Contenders and Pretenders for MLB's Early Awards Leaders
There's an old, often-butchered saying in baseball that you can't win pennants in April, but you sure can lose them.
The same goes for individual awards.
As B/R's own Jason Catania statistically proved a few weeks ago, it's important to get off to a hot start if you want to contend for the MVP in October.
Even though the season is just barely 10 percent completed, let's take a look through the stats and determine which guys are legitimate candidates for the major end-of-season awards, and which guys are just pulling our collective leg.
American League Rookie of the Year
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Front Runner: Aaron Hicks
It's really saying something about the pool of rookies in the American League that the best option for winning the award is a guy who entered play on Sunday with a .042 batting average and strikeouts in 36 percent of his plate appearances.
However, there are only three rookies with more than 30 at-bats (and Jackie Bradley Jr. just got demoted to AAA over the weekend) and the only pitchers with three or more starts are going to spend the bulk of the season getting destroyed by the AL West. So, yeah, Hicks makes as much sense as anyone at this point.
Contender: Wil Myers
Considering everything just written in justifying Hicks as the front runner for the award, one has to assume Myers would be a strong candidate if he's called up before June.
Dark Horse: Dan Straily
Straily has only made one start this season and there's no telling when he'll get his next one—probably not until Brett Anderson makes his annual trip to the disabled list. Still, the one start that he made was very impressive (albeit against the Astros), and he was effective in his seven starts last season.
Pretender: Conor Gillaspie
It's weird that Gillaspie has made appearances in three other seasons prior to this one and still qualifies as a rookie. In those cameos, he batted just 9-for-44 with one home run and no stolen bases.
Maybe he'll fare better with regular playing time, but it's safe to assume that his .300 average will continue to regress towards that .205 mark from previous years. It's already dropped 144 points in the past week.
National League Rookie of the Year
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Front Runner: Shelby Miller
Quite the start for the 22-year-old from Houston, Texas. The Giants touched him up a bit as he struggled with control in his season debut, but in the past two games against Milwaukee and Pittsburgh he's allowed just two runs in 13.0 IP with 14 strikeouts against one walk. On the season, he has an ERA of 1.96, a WHIP of 0.87 and a K/9 just shy of 9.0.
If he can even remotely maintain numbers like those, not only will he unanimously win NL ROY, but he'll contend for the Cy Young award as well.
Contender: Evan Gattis
No specific timetable yet for the return of Brian McCann, but once he's back the Braves will have the absurdly enviable position of having to platoon McCann and El Oso Blanco. Great news for Braves' fans, but horrible news for fantasy owners and a tough break for Gattis' ROY prospects.
Unfortunately for Gattis, if the Braves only deploy him against left-handed starters in the future, only eight of the 20 other NL East starting pitchers are left-handed—and three of them are Gio Gonzalez, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. It's great that he already has five home runs this season, but it's hard to rank him ahead of Shelby Miller with those things in mind.
Dark Horse: Hyun-Jin Ryu
If the $216 million team can keep providing him at least 4.5 runs of support per game, you have to like Ryu's chances of winning 15 or more games this season. The sample size to date seems to indicate he's not going to have a stellar WHIP, but he's averaging better than a strikeout per inning. He hasn't been quite as impressive as Miller, but he could conceivably get there.
Pretender: A.J. Pollock
Pollock has decent numbers on the season, batting .309 with two home runs and two stolen bases. However, three of those four things came in one ridiculous game two weeks ago, and it's difficult to see how Pollock will get consistent playing time in the outfield amongst a roster that includes Gerardo Parra, Cody Ross, Jason Kubel and Adam Eaton.
American League Comeback Player of the Year
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Front Runner: Jacoby Ellsbury
Following an MVP-caliber campaign in 2011, Ellsbury missed the bulk of the 2012 season after suffering a dislocated shoulder just one week into the year. The unforeseeable power from 2011 hasn't yet returned, but he is on pace for at least 65 stolen bases.
Contender: Vernon Wells
When the Yankees traded for Vernon Wells right before the start of the season, just about everyone laughed uproariously. This was their plan to replace the lost power from letting Nick Swisher go and opening the season with Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira on the disabled list?
In two seasons with the Angels, Wells batted just .222 with a WAR of -0.3, becoming arguably the worst contract in baseball since Barry Zito signed with the Giants in 2007.
Thus far, he's been considerably better than advertised, batting .317 and belting five home runs.
Dark Horse: Andrew Bailey
Closers don't often contend for anything other than Rolaids Relief awards, but Tampa Bay's Fernando Rodney received the honor last year. It could be Bailey's turn this year.
The Red Sox went out and got Joel Hanrahan in the offseason, but he has already gone from disappointing to disabled in a span of a few weeks. Bailey has picked up three saves in his absence, and might remain the 9th inning man even once Hanrahan returns.
