NL Awards Ballot & Playoff Predictions

National League MVP: Bryce Harper, WAS

There is no other answer. Harper put together the kind of all-time performance that the world had been unfairly expecting of him since he had been put on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16. The now 22-year-old tied for the National League lead in homeruns (42), finished second in batting average (.330), first in on-base percentage (.460), first in slugging percentage (.649) and led the majors in both versions of Wins Above Replacement (9.5 fWAR, 9.9 bWAR). By Baseball-Reference WAR, Harper had the second greatest age-22 season of all time, trailing only Ted Williams legendary 1941 season in which he hit .406. There will be narratives working against Harper this voting season. After all, the Washington Nationals collapsed under sky-high expectations this year. They won just 83 games in a division that seems to be gift-wrapped for them prior to the season, and will likely go down as the most disappointing team in recent history. Players like Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen, Chicago’s Anthony Rizzo, the trifecta of pitchers vying for the Cy Young award, and yes, even the Mets’ Yoenis Cespedes all had great seasons and the added benefit of their teams making the postseason. But even if you buy into the theory that players should get a boost if their teams made the playoffs (I do not), it doesn’t close the gap. Harper’s season is an all-timer by any reasonable measure. The prophecy has been fulfilled, folks. With Harper and Trout we’ve found this generation’s Griffey and Bonds, Mays and Mantle, DiMaggio and Williams. Just buckle in and enjoy the ride.

 

National League Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw, LAD

This is like choosing children.

There couldn’t be a more perfect group to put your pitching beliefs to the test. Is it all about run prevention? If it is, then Zack Greinke is your guy. Greinke posted the first sub-1.70 ERA in two decades, dating back to when Greg Maddux pulled the feat off in back to back seasons from 1994-1995. He also posted the fourth best single-season WHIP since baseball was integrated in 1947, trailing just 2000 Pedro Martinez, 1995 Maddux and 1968 Dave McNally. Nobody was better at preventing runs from scoring in 2015 than Zack Greinke.

If you’re of a newer mindset though, you may not care as directly about pure run prevention. You might be of the opinion that a lot of the responsibility of run prevention falls on a team’s defense, and so classic stats like ERA don’t necessarily reflect how well a pitcher actually performed. After all, Greinke posted the lowest BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) in the league in 2015. This means that when hitters but the ball in play against Greinke, they hit a miniscule .229. Beyond that, Greinke also had the highest Left On Base percentage (LOB%) in the league by almost four full percentage points. So even when hitters were lucky enough to reach base, 86.5% of the time they were stranded there without scoring. While some of that is surely Greinke’s brilliant pitching, luck, defense and bullpen help also largely come into play.

If you’re swayed by the arguments in the previous paragraph, then let me introduce you to Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw, the defending NL Cy Young and NL MVP winner from a year ago, was decidedly not as good as Greinke in pure run prevention. After all, he posted an ERA that was almost a half-run higher than his Dodger counterpart. Most of that can be attributed to his merely great, rather than historic, BABIP (.279) and LOB% (78.3%). Where Kershaw shines is in Fielding-Independent Pitching metrics, or FIP. FIP attempts to do exactly what it says, by stripping away team defense, LOB% and luck from the equation. Since any ball that’s put into the field of play is subject to the team’s defense (a slow roller can find the hole for a hit, while a screaming line drive can be hit directly at someone for an out), FIP boils pitching down to the three things that a pitcher truly has control over: home runs, strikeouts and walks. Here, Kershaw was king. His 1.99 FIP bested the second-place Jake Arrieta by more than 1/3 of a run, and Greinke by more than 3/4 of one. Kershaw became the first pitcher to strike out 300 batters since 2002, when teammates Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling both managed it. He walked just two more batters than Greinke did in 10 more innings , while striking out 101 more people.

