National League Award Predictions: deGOAT Reigns Supreme

With awards season in full swing, we decided to do a little award voting of our own here at M-SABR. We voted for MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year in both leagues and below are the results from our National League award voting, in which 18 members of M-SABR participated. Voters were asked to choose their top 10 players for MVP, top 5 for Cy Young, and top 3 for Rookie of the Year. Here are the results (first-place votes denoted in parenthesis).

NL MVP

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Winner: Christian Yelich, OF, Milwaukee Brewers

Before I begin my write-up, let’s take a look back at the preseason prediction blurb I wrote for why Christian Yelich would win the NL MVP:

At first glance, Christian Yelich’s numbers don’t scream MVP. He’s never hit over .300 and has only averaged 12 home runs and 59 RBIs during his first 5 major league seasons. However, Yelich has a number of factors going in his favor. He is just entering his prime at age 26 and has seen his numbers steadily improve over the past few seasons. In 2017, he slugged .391 at pitcher-friendly Marlins Park, compared to .484 in road games. The move to the hitter-friendly Miller Park will help his power numbers dramatically and make him a 30 HR threat for the Brewers next season. In addition, he is projected to bat near the top of the lineup in a star-studded lineup including OF Lorenzo Cain, 3B Travis Shaw, and OF Ryan Braun, which should provide him plenty of RBI and run-scoring opportunities. Lastly, moving from the laughing stock of the NL East (and all of baseball… let’s be honest) to a young, exciting playoff contender in Milwaukee will give him extra motivation to put out an amazing season for the Brewers. While he may not be a household name like Stanton or Ozuna, Christian Yelich is poised for a breakout season and is my pick for NL MVP.

Editor’s note: Click here to see the rest of our (admittedly not as impressive) preseason predictions.

I don’t want to brag or anything, but I think I might be able to predict the future.

If you break this down and compare it to Yelich’s actual season, this is pretty spot-on. The move to Miller Park had a significant effect on his power numbers, as he posted a fantastic .593 SLG in 2018—a full 110 points higher than his previous career-high set in 2016 (.483), and tops among all National League batters. He blew past his previous career high in home runs, as he hit 36 home runs in 574 at-bats for the Brewers. To put that in context, he hit a combined 39 home runs in 1180 at-bats between 2016 and 2017 for the Marlins. Yelich’s home run total was the third highest in the National League, only behind Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story, who were blessed to play half of their games in the best hitter’s park on the planet.

Batting atop the star-studded Brewers lineup did indeed give him plenty of run-scoring opportunities, as he posted the second-highest average (.326) and third-highest OBP (.402) in the National League en route to 118 runs scored (only 1 behind NL leader Charlie Blackmon). When Yelich did get on base, he was often a nuisance for starting pitchers, finishing with a career-high 24 stolen bases, while only getting caught four times. Not only did Yelich score a lot of runs, but he also drove in runs in bunches. Yelich’s 110 RBIs were second in the National League behind only Javier Baez.

In conclusion, Christian Yelich was the best, most well-rounded player in the National League. His strong performance carried the Brewers through multiple stretches, and he is a big reason why the Brewers were the top seed in the National League playoffs and came one game short of a World Series appearance. Not to mention, he’ll only be 27 at the start of next season, is just hitting his stride, and is signed to one of the most team-friendly contracts in baseball. If you are voting for any position player for NL MVP not named Christian Yelich, you are truly insane.
 – Sahil Shah

Jacob deGrom, SP, New York Mets

Am I completely biased in picking deGrom over Yelich for NL MVP? Absolutely. But it’s not as though there isn’t a legitimate case to be made that deGrom deserves the MVP.

It’s hard to compare pitchers to hitters but WAR attempts to do just that—and deGrom has the edge in both rWAR (10.0 to 7.6) and fWAR (8.8 to 7.6). Generally speaking, I write WAR off when the difference is less than a win, but those are both significant gaps.

Yes, Yelich helped his team to a playoff berth for the first time since 2011 and deGrom only had 10 wins, but it’s not deGrom’s fault that he got almost no run support whatsoever and that his team couldn’t win ballgames. deGrom gave the Mets an excellent chance to win every time he took the mound; had the Mets scored just four runs in each of his starts the team’s record would flip from 13-18 to 17-10 (with four games going into extra innings).

