Sports Reference Blog

Digging into the MLB Award Races

Posted by Jonah Gardner on September 29, 2016

This week is one of those good news/bad news situations. On the one had, we're just a few days away from the start of the MLB Postseason! But, on the other hand, the regular season finishes up this Sunday. With another year in the books, we wanted to break down the main contenders for MLB's most important awards. Unfortunately, Tim Tebow will have to wait till next year to get his shot at a trophy, but there are a lot of worthy players who've had excellent years. Let's take a look:

American League Most Valuable Player

WAR says: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

Consensus says: Mookie Betts, Boston Red Sox

Dark Horse: Jose Altuve, Houston Astros

For the fourth time in five years, it's time to rehash everyone's favorite argument: What the heck does "valuable" mean? Or, to put it another way: Are we really going to use semantics to take away another trophy from the best player in baseball?

And, look, Mookie Betts is an outstanding player who's had an amazing year. He just plays in the same league as someone who is making history. Mike Trout now has 48.5 Wins Above Replacement for his career, the most of any player thru his age 24 season. Trout has a shot at posting a four-digit On-Base Plus Slugging for the first time in his career, thanks mainly to a gaudy .441 On-Base Percentage, and he's one Home Run shy of 30, despite playing home games in the second least hitter-friendly park in the majors.

By WAR, Trout leads Betts by 1.1 wins, a gap that's large enough to feel like a real distinction between the seasons they've had. But we've had this argument before, most memorably in 2012. That year, Trout had 10.8 WAR, an unprecedented amount for a rookie that still stands as Trout's career high. However, that same year, Miguel Cabrera won the first Triple Crown since 1967. Trout's edge in WAR, the argument went, couldn't be trusted because it included defensive stats, which are tougher to wrap one's mind around than Cabrera's dominance in traditional hitting stats.

Leaving aside the merits of that particular argument, it doesn't apply this year. While Betts leads Trout in Runs Batted In and has a two-homer edge, Trout has pretty clearly been the better hitter this year if you look at the stats that actually measure hitting as a whole:

1 Mike Trout 10.5 176 669 29 99 .318 .441 .556 .997
2 Mookie Betts 9.4 131 718 31 112 .320 .365 .538 .903
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/29/2016.

Trout got on-base at a far more substantial clip than Betts and was a better power hitter, despite playing in the more pitcher-friendly park. Adjusting for park and comparing to league average (via adjusted OPS+), Betts has had an excellent year, but Trout has had one of the best hitting seasons ever.

Indeed, the reason they're as close as they are in WAR is Mookie's fielding. Betts has been the best fielder in baseball this year, so much that he's tied with Kevin Kiermaier for the lead in defensive WAR despite the fact that Betts loses runs in the position adjustment for playing right field while Kiermaier gains them in center.

If voters really think Betts' excellent defense in a corner outfield spot overrides Trout's superior hitting and better all-around performance, that would be a pretty stunning reversal from other recent MVP decisions! Maybe we'll hear less complaints about WAR overrating defense though?

So we're left with the argument that Trout can't be the "Most Valuable Player" because his team didn't make the playoffs. But that didn't stop Bryce Harper from winning the award last year. If a player can have one of the 40 best years by a hitter and not drag his team to the playoffs, maybe it's time to throw that out as a criterion.

As for Altuve, he was right in the mix for much of the year, but unfortunately he cooled off in September, as Brian Dozier took the throne as the AL's hottest second baseman. Additionally, since the Astros will be joining the Angels in watching this year's postseason from the comfort of their living rooms, Altuve doesn't have the postseason edge that Betts does. And while it's hard to say a DH is the MVP, David Ortiz deserves recognition for putting together the best hitting season ever by a player age-40 or older.

National League Most Valuable Player

WAR says: Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs

Consensus says: Kris Bryant

Dark Horse: Bris Kryant

This race is as much of a done deal as there can be. The Cubs have been the best team in baseball this season and Bryant is unquestionably their best player. Bryant is first in the National League in WAR, second in Home Runs, and fourth in OPS. He's even a top 20 player in fielding and baserunning. Simply put, if it's something you want a position player to excel at, Bryant excelled at it in 2016.

