Dark Horses Who Could Shake Up Major MLB Award Races Down the Stretch

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Dark Horses Who Could Shake Up Major MLB Award Races Down the Stretch
Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Because Major League Baseball's season is six months long, the last six weeks shouldn't make much of a difference with the major awards races.

But hey, you never know when the "Chipper Jones Effect" is going to happen.

Remember when Jones won the National League MVP in 1999? The key was him hitting .324 with a 1.124 OPS in his last 42 games. After not even making the NL All-Star squad, Jones' hot finish helped lead him to a decisive victory in the NL MVP voting over Jeff Bagwell.

So what the heck. Let's entertain the notion that dark horses in the Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards races might actually have a shot. That way we can zero in on which guys are worth watching.

 

AL Rookie of the Year

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Current Favorite: Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox

With Masahiro Tanaka and George Springer sidelined with injuries, the AL Rookie of the Year race is all about Jose Abreu. The White Sox slugger is hitting .306 with an AL-best .962 OPS, not to mention 31 homers and 89 RBI.

Abreu's ROY candidacy isn't ironclad, though. Some voters could take issue with calling a 27-year-old Cuban import a "rookie." He also might be wearing down, having recently told Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today that the MLB season is getting to be "too much" for him.

If Abreu does falter, the AL Rookie of the Year race could be won by whoever finishes the season the hottest. So keep an eye on...

 

Dark Horse: Jake Odorizzi, Tampa Bay Rays

You might know Odorizzi as one of the other guys the Rays got in the James Shields-for-Wil Myers trade. Unless you were watching him earlier this season, that is, in which case you'll know him as a generally terrible pitcher.

But things have changed since then. In 12 starts dating back to June 10, Odorizzi's been outstanding:

Jake Odorizzi Before and After June 10
Split GS IP BB K HR Opp. OPS ERA
Before 12 57.2 25 71 5 .769 5.31
After 12 72.0 21 75 8 .601 2.63

Baseball-Reference.com

Further sweetening the deal is that the Rays are 8-4 in Odorizzi's last 12 starts. He's played a hand in their rise from the AL East cellar, a narrative that could later help him in the Rookie of the Year voting.

If Odorizzi does win the Rookie of the Year, Rays general manager Andrew Friedman is going to deserve some kind of award of his own. Getting two Rookies of the Year out of one trade is pretty good.

 

NL Rookie of the Year

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press/Associated Press

Current Favorite: Billy Hamilton, Cincinnati Reds

Hamilton probably wouldn't have even been in the discussion in last year's loaded NL ROY race, but he's the best it has in 2014. The Reds speedster is batting a modest .265 with a .682 OPS, but his overall value is boosted by his 44 stolen bases and excellent defense in center field. 

But with just a .200 average since the All-Star break, Hamilton's ROY candidacy isn't getting any stronger. The door is open for guys like Jacob deGrom, Jesse Hahn, Gregory Polanco and...

 

Dark Horse: Kolten Wong, St. Louis Cardinals

A couple of months ago, Wong was best known for being the guy who ended a World Series game by being picked off, and for being such a disappointment in April that the Cardinals sent him back to the minors.

When Wong returned to the majors in mid-May, he apparently returned angry with a .381 average and .911 OPS in his first 10 games. And after a brief cool-off period, Wong has continued to be a steady force at the plate since early July, taking the following numbers into Saturday's action:

Kolten Wong Since July 6
PA HR SB RBI R BA OBP SLG OPS
132 8 8 17 23 .285 .310 .537 .847

Baseball-Reference.com

In the process, Wong has raised his OPS from .586 to .700. If he can keep up his hot hitting, there's a chance his OPS will be pushing .800 by year's end.

And in a year when an .800 OPS is about as good as it gets for NL rookies, that could be enough.

 

AL Cy Young

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Current Favorite: Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners

And it's really not much of a discussion. Even after a tough outing against the Detroit Tigers on Saturday night, King Felix still has a 13-4 record, a 1.99 ERA and 197 strikeouts across 185.1 innings. 

However, Saturday's tough outing can't be totally ignored knowing that Hernandez faded at the end of the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Catching him might be possible, and one guy who looks up to the task is...

 

Dark Horse: Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians

A quick glance at Kluber's numbers will tell you he's having a terrific season. The Indians right-hander is 13-6 with a 2.41 ERA and 197 strikeouts of his own in 179.1 innings, numbers that would look a lot more Cy Young-worthy without King Felix in the picture.

But here's the thing with these numbers: They're only getting better. Check out what Kluber has done in six second-half starts:

Corey Kluber's Second Half
IP BB K HR Opp. OPS ERA
47.2 6 55 0 .391 0.76

Baseball-Reference.com

No other pitcher in MLB has been even close to as good as Kluber since the break. That's the opinion of FanGraphs WAR, anyway, which says Kluber's already been worth 2.3 WAR in the second half.

