Unfortunately for MLB fans, most of the divisional races do not have much excitement entering the final few weeks of the regular season. The playoff picture is already fairly clear, with most of the drama likely to come from the Wild Card races.
However, the award races are a totally different story. Christian Yelich’s broken kneecap is a horrific end to one of the greatest calendar years in MLB history, but it also has added another element to the National League MVP chase. Similarly, Justin Verlander’s top competitor for the American League Cy Young might be one of his own teammates.
While the Rookie of the Year awards are likely wrapped up (with Pete Alonso and Yordan Alvarez likely to win in their respective leagues) and the voters would be felonious not to name Mike Trout the AL MVP, there are plenty of individual players that can make waves with their performances in the final stretch.
Here are the most intriguing award races to watch in the final weeks of the MLB season:
The NL MVP race was already extremely intriguing before Yelich went down, but is it even more intriguing with him likely out of the picture? Might he still have a chance at actually winning the award? Who is being overlooked?
Prior to the injury, there is reason to believe that Yelich may have been the leading candidate to receive his second consecutive MVP award. He led the National League in OBP, OPS+ (178) and fWAR (7.7) while leading the majors in slugging (.671) and OPS (1.100). Just for good measure, Yelich also had 30 stolen bases to add to his case.
However, it is in his absence that we might find out just how impactful his loss is for a Brewers team that was just one game out of a Wild Card spot entering play on Wednesday. Should Milwaukee collapse without their superstar, would that justify giving the award to Yelich anyway, especially given his numbers before the injury?
Of course, Cody Bellinger would say “absolutely not.” The Dodgers have actually been a team that has been in flux, despite their dominance. Remember that Corey Seager, Justin Turner, A.J. Pollock, Chris Taylor and now Max Muncy have all missed extended time due to injury. Bellinger has been the one consistent source of excellence.
Although Yelich has a slight leg up on Bellinger in most of the major offensive categories while also performing far better in the second half (Bellinger has a .953 OPS since the All-Star break, Yelich had a 1.034 OPS) Bellinger is a markedly better defender.
Entering play on Wednesday, Bellinger had recorded 20 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) in the outfield and three more in just under 200 innings as a first baseman, and his 10 outfield assists were tied for fifth in baseball. Despite trailing Yelich in fWAR, he actually leads all players–including Mike Trout–in bWAR.
Then again, what about a pair of players that have had more impactful second halves both at the dish and in the field?
For nearly the entire season, the narrative seemed to be that either Bellinger or Yelich would win MVP. But voters need to take notice at what Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon and Arizona Diamondbacks super utility man Ketel Marte are doing for their respective clubs.
After a ridiculous August in which he slashed .394/.450/.712 with eight homers and 29 RBI, Rendon has forced his way into the discussion. Despite missing time to injury and playing just 129 games as of Sept. 11, Rendon ranked third in baseball in RBI (114) and third in wOBA (.425). As of Wednesday, Rendon also led the majors in batting average (.335).
In fact, Rendon leads the majors in fWAR (3.5) since the All-Star break and also has the highest OPS in the NL during that span (1.108). Right behind him in that department is Marte, who has had one of the most underappreciated breakout seasons in recent memory.
Marte was voted a starter in the All-Star game, but he has been that much better in the second half. Marte leads the NL in wRC+ (181) and wOBA (.454) since the break, and ranks just behind Rendon in fWAR (3.4). Not to mention, Marte has clubbed 32 homers and led the NL in hits (180) entering play on Wednesday.
Both players have also had good defensive seasons, with Marte providing even more value in that regard because of his ability to play multiple positions.
Most of the talk is likely to involve Bellinger and Yelich (despite his injury), but voters would be seriously remiss not to consider both Rendon and Marte, especially depending on how their teams perform in these last few weeks.
NL Cy Young
The NL Cy Young Award is also hotly contested. Prior to sustaining multiple injuries that would cost him a total of seven weeks, Nationals ace Max Scherzer was a strong candidate to win the award for the fourth time in his career and the third time in four seasons.
Dodgers left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu was the only pitcher in baseball with a sub-2.00 ERA for the majority of the season, and had a strong case to win the award as the ace on the best team in the NL.
