MLB's Major Awards Leaders Heading into May Baseball
The first month of the 2014 Major League Baseball season is in the books, so it's time to take a look at where all the award-chasers stand heading into May.
One month isn't the most adequate sample size to judge player performance by, which is why the players chosen for each category are based much upon track record as well as the likelihood that each player will keep up this high level of play for the duration of the season.
With all due respect to Colorado's Charlie Blackmon, who led the National League in WAR (1.9) during April, he's a product of hitting in Coors Field (1.423 OPS), compared to .697 on the road, and is going to come back down to earth.
Rather than put Blackmon in the MVP discussion based on what will likely end up being a fluky month, it makes more sense to assume that the 27-year-old backup outfielder will never have another 20-30 game stretch like this than it is to say he's going to be the best player in the league.
With that caveat out there, sit back and enjoy the players and managers leading the charge for the major awards heading into the month of May.
Managers of the Year
National League: Ron Roenicke, Milwaukee Brewers
Before the season started, the only thing anyone wanted to talk about when it came to the Milwaukee Brewers was Ryan Braun. The former MVP was making his return to the field following a 65-game suspension to end 2013.
Now, one month into the season, Ron Roenicke's bunch has put together the best record in baseball, and all those preseason whispers about Braun have given way to optimism.
Given Milwaukee's inconsistent starting pitching and lack of depth in the bullpen, this start isn't likely to last long. But even if the team hangs around .500 and flirts with a playoff spot, it should be enough to get Roenicke a lot of support for NL Manager of the Year.
Also considered: Fredi Gonzalez (Atlanta)
American League: Ron Washington, Texas Rangers
The Minnesota Twins have hung around .500 so far—likely leading to a lot of love for Ron Gardenhire—but it's another Ron that gets the vote right now.
Ron Washington, always a punching bag for Internet fans because of his poor strategic skills, has pushed the right buttons for a Texas team that hasn't had its starting catcher (Geovany Soto), second baseman (Jurickson Profar) and No. 2 starter (Derek Holland) yet in 2014.
Also considered: Gardenhire
Comeback Players of the Year
American League: Albert Pujols, 1B, Los Angeles Angels
On this date one year ago, Albert Pujols was hitting .252/.344/.417 with four home runs. He wound up playing just 99 games on the year, and he faced all sorts of questions about whether his career was over as well as criticism that his contract was the worst in baseball.
While the cries about Pujols' contract—the Angels owe him $212 million through 2021—are never going to go away because of his age, at least his start in 2014 (.279/.341/.586, 21 R, 9 HR, 23 RBI) has quieted the talk that the future Hall of Famer is done.
Also considered: Melky Cabrera (Toronto)
National League: Ryan Braun, OF, Milwaukee Brewers
This will never happen, because most voters will say that Ryan Braun's "comeback" was necessitated by his own mistakes and poor decisions off the field, but there's nothing in the spirit of the award that dictates you can only win if you return from an injury or poor performance.
I'd have no issue voting Braun to win any award this season. He served the sentence that MLB handed down—end of story. Now that he's back, the former MVP is crushing the ball (.318/.361/.591, 17 R, 6 HR, 18 RBI) and leading a resurgent Milwaukee team.
Also considered: Giancarlo Stanton (Miami)
AL Rookie of the Year
|1. Masahiro Tanaka, SP, New York Yankees|
|2. Jose Abreu, 1B, Chicago White Sox|
|3. Yordano Ventura, SP, Kansas City Royals|
Remember last year, when it was a struggle to find three candidates worthy of being included on the AL Rookie of the Year ballot? Proving that these things go in cycles, star first-year players like Xander Bogaerts and Josmil Pinto don't even fit in the top three rookie slots in the AL right now.
Jose Abreu's power would be easy to honor, but a mediocre on-base percentage (.339) and poor defense at first base knocks Chicago's slugger down slightly.
Masahiro Tanaka's overall body of work, at least to this point, has been more impressive than all the home runs and extra-base hits Abreu has collected.
New York's prized pitching investment has had a seamless transition to MLB, ranking fifth in strikeouts per nine innings (11.61) and ninth in walks per nine innings (1.51). He's had some problems with the long ball, allowing five homers in 35.2 innings, but he has offset that issue by missing bats and generating a lot of ground balls (48.2 percent).
