The end of the regular season means the playoffs are set to begin and it is time to figure out who will receive the individual awards in November.
We're going to leave out any in-depth discussion of the Manager of the Year award for both leagues because it's certainly the most arbitrary. However, if I had to guess, I guess I'll go with the Twins' Paul Molitor, who took his team from a 103-loss season to the the playoffs. Of course, the Indians' Terry Francona and his team's 100-win season (so far) and 22-game winning streak shouldn't be underestimated. For the NL, the Diamondbacks' Torey Lovullo gets the nod, both because of turnaround that Arizona has undergone from last year and because they have been in possession of a spot all season. So, on we go to the player awards.
AL Rookie of the Year
In case you weren't paying attention, this past Monday, Aaron Judge hit two home runs. The first tied Mark McGwire's rookie record at 49 and the second, obviously, gave him sole possession of the the new rookie home run record with 50. It should probably also be noted that, after McGwire, we drop down to 38 home runs with Frank Thompson's 1956 Rookie of the Year season. So there's a big enough gap between Judge and everyone in the history of baseball except for McGwire that it's not stretching it to call Judge's season historic.
Continuing with the home run talk for just a moment, Judge is second in baseball only to Giancarlo Stanton (57). By fWAR (7.8), Judge is leading not just the AL, but all of MLB. By bWAR (7.8), he's third in both the AL and MLB, behind José Altuve (8.3) and Corey Kluber (8.0) By WARP (7.06), he's 1st in the AL and 4th in MLB.
We were talking about Judge's season being historic, and he's currently in 4th place by bWAR for the best rookie season in the history of baseball. The question isn't whether Judge wins the AL Rookie of the Year, it's whether he wins it unanimously or not. And I would be very surprised if he doesn't. Don't worry if it feels like we didn't talk enough about Judge, because we'll be coming back to him again soon.
Winner: Aaron Judge
NL Rookie of the Year
While the NL doesn't have a rookie who's having the kind of season that Judge is, that's mainly because those kind of seasons don't come around very often. They do, however, have a Cody Bellinger, who is having a remarkable season in his own right.
In the NL, Bellinger leads in fWAR (4.0) with Paul DeJong (2.7) in second, bWAR (4.3) with Manuel Margot (3.0) in second and WARP (5.05) with Austin Barnes (4.35) in second. While WAR isn't necessarily the go-to stat for the BBWAA members who are voting on the awards, things are certainly changing (see: Mike Trout's victory last year even though the Angels failed to make the playoffs).
Bellinger has plenty of traditional stats to pad his case, too. He's fourth overall in MLB for home runs (39) and first among rookies. If we limit the stats to rookies who qualify for the batting title, he's first in every element of his slash line (.269/.353/.588). There are a couple of plausible contenders to his throne (Rhys Hoskins, Paul DeJong) if you just look at the stats without the number of PAs, but Bellinger got his call up earlier and stuck around. He's done what he's done over 535 PAs which is going to win him the award. While there will almost certainly be some votes going elsewhere, Bellinger is still a lock for the award, and deservingly so.
Winner: Cody Bellinger
AL Cy Young
This was a very different race a month or two ago, with Sale seemingly a foregone conclusion. Kluber missed almost the whole month of May, but he's been slowly chipping away at Sale's case ever since he came back. Now, Kluber leads the AL in ERA (2.21), ERA+ (204), WHIP (0.86) and BB/9 (1.63) and is tied for first in wins (18) with teammate Carlos Carrasco.
Despite all those missed starts, Kluber is just shy of 200 IP (198.2) compared to Sale's 214.1. While Sale gets extra credit for a couple of starts worth of innings, Kluber has five complete games versus Sale's one. While Sale bests Kluber by fWAR (7.7 for Sale, 7.1 for Kluber), bWAR (8.0 for Kluber, 6.1 for Sale) drastically favors Kluber and WARP (7.97 for Kluber, 7.69 for Sale) gives Kluber another slight edge.
Sale has a slight lead on FIP (2.51 to Kluber's 2.51) and, with a ridiculous, elite-closer-like 12.93 K/9 and crossed the 300 strikeout threshold, but Kluber has more than made up the difference in enough other areas that I'd pick him and predict he'll home the award, even if you wouldn't necessarily be wrong to vote for Sale and his for epic strikeout season, as many voters surely will.
Winner: Corey Kluber
NL Cy Young
For the second year in a row, Clayton Kershaw is dealing with injuries that make things difficult to give him the award, even if he was the best pitcher in baseball on a per-inning basis. He missed six weeks this time around, and he hasn't made up the difference as much as Kluber has and sits at 171.0 innings. While he leads the NL in ERA (2.21), adjusted ERA+ (189) and good old wins (18), and is second in BB/9 (1.58, behind, drumroll… Jeff Samardzija), that's probably not going to be enough with all those missed innings. Same goes for Stephen Strasburg, who also missed time and is currently only at 167.2 innings, even though he's currently 1st by FIP (2.74), 3rd by ERA (2.63) and ERA+ (169) and 1st in HR/9 (0.70).
