Atlanta entered Wednesday at least two games ahead of the other likely playoff teams for the best record in the NL. And, in fact, it was a three-game lead considering any ties go to the Braves — they won the season series against Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Cincinnati.
So while we watch the jockeying for playoff seeding the next couple of weeks, let’s take a look at the award contenders in each league this year. We will give a full playoff preview in two weeks.
This is an intriguing race, with Clayton Kershaw, Andrew McCutchen, Yadier Molina and Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman all top candidates.
Kershaw leads major league starters in ERA (1.92) and is third in baseball in batting average against (.194). He’s only 14-8 since he’s been the victim of poor run support, but without him, the Los Angeles Dodgers may not be in the playoffs. He’s one of the top five pitchers in the game and is a nightmare matchup for any team.
McCutchen is one of the most exciting players in baseball to watch. He has power and speed and his defense is exceptional. He’s on the cusp of a 20-20 season and could very well end up with 20 homers and 30 steals. Oh, and he’s helped lead the Pirates to their first winning record since 1992.
Molina is consistently regarded as one of the best catchers in baseball. He’s thrown out 16 of 38 would-be base stealers and always receives enormous praise from his pitchers on his game calling and preparation. Offensively, Molina has a modest 11 homers and 65 RBIs, but he has a .318 batting average and .358 OBP to go with it.
Freeman has in many ways become the face of the Braves. The just-turned 24-year-old (yes, just 24) is batting .309, sports a .384 OBP and joined Chipper Jones as the only Braves player to hit 20 home runs in each of his first three seasons. He also will finish with his first 100-RBI season. And his defense is lauded by Braves infielders.
Predicted order of finish: McCutchen, Kershaw, Freeman, Molina.
NL Cy Young
Kershaw leads a contingent that includes Adam Wainwright, Craig Kimbrel and Jose Fernandez.
Wainwright has bounced back beautifully from Tommy John surgery, posting a 16-9 record with a 3.03 ERA. He has as many shutouts on the season as Kershaw (two) but his other stats don’t measure up.
Fernandez, the excitable rookie pitcher of the Miami Marlins, may have raised Atlanta’s dander a bit this past week with his antics, but there’s no denying his talent. Fernandez has a chance to be a superstar and is every bit as good as highly regarded youngsters Matt Harvey and Stephen Strasburg. As a 20-year-old on a terrible team, Fernandez posted a 12-6 record with 187 strikeouts in 172 2/3 innings over 28 starts. That’s impressive.
Kimbrel just continues to be a beast. His stats in his past 112 appearances (since 5/8/12) are absurd: 0.73 ERA, 111 1/3 IP, 51 H, 9 R, 23 BB, 184 K, .134 opponents batting average. For this year, Kimbrel has a 0.91 ERA, 87 strikeouts in 59 2/3 innings and 46 saves. Cy Young voters tend to ignore closers, preferring to award starters, but Kimbrel’s sheer dominance demands attention.
Zack Greinke and Francisco Liriano have had impressive seasons, too. But they likely don’t have the juice the aforementioned guys do with the voters.
Predicted order of finish: Kershaw, Kimbrel, Fernandez, Wainwright
NL Rookie of the Year
This and AL MVP are the two best races this year. Yasiel Puig, Matt Harvey, Fernandez and Julio Teheran are worthy contenders.
Puig has been a monster since he was called up in June, batting .339 with 16 home runs. Harvey was having a dominant season (9-5, 2.39 ERA) before injuring his elbow. He saw Dr. James Andrews on Monday — not a good sign.
Teheran has finally shown the potential Braves fans have heard about for years, putting together a tremendous year (12-7, 3.05 ERA).
But in the end, the bright lights of Los Angeles will lift Puig.
Predicted order of finish: Puig, Fernandez, Teheran, Harvey
With apologies to Baltimore’s Chris Davis, this is a two-horse race, just like it was last year. Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera and Anaheim’s Mike Trout will finish 1-2 in the voting. But who will win?
Cabrera beat out Trout last year thanks in part to winning the first Triple Crown (average, home runs and RBIs) since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. If it weren’t for Davis’ 49-43 home run advantage this year, Cabrera would be on track to win it again. He’s batting .349 with 133 RBIs — amazing.
But Trout is no slouch. In fact, he’s the best all-around player in baseball. He entered the weekend on pace for 201 hits, 104 walks, 112 runs, 94 RBIs, 36 steals and 78 extra-base hits. His defense also is solid and much better than Cabrera’s.
If Cabrera were to win the Triple Crown again this year, I’d give him the edge. But if he doesn’t …
Predicted order of finish: Trout, Cabrera, Davis
AL Cy Young
This is probably the most difficult of the awards to pick because, well, all of the leading candidates are flawed.
Max Scherzer, Yu Darvish, Felix Hernandez and Chris Sale are probably the leading contenders, with Anibal Sanchez lurking close behind.
If you look at Scherzer’s 19-3 record, he seems like no-brainer for the award. But the other statistics tell a different story.
Scherzer has the third best run support in the AL with 5.62 runs a game. Sale, who owns an 11-12 record, has the 38th best run support at 3.26 runs a game. But Sale’s ERA is better (2.90-3.01). He also leads the AL in complete games, has the highest quality start percentage and is tied with Darvish and Justin Verlander in second place for pitches per game, which shows he’s pitching deep into games. Sale also has the worst defense behind him of the top three ERA+ leaders, when a pitcher’s ERA is compared to league average and factoring in the park factors of the home team.
Hernandez won the 2010 Cy Young with a 13-12 record. If Sale can’t get his record above .500, he probably won’t have a shot. But you could make the argument that he should.
Predicted order of finish: Scherzer, Darvish, Sanchez, Sale, Hernandez
AL Rookie of the Year
This is the least exciting of the awards races.
Wil Myers of Tampa Bay debuted in June and has posted 11 home runs and 44 RBIs while hitting .292 for a Rays team scratching to make the playoffs. Teammate and starting pitcher Chris Archer has shown great promise on his way to an 8-7 record and a 3.19 ERA. Detroit’s Jose Iglesias is known as a defensive wizard and has certainly helped the Tigers since this summer’s trade with Boston. His offense has been surprising. He’s hitting .317 with a .362 OBP, but he has only three home runs and 29 RBIs. Overall, it’s not an exciting field of AL rookies.
Predicted order of finish: Myers, Archer, Iglesias