The third candidate, Yordano Ventura, also presents a compelling case, because he has a lower ERA (1.50 to Tanka's 2.27) and fielding independent ERA (2.70 to Tanaka's 2.91) than Tanaka while also being three years younger.
Oh yeah, Ventura also hasn't been a slouch when it comes to missing bats, as he has 31 strikeouts in 30 innings and has allowed just one home run.
Ultimately, Tanaka's higher strikeout rate makes him the stronger choice.
NL Rookie of the Year
|1. Chris Owings, SS, Arizona Diamondbacks|
|2. Travis d'Arnaud, C, New York Mets|
|3. David Hale, SP, Atlanta Braves|
This year's NL rookie class is a lot like last year's AL class—at least it is after the first month of the season. There's one standout candidate in Arizona's Chris Owings and one candidate with the potential to get better in New York's Travis d'Arnaud.
Other names expected to compete for Rookie of the Year haven't performed well, like Cincinnati's Billy Hamilton, or have been so bad that they've already been demoted, like St. Louis' Kolten Wong.
Owings is about the only positive thing Arizona has going for it right now. He's not hitting for power yet, but his average (.291) and on-base skills (.361) have been excellent. The 22-year-old has also provided excellent defense at shortstop with six runs saved and a projected UZR per 150 games of 23.0.
D'Arnaud started out poorly, going hitless in his first five games, but he has really turned it on since April 10 by raising his slash line from .111/.172/.148 to .209/.303/.299 . Durability has always been his issue in the minors, which makes him a volatile candidate for any award. But d'Arnaud's offensive upside and above-average defense behind the plate give him the chance to be a star.
There's no strong third candidate right now, and David Hale gets that slot almost by default. His 2.31 ERA is good, but a 15/11 K/BB suggests that the walls are going to come crashing down soon.
AL Cy Young Award
|1. Felix Hernandez, SP, Seattle Mariners|
|2. Jon Lester, SP, Boston Red Sox|
|3. Yu Darvish, SP, Texas Rangers|
Sometimes we take greatness for granted—that will also be a staple of the AL MVP discussion later—especially when we have seen it from one player for a decade.
Yet while watching Felix Hernandez dominate MLB hitters once again, you can't help but wonder how many stories would be written about this guy if he played for a franchise that was competitive year in and year out or if he pitched in a market like Chicago, New York or Boston.
King Felix is more than living up to his title with a 6.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings and minuscule 0.895 WHIP. He's already got four games this season with at least eight strikeouts, including two with 11.
Lost in the shuffle of Boston's slow start has been the performance of Jon Lester. The free-agent-to-be has been dazzling, posting the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career (5.38) and holding a slight edge over Hernandez for the league lead in WAR (1.4 to Hernandez's 1.3).
There really isn't a lot separating the two at this point, so if you wanted to give Lester the edge for pitching in the AL East, you wouldn't be wrong. Hernandez's overall dominance, however, is what pushes him ahead in my book.
As for Yu Darvish, despite the one bad outing this week against Oakland, what more can you say about him? He's going to win at least one Cy Young award before his career is over, possibly even this season.
The most encouraging thing about the Texas ace's early performance is the way he's kept the ball in the park, with just one homer allowed in five starts while continuing to decrease his walk rate (2.9 per nine innings).
NL Cy Young Award
|1. Jose Fernandez, SP, Miami Marlins|
|2. Adam Wainwright, SP, St. Louis Cardinals|
|3. Cliff Lee, SP, Philadelphia Phillies|
When a great rookie comes along, there's always a danger that the hype machine will lead to inevitable disappointment. Any concerns that Jose Fernandez would take a step back in his sophomore season have been crushed after five incredible starts.
Fernandez has a long way to go, but if he keeps up this pace, his 12.48 strikeouts per nine innings would be the most in a single season since Randy Johnson in 2001 and the fifth-highest since 1954.
If you're a right-handed hitter, you might as well concede an out before stepping into the box against Fernandez. The Marlins' ace has allowed just seven hits in 70 at-bats to arm-side hitters.
