MLB's next big thing: Handicapping Cy Young and MVP races

When you think about it, the baseball gods have been pretty good to us in 2018. Going back to last winter, it appeared that we were headed for historic levels of competitive imbalance. That's what our projections told us, anyway. More than ever, the league would be defined by the chasm between the haves and the have-nots.

Thanks to a handful of surprise teams and a handful of underachievers, it hasn't worked out that way at all. Only the American League Central race can truly be called a dud. The Red Sox have a large lead over the Yankees in the AL East, but when you're talking about a potential 110-win team outsprinting a potential 100-win team, that's good stuff. Boston has a firm hold on the AL's top seed, but none of the other spots is settled with five weeks to go in the season.

The National League race is a whole other animal. Here are what I call the "old-school standings" -- a glimpse of what the circuit would look like if there were no divisions. Man, it would be glorious:

The races for individual awards are just as wide open as those for playoff spots. That's probably no coincidence. If the teams are tight, why wouldn't it be the same for the elite players? What that means is that the races could be heavily influenced by standout events in big games between now and the end of the season. Maybe that shouldn't be the case, but at the very least it's exciting.

As you might guess, I have a system for tracking the awards races. I feel you have to, otherwise it's too easy to slip into antiquated ways of looking at the awards or simply turning them into a recognition of the WAR leaderboards. (Which WAR leaderboard that would be is hard to say.) I call this system the Awards Index. It's outlined in the accompanying box.

To reiterate, I don't feel beholden to the results produced by the Awards Index. Along with the Index and its underlying components, I have a whole range of categories I look at, lined up side by side. I always want as complete a picture as possible. The Index itself isn't meant to be the bottom line; it's a way of winnowing down the candidates until I can slot them in a way that is defensible. Generally, the order will be the same as what the Index formula spits out, but not necessarily so.


Index leaders: 1. Mookie Betts, Red Sox (5.20); 2. Jose Ramirez, Indians (4.87); 3. Mike Trout, Angels (4.55); 4. J.D. Martinez, Red Sox (4.12); 5. (tie) Francisco Lindor, Indians, and Alex Bregman, Astros (4.08).

This is a pretty traditional list in that it includes the game's best player (Trout), the game's other best player (Betts), five players on division leaders and all position players. The National League board, as you will see, has a very different composition.

Betts ranks second in the AL by fWAR and first in bWAR, and also leads the majors in Win Shares. That's pretty close to consensus. On the contextual side, he's third in WPA and fourth in CPA. His WAR numbers are propped up by strong defensive metrics, which can be misleading if those metrics are misleading. But the consensus of the indicators on that side of things suggests that this is all entirely appropriate -- Betts is a great defender having another elite season in the field. He's simply one of the best all-around players in the game and his team is having historic success. The race is not a done deal yet -- Ramirez could still push for a 40-40 season and is almost as well regarded defensively as Betts, Martinez might win the Triple Crown, and Trout is Trout -- but Betts appears to be the top pick for now.

AL Cy Young

Index leaders: 1. Chris Sale, Red Sox (3.73); 2. Trevor Bauer, Indians (3.44); 3. Blake Treinen, Athletics (3.02); 4. Corey Kluber, Indians (2.90); 5. Justin Verlander, Astros (2.74); 6. Edwin Diaz, Mariners (2.70).

This race appeared to be a two-pitcher race, but there's a problem: The two leading candidates are both on the disabled list. Bauer's leg fracture is likely to chew up most of the rest of his season, which might be a fatal blow to his candidacy. Perhaps if he had established himself as head and shoulders above the other contenders, it might be different. That's not the case.

Meanwhile, Sale is on the shelf with shoulder issues for the second time in the past month. It's not believed to be a major injury, but it's unclear when he'll return. Boston has a huge buffer when it comes to finishing with the best record in baseball, so there's no reason to push him. That could open the door for someone like Kluber, but the problem there is that with the Indians also running away with their division, he's not going to have many high-profile outings between now and October.

This very well could open the door for a reliever to win the award and, indeed, I've seen a few pieces appear over past couple of weeks wondering if Diaz will win wide support if he sets the saves record. The problem for Diaz isn't that he's a reliever, it's that he's not even the best reliever in his division.

That would be Treinen, who has to be considered a dark-horse candidate. Like all relievers, the value ratings don't measure up: He is 57th in baseball in fWAR, 62nd in bWAR and 70th in Win Shares. But Treinen leads the majors in WPA, as A's manager Bob Melvin has had to use him to close out a disproportionate number of close games. And they've been big games, too, for an Oakland team chasing a division title. Thus Treinen leads the AL in CPA. Diaz, on the other hand, ranks second in both WPA and CPA.

