MLB Metrics 101: Who Deserves MVP, Cy Young, ROY and More with 1 Month to Go?
The arrival of September means Major League Baseball is just one step away from the postseason and only two steps away from awards season.
Bleacher Report's MLB Metrics 101 series returns to address the latter.
Hello and welcome back. This week's topic covers the men who deserve to be the front-runners for the five major awards in the American League and National League: Comeback Player of the Year, Manager of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and Most Valuable Player.
The voters for these awards must consider many parameters when casting their ballots. But as is always the case, statistics are the guiding star for MLB Metrics 101.
For more on how stats will be used to pinpoint the men to beat for each award, read on.
Tackling five different awards requires taking five different approaches. So with a heads-up that all numbers below are current through Labor Day, September 4, here's how it's going to work.
Comeback Player of the Year
It's only fair to limit the scope to experienced players who've been on the field for the whole season. Only non-rookies are eligible, and they must have either 400 plate appearances or 100 innings pitched.
After that, players' 2016 WAR—wins above replacement, which in this case will be the average of players' WAR at Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs—is subtracted from their 2017 WAR to reveal who's reversed their fortunes the most. Check out full results here.
Finally, it becomes a matter of separating true comebacks from breakouts (e.g., Tommy Pham and Luis Severino) and other players going from good to great (e.g., Giancarlo Stanton).
Manager of the Year
Narratives guide the Manager of the Year voting, but there's a general rule of thumb that lends itself to a statistical argument: Which manager's team surpassed expectations the most?
Preseason win projections from Baseball Prospectus' famed PECOTA system (via Will Leitch of Sports on Earth) will be compared to teams' actual win projections based on their current winning percentages. The AL and NL managers overseeing the biggest differences get the nod. Full results are here.
Rookie of the Year
All rookies with either 100 plate appearances or 50 innings pitched are eligible. The leaders are whoever has the highest WAR average. Full results are here.
Any pitcher with more than 100 innings is eligible. Then it's once again about the highest WAR averages. Full results are here.
Most Valuable Player
The umbrella of eligible players covers hitters with over 400 plate appearances and pitchers with more than 100 innings. The players with the highest WAR averages are the ones to beat. Full results are here.
Comeback Players of the Year: Justin Smoak and Ryan Zimmerman
American League: Justin Smoak, Toronto Blue Jays (3.8 WAR Improvement)
Justin Smoak is arguably more of a breakout star than a comeback story. But when a guy is 30 years old with eight years of MLB experience under his belt, he fits in Column B more than Column A.
Regardless, Smoak definitely wasn't a star before 2017. An average year for him through seven seasons included a .700 OPS and 15 home runs. He averaged minus-0.3 WAR in 2016.
Through 137 games this year, however, Smoak has a .923 OPS, 37 homers and a 3.5 WAR average. Such is life when your strikeout rate plummets and your hard-hit rate reaches a new peak. The man himself also credits an important change between his ears.
"I think for me mentally, it’s just don’t give a crap," he said in May, per Rob Longley of the Toronto Sun.
National League: Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals (3.7 WAR Improvement)
For both Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, Ryan Zimmerman was one of the worst players in the National League in 2016. Ongoing troubles with injuries didn't help, but they alone didn't push his WAR average to minus-1.2.
Now, Zimmerman is one of the better players in the Senior Circuit. Although he's cooled since his red-hot start to 2017, he still owns a .932 OPS with 31 homers and a 2.5 WAR average through 127 games.
In a May interview with Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post, the 32-year-old chalked his resurgence up to simply being smarter with how he treats his body. In a related story, his ability to hit ropes to all fields has returned with a vengeance.
Managers of the Year: Ned Yost and Torey Lovullo
American League: Ned Yost, Kansas City Royals (10-Win PECOTA Improvement)
There are Manager of the Year arguments to be made for at least a half-dozen AL skippers. The one that's surpassed expectations the most, however, is Ned Yost.
As per usual, PECOTA didn't like the Kansas City Royals' chances and assigned them a projection of just 71 wins. The Royals are on track to beat that by 10 wins with an 81-81 record.
