The 2018 season brought us tons of surprises. But when it comes to the game's top performers, you'll still find many of the game's brightest stars vying for postseason hardware. The question is, did they do enough to come out on top?
Let's take a stroll through the three major awards in each league: Most Valuable Player, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year. (We're omitting Manager of the Year, because I have a Baseball Writers Association of America ballot for NL MOY and thus can't reveal my picks. OK fine, I'm voting for Connie Mack.)
National League Most Valuable Player
One theory that has long circulated in certain circles is that pitchers shouldn't win MVP awards, because the Cy Young award is meant to recognize the league's best pitcher, while MVP is reserved for position players. The problem with this theory is that there's absolutely nothing in the BBWAA voting instructions that says anything of the sort. Absent that guidance, I believe that the most valuable player in the league should include players of all stripes, including pitchers.
Another theory that has long held sway is that the league's most valuable player must come from a winning team, specifically a playoff team. The cynical argument supporting that claim is that Team X finished third (or fourth, or last) with Player X, so what difference would it have made if that team went the whole season without that player. The problem with that theory is that baseball is the least team-oriented of the big four North American sports, with the game boiling down to individual battles between pitchers and hitters. If even the best baseball players can't do all that much to make their teammates better (the way, say, LeBron James can control the entire game by having the ball in his hands), then the best we can do is to give the MVP award to the player who had the best season, irrespective of his team's record. Otherwise, the MVP award becomes a proxy for the General Manager of the Year award, since there's not much a superstar player can do if his bosses give him a bunch of crappy teammates.
All this is to say, Jacob deGrom posted better numbers than anyone in the National League, position player or pitcher. He was a metronome of consistent greatness, setting all-time records for the most consecutive quality starts and the most consecutive starts allowing three runs or fewer, while also flashing a microscopic 1.70 ERA, plus the peripheral stats to back it all up. Max Scherzer was both the second-best pitcher and second-best overall player in the league, so he finishes second on my ballot. The Nationals being wildly disappointing and the Mets being the Mets should have no bearing on how voters vote.
American League Most Valuable Player
Every year, we figure that Mike Trout has shown us his best. How else could we describe a player whose "Similar Batters through Age 25" list on Baseball Reference is topped by inner-circle Hall of Famers Frank Robinson, Ken Griffey Jr., Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron? But then there's this:
MIKE TROUT YEAR-BY-YEAR
wRC+ is an offensive stat that measures everything a player does with the bat, adjusts for home-park effects, then spits out a score calibrated to 100; 120 means a player hit 20 percent better than league average, 140 means a player hit 40 percent better than league average and so on. Trout might not make quite as many ludicrous catches nor swipe as many bases as he used to, but he's somehow still improving as a hitter. In the past 50 years, only 11 other hitters have fared better by park-adjusted offense (Barry Bonds did it six times, because Barry Bonds is the best player in baseball history).
All of this is a long way of saying that while Mookie Betts is an incredible player enjoying one of the best seasons in major-league history (for one of the best teams in major-league history), Trout has actually hit slightly better, while playing a more challenging defensive position (which also takes nothing away from Betts, who has been the best defensive right fielder in the majors for three years running). Call it 1 and 1A if you like, with Trout getting the final edge by the slimmest of margins.
National League Cy Young
On Tuesday, Scherzer became the first right-handed pitcher in 16 years to bank 300 strikeouts in a season ... and he still wasn't the best pitcher in the league. This was one really tough year to win awards.
While we're here, a mile-high tip of the cap to starters German Marquez and Kyle Freeland, the young co-aces who have the Rockies one weekend away from shocking the baseball world to win the NL West despite the team's lackluster offense. We have now had two straight years of evidence that you can in fact develop quality pitching at mile-high altitudes, and that Colorado can in fact thrive through top-notch scouting and development of talented arms.
American League Cy Young
Another very close race, with Verlander getting the nod for returning to his old ace status in Houston. Verlander punched out 280 batters and walked just 36 this season, netting an absurd strikeout-to-walk rate just shy of 8-to-1 that obliterated his previous career best.
Even with that standout performance, this vote might've gone a different way if Sale and/or Bauer hadn't missed significant time with injuries. On a per-inning basis, Sale and Bauer would've been my top two picks.
Three additional notes:
- Blake Snell was awesome this season, but his 21 wins don't factor into my vote at all, because wins depend so much on run support, defensive support and plain old luck that they become a pretty lousy way to measure a pitcher's performance in a single season.
- Corey Kluber would be No. 6 on my ballot if the Cy Young vote offered more than five slots to fill in. It takes a damn impressive group of pitchers for the consistently dominant Klubot to somehow finish out of the money.
- Blake Treinen has evolved into a stone-cold killer and the leader of an indomitable bullpen that helped push the A's to an improbable playoff run ... but relievers are just former starters who weren't good enough to hack it in the far more difficult role of firing 100 pitches per appearance, instead of 12. There's pretty much no scenario in which I would ever pick a relief pitcher to win Cy Young, and I wouldn't pick any reliever other Mariano Rivera to make the Hall of Fame, for similar reasons. (Dennis Eckersley and John Smoltz were very good starting pitchers who derived a lot of their value out of that role before shifting to the pen, so they make the cut.)
National League Rookie of the Year
Sweet sassy molassy that's a loaded rookie class. Buehler has a top-10 Cy Young case aside from his rookie status, with a 28.6 percent strikeout rate and a 50 percent ground-ball rate that's the stuff aces are made of. Soto is an impossibly young 19 years old, yet he already controls the strike zone like he's Joey Votto, with tape-measure power to boot. Acuna is a 20-year-old, five-tool terror whose numbers prorated to 162 games equal 39 homers, 24 steals and a better slugging average than MLB home-run leader Khris Davis. Yikes.
American League Rookie of the Year
Ohtani is about to undergo Tommy John surgery, meaning that instead of swinging a bat four or five times a week next season, he'll get to do so every day. Given how preposterously talented he is, Ohtani could be an absolute beast at the plate in 2019 ... albeit one who's going to be overshadowed by his teammate, who'll celebrate his eighth season as the best player in the world.