Treinen's traditional numbers are terrific. He's got a sub-1.00 ERA, a 4-1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio with 86 whiffs in just 62 innings. He should end up somewhere north of 40 saves. If Sale and Bauer have both reached the plateau of what they can produce for the rest of the regular season, and Treinen closes the door in some key games in a successful Oakland playoff push, he'll merit a serious look when ballot time arrives.

NL MVP & Cy Young

MVP Index leaders: 1. Max Scherzer, Nationals (4.63); 2. Aaron Nola, Phillies (3.97); 3. Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks (3.83); 4. Jacob deGrom, Mets (3.83); 5. Matt Carpenter, Cardinals (3.82); 6. Freddie Freeman, Braves (3.58); 7. Nolan Arenado, Rockies (3.50); 8. Lorenzo Cain, Brewers (3.14); 9. Christian Yelich, Brewers (2.91); 10. Javier Baez, Cubs (2.90).

Cy Young Index leaders: 1. Max Scherzer, Nationals (4.63); 2. Aaron Nola, Phillies (3.97); 3. Jacob deGrom, Mets (3.83).

I've lumped these two awards together because this is one of those seasons in which pitchers have nudged their way into the MVP conversation. I've listed a lot of candidates because I have no idea how this race is going to turn out. Because the NL is so tightly packed, there are going to be a number of high-stakes games over the next few weeks. This is a picture that could change nightly.

I'm generally on the side of going with a position player in the MVP race if at all possible. But sometimes there is a hurler who simply is too dominant (and valuable) to ignore. That said, I'm not sure I would vote for Scherzer over the other hurlers because his dominance has not been enough to keep the Nationals in contention. It's not his fault, but it is what it is.

Nola is right there with Scherzer. His fWAR (19th in the majors) is not elite because of that method's reliance on defense-independent methodology. (This is why I don't rely on any one value metric.) Nola is third in bWAR -- second in the NL -- but just 37th in Win Shares. Scherzer leads the NL in WPA but trailed Nola in CPA even before Nola outdueled him during Thursday's terrific matchup. In fact, that game -- eight shutout innings for Nola in a huge game for Philly -- is precisely the kind of performance I'm talking about in terms of a high-stakes outing tipping an awards chase in a player's favor.

DeGrom's eye-popping ERA and strikeout totals mark him as a deserving awards candidate, whether we're talking MVP or Cy Young. However, his value metrics fall short of Scherzer and Nola. DeGrom is even with Scherzer in fWAR, but is well off the pace in Win Shares. His win-probability numbers are elite but, with the Mets flailing, there has been little chance for him to compile championship probability.

For deGrom, the problem isn't that his won-lost record (8-8) isn't that great. We know that's not his fault. It's that he's having a great season when two other pitchers are having equally great seasons on better teams. All of these pitchers are close. Scherzer has been the best among them, but Nola's contributions have been the most meaningful, and he will have several more shots at high-stakes impact. I would not be surprised if Thursday's outing is the springboard that gets Nola the Cy Young award.

As for MVP ...

I'd be fine with giving it to whoever wins the three-headed Cy Young chase. But as much as I see that appropriate with how this season has played out, I'm not sure that is how the actual voting will go. There are some who still believe the MVP award should go to a position player. It's not a default position -- we've had MVP pitchers. I'm just not sure that this is one of the years the voters will see a clear enough gap between the top pitcher and the top position player.

That being the case, we should do our diligence and try to sort out the race among NL position players. However, this is basically impossible to do right now. There has been a different leader in the Index among this group in each of the past four weeks.

As you can see, the race between Goldschmidt and Carpenter could hardly be closer. Goldschmidt leads the majors in CPA and at this point of the season, that's a leaderboard that could flip with the next game-winning grand slam. Meanwhile, if you're a believer in momentum, the Cardinals have been one of baseball's hottest teams, and Carpenter's torrid streaks have been a primary driver of that fact.

Still, I wouldn't rule out any of the position players listed above. Like the pennant race itself, the NL MVP chase is truly too close to call. That's why these next five weeks are going to be so much fun.

What the numbers say

Sizing up the top managers

We didn't cover all the awards there, just the biggies. Here I want to delve into the managers, which is always going to be an even more subjective exercise. The practice of objectively rating managers is dicey. I've tried; others have tried. If it were a doable project, you'd be able to create some sort of "manager impact" rating that folded into your team projections. I'm not sure it's possible, at least for me.

But of course I do have a manager index that I look at. I don't want to get too deep into it, but what I do is rank managers according to the difference between how many games the team has won and how many it should have won. The first part of that is easy; the second is kind of like eating soup with a fork. My method is to track the day-by-day value of a team's roster, then average that rating for the season. That serves as my "should have won" measure, and the manager's rating is the difference between that and his team's actual wins.

