by Paul West
Major League Baseball’s individual awards look like they’ll go down to the wire, and this year’s crop of candidates includes players having historic seasons. Here’s my coolly considered take on who should win.
NL Manager of the Year: Brian Snitker
Joe Maddon is always on the Manager of the Year leaderboard, and he deserves consideration this year as the Chicago Cubs have dealt with injuries, adversity, and controversy and are still back in the playoffs. Craig Counsell’s Milwaukee Brewers and Bud Black‘s Colorado Rockies are heating up at the best possible time, with the Brewers in the postseason and the Rockies on the cusp. But 62-year-old Brian Snitker has led a youthful Atlanta Braves team to a decisive lead in the NL East, a year or two before they were expected to finally start contending for real. Atlanta has a superstar in Freddy Freeman, a rising star in Ronald Acuna, Jr, and exciting young talent–but they also haven’t experienced winning, or even a genuine pennant race, in years. Their rise has happened at warp speed, and Snitker deserves recognition for guiding the ship.
AL Manager of the Year: Kevin Cash
Bob Melvin‘s Oakland Athletics just clinched a playoff berth a year after three consecutive last-place finishes,in a year when they weren’t expected to contend. The Boston Red Sox are 107-51, and in most years, manager Alex Cora would be a virtual lock. But what Kevin Cash has done with the Tampa Bay Rays has baffled the baseball world. This year alone, the Rays have traded away a starting lineup’s worth of solid-to-good players, including Jake Odorizzi, Corey Dickerson, Nathan Eovaldi, and Adeiny Hechavarria, and for much for the first half, they were considered a laughingstock. They’re now 87-70, despite sporting a patchwork rotation for most of the season and a low-payroll, rookie-laden team whose players the casual fan wouldn’t recognize at the mall. They brought the ‘bullpen game’ to a new level, using the “opener” to start games, which has required a fair amount of managerial juggling; and they’ve managed to stave off postseason elimination until the very last week of the season, all while playing in the same division as the Red Sox and the 97-60 New York Yankees.
NL Rookie of the Year: Ronald Acuna, Jr
Like the AL MVP and Cy Young races, this one’s almost too close to call. Acuna, master of the leadoff home run, has animated the lineup of a braves team that’s run away with an NL East that was supposed to come down to two other teams. The Washington Nationals‘ Juan Soto, while his team’s been on the outskirts of the playoff race for some time, has remarkably similar numbers to Acuna despite less fanfare down the stretch. While I agree with those who propose Acuna’s speed and defense as tiebreakers, another key difference is this: leadoff home runs literally put your team ahead as soon as possible.
AL Rookie of the Year: Shohei Ohtani
Most years, the New York Yankees‘ Miguel Andujar would have strong odds of winning the AL Rookie of the Year Award, with teammate Gleyber Torres in the top three or four. Unfortunately for both candidacies, Shohei Ohtani is to pitching and hitting what Bo Jackson was to baseball and football. He’s pre-and-post-yips Rick Ankiel, only better–and in the same body. He’s arguably the best athlete on a team with Mike Trout on the roster, and to top it off, he’s understated and charismatic. The only argument against him is the fact that he missed time due to injury–but he came back from what looked like a season-threatening UCL injury to go right back to tearing the cover off the ball, and helping ignite an offense that’s underperformed for much of the year. Ohtani is one of the most thrilling and unusual things to happen to baseball in some time, and if his impending Tommy John surgery doesn’t end his pitching days, he could go on to do things we never thought we’d see in the modern era. For now, he’s definitely the Rookie of the Year.
NL Cy Young: Jacob deGrom
I’m not in the ‘wins don’t matter’ camp; wins are the ostensible objective of every Major League Baseball game ever played. But while wins are suddenly undervalued by some, they’re also still overvalued by many–and Jacob deGrom is Exhibit A. With respect to Max Scherzer, Aaron Nola, and the under-heralded Kyle Freeland, deGrom is having arguably the best season a starting pitcher has had in decades. He’s broken a century-old quality start record, and if that’s too obscure a stat for you, he’s also on pace to be the third pitcher since 1908 (!) with over 200 strikeouts, under 50 walks, and an ERA under 2.00. He’s doing this while leading all NL Cy Young candidates in innings pitched with the game on the line, i.e. with the score tied or the teams separated by a run; with even ordinary run support, his wins would match his other mind-boggling statistical combinations. Oh yeah: after a ten-strikeout performance, he’s 10-9.
AL Cy Young: Chris Sale*
Blake Snell has started 30 games, going 21-5 with a 1.90 ERA and a .96 WHIP for an up and coming Rays team. Also reaching the 20-win plateau is strikeout machine Corey Kluber, and Justin Verlander is on the short list yet again after another outstanding year. Chris Sale has been one of baseball’s most dominant pitchers for years, but like Dave Stewart a generation before him, he always falls just short of winning the Cy Young. Yet despite missing time with a shoulder injury, he’s got an ERA of an even 2.00, with a .85 WHIP and 229 strikeouts in only 153 innings. That’s ridiculous. It’s a close call, but this is the year Sale finally gets his Cy.
*postscript, 9-30: yeah…my bad. Snell sealed it with his final start. Sorry, Mr. Sale.
NL MVP: Javier Baez
Down the stretch, I was briefly sold on the candidacy of Christian Yelich, who was just anointed NL Player of the Week again and recently hit for his second cycle of the year. Yelich is having an absurd year, as are Matt Carpenter and perennial MVP candidates Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. But two things swayed me in favor of the Cubs’ Javier Baez: his teammates’ struggles, and his consistency and versatility this year. Goldschmidt struggled early in the year, batting only .144 for all of May; and Arenado has cooled off significantly down the stretch, while teammates like Trevor Story have helped keep the team hot. Baez has not only avoided a prolonged slump this season, he’s put up across-the-board numbers while Kris Bryant has battled injuries, Anthony Rizzo has battled lengthy slumps, and Addison Russell‘s been an absolute disaster. Moreover, he’s played all over the place, including over 20 games at third base along with two months’ worth of games at shortstop along with his usual Gold Glove play at second base. Add wrinkles like his lightning-quick, acrobatic ability to get a tag down when most players wouldn’t, as well as his threat on the bases and knack for the big moment, and you have to wonder if the Cubs would be in the postseason without him.
AL MVP: Mookie Betts
This might be the toughest one of all. The Houston Astros just reached 100 wins, despite losing Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa for longish stretches and despite Correa and other core players struggling at times. Yet all the while, Alex Bregman has animated the lineup while anchoring the defense, providing clutch hits and leading the team with 169 hits, 31 homers, 103 RBIs, and a whopping 51 doubles. He was my choice for MVP for a while, and the Athletics’ Khris Davis and Matt Chapman belong on the short list. JD Martinez was a legitimate threat to win the Triple Crown for most of the season, before being recently passed in homers by Davis–and in batting average by his teammate, and arguably the best overall player in baseball, Mookie Betts. In August, teammate David Price opined that Betts is the MVP of the league and Martinez is the MVP of the Red Sox; as a tandem, they’ve been historically good, and their successes are clearly interdependent. Had Martinez hung on to the Triple Crown, I’d say the two should be co-MVPs. While Martinez might be the best hitter in the American League, when you factor in his elite defense and 30 steals, Betts might be the best overall player in the American League this year…which is why he’s also its MVP.