But Ryu has imploded in recent weeks. The Dodgers also skipped his last start, and there are some indications that he may be shut down or–at the very least–face a limited workload. Despite still having strong numbers, his resume does not stack up nearly as well as it otherwise might have last month.
Meanwhile, Jacob deGrom has once again asserted himself as a top contender. The 2018 Cy Young posted a 4.85 ERA and dealt with an injury in April, but he has rebounded in spectacular fashion. In the second half, deGrom has posted a 1.85 ERA and ranks third in the majors in fWAR since the break. As of Sept. 11, he also leads the NL in strikeouts.
There are dark horse candidates here, too. Cardinals youngster Jack Flaherty leads the majors in ERA since the All-Star break (0.76) and ranks second in fWAR. Of course, the first half counts as well. But Flaherty’s dominance has also directly coincided with his team’s rise to the top of the NL Central, which could give him as strong a case as deGrom or Scherzer.
Scherzer’s teammate Stephen Strasburg is another name that deserves recognition. Strasburg ranks third in the NL in fWAR, leads the NL in wins (16) and actually has a lower xFIP than deGrom (though deGrom has a lower SIERA). Or how about young right-handers Walker Buehler and Mike Soroka?
Soroka ranks fourth in baseball in terms of ERA, and Buehler ranks fourth in FIP (2.83). Both have been invaluable members of their respecting pitching staffs.
On the whole, this is a tough race to call. The advanced metrics favor Scherzer, who still leads the majors in FIP (2.31) and ERA+ (182). Scherzer is also tied for the MLB lead in fWAR. But he also has a smaller sample size due to the injury, and as of Sept. 11 he had a 3.54 ERA in his last four starts.
Likewise, guys like Flaherty and Sonny Gray (unlikely because of the lack of team success) mostly rest their cases on their second-half performances.
Holistically, deGrom might be the best bet. Outside of a poor April, he has been dialed in all year. If deGrom closes out with a string of strong starts while helping the Mets earn a Wild Card spot, he could be a lock.
AL Cy Young
This is another tough one, mostly because of how good both Verlander and Cole have been for the same team.
After dominating the Seattle Mariners on Sunday, Cole ranks third in the majors in fWAR while leading the majors with 281 strikeouts. Cole became just the second pitcher in MLB history–along with Pedro Martinez–to record at least 14 strikeouts in three consecutive starts, and he has six games of at least 10 strikeouts and no walks, which ties an MLB record.
However, Verlander has been just as superb this season. Entering play on Wednesday, Verlander led the majors in wins (18), innings (200) and WHIP (0.770) while leading the AL in ERA (2.52) and ERA+ (182).
Verlander leads all pitchers with a 3.6 fWAR in the second half, and he also made history by tossing a no-hitter against the Toronto Blue Jays on the first day of September. Not to mention, Verlander’s WHIP is currently the third-best of any season in MLB history. Pretty impressive to stuff, to say the least.
There are other arms that can stake a claim. Texas Rangers right-hander Lance Lynn is tied with Scherzer for the big-league lead in fWAR, while Rangers lefty Mike Minor ranks first in bWAR. However, they simply lack the sam kind of gravity as Cole and Verlander, both from a numbers standpoint and in terms of other advanced metrics.
At one point in time, Tampa Bay Rays right-hander (who was formerly with the Astros) Charlie Morton may have been the leading candidate, but those chances have been dashed by a 4.52 ERA in the second half.
What about Cleveland’s dynamic duo of Shane Bieber and Mike Clevinger? As good as Clevinger has been in the second half (9-0 with a 2.16 ERA), he has only made 17 starts. That is not nearly enough to warrant an upset over Houston’s aces.
Bieber has a legitimate case. While Clevinger, Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco all missed extended time due to injury or illness, Bieber carried Cleveland’s rotation.
The 24-year-old ranks just behind Verlander in terms of fWAR, and he also has a lower FIP and xFIP than Verlander (though Verlander has a lower SIERA). Bieber’s performance this season has absolutely warranted some recognition, at the very least.
Ultimately, however, the award is going to come down to either Cole or Verlander. While Cole has had one of the most dominant seasons ever for a starting pitcher, Verlander has also had a historic year, and he has been especially dominant as of late. That could give him the slight edge with the voters.