However, it's hubris to call it a manager rating, because to take that difference and chalk it all up to managerial performance is to take a major leap of faith. So in the end, that's how I rank the managers, and along with that rating, I have roughly 200 categories I can look at -- performance, strategies, tendencies, etc. -- and from that, I can at least wade into the territory of judging the managers.

You always hear how the favorites in the Manager of the Year race are the ones whose team won when nobody expected them to. That's as good a way to look at managers as any, though I think you have to reframe that and ask which managers have squeezed the most extra wins from what they had to work with. That's what attempts at manager metrics try to do. At best, it's only a starting point for the discussion.

AL manager race

Favorites: 1. Bob Melvin, Athletics; 2. Alex Cora, Red Sox; 3. Scott Servais, Mariners.

Per my method of comparing wins to average roster value, the winner here should be Cora. Yes, the Red Sox were expected to be good, but no one thought they'd be as good as they are. I've got Boston on pace to finish 18.8 wins above average roster value, most in baseball. Melvin's A's are second at 17.5. Only one other manager is close, and he's my favorite for NL honors. We'll get to that.

I'm not going with my metric on the AL side. Given the way things stand right now, I think Melvin is the clear-cut winner here. Reasons:

1. Oakland overcame a so-so start. Let's not forget that the A's were below .500 as late as mid-June.

2. Melvin has overseen a bullpen that has been the driving force behind the team's success. Bullpen management is a primary skill for today's skippers. Plus his Cy Young-candidate closer, Treinen, has been a heck of a lot better for the A's than he was before he got to Oakland. Maybe Melvin doesn't deserve credit for that, but the ability to help established players get better is a thing that managers can do, or at least create the conditions where it can happen.

3. The Oakland rotation has been terrific. Have you seen those names? Sean Manaea is a very good starter in his prime. The rest of the rotation is comprised of 30-something castoffs. Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill were both jettisoned by the Cubs; Cahill was given the boot by both the Royals and Padres as well. Edwin Jackson has been set adrift by half the teams in the majors. Mike Fiers was left off Houston's postseason roster last year and was shipped to Detroit during the offseason. He did well there, but has been unhittable since going to Oakland earlier this month.

4. The A's are outplaying their run differential by more than Boston is outplaying its run differential, though it's close.

5. Oakland ranks third in defensive runs saved with the shift -- plus-27.

NL manager race

Favorites: 1. Brian Snitker, Braves; 2. Bud Black, Rockies; 3. Torey Lovullo, Diamondbacks; 4. Craig Counsell, Brewers; 5. Gabe Kapler, Phillies.

The Braves are on pace to out-win their average roster value by 16.8 games, 6.8 more than Black's Rockies. The rest are under eight. It's enough of a gap that in this case, I'd have to find a convincing reason to ignore my metric. I haven't found that reason.

Beyond that, why I like Snitker:

1. All kinds of intangible factors. Snitker has worked for the Braves since 1977. He sounds like an Atlantan, although that's not where he's from. These things mean that his presence helps keep the old Braves Way manifest in the clubhouse. He's been a steadying force after an offseason when his former boss (John Coppolella) was kicked out of baseball. He's adapted to a new boss (Alex Anthopoulos) who is much more analytically forward. And, finally, Snitker's even keel -- always keeping the team's focus on the day at hand -- has helped maintain a semblance of consistency for a young team enjoying a breakout season.

2. Speaking of that young team: No manager has gotten more WAR from rookies this season than Snitker. No, he doesn't procure the talent. But there have been many managers who have struggled to provide a setting where talent converts into production. Snitker does not appear to be one of them.

3. The Atlanta pitching staff has been a bit of a revolving door, with lots of injuries and lots of arms coming up and down from the system. The Braves' rotation has been middle of the pack, and Snitker has had to be flexible with bullpen roles. Despite the flux, Atlanta continues to win.

4. Snitker has maintained a good balance of smart baseball and the kind of aggressive baseball that fits the young athletes on his roster. Only three managers have leveraged a platoon edge more often than Snitker has with his hitters. Only two have attempted more steals and only one has been more efficient with those attempts. He ranks fourth in sacrifices and is at the top of the charts when it comes to moving runners when a batter is swinging. But the Braves rate very well in things like converting runners into runs and not losing runners on the basepaths. It's just good baseball, and it's been fun to watch.

5. Here's something you don't generally associate with big league managers: Snitker is largely egoless. He seems content to stay in the background and let his emerging young stars and quality veterans like Freeman take all the credit. The environment in Atlanta is a healthy one.

