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Tue. Jun 25th, 2019

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Awards Watch: Mike Trout and Justin Verlander

Mike Trout and Justin Verlander are putting together terrific seasons so far. What else is new? Trout paces the field of MVP candidates while Verlander looks like an early Cy Young favorite.

With the second month of the season in the books, things look a little more normal in the American League awards race. Some surprise names from April have filtered out, brought down by regression to the mean and a larger sample size, while established stars who got off to slow starts have taken their place after finding their expected level in May. Still, there are some unexpected stars in the MVP and Cy Young conversations, and the Rookie of the Year competition is largely free of the super-prospects who were supposed to be dominating it.

Here’s a look at the top players in all three awards chases as May draws to a close. (Check out the National League awards race, too)

This piece will pick 10 MVP contenders, five Cy Young choices, and three Rookie of the Year options, just like the actual BBWAA ballots. The rookie cut-off is 130 at-bats or 50 innings from the season(s) prior. Stats in bold indicate American League leader; stats in bold and italics indicate MLB leader. We used baseball-reference’s version of WAR below.

MVP

  1. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (Last Month: 1)

.283/.457/.572 (232 PA), 12 HR, 33 RBI, 6 SB (1 CS), 51 BB, 177 OPS+, 3.6 WAR

The only thing standing between Trout and being the top position player in baseball at the moment is Cody Bellinger being possessed by the ghost of Barry Bonds. Still, while Bellinger may be the 2019 champion, Trout still holds the Best Player Alive title belt. That said, his month of May was a step down from April—and yet he still hit .273/.425/.580. One concern at the moment: His strikeout rate jumped big-time this month, going from 11.8% in April to 20.4% in May.

  1. Jorge Polanco, SS, Twins (Last Month: 4)

.335/.405/.583 (232 PA), 9 HR, 26 RBI, 1 SB (1 CS), 24 BB, 161 OPS+, 3.4 WAR

After a blistering April, Polanco has kept up the pace in May, hitting .349/.420/.566 on the month. The biggest factors in his surprising season? First, he’s taking more walks than ever before: a career-high 10.3% rate. Second, he’s stopped hitting the ball into the dirt: His ground-ball rate has gone from 35.9% last year to 24.3 this season, aided by a big jump in launch angle (15.5 degrees to 21). And third, he’s hitting the ball hard: His average exit velocity is up a massive 3.4 mph, and his hard-hit rate has increased nearly 10 points. Put it all together, and you have a worthy challenger to Trout’s MVP throne.

  1. Joey Gallo, LF, Rangers (Last Month: 6)

.273/.418/.624 (208 PA), 15 HR, 35 RBI, 3 SB (0 CS), 41 BB, 164 OPS+, 2.9 WAR

Gallo has been good—his career OPS+ coming into 2019 was a fine if unspectacular 109—but the fantasy has always been him but with plate discipline. Unsurprisingly, then, the emergence of that version of him this year has turned him from all-or-nothing slugger into legitimate MVP candidate. He’s absolutely murdering the ball right now, with a league-high 57.8% hard-hit rate and 96.2 mph average exit velocity. Accordingly, when Gallo puts the ball in the air, it’s going a mile: His home-run-to-fly-ball rate is a ludicrous 42.9% despite a fly-ball rate that’s actually down from last year and well below his career rate. It all adds up to a breakout, superstar season that puts him squarely in the MVP conversation.

  1. Alex Bregman, 3B, Astros (Last Month: 7)

.270/.393/.571 (242 PA), 17 HR, 38 RBI, 2 SB/1 CS, 39 BB, 155 OPS+, 2.9 bWAR

Last month, I wrote that Bregman was on the outskirts of the MVP race due to his weak power numbers. He responded by cranking 12 homers and slugging .660 in 27 games in May to get within a whisker of the top three.

  1. Matt Chapman, 3B, Athletics (Last Month: 2)

.264/.347/.533 (212 PA), 14 HR, 32 RBI, 0 SB (1 CS), 25 BB, 135 OPS+, 3.1 WAR

Chapman went from scalding in April to tepid in May, hitting .245/.306/.500, though his continued surge in home runs coupled with his Gold Glove-caliber defense keeps him in my top five.

  1. George Springer, RF, Astros (Last Month: Not Ranked)

.308/.389/.643 (216 PA), 17 HR, 43 RBI, 4 SB (1 CS), 25 BB, 171 OPS+, 2.6 WAR

Thanks to a bananas month of May (.368/.432/.779), Springer, well, sprang into the MVP race … only to suffer a hamstring strain last weekend that landed him on the injured list and will cost him the next couple of weeks (and maybe knock him out of the June edition of this list).

  1. Hunter Dozier, 3B, Royals (Last Month: 3)

.314/.398/.589 (216 PA), 11 HR, 33 RBI, 1 SB (1 CS), 26 BB, 159 OPS+, 2.1 WAR

Dozier was a surprising top-three choice last month, and while he slowed down in May, hitting .286/.351/.510, those numbers, his overall line and his peripherals are all still good enough to keep him in the top 10.

  1. Mookie Betts, RF, Red Sox (Last Month: Not Ranked)

.291/.400/.484 (255 PA), 9 HR, 27 RBI, 6 SB (1 CS), 38 BB, 131 OPS+, 2.6 WAR

The defending AL MVP looked like he’d lost his crown early after a horrible first two weeks of the season, but he’s hit .336/.445/.538 since April 17 to get back into the thick of it.