While there isn't really another option, I do want to take a moment to salute a couple of players who had excellent years, but won't be coming particularly close to winning the award. It's easy for stat-oriented fans to dismiss Nolan Arenado's leads in HRs, RBIs, and Total Bases as the altitude-fueled product of the crazy offensive environment in Coors Field. However, that's selling Arenado short. Adjusting for park, his OPS+ of 127 is still quite good, and he's well on his way to becoming one of the best defensive third basemen of all time.

Meanwhile, in Atlanta, the Braves' decision not to trade Freddie Freeman with their other valuable young stars has paid off quite nicely. Freeman put together a career year, finishing behind only Bryant in WAR among NL position players. His OPS+ of 160 not only led the NL this year, but it was also the best by an Atlanta Braves player since Chipper Jones' 2008.

AL Cy Young Award

WAR says: Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians

Consensus says: Rick Porcello, Boston Red Sox

Dark Horse: Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers

The race for the AL's best pitcher is, in some ways, the toughest choice we have this year, and there are five or six candidates who merit consideration. Still, Porcello seems to have the inside track for the award. After a rough first year in Boston, it appeared that Porcello had turned into a salary albatross before his four-year, $82.5 million extension even started. However, he turned things around in 2016, thanks mainly to a dip in walks per 9 innings pitched from 2.0 to 1.2. The result of Porcello's work? The AL's best Walks and Hits per Innings Pitched and strikeout-to-walk ratio. By virtue of playing on the best team in the AL, according to run differential, Porcello also leads the league in Wins.

But if you're reading the Baseball-Reference blog, you're probably aware of the fact that pitcher wins don't tell the whole story. Porcello is actually tied with Cole Hamels for 5th place in pitcher WAR in the AL; the leader in that category is Corey Kluber. Porcello had the better Earned Run Average (3.11 vs 3.14), but, once you adjust for park, Kluber's adjusted ERA+ of 151 leads the AL, with Porcello coming in second with 147. Kluber also gets the edge in Fielding Independent Pitching, for all my DIPS-heads in the crowd. His FIP of 3.25 leads the AL, while Porcello has to settle for second with 3.37.

However, if I were a voter, I'd have to at least consider voting for neither Kluber nor Porcello. Justin Verlander has had a resurgent season. He's currently second in WAR, but he leads Porcello and Kluber in Innings Pitched, Strikeouts, and ERA. However, Verlander trails the other two in ERA+ and FIP, suggesting that he is getting a great deal of assistance from his park and defense, and the gap might be a little too much for me to pick him over Kluber.

2 Corey Kluber 6.6 1.056 3.98 CLE 18 215.0 57 227 3.14 3.25 151 22
3 Justin Verlander 6.2 1.002 4.39 DET 16 220.2 56 246 3.10 3.55 134 30
15 Rick Porcello 5.0 0.991 6.10 BOS 22 217.0 30 183 3.11 3.37 147 22
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/28/2016.

In all, this is a very close race. If I were a voter, I think I'd lean Kluber, but I'd have to take a look at the others, and, honestly, what happens in this last weekend could still sway me to Verlander.

NL Cy Young Award

WAR says: Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals

Consensus says: Jon Lester, Chicago Cubs

Dark Horse: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers or Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins

In June, this race seemed over, as Clayton Kershaw seemed bound to make history with one of the all-time great pitching seasons. However, when an injury cost him two months, no one really stepped up to take control of this race.

In the end, Max Scherzer finished with the WAR lead, as well as the advantage in WHIP, strikeouts, and K/BB. Jon Lester, on the other hand, is second in WAR, leads Scherzer in both raw ERA and adjusted ERA+, and is tied with him for first in Wins.

In a lot of ways, this comes down to a question of what you value in an ace. Both Scherzer and Lester pitched at a high level, but Lester pitched at a higher level over fewer innings, while Scherzer pitched a little worse, but got more outs for his team. WAR has a clear answer for which one its methodology prefers, as Scherzer leads Lester by a full win.

However, I wonder if the fact that neither opened up a convincing lead leaves the door open for a couple other deserving candidates. Frankly, one of them is still Kershaw. Though Kershaw missed nearly half the season, he pitched at such a high level that he deserves a seat at the table. He was fourth in WAR, an insignificant 0.1 behind Lester and 0.4 ahead of the other major Cy Young candidate, Kyle Hendricks. If Zach Britton can be in the AL race, there's no reason why Kershaw can't get votes in the NL.

