It may seem too early in the season to start thinking about potential Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, and Cy Young Award winners. The reality is, however, that we are over 25% of the way through the regular season already.
This weekly series of articles aims to reflect on who the most likely winners for each award are at this point in time. With such a short regular season, expect names on these lists to frequently change given that each week of games could drastically sway in favor of one player over another, whereas in previous seasons we may not put so much emphasis on one single week. For example, if this article came out last week, Aaron Judge would have been leading the American League MVP discussion. Even though he says he is now 100% recovered and should be activated August 22, that is a sizeable chunk of time missed and at least three players, in my mind, have passed him. That doesn’t mean he can’t find himself back on this list next week, but for now, he’s out.
Keeping in mind that the names and numbers will continue to change and fluctuate, let’s dive in.
Leaders for the 2020 American League Most Valuable Player Award
1. Shane Bieber, CLE
After an electric start to the season that saw Bieber strikeout 14 Royals through 6.0 shutout innings, he went on the road for four starts and dominated. Between the AL Central and NL Central, one could make the case that the three-best non-Indian offenses are the Reds, Twins, and White Sox. Bieber has already faced all three, on the road, and looked excellent doing it. His best outing was definitely against the Twins, arguably the best offense in baseball and a significant rival to the Indians. He threw 8.0 shutout innings, walked none, struck out 13 and only gave up 3 hits. That is quite the exclamation point on an MVP resume come season’s end.
Pitchers winning MVPs is rare. Only three pitchers have won the MVP in the last 30 years (Clayton Kershaw in 2014, Justin Verlander in 2011, and Dennis Eckersley in 1992). Could Bieber join that elite group in 2020? Time will tell, but I do wonder if the shortened season hurts his chances disproportionately more than it hurts hitters. Just one bad outing could balloon his ERA to not-that-great looking and by the end of the season easily eliminate him from the MVP discussion, given how difficult it is for pitchers to win the award. For now, though, I think he is an easy choice. For what it’s worth, his Indians are 13-9, only a game behind the Twins. That certainly helps his cause.
2. Mike Trout, LAA
There are a couple of factors working against the game’s best player right now. First, he is on pace for his worst BB% (7%) and worst K% (25.6%) of his career. Ah, the power of very small sample sizes. Second, the Angels stink again. They’re 8-15, already 8 games behind the division-pacing Athletics. This part shouldn’t really matter, though, as Trout has won multiple MVPs with his team still missing the playoffs. I also wouldn’t dismiss the Angels chances of making the playoffs anyway, considering there are expanded playoffs this season.
Bieber is on a historic pace, but if I had to put money down on who would win MVP, it would be on Trout. His BABIP (.277) is currently well-below his career BABIP (.347) and he’s actually underperforming his xwOBA of .441 with a wOBA of .421. So, I’m saying he could actually get better this season? I guess so, yeah. The team around him is certainly improving, as newly paid co-star Anthony Rendon has 5 HR in his last 7 games. An improved offense around him should help him see more hittable pitches and more ABs. Even if Trout and the Angels maintain this current pace, though, he is still slaughtering the baseball and could easily find himself hoisting the MVP trophy at season’s end regardless of how his teammates perform.
3. Brandon Lowe, TB
The surging Rays (8-2 in their last 10 games) are on fire largely due to their emerging star at second base, Brandon Lowe. Lowe demolished the Red Sox earlier in the week going 7/17 with 2 HR, 7 R, and 6 RBI. He followed that series up by going 6/12 with 2 HR, 3 R, and 4 RBI in a 3 game set with the Blue Jays. He is barreling the ball at an exceptional rate and, for the time being anyway, is managing to hit lefties very well. Lowe was putrid against LHP last season with a 52.9 K%. He hid that well due to a .481 BABIP vs LHP, but the concern was real. This season, he is off to a nice start vs lefties. In a tiny sample of just 25 at-bats, he has 10 hits and 4 HR with only 5 Ks against them. Lowe will need this to continue if he wants to remain in this conversation for MVP.
