Handicapping the Award Races

We’ve entered the final six weeks of the 2013 baseball season, leaving teams with anywhere between 36 and 40 games to play. How teams in Miami, Phoenix, and a dome in St. Petersburg have played four fewer games than the team in New England is a topic for another day. Today, let’s take a look at the major awards and see which players are most likely to (a) deserve them, and (b) win them.

American League MVP
We’ll get this one out of the way first because it revives a competition most of us tired of arguing about last year. Miguel Cabrera is raking again- hitting far better, in fact, than he did in 2012. His .360/.452/.689 line looks like something Babe Ruth would put up against all white pitchers who delivered mail in the offseason.

Again, though, advanced metrics tell us that Mike Trout has been more valuable. Trout’s hitting .333/.430/.574, has stolen 28 bases, and is playing solid defense in center and left field, while Cabrera continutes to stand on the foul side of third base and let Jose Iglesias make every play on the left side of the infield. Last year, there was no objective argument that Cabrera was as valuable as Trout, who hit just as well, stole 50 bases, and robbed several home runs in center field. This year, not only are the metrics are mixed on Trout’s defense, but Cabrera has a sizeable advantage in the aspect of baseball we can confidently measure- whacking the cover off the baseball.

Where so much of the 2012 argument was about getting award voters and mainstream baseball fans to understand that the stats they’re fed by newspapers and TV screens don’t reflect real baseball value, this year’s argument might be about the stats themselves. Has Trout’s position and his defensive advantage really been enough to offset Cabrera’s offensive advantage? Fangraphs (8.4-7.8) and Baseball-reference (7.4-6.8) both say yes. I say maybe.

Chris Davis lurks in the periphery, hitting .306 with 45 home runs for the respectable Orioles. In another year, that might be MVP-worthy, but not in 2013.

Who Should Win?
1. Cabrera, by a hair
2. Trout
3. Davis
4. Evan Longoria
5. Josh Donaldson

Who Will Win?
Cabrera

National League MVP
Last year at this time, the NL MVP race was wide open, with Yadier Molina, Buster Posey, Andrew McCutchen, David Wright, and others staking equally compelling claims to the award. A month and a half later, Posey had run away with the honor, putting the Giants on his back with offense, defense, and leadership to easily claim the award. One year later, we’re right back where we were, with most of the same contenders enjoying great seasons and a few new names in the mix.

Molina looked like the frontrunner for the award until he hit the 15-day disabled list at the end of July. He’s still hitting .328/.371/.488 and doing Yadier Molina things behind the plate, but in just 101 games, he’s compiled 4.6 fWAR, an impressive figure for a catcher, but just the eighth best count in the National League. If he remains healthy for the rest of the season, he may still win the award, but he’d likely have to win the batting title and perhaps show a little more power to do so in limited action.

Posey has compiled similar offensive numbers to Molina’s (.303/.376/.484) in more playing time in a pitchers’ park, but without Molina’s defensive reputation or a good team in front of him, he’s not likely to be as appealing to voters as he was next year.

Paul Goldschmidt leads the circuit in homers (30) and RBI (96), and has led the Diamondbacks to a surprisingly good season. Voters might like those shiny “power numbers”, but even with some speed (13 steals) and decent defense, he would be well served to separate himself more from the pack offensively to win the award as a first baseman.

Carlos Gomez is the co-leader in rWAR among position players and just .3 wins behind the fWAR leader, but he has a lot working against him. As well as he’s hit (.288/.339/.519 with 18 homers), much of his value comes from speed (30 stolen bases) and defense (an incredible 16 runs above average in center field), things voters tend to ignore. Playing for the woeful Brewers won’t help his case much either.

David Wright is another guy who does a little bit of everything- strong batting numbers, 17 steals, excellent third base defense- but he’s hindered by Molina’s problem and Gomez’s. He’s missed 17 games for a team playing sub-.500 ball all year. This looks like another top 10-but-not-close-to-first finish for Wright.

The “among position players” qualifier above was necessary because Clayton Kershaw leads the league in rWAR with 6.9, to Gomez’s 6.5. Kershaw’s 1.80 ERA in a league-leading 190 1/3 innings pitched for a torrid Dodgers team might make him a sexy candidate for the MVP in addition to the Cy Young he’s likely to collect. With so many good candidates, a pitcher may be less likely to steal one this year, though, unless votes are split among the aforementioned names (and the next guy) and Kershaw gets a lot of mid-ballot support.

That “next guy” is Andrew McCutchen, the guy who seems to have everything working in his favor. He’s tied with Gomez in rWAR and leads the league with 6.1 fWAR. He’s hitting .315/.391/.507 for an otherwise ugly Pirates lineup that’s been scoring just enough to stay atop the NL Central throughout the summer. He’s playing excellent defense in center field and has stolen 26 bases for good measure. Better defense might not get a guy like Gomez noticed, but with offensive numbers like McCutchen’s, voters may let his position and his glove’s reputation serve as a tiebreaker. I may be understating the power of the almighty RBI, but I think the voters will go with the guy whose team has been the best story of the year.

Who Should Win?
1. McCutchen
2. Gomez
3. Molina
4. Wright
5. Goldschmidt

Who Will Win?
McCutchen

American League Cy Young
This is a very deep field, but the vote will likely come down to two contenders.

Hiroki Kuroda leads the league in ERA at 2.41, and he’s done so in a hitters’ park. Neither keeper of WAR is impressed. His 160 1/3 innings are 15th in the league, over 17 innings shy of the lead. He’s leaned on his defense a lot, striking out just 6.51 batters per nine, succeeding largely by avoiding home runs (0.67 per nine), limiting hits on balls in play (.268 BABiP), and stranding baserunners (81.2%).