Guiding the effort has been no easy task for Yost. The Royals tragically lost Yordano Ventura from their starting rotation over the winter. They also lost Wade Davis from their bullpen. During the season, ol' standbys Alex Gordon and Alcides Escobar and newcomer Brandon Moss have been massive liabilities.
Maybe the Royals won't make the postseason in the end. But the fact that they're even in the fight is something Yost deserves props for.
National League: Torey Lovullo, Arizona Diamondbacks (16-Win PECOTA Improvement)
Meanwhile, there shouldn't be any debate about the leader for the National League Manager of the Year.
Torey Lovullo was the best choice even before his Arizona Diamondbacks ripped off 13 straight wins. They were supposed to again be cannon fodder in the NL West after losing 93 games in 2016. Instead, the first-year skipper has taken them from a 78-win projection to 82 wins and counting.
He's benefited from improved starting pitching, as Arizona starters have a 3.46 ERA after posting an ugly 5.19 ERA in 2016. But Lovullo's compassion for his guys has made a difference as well.
"You hear everyone say communication and I think he’s a great communicator," star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt told Bob Baum of the Associated Press in June, "but I kind of see it in a different light. He does a great job of putting himself in the shoes of whoever he’s talking to."
AL Rookie of the Year: Aaron Judge, New York Yankees
WAR Average: 5.7
It's been a while since Aaron Judge was truly great, but he's still the man to beat for the AL Rookie of the Year award.
The New York Yankees' young slugger has a .982 OPS with 38 homers and leads the AL with 104 walks and 102 runs. He leads all MLB rookies with his 5.7 WAR average.
Baseball has never seen a hitter with anything like Judge's 6'7", 282-pound frame, and it shows. He's averaging 94.6 miles per hour on his batted balls, the highest mark yet in the Statcast's three-year history.
"It's not fair. It's like he is playing on a Little League field," observed Yankees reliever David Robertson, according to George A. King III of the New York Post.
Granted, the 25-year-old did the bulk of his damage in the first half with a 1.139 OPS and 30 homers, after which he celebrated with a jaw-dropping display in the Home Run Derby. He's been slumping ever since, putting up a .705 OPS with eight homers in 49 second-half games.
But that doesn't erase what he did in the first half. And despite his recent hot stretch, sweet-swinging Boston Red Sox left fielder Andrew Benintendi is still miles off Judge's pace with a 2.3 WAR average.
NL Rookie of the Year: Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers
WAR Average: 3.9
Once again, a shift from a semi-tough call in the American League to a not-at-all-tough call in the National League. Cody Bellinger practically has the NL Rookie of the Year award in the bag already.
The 22-year-old has a .948 OPS and has slammed 36 home runs. He's just two homers shy of the NL rookie record, and already one ahead of Mike Piazza for the Los Angeles Dodgers' previous rookie record.
"It was in the back of my mind to be in the same sentence as Piazza, and now to pass him, it feels pretty special," Bellinger said of leapfrogging the Hall of Famer, according to Ken Gurnick of MLB.com.
Not to be overlooked is the defense Bellinger has played at multiple positions in his 108 games for the Dodgers. Between his time at first base (his natural position), left field and right field, he's accounted for 10 defensive runs saved. That's a sizable ingredient in his 3.9 WAR average.
Colorado Rockies hurlers German Marquez (3.0 WAR average) and Kyle Freeland (2.7 WAR average) are technically within range of Bellinger in the NL Rookie of the Year race. But to actually pass him, they'll need to speed up while he slows down.
AL Cy Young: Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox
WAR Average: 6.5
Chris Sale is indeed the front-runner for the AL Cy Young for now. But that "for now" is extremely tenuous.
Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber is gunning hard for his second Cy Young. He has a 1.85 ERA in 18 starts since coming off a month-long stay on the disabled list in June, and an AL-best 2.56 ERA in 168.2 innings overall. His WAR average is 6.3.