Leaders for the 2020 American League Cy Young Award
1. Shane Bieber, CLE
Of course, if Bieber is going to win the MVP, he is probably going to win the Cy Young as well. While that is not how it has always gone, historically speaking, in Bieber’s case, I think he is on pace to win both. See his analysis in the Leaders for the 2020 American League MVP Award above.
2. Lance Lynn, TEX
Lance Lynn is proving to everyone that last year was no fluke. He went into Coors, the absolutely uncontested worst place to pitch, and tossed a complete game 2-hitter. He allowed no hits after the first two batters of the game. Of course, one good outing, even one as great as that, does not make a pitcher a Cy Young candidate. With that said, Lynn’s entire body of work to this point in the season has been nothing short of tremendous. Like all of the other names on these lists, however, there are certain things Lynn is going to have to maintain or get under control in order to stay in the discussion.
His walks are a little bit up from where they were last year. He recently had back-to-back 3-BB-games against the Athletics and Angels, and even had a 4-BB-game against the Rockies in his first start of the year. In 33 starts in 2019, he only walked 4 or more batters twice. I’m not concerned about this at this point, especially with his most recent outing. However, as his strand rate (89.6%) and BABIP (.141) begin to normalize, Lynn will have his work cut out for him to remain in this conversation. For now, though, who could argue against him?
3. Dylan Bundy, LAA
It was a tough call here between Bundy and Gerrit Cole, but as of this moment, I think I have to give the nod to Bundy. Ask me tomorrow and my answer might be different. That’s how close it is between all of these guys with us so early into the season. Nevertheless, Bundy has been a revelation for the Angels. Escaping the confines of Camden Yards has allowed Bundy, at least in the early going, to really elevate his game. His Ks are up (23.1% K% in 2019, 33.0% so far in 2020), BBs are way down (8.3% to 2.8%), and he is exuding a new confidence that has folks remembering his former top-prospect-in-baseball status. Pitcher List VP Alex Fast provided an in-depth analysis on the changes that Bundy has undergone. More curveballs and sliders, fewer fastballs, and a better framing catcher have all contributed to Bundy’s early success.
A new team, new stadium, and new pitch mix have Bundy in the thick of the Cy Young discussion. It’s hard not to root for him with all he has gone through.
Leaders for the 2020 American League Rookie of the Year Award
1. Kyle Lewis, SEA
In a rookie class that features standouts such as Luis Robert and Jesus Luzardo, not many probably predicted that Kyle Lewis would be the leader of the class over one-quarter of the way through the season. The Mariners outfielder features elite speed and solid defense. His offensive numbers to this point have been terrific, but I question his ability to maintain his current pace.
He is outperforming his xwOBA by .024, strikes out almost 30% of the time, has an xBA of .273, does not hit the ball all that hard, and has an unsustainable .439 BABIP. While that may seem all doom-and-gloom, there are some reasons to believe that when Lewis’ stat-line begins to normalize, it won’t completely fall apart. He hits lots of line drives (27.4% this year, the league average is 21.8%). His high sprint speed (79th percentile) should also help mitigate the dip in BABIP, whenever that begins to happen. Whatever happens from here, Lewis has been an excellent rookie to this point.
2. Luis Robert, CWS
The top prospect in baseball has not been a disappointment. With his bat, speed, glove, and arm, it is easy to see why teammate Eloy Jimenez referred to him as the “next Trout”. Robert has been outstanding in the field and while his K% (33.7%) at the plate may leave a lot to be desired, he has still produced very well for a player playing in his first MLB games. Last night (2 HR, 3 RBI, 2 K) was an excellent example of the highs and lows of Robert’s skillset. I’m sure most players would be perfectly fine with striking out twice if it meant they had the rest of Robert’s profile.
His K% in the minor leagues typically hovered around 24%. Part of the reason for his currently high K% is due to his aggressiveness, which is just a part of his game. No player in baseball has swung at the first pitch of an at-bat more than Robert this season. With a little more patience, Robert could get behind less in counts and see his K% drop. Assuming Robert can get closer to that 24% K% he had in the minors, there is no reason not to believe that he will be atop this list and win the Rookie of the Year Award come season’s end. Heck, he will probably win the award even if his K% stays at 33.7%. He’s that good.