Then there's Jose Fernandez, whose tragic passing far overshadows trivial concerns like who will win what award. Giving Fernandez the award out of sentimentality wouldn't be the right way to honor such a fierce and exciting competitor, but fortunately, we don't have to lean on that; there's a very strong statistical case that Fernandez was the best pitcher in baseball. Fernandez led in strikeouts per 9 IP and was behind only Noah Syndergaard in FIP. Given the historically impressive defense that Lester and Hendricks played in front of in Chicago, these fielding-independent numbers carry a little extra weight this year.

Max Scherzer 6.6 WSN 19 223.1 277 2.82 3.16 148
Jon Lester 5.7 CHC 19 197.2 191 2.28 3.34 176
Johnny Cueto 5.5 SFG 17 212.2 187 2.79 3.03 147
Clayton Kershaw 5.5 LAD 12 142.0 168 1.65 1.67 236
Noah Syndergaard 5.3 NYM 14 183.2 218 2.60 2.28 158
Kyle Hendricks 5.2 CHC 16 185.0 166 1.99 3.21 201
Jose Fernandez 4.3 MIA 16 182.1 253 2.86 2.30 139
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/29/2016.

In the end, I'd have a really hard time not voting for Kershaw. He was clearly the best pitcher this year, even if his innings count is right at the threshold where you'd have to consider disqualifying him. But, I'm still waffling between him, Scherzer, and Fernandez. Basically, I'm glad I don't have a ballot!

AL Rookie of the Year

WAR says: Michael Fulmer, Detroit Tigers

Consensus says: Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees

Dark Horse: N/A

I'm cheating a bit here in that, if I had to bet, I'd guess that Fulmer wins the award. But it's tough to argue that Sanchez has more buzz going into the voting. He's had a remarkable first 200ish plate appearances, accumulating nearly three wins in a shockingly quick period of time.

However, Sanchez just hasn't had enough playing time to match Fulmer in value. Fulmer's been one of the best pitchers in the majors this year, rookie or otherwise, and he has a two win lead over Sanchez in WAR. As much of a shame as it'd be for Sanchez's historic second half to go unrewarded, Fulmer's been the better rookie over the course of the full year.

NL Rookie of the Year

WAR says: Corey Seager, Los Angeles Dodgers

Consensus says: Corey Seager

Dark Horse: N/A

This one may be even more obvious than NL MVP. Corey Seager is very, very good. I could hot take you about Aledmys Diaz or Trevor Story, but Seager's on another level. He's the first NL rookie since 2010 to break 6 WAR, and the 9th NL rookie ever to hit that mark.

9 Responses to “Digging into the MLB Award Races”

  1. attgig Says:

    There was so much buzz over Britton for Cy Young. I suppose once you have a 20 game winner, any thought of a reliever winning goes out the window.

  2. Danny Boy Says:


  3. mustard tiger Says:

    kershaw would have won but hendricks would be my pick. RIP Jose though.

  4. Tim Says:

    I think David Ortiz is the AL MVP and I think he's unfairly penalized by the WAR stat and by MVP VOTERS for being a DH. He's not hurting the team by not playing the field.

    Plus, If you look back over Ortiz career with Boston, they have an excellent record , regular and post season, when he's actually had to play first base.

  5. Thomas Says:


    As a lifelong Massachusetts resident I have greatly enjoyed Pape's amazing final season. But to suggest that he deserves the MVP award because of his career accomplishments and because he does not hurt his team by sitting on the bench while the rest of his team is playing defense makes little to no sense.

    While he is sitting on the bench, the other candidates are helping their teams by playing above average defense. They do this in addition to being incredibly productive while hitting. Papi's lack of running ability has also greatly harmed his team many times this year.

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    Boston Red Sox Tm Mlb

    [...] gh playing time to match Fulmer in value. Fulmer's been one of the best pitchers [...]

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    Detroit Tigers Tm Mlb R Personal Checks

    [...] s a two win lead over Sanchez in WAR. As much of a shame as it'd be for Sanchez [...]

  8. Tim Says:

    I'm actually a Yankee fan, and if there's one guy on the Red Sox I'd like to see go away, it's Ortiz. I don't think Betts and all
    those other good players they have will be as good without him.

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    [...] d enough playing time to match Fulmer in value. Fulmer's been one of the best pi [...]