An Early Look at MLB's MVP and Cy Young Races For 2022 Season

Zachary D. RymerMay 16, 2022

ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - MAY 10:  Mike Trout #27 of the Los Angeles Angels celebrates a run against the Tampa Bay Rays in the first inning at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on May 10, 2022 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

There's still a lot of baseball left to be played in the 2022 Major League Baseball season. About five months' worth, to be precise, which means the league's major award races are far from clear.

For now, though, here's who we think is leading the way for the Cy Young Award and MVP races in the American League and National League.

In keeping with how there are always three finalists for these awards at the end of the year, we mainly focused on the top three contenders in each race. But since anything can still happen, we also touched on some dark-horse contenders worth monitoring.

Naturally, we primarily looked to statistics for guidance. Yet in the case of the MVP awards, we also considered any narrative elements that could come into play.

We'll start with the AL Cy Young Award and go from there.

American League Cy Young Award: Kevin Gausman and Justin Verlander Lead the Way

ST PETERSBURG, FLORIDA - MAY 13: Kevin Gausman #34 of the Toronto Blue Jays pitches during a game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field on May 13, 2022 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Right off the proverbial bat, we'll grant that the order of these three pitchers is debatable:

  • 1. RHP Kevin Gausman, Toronto Blue Jays
  • 2. RHP Justin Verlander, Houston Astros
  • 3. LHP Neston Cortes, New York Yankees

With Gausman at 45.0 innings and Verlander at 45.2 innings, there's essentially no difference between them when it comes to workload. There is, of course, a sizable difference between their earned run averages. At 1.38, Verlander's ERA is more than a run lower than Gausman's 2.40 ERA.

However, this is a case where ERA doesn't tell the whole story.

Gausman has not only struck out 18 more batters than Verlander, but has done so while remaining virtually untouched in the walk and home run departments. He's issued only two free passes and has yet to be taken deep.

Verlander also has an AL-best 0.64 WHIP that can't be ignored. But like with his ERA, sharing the credit for his excellence is an Astros defense that ranks fourth in the majors in efficiency at turning balls in play into outs. The Blue Jays, by contrast, are slightly below average.

Ultimately, we're trusting expected ERA on this one. It has Gausman at 2.51, with Verlander a tad behind at 2.62.

Cortes, meanwhile, currently leads the American League in ERA at 1.35 following his latest dominant effort on Sunday. That also comes paired with 49 strikeouts against 11 walks, as well as only three home runs allowed.

Such numbers might smack of unsustainability for a guy who only throws in the low 90s, but all you have to do is watch the Yankees southpaw pitch to understand how he makes it work:

Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

Nestor Cortes, Back-to-Back 91mph Fastballs...with different arm angles. Artist. <a href="https://t.co/hWBVopR2pT">pic.twitter.com/hWBVopR2pT</a>

Oh, and Cortes' expected ERA? It's all the way down at 2.18, fitting him safely within the top five of all pitchers who've had at least 50 balls put in play.

For now, at least, Cortes' weakness relative to Gausman and Verlander is the fact that he's pitched "only" 40 innings through seven starts. Five innings might not sound like a huge gap, but that's basically the equivalent of the average start these days.

The Dark Horses

One guy to keep an eye on is Chicago White Sox righty Dylan Cease. A tough outing against the Yankees on Wednesday boosted his ERA to 3.55, but it's nonetheless hard to discount his AL-high-tying 58 strikeouts and 2.01 xERA.

Another strikeout standout is Tampa Bay Rays lefty Shane McClanahan, who's punched out 13.3 batters per nine innings in tandem with a 2.52 ERA.

National League Cy Young Award: Can Anyone Catch Pablo Lopez?

MIAMI, FLORIDA - MAY 13: Pablo Lopez #49 of the Miami Marlins delivers a pitch during the second inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at loanDepot park on May 13, 2022 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Meanwhile in the National League, at least there's a clear pick for the frontrunner:

  • 1. RHP Pablo Lopez, Miami Marlins
  • 2. RHP Corbin Burnes, Milwaukee Brewers
  • 3. RHP Miles Mikolas, St. Louis Cardinals

A he's worked a solid 43 innings with an MLB-leading 1.05 ERA, Lopez is enjoying the best of both worlds with his workload and especially with his run prevention. And since it's backed up by a likewise excellent 2.36 xERA, the latter is legit.

The Marlins ace's secret weapon is surely becoming less secret with every start he makes. Hitters are 8-for-64 with 26 strikeouts against his changeup, which is downright nasty:

Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

Pablo López, 2 More Changeup Ks.<br><br>7Ks thru 5. <a href="https://t.co/UXfOkjVVOp">pic.twitter.com/UXfOkjVVOp</a>

If there's a threat to Lopez's Cy Young candidacy, it's the specter of durability. A less pretentious way to say it is that he's peaked at 111.1 innings in the past, and that he'll therefore have to prove he's capable of much more.

With Burnes, there's certainly a sort of "been there, done that" appeal. Per his 1.63 FIP (fielding independent pitching), his 2021 season was the second-best by an ERA title qualifier in the live-ball era after only Pedro Martinez in 1999.

Burnes isn't lighting up FIP like that again in 2022, but his 1.77 ERA and 2.89 xERA nonetheless command respect. He's also putting a dent in the notion that he's not a workhorse with his 45.2 innings, which rank second in the National League.

After losing basically two whole seasons to injuries in 2020 and 2021, Mikolas is back to his All-Star form of 2018 in 2022. He has a 1.49 ERA through his first seven starts for the Cardinals.

