Full MLB Award Predictions at the Three-Quarter Mark of the 2017 Season
As recently as the All-Star break, Aaron Judge was a lock for the American League MVP and Clayton Kershaw was charging hard for his fourth National League Cy Young.
A lot has changed between then and now, so it's time for a fresh round of predictions for who'll bring home Major League Baseball's big awards.
In focus are the Manager of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and MVP awards for the AL and NL. Be advised that predictions and picks aren't the same thing. What follows are educated guesses for who will win, not arguments for who should win.
Let's begin with the year's top skippers.
AL Manager of the Year: A.J. Hinch, Houston Astros
The Manager of the Year tends to go to a manager who allegedly did the most with the least, or one whose team enjoyed the smoothest ride.
Plenty of AL managers could ultimately fit the first bill, but only one can fit the second bill: Houston Astros skipper A.J. Hinch.
The Astros' smooth ride has recently hit a bump, but their 72-46 record still has them on track for 99 wins. They also hold a 11.5-game lead in the AL West.
Hinch's contributions include clever handling of a deep lineup and crafty bullpen manipulation that's helped downplay the club's starting pitching woes. And while he's benefited from a constant flow of data from a notoriously analytical front office, it wouldn't be good for much if he couldn't communicate with his players.
He told Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports in 2016 how important that is for him:
The No. 1 priority is the players. Getting a connection with the players. Being able to push each player’s buttons, getting the most out of them. You learn how to direct players’ careers at the major-league level by trying to tie them to organizational standards and organizational philosophies.
The chaotic race for the AL's second wild-card spot could produce an upset winner for the Manager of the Year. But in all likelihood, the excellence and relative stability of Hinch's Astros will win him the prize.
NL Manager of the Year: Torey Lovullo, Arizona Diamondbacks
There isn't as much parity in the National League and thus fewer options for the NL Manager of the Year.
There's a strong argument to be made for the guy whose team is the best of the bunch: Los Angeles Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts. He has all sorts of weapons at his disposal, but his handling of them is certainly part of the reason the Dodgers are on a historic pace with an 83-34 record.
However, below Roberts' Dodgers in the NL West standing is a story that's more Manager of the Year friendly: Torey Lovullo and the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Lovullo's assignment in his first year at the helm was to avoid another 93-loss disaster like the one the Diamondbacks suffered in 2016. Seemingly against all odds, that's happening. At 66-52, Arizona is on pace for 91 wins and a playoff spot.
At the heart of this turnaround is the revitalization of the club's pitching. Lovullo has spurned that by transforming former top prospect Archie Bradley into an elite reliever and by demanding nothing but the best from his starters.
“I’m asking for our starters to go 21 outs," he said on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM in April.
Rather than Roberts, Lovullo's top challenger might be Colorado Rockies skipper Bud Black. But his Manager of the Year chances hinge on the Rockies' pitching holding strong. Such propositions typically don't fare well amid the thin air of Coors Field.
AL Rookie of the Year: Aaron Judge, New York Yankees
His grip on the AL MVP has loosened, but Judge's post-All-Star slump would have to get really, really bad for him to lose the AL Rookie of the Year.
His slump is bad enough as is. The young New York Yankees slugger has come to the plate 127 times since the break and has come away with 31 more strikeouts (48) than hits (17). His OPS has fallen from 1.139 to 1.028.
But let's be real about three things: What Judge did in the first half still counts, a 1.028 OPS is still a heck of an OPS and it remains easy to be amazed by his season.
The 25-year-old can become the first AL rookie since Ted Williams in 1939 to post an OPS over 1.000, and his 36 home runs are already tied for the third-most ever by an AL rookie. His unparalleled power, strong arm and solid speed make him one of MLB's most impressive athletes.
Boston Red Sox outfielder Andrew Benintendi has the best chance of pushing Judge in the Rookie of the Year race. Like Judge, he's been in the majors from Day 1. Unlike Judge, he's been red-hot recently.
However, Benintendi's chance is only a long shot. This is Judge's race to lose, and he should hold on.
NL Rookie of the Year: Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers
As Judge slows down in the AL Rookie of the Year race, Cody Bellinger is speeding up in the NL Rookie of the Year race.
The Los Angeles Dodgers' 22-year-old slugger is pacing all NL rookies with a .972 OPS, and his 34 homers put him on the verge of history. With four more, he'll tie the NL rookie record. With five more, he'll break it.
It was recently possible to have doubts about Bellinger's ability to keep slugging. He suffered a cold spell in June and July, when he hit just two homers and posted a .723 OPS in a 16-game span.
But Bellinger is now hot again. In 29 games since July 8, he's cranked 10 homers and put up a 1.028 OPS. He gives off an appearance that he's only interested in swinging for the fences. But by now, it's clear he's capable of adjusting as needed.
Bellinger has accounted for 3.7 WAR, which leads all NL rookie hitters and pitchers. Rockies hurlers Kyle Freeland and German Marquez are hot on his heels, but it could be a deal breaker for voters that their quality doesn't show as much in traditional stats. Coors Field, of course, could be another deal breaker.