Oh, and just in case those two don’t do it for you, there’s Jake Arrieta. In one of the greatest half-seasons in the history of baseball, Arrieta allowed nine runs in 107.1 innings in the season’s second half. I will repeat that so you’re sure it’s not a typo: NINE runs in 107.1 innings. He struck out 113 batters during that span and walked 23. Arrieta managed to plant himself directly in the middle of Kershaw and Greinke in almost every major statistical measure. ERA? Better than Kershaw but not quite as good as Greinke (1.77). WHIP? Same thing (0.86). Strikeouts? Not nearly as dominant as Kershaw, but comfortably ahead of Greinke (236). FIP? Same thing (2.35).

The National League Cy Young race this year requires you to plant your flag somewhere. If you’re in the run prevention camp, you plant it with Greinke. If you’re in the FIP/dominance camp, you do so with Kershaw. If you want to split the difference and factor in the narrative of 22 wins and leading the Chicago Cubs back to the playoffs, you can stick with Arrieta. I do think there is something to be said for pure run prevention. Even if Greinke was extra fortunate in how few balls dropped in for hits, or how few of the runners he allowed on based came around to score, those things still happened. Greinke still least amount of runs in the league, and there’s certainly something to be said for that. At the same time though, Kershaw was pretty clearly the more dominant pitcher. Yes, 300 strikeouts is an arbitrary threshold. If he had struck out 290, which would have been a negligible difference in terms of value, he wouldn’t have received as much acclaim. But 300!! It’s such a pretty number. If that makes me a sucker then so be it. Kershaw is my NL Cy Young.

 

National League Rookie of the Year: Kris Bryant, CHC

Here are the seasons with the highest number of National League rookies worth more than 2.5 Wins Above Replacement since 1947.

<th data-stat="ranker" align="center" class="tooltip ranker sort_default_asc show_partial_when_sorting" tip="Rank
This is a count of the rows from top to bottom.
It is recalculated following the sorting of a column.” style=”background-color: #ddd; border: 1px solid #aaa; padding: 2px;” onmouseover=”” onmouseout=”” onclick=””>Rk

<th data-stat="year_id" align="left" class="tooltip sort_default_asc show_partial_when_sorting" tip="A Star indicates an all-star that season.
A Ring indicates the player appeared in WS for winning team.” style=”background-color: #ddd; border: 1px solid #aaa; padding: 2px;” onmouseover=”” onmouseout=”” onclick=””>Year

<th data-stat="lg_id" align="center" class="tooltip sort_default_asc" tip="League
AL – American League (1901-present)
NL – National League (1876-present)
AA – American Association (1882-1891)
UA – Union Association (1884)
PL – Players League (1890)
FL – Federal League (1914-1915)
NA – National Association (1871-1875)” style=”background-color: #ddd; border: 1px solid #aaa; padding: 2px;” onmouseover=”” onmouseout=”” onclick=””>Lg

<th data-stat="number_matched" align="center" class="tooltip show_partial_when_sorting" tip="Number matching the criteria set” style=”background-color: #ddd; border: 1px solid #aaa; padding: 2px;” onmouseover=”” onmouseout=”” onclick=””>#Matching

Tm
1 2015 7 Nick Ahmed / Kris Bryant / Matt Duffy / Randal Grichuk / Odubel Herrera / Jung Ho Kang / Addison Russell
2 2006 6 Josh Barfield / Ronny Paulino / Hanley Ramirez / Luke Scott / Dan Uggla / Ryan Zimmerman
3 2012 5 Nori Aoki / Zack Cozart / Yasmani Grandal / Bryce Harper / Andrelton Simmons
4 2005 5 Clint Barmes / Jeff Francoeur / Ryan Howard / Ryan Langerhans / Freddy Sanchez
5 1973 5 Ron Cey / Joe Ferguson / Johnny Grubb / Davey Lopes / Gary Matthews
6 1971 5 Gene Clines / Boots Day / Ralph Garr / Chris Speier / Earl Williams
7 1969 5 Nate Colbert / Richie Hebner / Manny Sanguillen / Ted Sizemore / Carl Taylor
8 1956 5 Don Blasingame / Walt Moryn / Frank Robinson / Lee Walls / Bill White
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 10/9/2015.