3. Randy Dobnak, MIN
Randy Dobnak has put together quite an early resume for Rookie of the Year. His four wins are tied with Gerrit Cole, Shane Bieber, and Sonny Gray for the most in baseball. With an ERA under 1.50 and a WHIP under 1.00, it is easy to see why the Twins have been able to absorb the loss of Rich Hill to the IL and a few early shaky outings from Jose Berrios. Dobnak has stepped up for his club.
Unfortunately for Dobnak, his profile doesn’t suggest that he will have much more success of this caliber. He does not generate many swings and misses, and while many successful starting pitchers also don’t (think Kyle Hendricks), Dobnak actually gets hit pretty hard (only in the 41st percentile in HH% this year). His xERA is 3.80 and his BABIP is .189. I think there is a lot of regression coming for Dobnak, but for now, he is in the discussion for ROY.
Leaders for the 2020 National League Most Valuable Player Award
1. Fernando Tatis Jr, SD
Tatis Jr. is the easy, slamdunk choice here for NL MVP to this point. While Mookie Betts and Charlie Blackmon have been outstanding, Tatis Jr. has been on another planet than the rest of baseball. No one is hitting the ball harder, he leads MLB by himself in HR, R, RBI, and TB, and he is tied for second in MLB in SB. He has been a force to be reckoned with. His Padres are only 12-12, though, so if another player like Betts catches up to him and finishes with a better team-record, I could see them edging him out for the award.
Tatis Jr.’s biggest criticisms heading into the season were that his BABIP was unsustainable, K% too high, and his playstyle would lead to injuries. His BABIP has come down quite a bit (from .410 in 2019 to .340 in the early going of 2020), but his K% (29.0%) hasn’t changed much from his 29.6% 2019 mark, and yet he is still a .305 hitter at the moment. Perhaps his AVG has a higher ceiling than many initially thought.
Knock on wood, he has not suffered much in the way of injuries yet. If he does stay healthy, I expect he will be in the conversation for MVP all year and for years to come. Strikeouts and all.
As for last night’s “controversy”, this sums up my feelings:
Baseball, if games get to a point where batters are supposed to stop trying, why should fans spend 3 hours watching?
— Pete B. (@PeteBBaseball) August 18, 2020
2. Mookie Betts, LAD
After a slow start in the season’s opening few games, Mookie has flipped the switch and looks just as good, if not better, than he looked in Boston. His 3-HR game the other day tied him for the most 3-HR games in MLB history at just 27 years old. While Dodger studs like Cody Bellinger and Walker Buehler have gotten off to slow starts, Betts has been leading his new team to a 16-7 record.
There is not much to say about a player as studly as Mookie Betts. He is in the MVP conversation every year and whether it is Fenway Park or Dodger Stadium that he calls home, that won’t change. He is the ultimate all-around player and it should surprise no one if he beats out Tatis Jr. and the rest of the field for the 2020 NL MVP.
3. Charlie Blackmon, COL
It is admittedly odd to have a player who is hitting .437 not be the leader in the MVP race or even the top two. I think that just goes to show how tricky small sample sizes can be. Blackmon is a stud. Everyone knows that. But, he is probably not going to maintain a near .450 BA all year. He’s actually barreling the ball much less than he was last year to this point and is wildly outperforming his xwOBA and xBA. Granted, his xwOBA (.414) and xBA (.363) are still outstanding numbers, which is why I have Blackmon here to begin with, but expecting regression is not being pessimistic, it is being realistic.
The 34-year old may have a hard time keeping up with Tatis Jr. and Betts in the MVP race, even in a shortened season, but for now, he is right with them. The Rockies are 13-8 and that is largely due to the incredible hitting of an incredible player.
Leaders for the 2020 National League Cy Young Award
1. Sonny Gray, CIN
Like fellow former-Yankee Lance Lynn, Sonny Gray is also proving that last year’s breakout was no fluke. One-third of the Reds’ three-headed-SP-beast, Gray has enjoyed tremendous success in the early going of 2020. He only has one blemish so far, a 5.1 IP, 4 ER, 3 BB clunker against the Brewers. Otherwise, Gray has dominated the Pirates, Indians, Cubs, and Tigers. His velocity is right in line with where it was last year and his BB/9 is wildly improved in the early going, down to 2.64 from his 3.49 2019 mark. Gray is locked into this Cy Young race.
