Challenging the Status Quo…

80 grade bat, 80 grade hair. (p/c: nytimes.com)

It seems like MLB award voters might finally be getting it.

Last week it was announced that Bryce Harper, Joey Votto, and Paul Goldschmidt were named finalists for NL MVP. The three were the best position players in the NL this season, but none of their teams played in the playoffs – something that was almost needed in order to be a candidate. (Some people in baseball circles still believe in this however, which explains the erroneous discussion of Yoenis Cespedes being a candidate after just 57 games with the Mets.) Whichever player wins the hardware will be the first MVP on a non-playoff team since Albert Pujols in 2008.

Without boring anyone with more of an introduction, here’s my hypothetical MLB award ballot.

AL Manager of the Year
1. A.J. Hinch, Astros
2. Jeff Bannister, Rangers
3. Paul Molitor, Twins

NL Manager of the Year
1. Joe Maddon, Cubs
2. Terry Collins, Mets
3. Mike Matheny, Cardinals

Unfortunately, we do not have metrics to evaluate in-game performance for managers yet, so the status quo for this award is to pick the skipper of a surprising team. Hinch’s Astros and Maddon’s Cubs were a year ahead of schedule, so they get the nods here. For future reference, if the Dodgers hire Gabe Kapler and find success, then chances are I’ll be voting for him every year because I’ll be “sure” of his decision-making thanks to his analytical background.

AL Rookie of the Year
1. Francisco Lindor, SS, Indians (.313/.358/.482, 12 HR, 128 wRC+, 10 DRS, 4.6 fWAR)
2. Carlos Correa, SS, Astros (.279/.345/.512, 22 HR, 133 wRC+, 3.3 fWAR)
3. Miguel Sano, 3B, Twins (.269/.385/.530, 18 HR, 151 wRC+, 2.0 fWAR)

A second look at Lindor’s season provided enough background for me to choose him over the favorite Correa. The former number one pick was slightly better with the bat and on the basepaths than Cleveland’s top prospect, but Lindor showed surprising pop (his .169 ISO was 64 points higher than his career minor league ISO) and might have been the AL’s best defensive shortstop (10 DRS was tops among AL SS; 18.9 UZR/150 best among all SS). Also warranting a mention here is Athletics centerfielder Billy Burns, who I had the opportunity to work with during my summer in Hagerstown. Burns’ first MLB homer (over former Suns teammate Steven Souza Jr.) was one of my favorite moments of the season, and he somehow ended up with five (!) after hitting a total of two in the minors.

NL Rookie of the Year
1. Kris Bryant, 3B, Cubs (.275/.369/.488, 26 HR, 136 wRC+, 7.1 BsR, 6.5 fWAR)
2. Matt Duffy, 3B, Giants (.295/.334/.428, 12 HR, 116 wRC+, 9 DRS, 4.9 fWAR)
3. Jung-ho Kang, SS/3B, Pirates (.287/.355/.461, 15 HR, 130 wRC+, 3.9 fWAR)

With respect to Duffy, Kang, and Mets flamethrower Noah Syndergaard (3.24 ERA, 3.25 FIP, 2.91 xFIP, 22.4% K-BB%, 150.0 IP, 3.1 fWAR), this award had Bryant’s name engraved on it in April. The Cubs phenom on the hot corner lived up to the hype as he posted the third-highest wRC+ among third basemen and sneakily was the league’s fourth-best baserunner according to Fangraphs’ BsR metric. Duffy and Kang were revelations for their respective clubs – the Giants infielder replaced the departed Pablo Sandoval handily, while South Korea’s favorite son made up for the expected declines of Josh Harrison (100 wRC+) and Jordy Mercer (68 wRC+). Kang also became one of my favorite players in the league because we have similar tastes regarding our favorite American things.

AL Cy Young
1. Dallas Keuchel, Astros (2.48 ERA, 2.91 FIP, 2.75 xFIP, 18.1% K-BB%, 232.0 IP, 6.1 fWAR)
2. David Price, Tigers/Blue Jays (2.45 ERA, 2.78 FIP, 3.24 xFIP, 20.0% K-BB%, 220.1 IP, 6.4 fWAR)
3. Chris Sale, White Sox (3.41 ERA, 2.73 FIP, 2.60 xFIP, 27.2% K-BB%, 208.2 IP, 6.2 fWAR)
4. Chris Archer, Rays (3.23 ERA, 2.90 FIP, 3.01 xFIP, 21.4% K-BB%, 212.0 IP, 5.3 fWAR)
5. Corey Kluber, Indians (3.49 ERA, 2.97 FIP, 3.05 xFIP, 22.6% K-BB%, 222.0 IP, 5.5 fWAR)

Flip a coin between the three southpaws. Keuchel’s worm-killing ways give him the edge here – his groundball rate (61.7%) was the AL’s best, thanks in part to elite soft (25.2%) and hard (21.2%) hit rates – and his strikeout numbers were no slouch (23.7%, 8.38 K/9) either. Archer gets my fourth-place vote after the terrific trio with the best season of his young career, while Kluber provided a solid encore after his Cy Young performance in 2014.