It would be ironic, considering Bailey was the guy the Red Sox overpaid in the previous offseason, only to see him suffer a thumb injury and post an ERA of 7.04 in 19 late-season appearances.
Pretender: Travis Hafner
Why do I believe in the revival of Vernon Wells but not Travis Hafner? It's simple: If and when Teixeira, Rodriguez and Kevin Youkilis are healthy, there's simply no spot in the lineup for a guy who hasn't played any defense since 2007.
Even when Granderson comes back, they'll find a spot for Wells in the outfield as long as he continues producing. Hafner could be nothing more than a pinch hitter by midseason.
National League Comeback Player of the Year
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Front Runner: Troy Tulowitzki
When he's healthy, Tulowitzki is the best shortstop in the game today and a borderline MVP candidate. Following his least healthy season to date, Tulo has stormed out of the gates, batting .328 with six home runs. If he can play 140 or more games, we should see his 2012 WAR of 0.3 return to a more normal 6.0.
Contender: Carl Crawford
It's kind of bizarre how many of these comeback candidates are current or former Red Sox players. Although, I guess that could be expected fallout from Boston's disappointing 2012 campaign.
Crawford spent most of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery, and most of his two-year tenure with the Red Sox as the scapegoat for everything that was wrong with the team. He's made the most of his opportunity at a fresh start in Los Angeles, batting well north of .300 with 15 runs scored and a handful of stolen bases.
If and when Matt Kemp starts hitting the ball, Crawford will serve as an excellent table setter, perhaps finishing the season atop the NL leaderboard in runs and stolen bases.
Dark Horse: Jayson Werth
Werth suffered a nasty broken wrist in early May 2012 and never quite returned to form. He spent the rest of the season using a lighter bat as the leadoff hitter, focusing more on OBP than HR. Werth has already hit three home runs this season and should return to the 25 HR/20 SB type of veteran guy that the Nationals signed three years ago.
Pretender: Kevin Slowey
Through four starts, Slowey has a sub-2.00 ERA and a not-horrible WHIP of 1.23. Respectable numbers for someone who couldn't even crack into the majors in 2012 after five largely disappointing seasons with the Minnesota Twins.
Slowey has never been a strikeout pitcher and has always struggled with the long ball. It's difficult to believe he could maintain these early numbers while pitching in the NL East.
American League CY Young
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Front Runner: Justin Verlander
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Verlander has been arguably the best pitcher in the country for the past five years, and is already off to a hot start in 2013. The WHIP (1.22) is marginally worse than his career average (1.17), but with an ERA of 2.13 and 10.3 K/9, Verlander is still the man to beat.
Contender: Felix Hernandez
King Felix already has two starts this season in which he pitched into the 8th inning allowing just four baserunners, allowing no runs and striking out better than one batter per inning. He hasn't allowed more than four runs to score in any start, but naturally the Mariners are 1-3 in his four starts, because they're the Mariners.
Dark Horse: Yu Darvish
Three of his four starts have come against the Mariners or Astros, so take these numbers with a grain of salt.
Darvish has an ERA of 2.03, a WHIP of 0.79 and a K/9 of 12.8—all of which are substantially better than his first season in the big leagues. If we're still exalting his name after this week's start in Los Angeles, there might be legitimate reason to believe Darvish could crash the AL Cy Young party dominated in recent years by Verlander, Hernandez and David Price.
Pretender: Clay Buchholz
I'll give this much to Buchholz: his xFIP (3.22) is a full run lower than what he has averaged over the past five seasons. This can probably be attributed to a career low in BABIP (.243) and a career best in LOB% (a ridiculous 94.4 percent).
The regression is coming, but it might take a while since two of his next three starts are at home against Houston and Minnesota.
National League Cy Young
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Front Runner: Clayton Kershaw
As you'll see in a moment, there are a plethora of great options for projected Cy Young winner in the NL. Kershaw is simply a cut above the rest.
There are only three starting pitchers in the last 75 years with at least 900 innings pitched and a career ERA of 2.80 or better—Whitey Ford (2.75), Sandy Koufax (2.76) and Clayton Kershaw (2.77).
He struggled in his last outing against the Padres and still has a sub-2.00 ERA, a sub-1.00 WHIP and better than a strikeout per inning on the season.
Contender: Take your pick
If someone other than Kershaw is going to win the award this year, I don't know who it is. Not because there isn't anyone close to Kershaw's level, but because there are so many pitchers in the National League capable of winning the pitching Triple Crown.
Whether you're a supporter of Cliff Lee, Adam Wainwright, Madison Bumgarner, Jeff Samardzija or Stephen Strasburg, just know that there's a reasonable chance he could start the All-Star Game and be the 2013 Cy Young.
