So, August is almost over, and unless you’re a loyal reader of The Forecaster or USA Today Sports Weekly, you haven’t read anything I’ve written about baseball in most of a baseball season. Rather than make excuses, I’ll offer a cursory apology and attempt to write what will inevitably be an overlong piece on who should (and maybe who will) win the MVP and Cy Young Awards in each league.
All four races are fascinating at this point, since the only player who seemed destined to run away with one (or two- Clayton Kershaw) decided it was not in his best interest to play baseball all summer through back and shoulder pain. That leaves everything wide open with a month of games to go. Where should we begin?
I’m starting here only because I want to finish with the AL Cy Young, the most unpredictable of the awards. There are two candidates here if you care at all about defense, and three if you’re a voting member of the BBWAA.
Chicago’s Kris Bryant has done everything this year: .303 batting average, walks in 10.8% of his PAs, 35 home runs, eight stolen bases, and great defense, mostly at third base. He plays for the best team in baseball in a big city, is uncomfortably attractive, and has a bright future ahead of him. If there are any knocks against him, his strikeout rate (22%) might be one and the fact that the Cubs would probably still be the best team in baseball without him might be another.
Los Angeles’s Corey Seager is similarly well-rounded: .322 batting average, 23 homers, and even better defense at an even more important position (shortstop). His Dodgers are poised to run away with the NL West after trailing the rival Giants for most of the year, and he’s clearly the team’s best player (Justin Turner may be every bit the sidekick that Anthony Rizzo is, but try to sell that to a voter). Seager doesn’t have Bryant’s walk rate (7.8%) or his speed (1 steal), and the Rookie of the Year Award he should win unanimously might distract some voters from the fact that he’s been nearly Bryant’s equal, so at the moment, he has to be the runner-up.
Washington’s Daniel Murphy has a compelling narrative to match his numbers. After crushing homers for the Mets last October, he signed with the rival Nationals and “turned them around” from an underachieving (read: managed by Matt Williams) team to run-away division winners. His .346 average could win the batting title, and he’s added 25 home runs, but if the voters have noticed his still-dismal second-base defense, he should get plenty of third- and fourth-place votes and very few in the top two slots.
Nolan Arenado has 34 homers and a bunch of RBIz and makes highlight-reel plays at third, but still doesn’t get on base like the guys above. Rizzo could show up on the voters’ radar by year-end, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else entering the conversation unless the writers appreciate what Brandon Crawford has done with his glove.
Should win: Bryant
Will win: Bryant
This one’s a slightly deeper field, with at least five legitimate contenders. We’ll start with the guy who always deserves the award. Mike Trout is hitting .312/.432/.548. That’s tied for the best OBP of his career, and his 21 steals are his best since 2013. Both keepers of WAR have him well ahead of the pack. The only strikes against him are the awful Angels team that employs him and the writers’ boredom at watching him dominate the game like this year-in and year-out.
Jose Altuve is batting .356. While batting average doesn’t say a lot about value, the fact that anyone can still do that, with teams employing shifts that turn well-placed rockets into outs and relievers throwing 99 with nasty sliders, says a lot about Altuve’s talent. Altuve’s 26 steals are also pretty impressive, but I’m more drawn to his 20 home runs. The man weighs 71 pounds. He stands on a pink Dora the Explorer stool to wash his hands. He has a better slugging percentage than anyone in baseball except David Ortiz and Manny Machado. If the Astros had won as many games as their talent suggests they should, this award would be his to lose.
Mookie Betts is not much bigger than Altuve, and his next home run will be his 30th. He’s hitting .320 with 21 steals and excellent rightfield defense and, unlike the gents above, he’s playing for a team that would make the playoffs if the season ended today. In a recent stretch in which the Red Sox won six straight games, Betts drove in the go-ahead run in three of them and scored it in a fourth. That’s called an MVP narrative.
Speaking of MVP narratives, Josh Donaldson hit .297/.371/.568 last season, heating up in August as the Blue Jays overtook the Yankees and ran away with the AL East title. In 2016, Donaldson is hitting .290/.403/.557. Or at least that’s what his numbers were before he hit three home runs today in yet another come-from-behind win, a run that has overtaken the Orioles and is helping Toronto fend off the Red Sox for another AL East title. He’s fourth in fWAR as I write this. He’ll be very close to, if not in, first when we wake up tomorrow.
Manny Machado is the one great player on a strangely overachieving Baltimore team. Where have I heard that before? His 31 homers top any American Leaguer named above, he’s batting .306, and he’s maybe the best defensive infielder in the American League, at least while Andrelton Simmons gets his groove back. Is he really going to finish fifth in this race?
David Ortiz has hit as well as Trout, and Evan Longoria and Francisco Lindor are playing well enough to be in striking distance of the leaders if they played in the NL. This one’s too tough to call right now, but I’ll go with:
Should win: Trout?
Will win: Altuve?
NL Cy Young
Clayton Kershaw, who hasn’t pitched since June 26, has still been the most valuable pitcher in the National League. Sort NL pitchers by WAR on Fangraphs, though, and his 5.5 won’t even show up, though, despite leading Noah Syndergaard by a tenth of a win. Kershaw doesn’t show up on any leaderboard, since his 121 innings pitched don’t qualify him for the ERA title, and even if he does return in September, as planned, that’s likely to hold true. It’s as if his 1.79 ERA, 1.67 FIP, and 16.1 K/BB ratio never happened.