And deGrom’s season wasn’t just good in the context of other players in the National League in 2018. It was historically good. He had a top-10 season of any pitcher since WWII (I won’t spoil all of the fun stats; I put some good stuff into the deGrom Cy Young blurb below) and historic performances should be rewarded. Sure, Yelich performed well compared to other hitters in the NL in 2018, but his MVP campaign was not historic like deGrom’s season was. deGrom was simply the best player in the National League in 2018 and he should take home the MVP because of it.
– Max Brill

Javier Baez, 2B, Chicago Cubs

If you’re not voting Christian Yelich for NL MVP, you’re crazy, and I am saying that as a Cubs fan. Sure, there are a few arguments for Baez to be the NL MVP: he plays multiple positions, he held a struggling Cubs offense together all year long, and he was (without a doubt) the best player on the Cubs this year. Yes, he had a lot of RBI’s; yes, he had a lot of home runs; yet, Yelich leads him in HR, R, SB, BB%, K%, BABIP, AVG, OBP, SLG, wOBA, wRC+, and WAR. There’s statistics there for traditional baseball fans and more sabermetric-minded ones. Baez had an incredible season, and he deserves to be an MVP finalist, but he won’t be the NL MVP and he shouldn’t be. He does do one thing that Yelich can’t, though:

That, alone, deserves MVP consideration. But I think we all know Christian Yelich is the winner here.
– Duncan Wallis

Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado Rockies

Though Arenado was not quite as good as Christian Yelich, the favorite for NL MVP, he was not too far behind—the Colorado 3B was third among NL hitters in fWAR. Arenado actually hit more homers than Yelich (38 to 36), and though Arenado didn’t have more overall production on offense, he walked more and struck out less than Yelich. He also continued to flash his stellar defense at third base, earning his 6th Gold Glove in as many seasons and reminding everyone that he is certainly the best defensive third baseman in the game. Though Yelich is the likely NL MVP winner, Arenado’s continued greatness deserves recognition.
– Conor Stemme

Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta Braves

After the 2014 season, many people thought the Braves were ill-advised in their decision to keep Freddie Freeman through their rebuild; critics thought his prime would be wasted on a rebuilding team. However, the Braves rebuild was one of the most efficient and swift turnarounds we have seen in recent years as the Braves looks to be contenders for the foreseeable future once again and Freeman is still just 29 years old.

The first baseman had another terrific season in 2018, hitting .300 for the 4th time in his career and setting career-bests in hits, doubles, and stolen bases. He also picked up his first career Gold Glove this past weekend. He also played in all 162 games in 2018, a testament to his durability. Freeman finished 6th in the league in fWAR, which is even more impressive considering that WAR penalizes first basemen for their position. Freeman was the engine of the exciting Braves lineup and he went above and beyond his expectations this season, which, along with the newfound success of the Braves, warrant him serious MVP consideration.
 – Will Pharo

NL Cy Young

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Winner: Jacob deGrom, New York Mets

Jacob deGrom had an ERA- of 45 in 2018 (meaning he was more than twice as good as the league average pitcher), which is tied for the 9th-best mark of any pitcher since World War II. Sure, he was only 10-9, but when you have a 1.70 ERA, the 10th-lowest mark of any qualified pitcher since WWII, you can get a pass on a shoddy record. He also had the second-highest strikeout rate (behind Max Scherzer) and third-lowest walk rate (behind Miles Mikolas and Zack Greinke) among all NL pitchers and posted those marks while throwing the second-most innings in all of baseball in 2018. He also averaged nearly 7 innings per start, the highest mark in the majors. deGrom is a no-brainer to take home the Cy Young and I’m hoping it will be unanimous but I’m not sold that the Washington writers will be able to put aside their Nationals bias.
 – Max Brill

Max Scherzer, SP, Washington Nationals

When a two-time reigning Cy Young winner has a career year and does not receive a single first-place vote in our M-SABR balloting, you know something pretty special happened. That was Jacob deGrom in 2018.