Dark Horse: Matt Harvey
Amongst all the NL Goliaths that have been honing their craft at the highest level for at least a year is a 24-year-old second-year flamethrower who might be the best of the bunch. The only real concern with Harvey is a possible innings limit.
He's much more efficient with his pitch count than a guy like Strasburg, but you have wonder whether the Mets would end his season a few starts early—especially if they finish as far out of the NL East race as most projected in the preseason. If they do, it's unlikely his wins or strikeouts would match up with the other candidates for the award.
Pretender: Mat Latos
Three major reasons I'm not buying Latos' hot start:
A) Over the previous three seasons, he was walking 2.8 batters per 9 IP. Through four starts in 2013, that number is only at 1.37. No one cuts their walk rate in half over the course of one offseason.
B) Also, over the previous three seasons, his K/9 was 8.55. Thus far, that number is up to 9.91. When walks are expected to increase and strikeouts are expected to decrease, it's a good indicator that ERA will also shortly be on the rise.
C) Johnny Cueto is the exception to the rule: It's no fun to pitch half of your games in the Great American Launching Pad.
American League Most Valuable Player
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Front Runner: Miguel Cabrera
You didn't really think someone else would be the favorite, did you? Cabrera merely won the first Triple Crown in 45 years last season and is batting .355 with 18 RBI already in this campaign. Assuming the power eventually comes around and he gets to 30-plus home runs for the ninth time in the last 10 seasons, his name will be at the top of every ballot at the end of the season.
Contender: Mike Trout
There aren't very many great options in the early going in the American League—unless of course you really believe that Coco Crisp is suddenly a sustainable five-tool player for the first time at the age of 34.
Trout has hardly been a stud to this point—batting .307 with two home runs and three stolen bases—but until someone really steps up to take his place, last year's runner-up remains the projected runner-up. Adam Jones, Prince Fielder and Ian Kinsler are close to dethroning him, but I still believe in Trout.
Dark Horse: Carlos Santana
Only two catchers (Ivan Rodriguez and Joe Mauer) have won an MVP award since 1976, but perhaps we're due for another one.
Despite already missing a handful of games, Santana is batting .380 with four home runs. He isn't the greatest defensive presence, however, which could hurt him in the voting. Already this season, he's averaging one wild pitch and one stolen base allowed per game behind the plate.
Pretender: Alex Rios and Chris Davis
Two for the price of one. Don't say I've never done anything generous for you.
The problem for Rios is that he batted .304 with 25 home runs and 23 stolen bases last season...and still finished 15th in the MVP voting. With an ISO currently 130 points better than his career average, do you really see the 32-year-old out-performing his 2012 stats by enough to skyrocket to the top of the ballots?
And everything about Chris Davis' stats are terribly unsustainable. Coming into the season, he was a career .258 hitter, striking out in 33.6 percent of at-bats and homering just once every 19.7 at-bats. In 2013, he's batting .403 with a home run every 8.8 at-bats and striking out less than 25 percent of the time.
Assuming a 575 at-bat season, should he regress to his career averages he will bat .240 and strike out 37 percent of the time with a home run every 22.3 at-bats from this point forward. If you own Davis in any fantasy leagues, trade him as quickly as humanly possible.
National League Most Valuable Player
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Front Runner: Justin Upton
The statistics are ridiculous, and the sheer power on most of the home runs is even crazier. Though his batting average dipped just below .300 over the weekend, Upton has nine home runs and three stolen bases just 18 games into the season. He's on pace for 81 round-trippers and 27 steals. Sample sizes are awesome.
Contender: Bryce Harper
It's a good thing they don't announce the awards until after the playoffs, as Harper would finally be of legal drinking age to celebrate this potential achievement. He's batting .369 with seven home runs. If the stolen bases also show up, it should be fun to watch these NL East outfielders go head-to-head all season.
Dark Horse: Todd Frazier
Maybe he doesn't quite have MVP numbers, but he's looking like a potential fantasy baseball MVP. The third baseman with an average draft position in the 19th round is off to a torrid start to the season, hitting .292 with five home runs and 17 RBI.
Credit Jay Bruce's zero home runs for all of those RBI opportunities, but if Dusty Baker eventually moves Frazier up to the 5th spot in the lineup, there are guaranteed to be RBI chances galore behind Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips.
Pretender: John Buck
Lather, rinse and repeat the concerns about Chris Davis from the previous slide. His strikeout rate is nearly half of what it had been in his previous nine years in the league, and his batting average is 60 points higher than the .235 mark he had established in over 3,000 at-bats. His 2013 home run rate of 8.85 AB/HR is almost exactly three times better than his career mark of 26.53 AB/HR.
It's one thing to have a career season that stands out from the rest of your years, but these numbers are about 10 standard deviations away from normal distribution.