Seven NL rookies hit the mark in 2015, the most in history. It is an incredibly deep rookie class. The guys who will wind up as far down the ballot as sixth or seventh might be the favorites for the award in most other years. Matt Duffy, Jung-ho Kang and Odubel Herrera alone produced nearly 4 fWAR each, good enough to rank the trio among the 20 best National League position players in 2015. The depth of quality in this year’s class would lead you to believe that it’s a tight race. In reality, it’s a rout.

Kris Bryant was ranked the #1 prospect in baseball entering the season. Whether the Cubs should have brought him to Chicago immediately to start the season, or left him in Triple-A for a few weeks to delay his service-time clock became a national debate. The hype was sky-high for both Bryant and the Cubbies in 2015. They delivered.

Bryant ended his rookie campaign with a .275/.369/.488 line, with 26 homers and 99 RBIs. He swiped 13 bases in 17 tries for good measure. His 139 wRC+ places him among the top 10 NL hitters for the year, signifying that the newcomer was nearly 40% better than an average hitter in his first trip around the big leagues. No matter which version of WAR you prefer, Bryant ranked as one of the 5-10 best position players in the NL at age 23. Bryant is more than just the easy choice for Rookie of the Year. He’s a legitimate mid-ballot MVP consideration.

 

National League Comeback Player of the Year: Joey Votto, CIN

The Comeback Player of the Year is the one award where I don’t mind building in narrative. There aren’t any real guidelines for determining whether one comeback is better than another. Is it who had the better season? Do you factor in what they’re coming back from? It’s intentionally ambiguous.

I strongly considered Matt Harvey for this award. Harvey missed the entire 2014 season with Tommy John surgery. He returned in 2015 with a controversial 189.1-inning workload in which he posted a 2.71 ERA, 3.05 FIP and 188 strikeouts. Expecting Harvey to return with his new elbow ligament and immediately perform like the phenom he was in 2013 would be silly. A 4.4 fWAR/5.2 bWAR line in Harvey’s return is about as good as a Tommy John-comeback as you could possibly hope for. He’s a fine candidate for the award.

Still, I keep going back to Joey Votto. A former NL MVP in 2010, Votto fell on hard times in 2014, playing just 62 games after a quad strain derailed his season. Votto posted career lows in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage while struggling to stay healthy. Even before the injury-riddled 2014, his power had begun a precipitous fall. After mashing 37 home runs in his MVP year, his homer totals in the years following read as follows: 29-14-24-6. Entering his age-31 season, it seemed Votto’s best days were behind him and he’d continue forward as an expensive, high-OBP first baseman with middling power and injury issues. Instead, Votto rebounded to MVP-form by slashing .314/.459/.541 with 29 homers and finishing tied for second in the NL in fWAR. 2015 was arguably Votto’s finest season in the big leagues, even better than his MVP-winning 2010. If not for Bryce Harper, Votto would have a legitimate claim for the league’s top honor this year. As is, he belongs among the top five names on the ballot. With a season that good, it’s hard to not at least afford him some recognition as the Comeback Player of the Year.


Like the American League, I correctly predicted the outcome of the National League Wild Card game Wednesday night.

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I picked the Dodgers to win the World Series before the season. I subscribe to the idea that if your preseason pick is still in the mix, you have to ride it out. Here then, are the rest of my postseason predictions.

Divisional Series:

St. Louis Cardinals def. Chicago Cubs (5 games)

Los Angeles Dodgers def. New York Mets (5 games)

League Championship Series:

Los Angeles Dodgers def. St. Louis Cardinals (6 games)

World Series:

Los Angeles Dodgers def. Toronto Blue Jays (6 games)

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