MLB Awards Watch: Historic MVP chase, surprising Cys and a new rookie phenom

ByBradford Doolittle and David Schoenfield ESPN logo
Thursday, August 8, 2019

As August gets cooking, the races for the 2019 awards are heating up, with most of the MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year hardware still there for the taking. ESPN's David Schoenfield and Bradford Doolittle use Doolittle's Awards Index formula and their own observations to break down where things stand as we get ready for the season's homestretch.

Jump to ...MVP races | Cy Young battles | Top rookies

National League MVP

Awards Index leaders

1. Cody Bellinger

2. Christian Yelich

3. Max Muncy

4. Freddie Freeman

5. Ronald Acuna Jr.

Hypothetical odds: Bellinger -135, Yelich +125, Anthony Rendon +1,800, Ketel Marte +2,000, Freeman +2,500, Javier Baez +2,500, Acuna +2,500, Jeff McNeil +3,000, Pete Alonso +3,500, Trevor Story +7,500, Muncy +7,500, Fernando Tatis Jr. +10,000

How close is this race? At the moment, it could hardly be closer. Bellinger's NL-best Awards Index figure is 4.80; Yelich is at 4.73. These figures represent the number of standard deviations a player's performance is above (or below) average, so it's a virtual dead heat. But the last time we ran the leaders, Bellinger had a full standard deviation lead. Thus, it's shaping up as a tortoise-and-hare race, with the steady Yelich closing the gap with another consistently epic season. Yelich leads the majors in win probability added, so his contextualized performance has been stellar, as well. But the thing with a season shaped like the one Bellinger is having is that one more sustained hot streak could put him over the top. It's a great race. -- Bradford Doolittle

Why the numbers favor ... In addition to the WPA edge, Yelich also paces the NL in championship probability added, according to If the Brewers get back to the postseason, it most likely will be on the strength of another big stretch run from Yelich, and that will propel the CPA figure even higher. Put in a narrative context: Yelich's excellence can put the Brewers over the top; the Dodgers are going to finish on top no matter what Bellinger does. In a race in which bottom-line performance is so close, these narrative aspects are important, as Dave is about to point out. -- Doolittle

But the narrative belongs to ... Brad mentioned Yelich's edge in win probability, but I'll mention that Bellinger holds a significant edge in Baseball-Reference WAR (7.3 to 6.1), as his defensive runs saved numbers are off the chart (plus-16 in the outfield and plus-4 at first base). Yelich does have that one clear advantage, however: Since the Dodgers have such a big lead in the NL West, the Brewers' games down the stretch will "matter" more, in the context that Yelich has a chance to have big hits in big games that could help send the Brewers into the playoffs. In what otherwise is a coin flip of a race, that could help Yelich win the narrative, similar to Chipper Jones in 1999, Vlad Guerrero in 2004 or Josh Donaldson in 2015. -- David Schoenfield

A dark horse to watch: As has been the case all season, there really isn't one -- unless Bellinger and Yelich both decide to suddenly retire and become professional yoga instructors. Acuna will go 30-30 -- that's 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases -- and 40-40 isn't out of the question. Acuna might lead the league in runs scored. His overall batting line doesn't compare to that of Bellinger and Yelich, but he has some flashy numbers that could impress voters. -- Schoenfield

The bottom line: To me, Yelich is just the better and more consistent all-around player. Unless the Brewers collapse -- a possibility given their issues on the pitching side -- it's Yeli's race to lose. -- Doolittle

I'm giving the very, very slight edge to Bellinger. I think his defense has been a difference-maker -- plus, Yelich has missed more games. It's not Bellinger's fault he has better teammates and thus fewer opportunities in close games. -- Schoenfield

American League MVP

Awards Index leaders

1. Mike Trout

2. Alex Bregman

3. Xander Bogaerts

4. DJ LeMahieu

5. Mookie Betts

Hypothetical odds: Trout -1,000, Field +650

How close is this race? It's not close at all. It wasn't when we ran the Awards Watch in June, and since then, only five players have improved their Awards Index more than Trout. Which hardly seems possible. Trout is on a different tier -- even above Bellinger and Yelich -- that he has all to himself. -- Doolittle

Why the numbers favor ... Trout is on his way to perhaps his best end-of-season numbers, and the only way anyone is going to close the gap is if he gets hurt. And that injury would have to happen pretty soon. You kind of hate to even suggest it. But if it happened, Bregman would be ready to step into the void. -- Doolittle

