MLB awards watch: Breaking down some of the tightest races ever

As the 2018 season heads to the final weeks, the race for almost every major award is close. With hardware chases ranging from a 10-man scrum for NL MVP honors to one of the most unusual AL Rookie of the Year races ever, ESPN's David Schoenfield and Bradford Doolittle use Doolittle's Awards Index formula and their own takes to break down who has the lead right now, whom to watch out for and what can happen as the season rolls to the finish line.


Awards Index leaders

Position players:

Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks (3.98)

Christian Yelich, Brewers (3.79)

Matt Carpenter, Cardinals (3.64)

Lorenzo Cain, Brewers (3.31)

Javier Baez, Cubs (3.30)

Nolan Arenado, Rockies (3.20)

Freddie Freeman, Braves (3.09)


Max Scherzer, Nationals (4.43)

Aaron Nola, Phillies (4.16)

Jacob deGrom, Mets (4.14)

How close is this race? It's incredibly close. Removing the pitchers from this equation, the teams associated with the position players are all competing with each other for playoff slots, and it feels like the fate of the MVP trophy is intrinsically tied to the outcome of that postseason race. -- Bradford Doolittle

Why the numbers favor ... Baez, maybe. With the advanced metrics showing no clear separation among the top candidates, you wonder if traditional measures might hold some renewed sway this year. If so, that would favor Baez, who has an impressive suite of old-school measures and has been the best player on the best team. Baez might finish with a .300/30/100 season, and he is already over 20 steals and should get to 100 runs. -- BD

But the narrative belongs to ... Baez, thanks to his strength in those traditional numbers and his positional edge over the three first basemen -- although that could change to the player who has the biggest September. Yelich is surging after hitting .400 in July and .307 with 11 home runs in August. If the Brewers catch the Cubs, that could push Yelich to the top. -- David Schoenfield

A dark horse to watch: Nobody seems to be talking all that much about Arenado. His problem is that a Coors Field player has to put up bigger offensive numbers than the other candidates do and Arenado hasn't done that, plus he's driven in 130-plus runs the past three seasons and won't get there this season. His defensive metrics are also down. Still, if the Rockies win the West, he'll get extra credit for that. -- DS

The bottom line: As things stand now, I don't think any of the top pitchers will win the MVP award because there just isn't a clear-cut case that one of them should outrank the top position player. If the Diamondbacks survive their brutal finishing schedule and get into the playoffs, Goldschmidt will almost certainly be at the center of it. He's the leading position player now by the Awards Index, largely because of his clutch hitting. He's finished in the top three of MVP voting three times, so that could play into it as well. However, if Goldy and Arizona fade, it's a free-for-all. -- BD

The three pitchers have clearly been the best players in the league, but deGrom isn't going to win MVP honors with an 8-8 record on a bad Mets team -- no matter his ERA. That makes it one of the most wide-open races in years, and I suspect we might see seven or eight players receiving first-place votes. -- DS


Awards Index leaders

Mookie Betts, Red Sox (5.27)

Alex Bregman, Astros (4.82)

Jose Ramirez, Indians (4.52)

Mike Trout, Angels (4.47)

J.D. Martinez, Red Sox (4.05)

Francisco Lindor, Indians (3.84)

Chris Sale, Red Sox (3.55)

Matt Chapman, Athletics (3.52)

Trevor Bauer, Indians (3.20)

Blake Treinen, Athletics (3.13)

How close is this race? I don't think it's all that close at this point, though there is time for things to tighten. Betts is the guy. He leads the majors in fWAR, bWAR and win shares. He's been the best player in baseball this season, hands down. -- BD

Why the numbers favor ... Betts. As mentioned, Betts has a consensus of advanced metrics backing up his case, and he's on the best team (by record) in the majors. However, his traditional numbers are awfully impressive as well. He should win the AL batting title with a 30-30 season, score something like 130 runs and is universally regarded as a top-five defensive player. Bill James compares Betts to Willie Mays, and it's hard to argue with the comparison. -- BD

But the narrative belongs to ... Betts. Ramirez has been amazing and, like Betts, provides plus defensive value, but his production has dipped in the second half and he's benefited from a terrible division. The narrative could switch to Martinez, particularly if Betts slumps a bit and Martinez wins the Triple Crown. There's some sentiment in Boston that Martinez has made everyone in the lineup better. As David Price said last week, Mookie might be the league's MVP, but Martinez has been Boston's MVP. -- DS