NL Cy Young
1. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers (2.13 ERA, 1.99 FIP, 2.09 xFIP, 26.3% K-BB%, 232.2 IP, 8.6 fWAR)
2. Jake Arrieta, Cubs (1.77 ERA, 2.35 FIP, 2.61 xFIP, 21.6% K-BB%, 229.0 IP, 7.3 fWAR)
3. Zack Greinke, Dodgers (1.66 ERA, 2.76 FIP, 3.22 xFIP, 19.0% K-BB%, 222.2 IP, 5.9 fWAR)
4. Max Scherzer, Nationals (2.79 ERA, 2.77 FIP, 2.78 xFIP, 26.9% K-BB%, 228.2 IP, 6.4 fWAR)
5. Jacob DeGrom, Mets (2.54 ERA, 2.70 FIP, 2.92 xFIP, 22.2% K-BB%, 191.0 IP, 5.2 fWAR)

There isn’t a wrong choice here either. Kershaw has the best advanced stats of the ace triumvirate, Greinke’s earned run average was ninth-lowest in MLB history since the Deadball Era (pre-1920), while Arrieta has an enticing mixture of both advanced and traditional statistics. (22 wins!) Kershaw gets my vote here because you could make the argument he was just as good as he was in 2014, just a tad unluckier. His 301-strikeout season was the first of its kind since 2002 (Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling) and became the second pitcher since the Deadball Era to post two sub-2.00 FIPs (Sandy Koufax).

AL MVP
1. Mike Trout, OF, Angels (.299/.402/.590, 41 HR, 172 wRC+, 5 DRS, 9.0 fWAR)
2. Josh Donaldson, 3B, Blue Jays (.297/.371/.568, 41 HR, 154 wRC+, 11 DRS, 8.7 fWAR)
3. Manny Machado, 3B, Orioles (.286/.359/.502, 35 HR, 134 wRC+, 13 DRS, 6.8 fWAR)
4. Lorenzo Cain, OF, Royals (.307/.361/477, 16 HR, 129 wRC+, 6.2 BsR, 18 DRS, 6.6 fWAR)
5. Nelson Cruz, DH, Mariners (.302/.369/.566, 44 HR, 158 wRC+, 4.8 fWAR)
6. Dallas Kuechel, LHP, Astros
7. David Price, LHP, Tigers/Blue Jays
8. Chris Davis, 1B, Orioles (.262/.361/.562, 47 HR, 147 wRC+, 5.6 fWAR)
9. Mookie Betts, OF, Red Sox (.291/.341/.479, 18 HR, 119 wRC+, 8.3 BsR, 4.8 fWAR)
10. Chris Sale, LHP, White Sox

Playoffs, clutch, yada, yada. Donaldson’s going to win this award because of the Blue Jays success, and although he’s certainly deserving of the honor, Trout had the better overall season. Last year’s MVP held an 18-point edge in wRC+, despite playing 81 games in the AL’s toughest hitters park, and was worth more wins above replacement by both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference (9.4 to 8.8). Donaldson was better defensively, but that gap isn’t significant enough to close the offensive difference.

I don’t think we talk about Machado quite enough. After posting a six-win season at 21 years old (!), he saw his walk rate jump 5.7 percent and wRC+ improve by 32 points since then, while showing no ill effects of his knee injury from last year. Orioles fans jumped the gun putting him in the same breath as Trout and Harper when he arrived in the majors, but he might be one of the top five position players in the game today.

NL MVP
1. Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals (.330/.460/.649, 42 HR, 197 wRC+, 3.2 BsR, 9.5 fWAR)
2. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (.314/.459/.541, 29 HR, 172 wRC+, 7.4 fWAR)
3. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers
4. Jake Arrieta, RHP, Cubs
5. Zack Greinke, RHP, Dodgers
6. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Diamondbacks (.321/.435/.570, 33 HR, 164 wRC+, 3.1 BsR, 7.4 fWAR)
7. Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pirates (.292/.401/.488, 23 HR, 146 wRC+, 5.8 fWAR)
8. Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Cubs (.278/.387/.512, 31 HR, 145 wRC+, 10 DRS, 5.5 fWAR)
9. Max Scherzer, RHP, Nationals
10. Jason Heyward, OF, Cardinals (.293/.359/.439, 13 HR, 121 wRC+, 24 DRS, 7.0 BsR, 6.0 fWAR)

Harper put it altogether this season as he led the league in fWAR, bWAR (9.9), ISO (.319), OBP, SLG, wOBA (.461), and wRC+. His wRC+ of 197 – meaning he was 97 percent better than the league-average hitter – was 25 points higher than second-place Trout and Votto. To put that difference into context, the last time there was a gap as large as the one between Harper and Trout/Votto was in 2004 with Barry Bonds (233 wRC+) and Albert Pujols (171 wRC+). To put the historical magnitude of Harper’s season into context, the only offensive year better than his for a 22-year-old or younger was Ted Williams’ magical 1941 season (.406/.553/.735, 221 wRC+). The Nationals could have finished 0-162 for all I care – there was absolutely no reason for anyone else to sniff this award in 2015…

…which is a shame for Votto, who quietly put together the best year of his career. His second half was Bonds-esque (.362/.535/.617, 211 wRC+), while his full season walk rate (20.6%) was only the ninth 20+ percent rate since 2000. (Others to accomplish that during that timeframe: Bonds [4 times], Brian Giles, Jason Giambi, Jose Bautista, and JACK CUST.) He’s the most interesting hitter in the league when healthy and it’s a shame he’s stuck on an organization that probably has the worst immediate future in baseball.

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