But the narrative belongs to ... If there's a non-Trout narrative, I guess it belongs to LeMahieu, who has left Coors Field and had the best season of his career. He has an OPS+ of 142 -- after finishing above 100 just once in his career. Combined with all the injuries, LeMahieu has received credit for being the one constant in the Yankees' lineup. That's nice, but LeMahieu's season pales in comparison to Trout's. -- Schoenfield

A dark horse to watch: Again, one doesn't really exist. Bogaerts has better offensive numbers than LeMahieu and plays shortstop, but his defensive metrics once again are well below average (minus-17 DRS). Otherwise, Bogaerts would be the clear No. 2 guy behind Trout. -- Schoenfield

The bottom line: The race is Trout's to lose, a conclusion that really hasn't changed since spring training. -- Doolittle

I'll be surprised if Trout isn't the unanimous winner. He's that good. -- Schoenfield

NL Cy Young

Awards Index leaders

1. Hyun-Jin Ryu

2. Max Scherzer

3. Jacob deGrom

4. Aaron Nola

5. Sonny Gray

Note: Zack Greinke would have ranked third had he not be traded to the AL.

Hypothetical odds:Scherzer -140; Ryu +140; deGrom +900; Luis Castillo +1,500; Clayton Kershaw +2,000; Stephen Strasburg +2,200; Mike Soroka +2,500; Walker Buehler +2,500

How close is this race? This has become a wide-open race thanks to Scherzer's back trouble. In the Index, Gray somewhat shockingly nudged past Strasburg for the No. 5 spot. Since the last rankings, only four players in all of baseball have improved their Awards Index more than Gray. One of them, however, is Nola, who stands alone in terms of Watch-over-Watch improvement. Thus, the top five has taken on a 2018 look, with deGrom and Nola rejoining Scherzer in the chase. Ryu is probably the current favorite, as the Index suggests, with no other clear front-runner. And after all, his 1.53 ERA is nearly a run better than second-ranked Scherzer (2.41). But watch out for a Nola-deGrom duel down the stretch, as each could be making some big starts for teams angling for playoff slots. -- Doolittle

Why the numbers favor ... Assuming Ryu returns from his "injury" in peak form, it seems like he can actually win this thing. He hasn't had a month with an ERA over 3, and in July, he gave up two earned runs in 32 innings. If the Dodgers don't suppress his innings too severely, he can still end up with 190 or so frames, 15 wins and that minuscule ERA. The higher metrics might not anoint Ryu, but this is the path Blake Snell took to last season's AL Cy Young. -- Doolittle

But the narrative belongs to ... As long as that ERA remains a run better than everyone else, it's still Ryu. He had that one bad start in Colorado, where he allowed seven runs, but then reeled off a 0.55 ERA over his next five starts. -- Schoenfield

A dark horse to watch: As Brad points out, deGrom is surging up the list, with a 1.35 ERA over his past six starts. He has seven double-digit strikeout games, as compared to one for Ryu, and has passed him in innings. If you factor in that Ryu has a very good defense behind him and deGrom has a poor one, maybe this race tightens up down the stretch. -- Schoenfield

The bottom line: Ryu is well-positioned, but it's far too early to call this race. That's especially true when you have recognized sharks such as Scherzer, deGrom, Nola and Strasburg still circling in the water. -- Doolittle

I'm with Brad. Ryu's injury is really just a breather, but there's no need to push him down the stretch. All it takes is a couple of bad outings and that ERA rises to where the others have a chance to catch him. But he remains the favorite right now. -- Schoenfield

AL Cy Young

Awards Index leaders

1. Charlie Morton

2. Justin Verlander

3. Lance Lynn

4. Mike Minor

5. Gerrit Cole

Hypothetical odds:Verlander +150; Cole +150; Morton +600; Shane Bieber +900; Lynn +1,800; Lucas Giolito +2,000; Minor +2,500; Jose Berrios +2,500; Jake Odorizzi +4,000; Domingo German +6,000

How close is this race? If we counted Zack Greinke as an American Leaguer, Houston would have the Nos. 2, 3, 6 and 14 pitchers in the league. And one overlooked aspect of the newly supercharged Astros rotation is that they let Morton go as a free agent! If you plugged him in for Aaron Sanchez, it would be even more ridiculous. But the Cy Young race is close, with eight pitchers (all starters) between 2.2 and 2.8 in Awards Index. It's a gap that any of them can close between now and the end of the season. In addition to the Index leaders listed above, Lucas Giolito, Shane Bieber and Jose Berrios are part of that group. -- Doolittle