A dark horse to watch: Chapman scores high in Brad's index. He's been the top defensive player in baseball this year, and here's a factoid to help his case: He's second in the AL in road OPS (.317/.397/.616), behind Trout and just ahead of Betts and Martinez. He's been a beast in the second half, with an OPS over 1.000 while the A's took off. -- DS

The bottom line: I'm sure Bregman's standing in the Index will raise some eyebrows, but consider the underlying factors: He's seventh in fWAR in the majors, 11th in bWAR, second in win shares, fifth in win probability added and second in championship probability added. He's come up with one big hit after another all season. Still ... I think Betts is a clear front-runner at this point, and there is no reason to think he'll fade.

If Martinez gets hot and ends up winning the Triple Crown, that could split the Red Sox vote. So far, thankfully, I haven't seen much of that "Triple Crown trumps all" rhetoric that led to Miguel Cabrera winning the MVP over Trout in 2013. -- BD

There does seem to be some momentum for Bregman, who gets "extra credit" for carrying the Astros at times while Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer battled injuries. I'm not even sure he's the best third baseman in the league, however, as Ramirez leads him in both bWAR and fWAR and Chapman leads him in bWAR. As for Trout, he might end up with his best offensive season yet -- and his worst finish in the MVP vote. -- DS


Awards Index leaders

Max Scherzer, Nationals (4.43)

Aaron Nola, Phillies (4.16)

Jacob deGrom, Mets (4.14)

Patrick Corbin, Diamondbacks (2.88)

Kyle Freeland, Rockies (2.59)

Zack Greinke, Diamondbacks (2.36)

Josh Hader, Brewers (2.13)

Jeremy Jeffress, Brewers (2.12)

Adam Ottavino, Rockies (2.01)

Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers (1.90)

How close is this race? This is a three-horse race with no clear leader. My sense is that deGrom has the edge in terms of buzz. Rather than being penalized for his low win total, it's almost like deGrom is being rewarded because he has a low win total. But Nola has several more chances to build his case with clutch performances in high-stakes games. Don't sleep on Scherzer, either. He's only the best pitcher in baseball, after all. -- BD

Why the numbers favor ... The big three. Those who tend to decry wins also tend to hate unearned runs, yet when it comes to deGrom, you never hear about his seven unearned tallies. Consider the runs allowed per nine for the big three: deGrom 2.01, Nola 2.28, Scherzer 2.46. When it comes to Nola, that narrows the ERA gap even before you start factoring in ballpark effects. -- BD

But the narrative belongs to ... Narrative seems to matter less in Cy Young voting -- it's mostly about cold, hard numbers. In deGrom's case, he has two big ones in his favor: 1) the big edge in ERA. In the past 50 years, seven of the eight pitchers with as big an ERA lead over the No. 2 guy won the Cy Young Award (only Kevin Brown in 1996 failed to do so). And 2), he's made 25 starts in a row allowing three runs or fewer, tying an MLB record. -- DS

A dark horse to watch: No dark horse here, as the top three guys have clearly separated themselves. Freeland certainly deserves recognition for a sub-3.00 ERA in Colorado, but he's fourth in a strong field. -- DS

The bottom line: It's good that we -- the collective baseball community -- have come to realize that wins don't do a great job of describing the success of a starting pitcher, especially in 2018. As I've written before, I don't think that means we set aside the question of, "To what did they contribute?" If the Phillies maintain their playoff push and Nola stays in the middle of that quest, that should matter. This race will be decided over the next four weeks. However, if deGrom keeps doing what he's doing, he'll win it. I mean, he's given up three runs or less in 25 straight starts. The last time that happened was when Europe was still ruled by monarchies. -- BD

Brad makes a good point about deGrom's edge in runs per game being much less significant than his edge in earned runs per game. Where a team finishes in the standings also doesn't matter like it does in MVP voting, but if deGrom has a bad outing or two and Nola's Phillies make the playoffs, maybe he wins in a close vote. -- DS


Awards Index leaders

Chris Sale, Red Sox (3.55)

Trevor Bauer, Indians (3.20)

