Mookie Betts' mammoth year may have bounced J.D. Martinez from AL MVP race


Here’s a snapshot of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America awards after the three finalists in each category were announced on Monday night.

American League MVP

Finalists: Mookie Betts, Jose Ramirez, Mike Trout

The question here: Which of the deep group of strong candidates were going to place out of the top three? had five AL position players worth 7.9 WAR or higher — the first time that has happened in the AL since 1912 (the National League had six such players in 2004 and five in 1964).

Here’s the thing: J.D. Martinez wasn’t one of those five (Matt Chapman and Francisco Lindor were the other two along with the three MVP finalists), but it’s a bit of a surprise that he wasn’t one of the three finalists after hitting .330/.402/.629 with 43 home runs and leading the majors with 130 RBIs. In the end, I think the head-to-head comparison to his teammate hurt him: Betts had a higher OBP and higher slugging percentage. Martinez’s RBI count didn’t trump Betts’ brilliance at the plate (not to mention the field), a further sign that the BBWAA is recognizing a player’s all-around value and not just what he does at the plate.

Ramirez was toe-to-toe with Betts and Trout through mid-August. He was hitting .305/.414/.640 with 36 home runs and 89 RBIs through Aug. 14, but hit just .166 with three home runs his final 40 games.

That makes it Betts versus Trout:

Betts: .346/.438/.640, 32 HR, 80 RBI, 129 R, 30 SB, 10.9 WAR

Trout: .312/.460/.628, 39 HR, 79 RBI, 101 R, 24 SB, 10.2 WAR

Betts’ Baseball-Reference WAR was the highest since Barry Bonds in 2002. Trout wasn’t that far behind, however. Of course, the big difference between the two: Betts had better teammates and made the playoffs.

American League Cy Young Award

Finalists: Corey Kluber, Blake Snell, Justin Verlander

It’s a minor surprise that Chris Sale wasn’t one of three finalists as he finished second in both Baseball-Reference WAR (to Snell) and FanGraphs WAR (to Verlander). Kluber’s inclusion suggests the voters put some emphasis on innings pitched — Kluber threw 57 more innings than Sale, although he still ended up with more strikeouts (237 to 222) and a lower ERA (2.11 to 2.89).

That could mean Verlander has a chance to beat out Snell, despite Snell’s edge in ERA (1.89 to 2.52) and wins (21 to 16). Verlander threw 33⅓ more innings and struck out 69 more batters. Snell’s 180⅔ innings would be the fewest innings for a non-reliever Cy Young winner in a non-strike season. Still, he’s the heavy favorite with the third-lowest ERA in the AL since the DH was instituted in 1973.

American League Rookie of the Year

Finalists: Miguel Andújar, Shohei Ohtani, Gleyber Torres

The consensus seems to be that it’s going to be Andujar versus Ohtani in a close vote, with Torres finishing third. Andujar certainly had an impressive season at the plate, hitting .297/.328/.527 with 27 home runs and 47 doubles in 606 plate appearances. As good as he was at the plate, Andujar didn’t exactly inspire the same accolades in the field as he was credited with minus-25 Defensive Runs Saved.

Obviously, in looking at the MVP finalists, the voters factored in defensive value. If they do the same thing in this vote, that should push Ohtani to rookie honors. He certainly was the most fascinating rookie of 2018, becoming the first player since Babe Ruth to pitch at least 50 innings and hit 15 home runs. He won’t pitch in 2019, but it will be interesting to see if he builds upon the .285/.361/.564 line he produced as a rookie.

American League Manager of the Year

Finalists: Kevin Cash, Alex Cora, Bob Melvin

This was a tough field as two managers who won 100 games weren’t even finalists: A.J. Hinch and Aaron Boone. Remember as well: Voting is done before the postseason, so Cora won’t get extra credit for guiding the Red Sox to the World Series title, a postseason run in which he nearly batted 1.000 with his moves.

This will be a fascinating vote. Cora won a franchise-record 108 games, but clearly had more talent to work with than the A’s or Rays. After spending the entire postseason covering the Red Sox, you can see how Cora had a huge impact on the team, not only bringing some of the analytics over from the Astros, but possessing top-level communication skills that helped him develop positive relationships with the players.

