Dark-Horse MLB Awards Contenders as 2014 All-Star Break Approaches
As the 2014 Major League Baseball All-Star Game approaches, the major narratives of the season have been well-established. Alongside the best teams (Oakland and the Dodgers), disappointing squads (Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays), a hierarchy of dominant players has set the stage for respective chases at individual glory.
Over the next three months, expect to hear chatter about Mike Trout taking home the first of many AL MVP awards, Troy Tulowitzki bringing an NL MVP to Coors Field, and the best pitchers in baseball—Felix Hernandez and Clayton Kershaw—running away with the AL and NL Cy Young crowns, respectively.
Yet, with just less than half of the season to play, not every projected award winner will continue to play at a high level. Injuries or dips in performance could arrive, opening the door for dark-horse candidates to emerge and take home the hardware.
Here are the six players to watch over the next three months. By November, don't be shocked if one or more takes home a major award from the 2014 season.
AL MVP: Felix Hernandez, SP, Seattle Mariners
With apologies to Baltimore's Nelson Cruz, the voters for the AL MVP award won't be swayed by homers and runs batted in this time around. While Miguel Cabrera's all-around hitting brilliance outweighed Mike Trout's total value in 2012 and 2013, it will take a special season to rob the Los Angeles Angels star this time around.
Right now, that season is happening within Trout's division. As Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez makes a run at the AL Cy Young, don't be shocked if he, not an everyday player, gives Trout a run for his money in the MVP race.
According to FanGraphs, only two players in baseball this year have been worth more than 5.0 WAR to their teams: Trout (5.5) and Hernandez (5.1). Not Tulowitzki or Cruz or any of the great players in the midst of special seasons. Although Hernandez isn't an everyday player, the last non-Cabrera winner of the award was Justin Verlander, also a starting pitcher.
If the Mariners overtake the Angels for an AL wild-card berth and Hernandez outpaces Trout in total WAR, the award could possibly elude the AL's best all-around player for the third straight year.
NL MVP: Jonathan Lucroy, C, Milwaukee Brewers
The two best players in the National League this season have been Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki and Miami's Giancarlo Stanton. Yet, despite the production and talent from those NL All-Stars, the Rockies and Marlins aren't on the path to October baseball.
While Los Angeles' Yasiel Puig could slide in and take the award, his stardom and name recognition are too great for him to be considered a true dark horse. Instead, look to the Milwaukee Brewers and an unlikely MVP candidate.
No, not Ryan Braun or Carlos Gomez. Instead, the NL MVP could be Milwaukee's best player: Jonathan Lucroy.
Heading into play on July 9, Lucroy owned a 3.9 fWAR. That number was good for third in the National League and tied with last year's MVP Andrew McCutchen. Furthermore, Lucroy's 153 wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) was ahead of Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Beltre, two of baseball's most feared hitters.
AL Cy Young: Corey Kluber, SP, Cleveland Indians
If you want Cy Young voters to choose a household name on a yearly basis, don't expect this dark-horse candidate to garner serious consideration. Yet, if Seattle's Felix Hernandez slips or New York's Masahiro Tanaka truly hits a rookie wall, don't be shocked if Cleveland's Corey Kluber makes a serious run at the 2014 award.
In a league with Hernandez, Tanaka, Chris Sale, Jon Lester and Max Scherzer, the idea of Kluber overtaking the field seems crazy on the surface. Dig deeper, however, and a picture of a star will emerge.
Thanks to an excellent K/9 rate (9.81), above-average ground-ball rate (48.4) and the ability to keep the ball in the park (0.64 HR/9), Kluber's 2.65 FIP ranks third in baseball among qualified starters, per FanGraphs. That metric suggests that early-season success is more than sustainable for the 28-year-old righty.
NL Cy Young: Stephen Strasburg, SP, Washington Nationals
Stephen Strasburg is a victim of his own talent and early-career success. After joining the Washington Nationals as the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, breezing through the minors and fanning 14 batters in his big league debut, fans expected greatness on a start-by-start basis.
In a sense, the righty has delivered. Heading into play on June 9, Strasburg owns a 3.07 ERA and 10.5 SO/9 across 553.2 career innings. Even with offense down across the sport, that mark is good enough for a 125 ERA+, signaling that the 25-year-old has been 25 percent better than league average since arriving to Washington.
This year, Strasburg's 3.47 ERA doesn't look to be great enough to challenge Clayton Kershaw or Adam Wainwright for a major award. Of course, that's only taking into account first-half production for the NL's best pitchers. With a 2.78 FIP and league-leading 10.6 SO/9 rate, the idea of a dominant Strasburg emerging in the second half isn't crazy.
If that occurs, a dark-horse candidate could emerge.
AL Rookie of the Year: George Springer, OF, Houston Astros
In the American League, Masahiro Tanaka's brilliant pitching arsenal, $155 million contract and status as the ace of the New York Yankees have propelled the 25-year-old rookie to the top of the first-year player class.
Down in Houston, outfielder George Springer arrived to a bad team with much less fanfare, but that might soon change. After cranking his 18th home run of the season on July 8, the 24-year-old slugger is on pace to hit 32 in his first season, per ESPN.
Since the ROY award began in 1940, a total of 21 rookie batters hit 30-plus homers during their respective inaugural seasons in the big leagues. Of that group, 14 took home the Rookie of the Year crown, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required).
In Houston, manager Bo Porter recognizes the type of impact Springer is having, putting him in the ROY conversation, per Gerry Fraley of The Dallas Morning News.
“It’s pretty impressive what he is able to do,” Porter said. “This guy is a three-way player. He can impact the game when he’s batting. He can impact the game when he’s playing defense. He can impact the game when he’s running the bases.”
NL Rookie of the Year: Tommy La Stella, 2B, Atlanta Braves
In the National League, the ROY race starts and ends with Cincinnati Reds speedster Billy Hamilton and Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Gregory Polanco. Blessed with overwhelming talent and bright futures, the Hamilton-Polanco duo could start multiple All-Star Games together in the future of the National League outfield.
As the years go on, don't be shocked if Atlanta's Tommy La Stella joins them on future NL All-Star teams as the starting second baseman. When Chase Utley's special career winds down, the NL will have a hole at second base. La Stella, a dark-horse ROY candidate, could fill it.
Upon his arrival to the majors earlier this season, La Stella's game and work ethic impressed veterans in the Braves clubhouse, per David O'Brien of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. When voting rolls around for the NL ROY, a .377 OBP could impress voters just as much.
Which dark-horse candidate has the best chance to win an award?