among the league leaders in most meaningful stats, even if he’s struggled in the second half and hasn’t played in almost two weeks. Ruiz is batting .335/.399/.559 and playing great defense, and is perhaps the lone bright spot in an ugly season in Philadelphia. Buster Posey is right on his heels offensively and will battle Yadier Molina for the title of game’s best catcher down the stretch, but as of today, Ruiz’s season deserves a mention.
6. Buster Posey, Giants
7. Matt Holliday, Cardinals
8. Yadier Molina, Carinals
9. Chase Headley, Padres
10. Michael Bourn, Braves
American League MVP
This one warrants very little discussion. But I do like to talk.
1. Mike Trout, Angels
Were you expecting Vernon Wells? .343/.406/.599, 21 homers, 36 steals, a web gem almost every night. I know- it’s only one season (barely over half a season, in fact), and teams will make adjustments to him and he might get hurt and this might just be a hot streak at the right time and baseball is a fickle game. But this guy is the best hitter in baseball right now. And the best baserunner. And the best fielder. And he just turned 21. Decisions don’t get any easier than this.
2. Robinson Cano, Yankees
I refuse to feel bad for Cano, but he’d almost be running away with this race if Wells had stayed healthy and Trout had spent another month or two in the minors. He wrestled away the title of best second baseman in baseball from Dustin Pedroia this season. In fact, as good as Cano has been since 2009, between Pedroia, Ian Kinsler, and Ben Zobrist, this may be the first time we can definitively conclude that Cano is the best. On a roster full of superstars and even future Hall of Famers, Cano is the only one who’s a great hitter and a good fielder in 2012. But he’s no Mike Trout. Nobody is.
3. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
If we’re going to feel bad for an American League player, it should probably be Cabrera, who’s been one of the two or three the best hitters in the American League each of the last three years and a legitimate MVP candidate seven of the last eight seasons, but despite five top-five finishes, he has yet to win an MVP. He’ll be 30 next year, and with Trout in the same league, one wonders if he’ll ever win one. He may have to settle for being his generation’s Manny Ramirez. .322/.384/.579 and non-terrible defense at third base.
4. Austin Jackson, Tigers
I was tempted to put Jackson ahead of Cabrera, as he’s a more rounded player, but I’m not sure his presence in the lineup affects opposing pitchers’ game plans as much as Cabrera’s does. Still, Jackson does it all, hitting .319/.402/.524 with excellent defense (4.9 UZR) at a demanding position (center field) and some speed.
5. Josh Reddick, A’s
How are the no-name A’s sticking around in the Wild Card race, actually leading a star-studded Angels team? Mostly with great pitching, but Josh Reddick has a lot to do with it too. Hitting .256/.318/.505 may not sound MVP-worthy, but doing so in o.Co Coliseum while playing great defense (including 12 outfield assists) is pretty impressive. Even with their great young pitching, without Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, the A’s might be in last place.
6. Adam Jones, Orioles
7. Josh Hamilton, Rangers
8. Joe Mauer, Twins
9. Alex Gordon, Royals
10. Mark Trumbo, Angels
There’s plenty of time for these rankings to change. Well, those that don’t involve Mike Trout, at least.