The A’s made the playoffs with 97 wins, a 22-win improvement over 2017. They were two games under .500 on June 15, so they not only were the biggest surprise among the 10 playoff teams, they had to surge in the second half to get there.

Cash won 90 games in a division with the Red Sox and Yankees and was certainly the most innovative manager of 2018, using the opener strategy to help navigate an injury-riddled rotation through the season. Yes, he had Cy Young candidate Snell to learn on, but the Rays allowed the second-fewest runs in the AL, an incredible achievement for that staff.

All three are going to get first-place votes. I think Cora wins in an extremely tight race.

National League MVP Award

Finalists: Nolan Arenado, Javier Báez, Christian Yelich

In a weak year for MVP candidates in the NL, Yelich wrapped things up with a monster second half and historic September that pushed the Brewers to the NL Central title. He hit .367 and slugged .770 in the second half and drove in 34 runs in 27 games in September. He may end up as the unanimous winner.

Of course, you could argue that three Cy Young finalists (see below) all deserved consideration here — all three finished well ahead of Yelich in WAR. Even though Clayton Kershaw and Verlander have won MVP awards since 2011, there was never any momentum behind any of the pitchers (in part because the Mets and Nationals weren’t in the playoff race).

National League Cy Young Award

Finalists: Jacob deGrom, Aaron Nola, Max Scherzer

No surprises here, although Kyle Freeland‘s season for the Rockies deserves accolades. After finishing with a 1.70 ERA and 269 strikeouts in 217 innings, deGrom is the consensus favorite, despite finishing with just 10 wins. The vote may have been much more interesting if he hadn’t won his final two starts to finish 10-9 instead of 8-9.

Is deGrom a slam dunk? Probably, although Nola did lead him in Baseball-Reference pitching WAR, 10.5 to 9.6. Nola allowed nine more runs while pitching five fewer innings, but B-R is giving him extra value for having a terrible defense behind him. According to their metrics, the Phillies’ defense cost Nola minus-0.64 runs every nine innings. The Mets’ defense actually rates poorly, at minus-0.41 runs per nine innings, nowhere as awful as Philadelphia’s. B-R rates Nola’s season as the third-best by a starting pitcher since 2000 (behind Pedro Martinez in 2000 and Randy Johnson in 2002). FanGraphs, meanwhile, rates Nola as the fourth-best pitcher in the NL just in 2018 at 5.6 WAR (downgraded because of a lower strikeout rate than deGrom or Scherzer).

Hmm. The thing that complicates the evaluation is that Nola allowed a .254 average on balls in play — tied for fourth-lowest among qualified starters. Would he have been even better with a better defense behind him? That’s what Baseball-Reference is saying.

National League Rookie of the Year

Finalists: Ronald Acuña Jr., Walker Buehler, Juan Soto

It was a loaded year for NL rookies in a class that also includes Cardinals starter Jack Flaherty and teammate Harrison Bader (who actually beat Soto in WAR thanks to his outstanding defensive metrics). Anyway, the three finalists have superstar written all over them. Acuña versus Soto could be the new Trout-versus-Harper debate (except that one never materialized in the long run as Trout has left Harper in the dust). Acuña was so brilliant in the second half — .322/.403/.625 — that it wouldn’t be shocking if he follows up winning the Rookie of the Year with an MVP in 2019.

National League Manager of the Year

Finalists: Bud Black, Craig Counsell, Brian Snitker

All three managers have compelling cases. Snitker is the feel-good story, the 62-year-old who had managed for years in the Braves system before taking over for Fredi Gonzalez early in the 2016 season as a temporary hire. The Braves improved from 72 to 90 wins and won the NL East. The Rockies went 50-29 down the stretch to reach the first back-to-back playoff trips in franchise history. Counsell’s Brewers won the most games in the NL after beating the Cubs in the tiebreaker. He also did a great job manipulating the bullpen and shuffling players around the infield. He would get my vote.

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