Chris Sale leads the league in rWAR with 6.1, a result of a 2.78 ERA accumulated in 165 1/3 innings in an extreme hitters’ park. His 9-11 record won’t endear him to voters, though, and there’s not much separating him from Kuroda.

Felix Hernandez is a co-leader in fWAR, thanks to a 2.47 ERA and a league-leading 2.55 FIP. His 4.80 strikeout/walk ratio trails only Sale’s 4.86, and he’s been even stingier than Sale in home runs (0.60 per nine). Safeco isn’t the pitcher’s haven it was in recent years, and even with some leads blown by the bullpen, his 12-6 record looks impressive.

That record isn’t as impressive as Max Scherzer’s 18-1 mark. Sure, Scherzer’s gotten loads of run support, but he’s also pitched brilliantly, striking out 185 in 172 1/3 innings and holding batters to a 1.89 batting average thanks to a 0.90 WHIP. His 6.3 fWAR share the AL lead with Hernandez, while he trails Sale and Hernandez in rWAR.

It’s almost impossible to separate these guys now, but someone will emerge over the next few weeks, whether it’s one of these guys or a Ranger, as Derek Holland and Yu Darvish are having great seasons.

Who Should Win?
1. Hernandez
2. Scherzer
3. Kuroda
4. Sale
5. Anibal Sanchez

Who Will Win?
Scherzer

National League Cy Young
This doesn’t get any easier. One candidate may have a significant advantage on the who will win front, but who should win is a three-man race.

Clayton Kershaw’s 1.80 ERA and the Dodgers’ explosion from last place to favorites to win the pennant will likely net him the hardware, and it’s hard to complain about that. But much of Kershaw’s success is driven by his opponents’ .231 BABiP. Kershaw has a five-year history ERAs better than his FIP, so he’s a great candidate by any measure.

That said, those who prefer fielding-independent outcomes can trumpet the cases of two other aces- Matt Harvey and Adam Wainwright. Harvey is striking out almost 10 batters per nine, walking just 1.63 per nine, and allowing just 0.37 homers per nine. Every one of those numbers bests Kershaw, who’s in the top 15 on each list himself. Harvey’s only shortcoming (besides the Mets’ 12-13 record in games he’s started, which has little to do with him) is his relatively modest innings count (171 2/3, almost 19 behind Kershaw).

At the All-Star break, this award looked fit for Adam Wainwright, who led the league in wins and fWAR at that time. His 14 wins now share the limelight with Jordan Zimmermann, and lead Kershaw by just two, and his 5.3 fWAR now share second place with Kershaw, .6 wins behind Harvey. His 6.9 strikeouts per walk are still historic, but he’s starting to get buried behind stories of Kershaw’s and Harvey’s excellence. 20 wins might steal this award for Waino if Kershaw’s ERA ends up on the wrong side of 2, but that seems like his only avenue at this point.

Who Should Win?
1. Kershaw
2. Harvey
3. Wainwright
4. Patrick Corbin
5. Jhoulys Chacin

Who Will Win?
Kershaw

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This entry was posted in Angels, Brewers, Cardinals, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Mariners, Mets, Orioles, Pirates, Postseason Awards, Tigers, Uncategorized, White Sox, Yankees. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Handicapping the Award Races

  1. Great analysis. I really can’t argue with any of your picks, or your logic.
    Nicely done,
    Bill

  2. FranT says:

    I agree with all the picks and analysis here. As a Yankee fan, I’m happy you at least included Kuroda in the discussion, since I’ve seen many recent award prediction articles ignore his terrific season.

    One sentence that caught my eye: “His .360/.452/.689 line looks like something Babe Ruth would put up against all white pitchers who delivered mail in the offseason.” This was a pretty funny line, but I’m not sure how it was intended. If it was meant to elevate Miggy’s contributions above Ruth’s in some way, I have to disagree. Remember that Ruth was facing less-diluted competition, because there were fewer teams in the league, mitigating the effects of his all-white competition. Also, Ruth destroyed the league unlike any player had ever come close to doing before. I’m not trying to nitpick, just to keep Ruth’s accomplishments in perspective. The boys from The Sandlot would appreciate me defending the Colossus of Clout.

    • Bryan says:

      Fran, thanks for the comment. My comparison of Cabrera to Ruth wasn’t meant as a direct attack on Ruth, but rather as further praise to Cabrera, who’s putting up numbers we haven’t seen since a distant and very different era.

      Ruth was the most dominant hitter of all time, though I do think the competition he dominated was far weaker than Cabrera’s. You mention the fact that there were fewer teams in the league in the ’20s and ’30s. That’s true, but the population of the US was about a third of what it is today. The 16 teams in 1920 were drawing from the 88% of the 106 million Americans who were white. Today’s 30 teams are drawing from all races among 316 million Americans, as well as much of Latin America and some of East Asia. On top of pool size, major advancements have been made over the last 80 years in scouting, nutrition, video technology, and myriad other factors that have made the game more competitive than ever.

      I expanded further upon this issue here. http://www.highheatstats.com/2012/12/back-in-my-day/

      • FranT says:

        Point well taken. The game is extremely competitive today, and Cabrera’s making it look easy (at least until he just got hurt). Even with the rise of other professional sports to lure some great athletes away from MLB, the talent pool is huge.
        Thanks for your reply.

  3. Pingback: 2013 MVP Picks | Replacement Level Baseball Blog

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