Why the numbers favor ... Taking the opposite tack, let's knock some contenders out. There is a huge discrepancy between the fWAR and bWAR figures for Minor, so even the leading metrics don't know how to measure him. That bleeds over to Lynn, to some degree, even though the metrics agree on him. Both pitchers suffer from ballpark and defensive-support murkiness, and the Rangers aren't enough of a factor for most analysts/voters to pry into the real story. Verlander is on a strikeout spree, but Cole has been on one all season and his Index has improved more than the other starters mentioned here. So, he gets a trajectory boost over his more famous teammate. With big finishes, win- and championship-probability indicators could swing things to Morton or Bieber, who are both pitching for prime wild-card contenders in a tight race. Beyond that, however, if the picture doesn't become clearer, the perceived best-at-the-moment hurler would get the nod, and that's almost certainly Verlander. -- Doolittle

But the narrative belongs to ... Verlander. At age 36, he leads the league in wins, ERA, innings and strikeout-to-walk ratio. Also home runs allowed, but he has had so few other baserunners that he still is having a dominant season. -- Schoenfield

A dark horse to watch: Bieber is red hot, with a 2.50 ERA over his past 10 starts, a stretch in which he has allowed just three home runs in 72 innings, with an opponents' batting line of .191/.233/.285. If he can keep that going, he is going to slip into the conversation. -- Schoenfield

The bottom line: As close as the metrics view this race, Verlander has a chance at the pitching Triple Crown. If he gets that, forget about it. -- Doolittle

The Astros have a cakewalk schedule down the stretch, so even while AJ Hinch might back off Verlander and Cole a little bit, they're going to continue to rack up the wins and strikeouts. I think it comes down to those two in the end. -- Schoenfield

NL Rookie of the Year

Awards Index leaders

1. Fernando Tatis Jr.

2.Pete Alonso

3. Bryan Reynolds

4. Alex Verdugo

5. Christian Walker

Hypothetical odds: Mike Soroka +200, Tatis, +200, Alonso +250, Reynolds +700

How close is this race? It's a good race between Tatis and Alonso. The last time we ran the Awards Watch, Tatis' numbers were tamped down by his early injury, so you had to have some sample-size skepticism. No more. The kid is for real. Still, if the Mets continue their current run and Alonso contributes to a wild-card push while mashing 50 homers, it's going to be an awfully tough choice. -- Doolittle

The bottom line: Christian Walker! OK, not really. But he deserves a mention because he is 28 years old and playing in his fifth big league season yet, somehow, has retained rookie status. No, this is a duel between Alonso and Tatis, and it's a great one, much better than the race in the AL. -- Doolittle

Where's Mike Soroka? He is 10-2 with a 2.45 ERA in 20 starts, so I view this as a three-way race. Look, it's going to be difficult to beat Alonso if he hits 50 home runs and drives in 120-something runs. But in terms of value, it's basically a dead heat right now with Tatis and Soroka. -- Schoenfield

AL Rookie of the Year

Awards Index leaders

1. Yordan Alvarez

2. Brandon Lowe

3. John Means

4. Zach Plesac

5. Luis Arraez

Hypothetical odds: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. +160, Lowe +160, Means +500, Michael Chavis +900, Eloy Jimenez +1,200

How close is this race? With the rookie voting, quantity often is as important as quality, which works against Plesac, Arraez and Alvarez, and for Lowe (if he can get healthy) and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Vlady Jr.'s Awards Index ranking has improved from 328th to 248th since our last edition, but his pace is quickening. Alvarez's candidacy is fascinating. He didn't debut in the majors until June 9. Since that time, he has a 1.119 OPS and has driven in more runs (43) than all but six players in the majors. Can he get those season-end numbers to a level where voters will overlook his late start? -- Doolittle

The bottom line: Before an 0-for-5 outing on Aug. 5, Guerrero had a scorching nine-game stretch with a .463/.488/.878 batting line with five homers and 18 RBIs. Despite his preseason-favorite status, he'll have to post a couple of more of those stretches to get back in the race. If he doesn't do something like that and Alvarez's quantities aren't high enough to convince the voters and if Lowe can get back soon, then if feels like the Rays' infielder is a slight favorite. But there are a lot of ways this race could go. -- Doolittle

No doubt Alvarez has the momentum and shows no signs of slowing down. He has so much raw power and enough discipline (league-average strikeout rate) that he is putting balls in play, which is why the batting average and extra-base hit rates are so high. You would think some regression is in order (projections are along the lines of .270/.340/.510 the rest of the way), but maybe he's really this good. -- Schoenfield

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