If all things are equal, the deciding factor in Bellinger's favor could be his impact on the Dodgers. They were just 9-11 before he arrived. Since his first game, they're a ridiculous 74-23.
AL Cy Young: Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox
Assuming he doesn't already have it, Corey Kluber deserves everyone's attention.
The Cleveland Indians ace already has one AL Cy Young and is gunning hard for a second. He's been on a rampage with a 1.85 ERA and 151 strikeouts over his last 14 starts. His ERA is down to 2.71, good for second in the AL.
However, the one guy ahead of him in ERA is no slouch.
And as hot as Kluber has been, Sale refuses to cool down. His ERA peaked at 2.97 on June 10. In 11 starts since then, he's put up a 1.98 ERA with 115 strikeouts in 77.1 innings. And that's with a seven-run dud against Kluber's Indians mixed in.
Perhaps the only thing standing between Sale and the AL Cy Young is Boston's concerns over his workload. The Red Sox have already given him extra rest once since the All-Star break, and could be inclined to do so again (and again) if their lead in the AL East continues to swell.
But it probably won't be enough to open the door for Kluber. Because he missed a month on the disabled list and has thus logged only 139.2 innings, workload is yet another advantage Sale has on him.
NL Cy Young: Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals
It wasn't long ago that the NL Cy Young race was shaping up as an epic showdown between Kershaw and Max Scherzer. Either the former would win his fourth or the latter would earn his third.
It's since become a one-man race.
As if to say "We'll see about that!" in response to an increasingly loud Scherzer vs. Kershaw debate, the Dodgers lefty ripped off a 14-start stretch in which he had a 1.84 ERA over 98 innings. But then a back injury put him on the DL in late July. He's still weeks away from returning.
In the meantime, Scherzer just keeps rolling.
The Washington Nationals right-hander's 2.25 ERA ranks behind Kershaw's 2.04 ERA for the NL lead, but he otherwise offers few nits to pick. He leads the NL with 160.1 innings, 220 strikeouts, a .552 OPS allowed and 6.1 WAR.
These are the marks of a guy who lives for this.
"It's my goal every single year," Scherzer said of winning Cy Youngs, according to MLB.com's Jamal Collier. "That's the only goal I really set for myself is to make sure I'm better every single year."
With Kershaw sidelined, Scherzer's top challenger for the NL Cy Young might be teammate Gio Gonzalez. But without strong peripherals to go with his 2.59 ERA, he's at best a distant second.
AL MVP: Jose Altuve, Houston Astros
With the Scherzer vs. Kershaw debate having died down, the increasingly loud argument du jour is that Sale should get an AL MVP to go with his AL Cy Young.
ESPN.com's Scott Lauber reported on the Red Sox's case for Sale. He has support in the number-crunching community as well, including from Neil Greenberg of the Washington Post and Dave Cameron of FanGraphs.
But while Sale winning the MVP wouldn't be unprecedented, the award's history reveals a clear aversion to starting pitchers. The rule of thumb seems to be that pitchers should win only when a historic individual season coincides with a lean year for position players.
On that note, WAR shows two AL position players having better seasons than Sale. One of them checks all the boxes of an MVP: Jose Altuve.
Beyond leading all AL players with 6.5 WAR, the Astros second baseman is also aiming for his third batting title with an AL-high .361 average. He also leads with 163 hits, 257 total bases and a 175 adjusted OPS+.
It's all in service of the AL's best team, of course. And with Carlos Correa sidelined by a thumb injury, the one Astro who might have stolen votes from Altuve is now a non-factor in his MVP chase.
Judge and two-time MVP/baseball god Mike Trout also deserve MVP attention. But if it comes down to a choice between Sale and Altuve, the balance should tip in Altuve's favor.
NL MVP: Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks
The NL MVP race is a humdinger in its own right, and it arguably features an even stronger argument for Scherzer than there is for Sale.
Scherzer's 6.1 WAR does lead all NL players, after all, and his case for the MVP also comes with solid narratives. As good as the Nationals have been, they needed their ace to help offset an awful bullpen at the beginning and now need him to offset an injury to Bryce Harper at the end.
But like in the AL, this isn't a lean year for NL position players. There's a lengthy list of hitters in the mix, headlined by Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and Bellinger.
With an MLB-high 100 RBI to go with 26 homers and killer defense at third base on the side, Arenado might have the best case as things stand now. But the hand injury he suffered over the weekend is a wrench in the gears.
It's also an opening for Goldschmidt. His 5.7 WAR leads all NL position players, and he boasts a 1.031 OPS, 28 homers and 16 stolen bases as well. He's also been hot since the break with a 1.112 OPS in 29 games.
Beyond Goldschmidt's numbers lies the narrative that can help him bring home his first MVP. As much as Arizona's turnaround has been reliant on pitching, Goldschmidt has been a rock for an offense that isn't terribly strong beneath him. Without Goldschmidt, the Diamondbacks would be in trouble.
Stats (including WAR) courtesy of Baseball Reference and are updated through games played Sunday, Aug. 13.