The red flag there should be that Mikolas has only punched out 31 batters, but he's managed contact to the tune of exit velocity in the 82nd percentile and a hard-hit rate in the 91st percentile. That helps explain his 2.56 xERA, which actually puts him a hair ahead of Verlander.

The Dark Horses

It feels weird to refer to a three-time Cy Young Award winner as a "dark horse" for the award, but New York Mets veteran Max Scherzer is still showing no signs of slowing down in his age-37 season. He's punched out 55 and racked up a 2.66 ERA through 44 innings.

The Arizona Diamondbacks have not one, but two righties with ERAs in the 1.00s. One is Merrill Kelly, who's at 1.71 through seven starts. Albeit through just six starts, Zac Gallen's 1.05 ERA would tie Lopez for the league lead if he had enough innings to qualify.

American League MVP: The Mike Trout and Aaron Judge Show, Featuring Jose Ramirez

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 10:  Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees celebrates with his teammates after his ninth inning game winning three run home run against the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium on May 10, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

This, in the words of Han Solo, is where the fun begins:

  • 1. CF Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
  • 2. RF Aaron Judge, New York Yankees
  • 3. 3B Jose Ramirez, Cleveland Guardians

After missing all but 36 games in 2021 because of a calf strain that just wouldn't go away, Trout is healthy this year. It therefore follows that he's doing typical Mike Trout Things, namely batting .312 with a .432 on-base percentage and what is currently a career-best .661 slugging percentage.

Naturally, the Angels' three-time AL MVP also leads the American League with 2.5 rWAR. That puts him on pace for his first 10-WAR season since all the way back in 2016.

As for Judge, well, he's mainly busied himself by hitting bombs: 

Judge leads the majors with his 12 home runs. He's also slugging .632 and even hitting  a career-best .296.

Lest anyone think the AL MVP race is strictly a two-horse affair, both Trout and Judge have a common Achilles heel: neither has been especially clutch.

To wit, both Trout (6 of 9) and Judge (8 of 12) have hit the bulk of their home runs with nobody on base. Both have also been largely mediocre in high-leverage spots, with Trout turning in a .732 OPS that only barely eclipses Judge's .718 OPS. The latter, especially, should serve as a reminder that it takes more than one walk-off homer to be truly clutch.

Which brings us to Ramirez.

The Guardians star is having an excellent season overall, batting .290/.386/.581 with eight long balls and, notably, an MLB-leading 33 runs batted in. And while his production in high-leverage spots has been slipping and is now down to a .733 OPS, he still has unreal numbers with ducks on the pond:

  • Men On: 1.279 OPS
  • Runners in Scoring Position: 1.444 OPS

We'd also be remiss if we didn't mention just how much weight is on Ramirez's shoulders. Whereas both Trout and Judge are surrounded by stars aplenty on teams with exorbitant payrolls, Ramirez is carrying a Guardians team that is largely full of unknowns who, altogether, account for just $67.7 million in payroll.

The Dark Horses

Speaking of star teammates, Trout has a good one in the person of Taylor Ward. Though he got a late start to his season, he's now batting a stellar .385/.500/.747 with eight home runs in 26 games. Further, the Angels are 15-6 since moving Ward to leadoff on April 25.

There's also the Minnesota Twins' ultra-dynamic center fielder, Byron Buxton, though his lingering knee soreness is going to require regular days off. Also keep an eye on Asros slugger Yordan Alvarez, who's hitting at .310 with eight home runs over his last 20 games. Houston has won 16 of them.

National League MVP: Everyone's Chasing Manny Machado

SAN DIEGO, CA - MAY 5 : Manny Machado #13 of the San Diego Padres is congratulated after he hit a solo home run during the first inning of a baseball game against the Miami Marlins on May 5, 2022 at Petco Park in San Diego, California. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Finally, a major awards race with an obvious leader:

  • 1. 3B Manny Machado, San Diego Padres
  • 2. 3B Nolan Arenado, St. Louis Cardinals
  • 3. RF/DH Bryce Harper, Philadelphia Phillies

There isn't much doubt that this is Machado's race to lose, and not just because he's leading the National League with a .359 average, .443 OBP and 1.029 OPS.

Like Ramirez, Machado has also largely made his hits count. He bears a 1.193 OPS with men on base and an even better 1.423 OPS in high-leverage spots. The latter is the best in the NL by plenty.

Still another feather in Machado's cap is that he's doing all this while the Padres are missing electrifying shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. And it's truly mattered, as the club's 22 wins are the most in an NL West division that doesn't have even one team below .500.

To his credit, Arenado is having a generally excellent all-around season with the Cardinals much like the ones he had in his heyday with the Colorado Rockies. He's hitting .312/.374/.600, with the most defensive runs saved at third base this side of Ke'Bryan Hayes.

Picking a player for the No. 3 spot on this list was looking difficult as recently as a couple days ago, but not so much now that Harper has found his power stroke. The reigning NL MVP Has clubbed six home runs in May and is up to a .305/.361/.634 line overall.

The catch for now is that Harper can only work as a designated hitters because of a small tear in his right ulnar collateral ligament. But if he can nonetheless keep carrying the Phillies offensively despite his injury, MVP voters won't likely forget it when it comes time to vote.

The Dark Horses

Even if he's not the best, perhaps the most exciting player in the National League right now is Marlins second baseman Jazz Chisholm Jr. He's hit six homers and stolen six bases, and he's performed better in high (.970 OPS) and medium leverage (.953) than he has in low leverage (.790). 

As they lead the NL with 23 wins, the Mets deserve to have at least a peripheral representative in this race. How about Pete Alonso? He's up to eight home runs with an NL-high-tying 29 runs batted in.