The award this year, unsurprisingly, will probably go to Strasburg's teammate Max Scherzer, for the second year in a row. Scherzer is in the mix for all of the stats we've been discussing: 2nd by ERA (2.55), ERA+ (174) and FIP (2.93). On top of that, he's 1st by K/9 (11.99) and 1st by WHIP (0.91). Coupled with the fact that he's got 197.1 innings to his name, and he's going to be tough to beat.
He also leads all the WAR leaderboards with 5.9 fWAR, 7.0 bWAR and 7.16 WARP. The only pitcher who has logged enough innings to get anywhere close to him is Zack Greinke (5.1 fWAR, 6.1 bWAR and 5.72 WARP), but Greinke doesn't have all those individual stats popping out at you like Scherzer does, so this one rightly goes to Scherzer.
Winner: Max Scherzer
Here's another spot where things get really tricky. And, like we said, we have to come to back to Judge. But, before we get back to him, let's formally introduce the other likeliest contender: Altuve. Altuve (7.6) is lagging a little behind Judge (8.1) when it comes to fWAR. The same goes for WARP, with 6.37 for Altuve versus 7.06 for Judge. bWAR, though gives Altuve (8.3) an edge over Judge (7.8). So WAR ain't gonna cut it here. Frankly, nothing is.
Ultimately, it all comes down to which style of baseball you prefer, because deciding between Altuve and Judge is kind of like flipping a coin. Judge is the hulking behemoth who plays in the corner outfield and murders baseballs with abandon. Altuve plays an up-the-middle position and has stolen 32 bases and only been caught 6 times. These players couldn't be more different. They both ended up being the best position players in the AL this year, they just did it in very different ways.
Some quick honorable mentions before I get to the decision: Thanks to Trout's thumb injury earlier this year that caused him to miss a month and a half, we can comfortably say he was not the MVP for the first time since 2012. Were he to qualify, he would lead the AL (and all of MLB) in both OPS+ (186) and wRC+ (180). Trout has been the best player in baseball, yet again, but he missed too much time to win it this year. A pair of pitchers, in the aforementioned Sale and Kluber, also deserve a shout out. If Judge and Altuve hadn't dominated in the way they did, there would be more to talk about here. But it's unlikely that voters will break with the "MVP for position players, Cy Young for pitchers" when it's this close, so they'll likely have to settle for the traditional pitcher award.
At the end of the day, I'm going to go with Altuve, both from a personal preference standpoint and from what I expect to happen. There's something about Altuve that just gets me going in a way that a massive slugger short of Barry Bonds never will. In terms of the actual voters, however, I don't envy them and I think it's a tough call and you're not really wrong either way. I suspect they'll go with Altuve for a few reasons.
First, they're all going to be (or should be, at least) penciling in Judge for the Rookie of the Year, so that will affect some voters. Only two players, Fred Lynn and Ichiro Suzuki, have ever won both awards, and that will probably act as a tiebreaker for some. Second, there's the fact that Altuve has been in the league longer and has gotten MVP votes for the last three seasons running but hasn't won it yet. Finally, there's the "must make the playoffs" mentality that's kept Trout out of the picture in the past. While the Yankees have that covered by making the Wild Card Game, the Astros won their division and are just a win away from 100, so that's another card stacked in his favor. Of course, maybe we shouldn't underestimate the fact that Judge plays for the Yankees...
You'll notice that none of these reasons really actually matter in terms of who "should" actually win the MVP. But in a year where there's two players who are as close in value, if not in size, as Altuve and Judge, you've got to figure out some way to break the tie.
Award: José Altuve
And now we're done with the close calls again. It's a good thing that Stanton has been on absolute fire this season, dingering like there's no tomorrow, even if his team isn't going to the dance. Because, if he weren't, the MVP race would be a complete mess. I took the top ten NL players by fWAR, summed their fWAR, bWAR and WARP and divided it by three. This is admittedly a very rough way to do this sort of thing, but the results give you a good idea of how crowded the ballot would be:
Giancarlo Stanton: 6.9
Joey Votto: 6.6
Charlie Blackmon: 5.9
Kris Bryant: 5.9
Anthony Rendon: 5.7
Nolan Arenado: 5.6
Tommy Pham: 5.4
Paul Goldschmidt: 5.4
Justin Turner: 5.1
Corey Seager: 5.0
As Votto plays for the Reds (92 losses), he' be in even worse trouble than Stanton with those that buy into that logic. Which would leave us with just 0.5 WAR to separate the next six players. The arguments would be fantastic, but alas, we do have TMGS.
No matter your favorite flavor of WAR, Stanton is leading the pack. He's behind only Votto by wRC+ (165 for Votto, 158 for Stanton) and OPS+ (168 for Votto, 166 for Stanton) and he grades out better on defense there. In the trad stats realm, he leads MLB in RBIs (129) and, of course, home runs (59). He's still got three games to get to 60 or even break the hallowed 62 marker. Even if he doesn't, I think he's still probably going to win the award even though his team isn't going to the postseason, because he's got the dingers for the old school crew and the WAR for the others.
Award: Giancarlo Stanton