Yet, speaking of that career year, let us take a second to appreciate just how dominant Mad Max was throughout what was ultimately a lost season for the Nats. His 7.2 fWAR trailed only deGrom—granted that was by 1.6 fWAR, or essentially one Jon Lester—and his 300 strikeouts (!!!) led all of baseball. Couple that with a career-best 2.65 FIP and 0.91 WHIP over 220.1 innings of his trademark fiery passion and energy, and it’s really a shame Mad Max won’t three-peat. Though with an NL-leading 18 wins, you never know what the voters might do! Either way, this should be deGrom, no matter how good Scherzer was.
 – Max Smith

Aaron Nola, SP, Philadelphia Phillies

Aaron Nola’s season would have been even more remarkable if not for deGrom and Scherzer playing in the same division. And though the season numbers may point to deGrom or Scherzer being better candidates for NL Cy Young, Nola was better than both of his NL East rivals in head-to-head matchups. Nola faced Scherzer twice and outpitched him both times: 17 strikeouts and 1 earned run in 14 innings compared to Scherzer’s 15 strikeouts and 5 earned runs in 12 innings. deGrom and Nola only faced off once and deGrom was pulled after walking four batters in the first inning. Nola’s ERA of 2.37 was 4th in Major League Baseball and second in the NL. He was also second in wins in the National League behind just Scherzer.  Nola may not have led the league in any stat, but he was the Phillies’ stopper all season long. deGrom is the clear Cy Young winner, but Nola was excellent in his own right and would warrant consideration had deGrom not had such a ridiculous year.
 – Conor Stemme

NL Rookie of the Year

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Winner: Ronald Acuña, LF, Atlanta Braves

Both Acuña and Soto are equally deserving of the NL Rookie of the Year and it’s a shame that they both debuted in 2018 because they would both be favorites in nearly any other year. Unfortunately, they have to face off against each other for the award and only one of them can win.

I voted for Acuña for three reasons:

  1. He played better defense.
  2. He ran better.
  3. He has his own subreddit.

Seriously, that’s what it came to for me. Picking between these two is splitting hairs; Acuña had four more homers than Soto (26 to 22), Soto’s wRC+ was three points higher (146 to 143), and Acuña bested Soto’s batting average by just one point (.293 to .292). Soto exhibited better plate discipline but Acuña hit for more power. They also posted identical fWAR totals (3.7 apiece).

Acuña, though, outpaced Soto in steals (16 to 5) and BsR, Fangraphs’ baserunning metric, (2.8 to 2.0). He also posted a positive outs above average of 4, whereas Soto’s mark of -4 made him a below-average defender during his time in the bigs.

That’s it. None of the gaps in stats where Acuña has the clear edge are even that big. But he is The Ronald, so I had to give him the nod.
 – Max Brill

Juan Soto, LF, Washington Nationals

Unlike its AL counterpart that featured only one truly historic candidate, the NL Rookie of the Year race featured two historically great rookies, including the best teenage hitter of all time: Juan Soto, whose 142 OPS+ was the highest by a player 19 years old or younger with 300 PA since 1925.

Yet beyond that simple age discrepancy, it is nearly impossible to separate the young National and his fellow NL East outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr., though the Ringer’s Michael Baumann takes an excellent closer look in this piece. By season’s end, their stat lines were nearly identical, and both remarkably impressive. Acuña had 26 HR to Soto’s 22, but Soto had 70 RBI to Acuña’s 64. Acuña’s .293 BA was one point higher, but Soto’s 146 wRC+ narrowly beat Acuña by three. Even more impressively their 3.7 fWAR was the exact same.

What this race really comes down to is a difference in styles. Acuña was one of the most hyped prospects since Bryce Harper and the power outbursts he displayed throughout his rookie season elicited jaw drops from even the most casual fans. Meanwhile, Soto’s exceptional plate discipline—he had a 16.0 BB%—demonstrated a level of plate discipline rarely seen in a hitter of his age.

Both NL rookies were historically great, both of them have exceptionally bright futures ahead, and both of them deserve to win this award. Acuña won the M-SABR edition, and we’ll see who takes home the real hardware later this month.
 – Max Smith

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