In the meantime, Sale is slumping with a 4.57 ERA in his last seven starts. Despite his MLB-high 270 strikeouts, the Red Sox ace's 2.85 ERA over 189.2 innings makes for a razor-thin WAR margin over Kluber.
And yet, a deeper dive into the numbers does bolster Sale's case.
Given Sale's 21-inning advantage in workload, Kluber's case for the Cy Young rests on him being the more dominant pitcher. On the bright side, he has the edge in wOBA allowed—that's weighted on-base average, which is like OPS except nerdier—at .249 to .253. That's only a slight edge, however, and Sale's xwOBA (expected wOBA based on quality of contact) edge of .243 to .250 balances the scales.
With their dominance being roughly equal, Sale's larger workload is the difference...for now.
NL Cy Young: Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals
WAR Average: 6.1
The NL Cy Young race was previously shaping up to be an all-timer, as Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer spent the early portion of the season battling for the honor of being MLB's Ace King.
But when Kershaw's back acted up in July, the race ceased to be an all-timer and became Scherzer's to lose.
His recent scuffles with the injury bug haven't helped his case, but they haven't killed it either. Beyond a 6.1 WAR average, the Washington Nationals ace owns a career-best 2.19 ERA in 172.1 innings.
Those numbers are perfectly worthy of what would be Scherzer's third Cy Young award. Additional numbers only sweeten the deal. He leads the NL with 232 strikeouts and ranks second in MLB with a .245 wOBA allowed and first in the league with a .237 xwOBA allowed.
Kershaw's MLB-leading 1.95 ERA can't be ignored, but he's compiled that over just 147.1 innings. Gio Gonzalez, Scherzer's Washington teammate, has an impressive 2.50 ERA in 179.2 innings, but without any additional bells and whistles.
With a 5.1 WAR average, it's actually Diamondbacks ace Zack Greinke who's closest to Scherzer. He's a long shot, but he shouldn't be counted out.
AL MVP: Jose Altuve, Houston Astros
WAR Average: 7.0
Since the MVP race comes with a heavy narrative element, simply using WAR to litigate it admittedly doesn't work as well as it does with the Rookie of the Year and Cy Young races.
Nonetheless, WAR has the right idea about Jose Altuve.
His MVP case comes down to this: He's been the best American League player on the best American League team. He has a 7.0 WAR average that outpaces all other AL players, and the Astros have an 86-53 record that outpaces all other AL teams.
Altuve's .351 batting average puts him on track for his third batting title in four years. He's also hit 21 homers and leads the AL with 31 stolen bases and 183 hits. All told, he's the AL's top offensive producer.
This is not to say there's no hope for other contestants, however. Altuve has slowed down in August and September. That's an open window.
Not many are in range to take advantage, but one guy who is happens to be the best player in baseball. With an MLB-best 1.115 OPS and a 6.2 WAR average, even six weeks on the DL isn't stopping Los Angeles Angels superstar Mike Trout from chasing his third MVP.
NL MVP: Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins
WAR Average: 6.4
The NL MVP race looks more wide-open than the AL MVP race, but Giancarlo Stanton is changing that with seemingly every swing he takes.
It wasn't long ago that the Miami Marlins slugger was in the middle of a second straight disappointing season. But starting on July 5, he's since ripped off 32 homers in 56 games.
Stanton would be one of MLB's top home run hitters if his season were just these 56 games. Throw in his other 81 games and 21 homers, and he leads everyone with 53 home runs. There's a real chance he'll be the first player since Barry Bonds in 2001 to break the 60-homer threshold.
It would be hard not to anoint him the NL MVP for that alone. Meanwhile, he also has a 1.025 OPS, is tied for the MLB lead with 112 RBI (always an important stat in the MVP race) and, despite their recent fade, has certainly had the biggest hand in propelling the Marlins to NL wild-card relevance.
If the Cincinnati Reds were any good, Joey Votto (6.2 WAR average) would be Stanton's top competition. Instead, he's more likely to be challenged by underrated Nationals star Anthony Rendon (6.1 WAR average) or Goldschmidt (6.0 WAR average), the perennially overlooked Diamondbacks superstar.