Blake Treinen, Athletics (3.13)

Edwin Diaz, Mariners (2.86)

Corey Kluber, Indians (2.84)

Justin Verlander, Astros (2.73)

Blake Snell, Rays (2.67)

Gerrit Cole, Astros (2.54)

Luis Severino, Yankees (2.24)

Mike Clevinger, Indians (1.99)

Carlos Carrasco, Indians (1.88)

How close is this race? The news that Sale should be back in action next week probably locks up this race for him, assuming there are no further setbacks. However, if something bad happens, and Bauer doesn't get back before the postseason, that opens the door for chaos. -- BD

Why the numbers favor ... Sale. Boston's ace has a sub-2.00 ERA and a sub-2.00 ERA FIP, which is to say there is not one iota of flukiness in his performance. His WHIP is 0.85 -- he's allowed only 91 hits all season. If he lowers that WHIP number below 0.8, he'd be just the second pitcher ever to be that stingy with baserunners. Pedro Martinez (2000) holds the record at 0.74. -- BD

But the narrative belongs to ... Sale ... no, Verlander ... no, Bauer ... no, Snell? The injuries to Sale and Bauer and second-half slide of Verlander opened things up a bit, and Snell's 17-5 record and 2.02 ERA make him a strong candidate. Still, I'm with Brad: If Sale finishes with three or four good starts, he's the favorite. -- DS

A dark horse to watch: I still wouldn't dismiss Verlander. He's going to have a significant edge in innings over Sale, Snell and Bauer, he leads in strikeouts (over teammate Cole) and ranks fourth in ERA. He might not get the most first-place votes, but he could be top three or four on everybody's ballot and pull it out. -- DS

The bottom line: The winner should probably just be a group award given to the Indians' rotation. Cleveland has four of the top 11 spots among AL pitchers, according to the Awards Index. Since that won't actually be an option on the ballot, this is Sale's award to lose. In addition to pure dominance, Sale might get a Goldschmidt-like boost from being the top active pitcher to never get the Cy Young Award. He's been in the top six in each of the past six seasons. It's time for him to finish on top. -- BD

Sale has been the best pitcher in the league. Yes, he's not going to get to 200 innings, but we've already had a starter win with fewer than 200 -- Kershaw won in 2014, when he made 27 starts and pitched 198 innings. Sale might get to only 170 or so. Is that enough? -- DS


Awards Index leaders

Brian Anderson, Marlins (1.90)

Ronald Acuna, Braves (1.87)

Harrison Bader, Cardinals (1.72)

Juan Soto, Nationals (1.68)

Walker Buehler, Dodgers (1.35)

Yoshihisa Hirano, Diamondbacks (1.27)

Jack Flaherty, Cardinals (1.23)

Reyes Moronta, Giants (1.10)

Dereck Rodriguez, Giants (1.05)

Dan Winkler, Braves (0.93)

How close is this race? Anderson leads the Index on the strength of sheer volume. Maybe if he goes on a power spree from here on out he could get into the conversation, but it's doubtful. There is too much wind behind the Acuna vs. Soto sails. And that is one great debate, one I don't think is close to being settled. -- BD

Why the numbers favor ... The youngsters. Soto's on-base percentage draws a lot of attention, as it should. But I can't help but wonder if the collective fixation on that area for him is somewhat a product of curiosity. Being a teenager and being ultra-disciplined are not traits that typically have much correlation, so it is a fascinating thing. That said, for all those walks, Acuna has created almost as many runs as Soto and has a big statistical edge in defensive metrics. -- BD

But the narrative belongs to ... Acuna. He has 24 home runs in 88 games -- that's a 42-homer pace over 155 games -- and he's doing it for a first-place team. He's also been a monster in the second half, hitting .329 and slugging .699. -- DS

A dark horse to watch: Bader has received some attention of late, but nobody has talked much about his teammate. Flaherty has been a stalwart in the Cardinals' rotation, going 8-6 with a 2.83 ERA in 23 starts. The 154 K's in 127⅓ innings is a testament to his stuff. For whatever reason, there just hasn't been much sizzle around Flaherty. I mean ... he's a 21-year-old kid with big stuff, a sub-3.00 ERA, pitching for a playoff contender and a popular team. But it seems like the narrative was built around Acuna before he was even called up. I'm not saying Flaherty deserves to win, it's just surprising that his season hasn't garnered more attention. -- DS

The bottom line: Bader's metrics are at the very least going to be perceived as inflated because of his plus-22 defensive runs saved, and it's fair to look at that number with a degree of skepticism. That's not to say he's not a great defender, and he's certainly a gas to watch.