And Kluber might not be the only one who rides a strong second-half surge to a surprise Cy Young victory. There's a guy in the National League who could also do so.

 

NL Cy Young

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Current Favorite: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

Like with the AL Cy Young, it's really not much of a discussion. Despite missing a month with an injury, Kershaw took a 1.78 ERA in 19 starts into his Saturday night outing against the Milwaukee Brewers, with a 14-2 record and 163 strikeouts in 136.1 innings to go with it. 

Kershaw is not without real competition, however. Johnny Cueto and Adam Wainwright have been lurking in his shadow for a while now, and one guy who's forcing himself into the NL Cy Young discussion is...

 

Dark Horse: Cole Hamels, Philadelphia Phillies

Like Kershaw, Hamels is another guy who had injury troubles earlier in the season. But he's shaken those off to post a 2.44 ERA in 22 starts, with 149 strikeouts in 151.1 innings pitched to boot. 

But you know how Kluber's been scorching hot since the break? Hamels has basically been the National League version of that guy in his six post-break starts:

Cole Hamels Since the All-Star Break
IP BB K HR Opp. OPS ERA
44.0 7 43 1 .540 1.23

Baseball-Reference.com

And it's worth knowing that Hamels' hot pitching extends back much further than the All-Star break. In 15 starts since the beginning of June, he's racked up a 1.60 ERA in 106.2 innings. He's punched out 105 and failed to go at least seven innings only twice.

Hamels is going to need some help from Kershaw, Cueto and Wainwright if he wants to win the Cy Young. But if they do happen to slump in unison while he continues his hot pitching, one of the more under-appreciated pitchers in the league will finally get his due.

 

AL MVP

Ed Zurga/Associated Press

Current Favorite: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

Unlike in the past two seasons, this isn't a controversial stance. Beyond leading AL position players in WAR (according to FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com), Trout has a .937 OPS, 27 homers and 86 RBI. All in service of an Angels team that's 72-49.

The trouble is, however, that Trout has been slumping of late. His OPS since the break is well under .800, and you have to go back to last Sunday (Aug. 10) to find his last hit.

The most obvious candidates to catch Trout in the AL MVP race are the Seattle Mariners' dynamic duo of Hernandez and Robinson Cano, as well as Oakland A's third baseman Josh Donaldson. But another candidate who could start generating some MVP buzz is... 

 

Dark Horse: Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals

Those of you who are into WAR might be sitting there saying, "No duh." And rightfully so, as FanGraphs puts Gordon's WAR at 5.5. That's 0.1 points off Trout's 5.6 WAR.

And it's not just WAR that Gordon is rocking these days. Ever since the break, his bat has been on fire:

Alex Gordon Since the All-Star Break
PA HR SB RBI R AVG OBP SLUG OPS
107 3 2 9 15 .323 .383 .458 .842

Baseball-Reference.com

And this is before Gordon went out and collected two more hits on Saturday. His overall average is now .282 and his overall OPS is up to .790.

At the rate he's going, Gordon has a fair shot at finishing the season with a .300 average and an OPS around .850. If he can do that while also leading the Royals to their first postseason berth since 1985, winning the MVP will be surprisingly realistic.

An even bigger upset, however, is conceivably possible in the Senior Circuit.

 

NL MVP

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Current Favorite: Uh...Well...

Heck, I don't know. Kershaw is probably the leading NL MVP candidate with Andrew McCutchen on the DL, but McCutchen shouldn't be considered out of it yet. And then there are guys like Giancarlo Stanton, Jonathan Lucroy and Yasiel Puig to consider. You can take your pick, really.

With so many leading candidates, it's hard to favor a dark horse. But if one guy can do it, how about...

 

Dark Horse: Josh Harrison, Pittsburgh Pirates

We all laughed when Mike Matheny named Harrison to the NL All-Star team. He was having a nice season and everything, but it was hardly All-Star-worthy.

He must have heard us laughing. It's the only way to explain the havoc he's wreaked since the break, taking the following numbers into Saturday's action:

Josh Harrison Since the All-Star Break
PA HR SB RBI R AVG OBP SLUG OPS
118 5 8 10 23 .333 .376 .602 .978

Baseball-Reference.com

And even these numbers don't really do Harrison's current value justice. His hot hitting is helping the Pirates withstand McCutchen's absence, and MLB.com's Andrew Simon was quick to note just how versatile Harrison has been on defense:

Given the wealth of strong candidates for the NL MVP award, I'll definitely stop short of calling Harrison a good bet for the award. 

But this being baseball, you shouldn't need me to tell you that stranger things have happened. A couple of months from now, maybe we'll find ourselves renaming the Chipper Jones Effect the "Josh Harrison Effect."

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

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