In case you need to be reminded, Fernandez is doing all of this at the ripe age of 21. It's not a factor in his argument for Cy Young, but it's just a fun tidbit to make you think about what you were doing at that age.
The second and third choices on the ballot are old stalwarts who continue to be among the best in the business. Adam Wainwright's ERA of 1.20 is significantly better than Fernandez's 1.59 mark, but the latter's higher strikeout rate and lower walk rate make him slightly more valuable at this point in the season.
Cliff Lee is so quiet and unassuming on the mound that it's easy to forget that he's still dominant. The left-hander has maintained his high strikeout rate (40 K in 41.0 IP) while somehow lowering his always-microscopic walk rate (four walks through six starts).
Combine those numbers with Lee's career-high 51.6 ground-ball percentage, and you have a pitcher who is evolving and finding new ways to get outs.
AL Most Valuable Player
|1. Mike Trout, CF, Los Angeles Angels|
|2. Ben Zobrist, 2B, Tampa Bay Rays|
|3. Felix Hernandez, SP, Seattle Mariners|
It will be fascinating to see what the narrative surrounding Mike Trout and the AL MVP award will be this season if Miguel Cabrera really is starting the downside of his career. (For the record, Detroit's slugger is going to start hitting better, so don't take that comment as a glaring doubt about his ability.)
The argument—made by people who only look at what happens in a batter's box—against Trout for the last two years has been that Cabrera was the best hitter on the planet (true) while playing for a team that made the postseason (irrelevant).
Trout already leads the AL in WAR (2.5), continues to hit for both average (.321) and power (6 HR, 18 RBI), and he has been getting on base at an astounding rate (.403 OBP).
Even more encouraging so far this season, because we already know what Trout can do with the bat, is the fact that defensive metrics show that the 22-year-old is having a bounce-back season with the glove, as he is tied for first in defensive value with Atlanta's Jason Heyward.
At times it can feel like a burden to talk about Trout's greatness, because so much has been written about it over the last two years that there's nothing new to add. He's the best player in the sport, should have two MVP awards on his mantle already and is well on his way to a WAR of at least 10 for the third straight year.
Ben Zobrist is the anti-Mike Trout from the standpoint that it's hard to put his greatness into context. He's become the ultimate utility player in baseball, which sounds like a slight because most utility players aren't good enough to handle an everyday spot or don't hit enough to stay in the lineup.
That's definitely not the case with Zobrist, though, who finished eighth in AL MVP voting in 2009. He's off to a fantastic start this season, hitting .302/.390/.434 with 16 walks against just 13 strikeouts.
NL Most Valuable Player
|1. Chase Utley, 2B, Philadelphia Phillies|
|2. Jose Fernandez, SP, Miami Marlins|
|3. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Colorado Rockies|
When Chase Utley was diagnosed with arthritic knees prior to the 2012 season, there was some concern that it might be the end of his career. Instead, the star second baseman has thrived, hitting .284/.348/.475 last year.
Proving that return to form wasn't a fluke, Utley has been arguably the best position player in the NL so far this season. He's got some of the best bat-to-ball skills in the game, leads the league with 11 doubles and ranks seventh in weighted on-base average.
It also helps that Utley continues to play above-average defense at second base. He's no longer an elite glove man because of the knee problems, but his instincts and footwork allow him to continue to save runs ,as evidenced by the one run saved thus far.
If Jose Fernandez continues to dominate at the rate which he is, it will be hard for any position player in the NL to have a stronger case to be the league's MVP.
Troy Tulowitzki is a player who could have already had an MVP award or two on his mantle if he could have just stayed healthy. He's appeared in 130 games just once since 2010 and three times in his career.
We are seeing the full extent of Tulo's talent early in 2014, although, like teammate Charlie Blackmon, a lot of his stats are being inflated by Coors Field. Tulowitzki has an OPS of 1.737 at home, compared to .932 on the road. The latter is an excellent total, but the former is otherworldly.
These numbers will even out as the season moves along, but we also know Tulowitzki has a track record of greatness that could allow him to keep up this pace if he stays healthy.
Elevating Tulowitzki into the MVP discussion is the fact he's playing excellent defense at a premium position. He's got 10 runs saved already, which is tied for second in MLB.
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