Syndergaard’s 10.68 K/9 rate is nearly the equal of Kershaw, and his 2.55 ERA and 2.31 FIP are spread over 155 innings, so his candidacy may be stronger than Kershaw’s, but he also lags the innings leaders by 25+, so he might not be the favorite either.
Jose Fernandez has an insane 213 strikeouts in 148 2/3 innings. His 2.23 FIP leads all qualified pitchers, but his 2.91 ERA might not impress voters enough to overlook the starts he missed earlier in the season.
Madison Bumgarner has lived in Kershaw’s shadow his whole career, a lesser lefty in the same divison, until September turns to October and the Dodgers turn into 25 pumpkins while the Giants ride Bum to even-year glory. While he’s shown little of Kershaw’s effectiveness this year (3.22 FIP), his 2.44 ERA in 180 2/3 innings might win him his first Cy Young.
The only pitcher with more innings than Bumgarner in 2016 is Washington’s Max Scherzer with 182. His 227 strikeouts also lead the league, and if not for early-season home run problems, his 2.92 ERA might be in Bum’s league too.
Jake Arrieta leads the league with 16 wins and has a 2.62 ERA. Teammate Kyle Hendricks leads qualifiers with a 2.19 ERA. Johnny Cueto and Jon Lester are each 14-4 with ERAs under 3 and could contend for the award with a few dominant starts in September. Unless Kershaw pitches like Kershaw four or five more times this year, eight or nine pitchers could look indistinguishable at year-end. So… umm… I guess…
Should win: Scherzer
Will win: Bumgarner
AL Cy Young
For way too long, Cy Young awards were determined by wins, as if pitchers could influence their teams’ abilities to score runs. For the last decade, run prevention has been the top factor in choosing a winner. The more we learn about baseball, the more we understand that pitchers don’t have a lot of control over what happens when the ball is put in play against them, but other than the occasional nod to a massive strikeout count, FIP doesn’t seem to count much for voters at this point. With this in mind, it should be easy to predict this year’s AL Cy Young winner: the guy who’s been the best at keeping runs off the board. So that would be:
Cole Hamels? Hamels’s 2.67 ERA leads the AL, but he’s walked a hideous 3.25 batters per nine innings. He trails the innings pitched leaders by more than a start and the strikeout leaders by double digits, and his 3.86 FIP is tied for 17th among AL qualifiers. Measured by the outcomes most within his control, Hamels could be the worst Cy Young Award winner in a generation. If voters cared more about FIP, the winner might be…
Corey Kluber? The 2014 winner has an AL-best 3.11 FIP, and his 3.07 ERA is impressive as well, but it trails five qualified pitchers. Kluber strikes out more than a batter per nine and walks a batter per game less than Hamels does, all while limiting home runs (.82/9) and suppressing BABIP (.272). If not for 26.5% of baserunners he’s allowed having come around to score, he’d be an easy choice, but as is, he might not be on the voters’ radar.
Jose Quintana probably bridges run prevention and FIP better than any other AL pitcher. His 2.77 ERA is second to Hamels and his 3.35 FIP is tied for third. As usual, though, the White Sox don’t hit for Quintana, so he’s “won” just 11 games despite being possibly the best pitcher in the AL. The voters won’t have it.
We can probably dismiss Masahiro Tanaka on the same grounds. 3.11 ERA, 3.23 FIP, and just four losses, but even in the post-Felix era, 11 wins don’t win you a Cy Young, especially if you lag every name above in innings pitched, as Tanaka does.
If we ignore FIP, as voters are likely to do, and look at run prevention and wins, Chris Sale shines despite his worst numbers in half a decade. His 3.14 ERA ranks eighth in the league, and his 15 wins are tied for third. Could that be enough to win this award?
Who knows? Rick Porcello is 17-3 with a 3.23 ERA and a 3.65 FIP. JA Happ is 17-4 with a 3.19 ERA and a 3.81 FIP. David Price leads the league with 183 2/3 innings pitched, but his 3.97 ERA is nothing to write home about. Justin Verlander is right on his tail with 181 innings pitched, and his 24 quality starts lead the AL. Chris Archer has 192 strikeouts, but is 7-17. Aaron Sanchez has a 2.99 ERA, but has thrown just 156 1/3 innings and is allegedly on a strict pitch count for the rest of the year. Michael Fulmer’s 2.69 ERA is within .02 of the league lead, but he came up midseason and barely qualifies for the ERA title. Danny Duffy is 11-2 with a 3.01 ERA but was a reliever for much of the year.
There are probably ten or more starters who could win the AL Cy Young Award with a strong September. Reliever Zach Britton will get some votes as well, thanks to a 0.69 ERA and nearly four months without surrendering an earned run. Dellin Betances has struck out over 16 batters per nine innings in 8 2/3 more innings than Britton has pitched. It’s practically impossible to predict how the writers will vote, but I actually opened this website and started typing words, so I might as well finish the piece.
Should win: Quintana
Will win: Hamels