The problem for Soto is that as good as he's been, Acuna has been just as good or better in pretty much every category except walks. And Acuna has the advantage of performing in games that will be crucial for his team down the stretch. I think Acuna will end up as the Rookie of the Year, and he'll end up being the best player from this rookie class. Those two facts don't often go hand in hand. -- BD

With apologies to Anderson, I've always felt part of the consideration for Rookie of the Year should factor in the player's future potential. For example, Bob Hamelin beating out Manny Ramirez in 1994 was silly, as was Ken Griffey Jr. not winning in 1989. It's not the primary factor, maybe more of a tiebreaker.

In the Acuna vs. Soto debate, however, you can flip a coin. Acuna is more athletic and will have more defensive value. Soto also has a chance to be a left-handed Albert Pujols at the plate, with big OBPs and power numbers. I probably go with Acuna since he can play center field, but if you want Soto, I won't argue. -- DS


Awards Index leaders

Gleyber Torres, Yankees (1.83)

Shohei Ohtani, Angels (1.82)

Miguel Andujar, Yankees (1.39)

Joey Wendle, Rays (1.38)

Lou Trivino, Athletics (1.29)

Brad Keller, Royals (0.93)

Jaime Barria, Angels (0.63)

Shane Bieber, Indians (0.48)

Ryne Stanek, Rays (0.47)

Niko Goodrum, Tigers (0.47)

How close is this race? This might be the tightest race of all. Ohtani is the rare bird who attracts so much attention that there isn't a media edge for the Yankees' candidates. This picture can change rapidly, too. Andujar outrated Torres as recently as 10 days ago, and look at what's happened since. Ohtani had an edge over both of them, and now that's gone as well. -- BD

Why the numbers favor ... Ohtani. No one's numbers attract as much attention as those of Ohtani. It doesn't matter how you mash together the hitting and pitching feats -- it's amazing. Let's see: 15 homers and 63 pitching strikeouts; 270 plate appearances and 51⅔ innings. Here's one I like: Ohtani doesn't qualify as either a full-time hitter or a full-time pitcher in statistical leaderboards. But if you combine the pitches he's thrown from the mound and the pitches he's seen as a batter, he ranks in the 86th percentile in volume. Bet you didn't know that. --BD

But the narrative belongs to ... The news about Ohtani on Wednesday throws this even more up in the air, as we don't know if Ohtani will choose to have surgery and if he does, whether he'll have it now and or just wait until after the season. His monster two-homer game on Wednesday seems to be another click in his favor. -- DS

A dark horse to watch: Wendle of the Rays actually leads in WAR -- he's hit well enough (although not as well as Andujar or Torres) and has played good defense at multiple positions. He's not a sexy choice -- he's 28 -- but the numbers suggest he's a strong candidate. -- DS

The bottom line: This one is tough to call. Torres is hot, with a 1.060 OPS over his past 18 games, and the Yankees will be playing in games that matter for playoff positioning from here on out. Andujar has that latter advantage and his offensive percentages stack up nicely with those of his teammate. Only he's got 122 more plate appearances, giving him nearly a 20-run edge in runs created.

Andujar has awful defensive metrics across the board -- it's not just DRS -- but I don't have a feel for how much weight voters put into that at this point. To me, the glove work is a clear differentiator between Andujar and Torres, who has been about average.

If Ohtani had finished well on the mound, I think he would have created some separation, but that point is now moot. Still, he's leaving little doubt that he'll finish well at the plate, putting up his biggest game yet on the day the news about his likely elbow surgery broke. Ultimately, I still think Ohtani will deserve the award. I just hope no one will hold it against him that he came over from the Japanese leagues. Ohtani is an MLB rookie who will be on the ballot. That's all we should consider. -- BD

What Brad said. I'm still on the Ohtani bandwagon. Even with the injury, his two-way success is one of the more amazing baseball stories in recent years. -- DS