With the Reds postponing games due to a reportedly positive COVID-19 case, we’ll just have to wait and see how (and if) this impacts his 2020 season. If he is forced to start a few seven inning games during double-headers or just loses the great momentum he has gained, it could certainly hurt his chances. For now, though, he is at the top of the list.
2. Aaron Nola, PHI
The first number that should jump out at you for Aaron Nola is his 0.65 WHIP. That number is largely due to a massive increase in K% (26.9% in 2019, 39.8% in 2020) and a drastic decrease in BB% (9.4% in 2019, 4.3% in 2020). With fewer balls in play and fewer free passes, Nola has regained his ace status that seemed lost for most of last season. I do have some concerns going forward about his bullpen holding on to leads for him, but that is out of his control. He also will have tough challenges ahead, with teams like the Braves, Yankees, and Rays on his schedule. Nevertheless, Nola has been outstanding to this point.
3. Max Fried, ATL
The losses of Mike Soroka and Cole Hamels combined with Felix Hernandez opting out of the season has probably put quite a bit of pressure on Max Fried, and he has more than lived up to it. The Braves’ ace has not been challenged this year, having only allowed two ER total in his last four starts. He has dominated both at home and on the road. With that said, there may be some signs of a tiny bit of regression.
Last year, hitters had a .336 BABIP against Fried. This year, that number is just .239. He’s also stranding more runners in the early going and has seen a slight rise in his BB% from 6.7% in 2019 to 8.2% in 2020. This may all indicate regression for Fried, but with a SwStr% that is up 1.5% from last year to 12.9%, I think there is little doubt that he is a better pitcher this year than what most figured he would be heading into 2020.
I wouldn’t want to be any pitcher that has to face the teams that AL East and NL East pitchers have to face, but in Fried’s case, those teams should fear him more than he should fear them. Like the two names above him, he will be in contention for the Cy Young all season.
Leaders for the 2020 National League Rookie of the Year Award
1. Dustin May, LAD
Dustin May has been perfectly adequate for the Dodgers while they try to absorb the opting out of David Price, the inconsistency of Ross Stripling, and injury to Alex Wood. I don’t think many would be surprised if at this point he is the best pitcher of those four, but he hasn’t run away with the Rookie of the Year award by any stretch of the imagination. Despite throwing in the upper-90s regularly, May is not a strikeout pitcher at all. As a matter of fact, while his velocity has been noticeably up several ticks this year, his SwStr% (8.2%) in the early going has gone down since his brief stint last year and where it was typically at in the minor leagues.
For May to stay in the ROY conversation, the most important thing is job security. His most recent outing certainly doesn’t help his cause, but for the time being, there is plenty of room in the Dodgers rotation for him to get his opportunities as a starter.
2. David Peterson, NYM
With Rick Porcello and Steven Matz pitching terribly, David Peterson has been a pleasant surprise for the Mets this season. He’s earned wins against division rivals the Nationals and Marlins, while tossing a quality start against the Braves. He also beat the Red Sox in his first start. That isn’t an easy schedule, but Peterson has not faltered. Like May, he doesn’t generate many strikeouts. He also lacks the pedigree of a pitcher like May, never pitched above Double-A until that Red Sox start, and has had an ERA over 4.00 his last two professional seasons. Still, in an uninspiring pool of National League rookies, Peterson stands out.
3. Jake Cronenworth, SD
Cronenworth will be 27 years old in January, a little old for a rookie. Nonetheless, he’s performed well when called upon by the Padres. Cronenworth rarely strikes out, plays multiple positions all over the diamond, and has excellent speed. This useful skillset should keep him playing somewhat regularly on a crowded and talented Padres squad. An injury to one of the Padres regulars, while no one wants to see that, could really enhance Cronenworth’s chances at capturing the 2020 Rookie of the Year Award. Playtime will certainly dictate how close he gets to achieving it.
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)