Since you asked

Bullpenning with Terry Francona

If you're an Indians fan, you're probably wondering where Terry Francona stands in those manager ratings. Or not. Either way, I'm going to tell you. Francona is right in the middle of the pack. Cleveland's average roster rating is that of a 94-win team. After losing in Boston on Thursday, thus finishing with a split in a big series against the Red Sox, the Indians are on pace to win 93 games.

The trajectory of Cleveland's season has been similar to last season. Despite a couple of mediocre months, the Indians hung around the top of their weak division before exploding to a huge lead. In my last run of simulations, the Indians won the AL Central 99.9 percent of the time. That it wasn't 100 percent only goes to show you that given enough universes, everything is possible.

One thing regarding Francona's season is that the Indians are on pace to finish 4.2 wins shy of their run profile, which is that of a 97.4-win team. It's hard to say why, though it seems likely to have much to do with Cleveland's early-season struggles in the bullpen, a major strength of the club in recent years.

Still, even in that regard, Francona stood out. He mixed and matched as best he could -- only two managers have had more relief outings of fewer than three outs. But he compensated for the relief issues by leaning heavily on one of baseball's most dynamic rotations. No team has averaged more innings per start (6.3) than Cleveland. Only Houston's rotation has a higher average pitch count or more outings of 100 pitches or more.

Luckily for Francona, that need to ride his starters has ebbed. With the Indians acquiring Brad Hand, Oliver Perez and Adam Cimber during the season, the bullpen has been better and deeper. If Andrew Miller can get back to his old self -- and he's allowed just a .115 batting average in August -- that group will line up up nicely in October. And with a huge lead in the division, Francona will be able to rest his starters as needed over the next few weeks. Assuming that Bauer gets back in time to ramp back up before the playoffs, Francona will be able to arrange his staff however he sees fit.

Here is some back and forth from Cleveland's recent stop in Chicago that speaks to the road ahead for an Indians franchise trying to win its first World Series since the Truman administration.

How big is it for you guys to have this added depth in the bullpen, especially given how heavy of a workload your starters carried earlier this season?

TERRY FRANCONA: Getting Cimber and Brad were huge for us. We're still working Andrew into trying to be Andrew. We know that the investment is worth it. But we think that our bullpen has the makings of being a really good bullpen. It might not be until the very end of the year that we actually see our bullpen, what it can be. At least that's the goal. For a while there, we had our struggles. It's been a lot better lately, but I still think our better days are ahead of us. A lot of that is because of Andrew.

I know you probably don't want to think ahead to October baseball, but with this added depth in the bullpen, and the strength of your rotation, you really can deploy your pitchers any way you want in the postseason. Ride a couple of hot starters, go heavy on the bullpen, whatever you want. Have you spend any time thinking through those possibilities?

TF: Well, you were right when you said at the beginning that I don't want to think ahead to October. It's Aug. 13. That's not a productive way to approach it.

Well, I had to try. Let me try to get at it another way. You've taken teams into the postseason after enjoying big division leads late in the season, and you've had teams in the postseason after races that have come down to the wire. What have you learned about navigating the finish for a team with a big lead?

TF: Like you said, it's been both. I think the best I've felt going into the playoffs is when you're able to line up your pitching. It's like in 2004, we were hanging around the Yankees until about four days left to go. Then it was decided we were going to be the wild card. I thought it was the best thing because then we could line up our pitching as opposed to go into the final day. You saw what happened. Then the next year, we had to pitch [Curt] Schilling the last day of the year. I think it was Cleveland who had pushed us to the end. So then against the White Sox, we started [Matt] Clement, they swept us out of the playoffs. So I think setting your pitching up is the biggest thing.

The other biggest thing, and this is my opinion, is because it's a game of rhythm and timing, what you do in between Sunday and sometimes you don't play until Thursday or Friday, that's a huge thing. Normally, you go from the last day of the year, and then you go into a playoff, all of a sudden everything is ramped up and amped up, and the game is going fast when the guys are sitting on four days off. So that's a huge, I don't know if it's a dilemma or a challenge, but it's something we constantly think about how we can attack that.

Coming right up

Help on way for contenders?

Next Friday marks the Aug. 31 deadline, the last day on which you can add a player from outside the organization and have him still eligible for the postseason. Players must clear waivers to be traded outright, or if they are claimed off waivers, then the claiming team can seek to work out a deal. Among those who could be in play include still-injured Blue Jays star Josh Donaldson, former MVP Andrew McCutchen, veteran outfielder Curtis Granderson and semi-resurgent starter Matt Harvey.

Keep an eye on the relievers, especially when it comes to the Dodgers, who by this point are desperate for middle-relief solutions. With the Nationals out of the running, free-agent-to-be Kelvin Herrera would seem to be a possibility. Toronto's Tyler Clippard and Tampa Bay's Sergio Romo also make some sense as potential trade chips.
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