  1. Michael Brantley, LF, Astros (Last Month: Not Ranked)

.330/.386/.547 (233 PA), 10 HR, 36 RBI, 3 SB (2 CS), 18 BB, 148 OPS+, 2.2 WAR

A healthy Brantley is a wonderful thing to see. The veteran outfielder is hitting even better this season than he did in 2014, when he finished third in the MVP voting with Cleveland, and has quietly been a huge part of Houston’s relentless offense.

  1. Tommy Pham, LF, Rays (Last Month: Not Ranked)

.305/.418/.488 (244 PA), 8 HR, 26 RBI, 6 SB (3 CS), 38 BB, 145 OPS+, 2.2 WAR

The competition for the final spot was as fierce as for No. 1. Ultimately, I gave the nod to Pham over Tim Anderson (slumped badly in May), Austin Meadows (hitting brilliantly but far behind in plate appearances after missing time with an injury) and Rafael Devers (just slightly behind Pham offensively and defensively).

Missed The Cut

Rafael Devers, 3B, Red Sox

J.D. Martinez, DH, Red Sox

Austin Meadows, RF, Rays

Gary Sanchez, C, Yankees

Carlos Santana, 1B, Indians

Cy Young

  1. Justin Verlander, RHP, Astros (Last Month: 5)

8–2 (12 GS), 79 1/3 IP (6.6 IP/GS), 2.38 ERA, 95 K, 17 BB, 13 HR, 182 ERA+, 2.8 WAR

At age 36, Verlander is still every bit the ace he was in his 20s with the Tigers. He’s given up more than three runs in a start just twice all season and just five total in his last four starts combined, all seven innings or more. His durability earns him points, too, as he’s thrown seven or more innings in seven of his 12 starts. On top of all of that, he’s fourth in the league in strikeout rate among qualified pitchers at 31.5% and eighth in walk rate at 5.6. Verlander is my bet for AL Cy Young honors this season.

  1. Mike Minor, LHP, Rangers (Last Month: 4)

5–4 (12 GS), 75 2/3 IP (6.3 IP/GS), 2.74 ERA, 80 K, 24 BB, 7 HR, 180 ERA+, 3.7 WAR

In April, I wrote that Minor’s peripherals—namely his average strikeout rate and high fly-ball ratio—would come back to bite him. So far, though, that hasn’t been the case; in fact, his K rate is now a healthy 26.1%, 12th-best among qualified AL pitchers. Minor was dominant in May, too, with just 10 runs allowed in 35 innings over six starts along with 41 strikeouts. That’s not enough to get him past Verlander, but it does keep him close.

  1. Matt Boyd, LHP, Tigers (Last Month: Not Ranked)

5–4 (12 GS), 72 2/3 IP (6.1 IP/GS), 2.85 ERA, 88 K, 15 BB, 7 HR, 163 ERA+, 2.9 WAR

Armed with an unhittable slider—it has a .206 batting average against and whiff rate of 39.3%—Boyd has gone from middling lefty to southpaw ace. Aside from two tough starts back to back against Houston and Oakland, he was excellent in May, with a 2.55 ERA on the month and 40 punchouts in 35 1/3 innings, and on the season, his 29.9% strikeout rate ranks seventh in the AL.

  1. Lucas Giolito, RHP, White Sox (Last Month: Not Ranked)

7–1 (10 GS), 60 IP (6 IP/GS), 2.85 ERA, 69 K, 20 BB, 4 HR, 157 ERA+, 1.9 WAR

A top prospect since roughly the dawn of the Bronze Age, Giolito has finally—finally—found himself. The righty has allowed just five runs over his last five starts, including a dazzling complete-game shutout of the Astros on May 23. A poor start to the season and a couple of weeks missed with a hamstring strain that left him short on innings are keeping him out of the top three, but he has room to climb.

  1. Jake Odorizzi, RHP, Twins (Last Month: 3)

7–2 (11 GS), 58 1/3 IP (5.3 IP/GS), 2.16 ERA, 61 K, 20 BB, 4 HR, 207 ERA+, 2.0 WAR

This last spot was between Odorizzi and defending Cy Young Blake Snell, and while the latter has more strikeouts and is a better bet to get and stay on this list, I’ll go with the former for now. Odorizzi has excelled at run prevention despite a middling strikeout rate thanks in large part to Twins manager Rocco Baldelli keeping him from going deep into games: The righty has pitched past the sixth just twice this season and faced a lineup a third time in only 42 plate appearances. That helps Odorizzi’s production, but it puts a ceiling on his innings and overall numbers, which will likely doom his Cy Young chances going forward.

Missed The Cut

Charlie Morton, RHP, Rays

Blake Snell, LHP, Rays

Rookie of the Year

  1. Brandon Lowe (196 PA, .283/.335/.538, 11 HR, 131 OPS+, 2.1 WAR)
  2. Dan Vogelbach (190 PA, .245/.376/.572, 15 HR, 155 OPS+, 1.3 WAR)
  3. Spencer Turnbull (60 2/3 IP, 2.97 ERA, 62 K, 23 BB, 157 ERA+, 1.6 WAR)

This was supposed to be a battle between Eloy Jimenez and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., but with both struggling, they’ve been displaced by some other impressive freshmen. Lowe and Vogelbach were both in my April top three, and though each struggled somewhat in May, they’ve done enough to stay in it. Elbowing Willians Astudillo out is Turnbull, an unheralded righty who’s emerged as the No. 2 to Matt Boyd in Detroit. His excellent year on the mound also keeps hard-hitting Red Sox second baseman Michael Chavis out of the top three, though there’s plenty of time for him—as well as Jimenez, Guerrero and the rest—to break through.

Missed The Cut

Ty Buttrey, RHP, Angels

Griffin Canning, RHP, Angels

Michael Chavis, 2B, Red Sox

Yusei Kikuchi, LHP, Mariners

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