18 surprising MLB awards candidates

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

While many of the expected names have dominated the 2018 MLB season, we’ve also seen some standout performances from some unexpected players.

Certainly, Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout is a top American League MVP candidate. But as great as Trout and Boston Red Sox star Mookie Betts have been, there are others, including one of Trout’s teammates with the Halos, that must be recognized as candidates.

Similarly, Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom have emerged as the two leading candidates for the National League Cy Young Award. But the Senior Circuit also boasts some surprising pitchers who are on their way towards at least getting some votes.

We’re not saying that these players would win these awards if the voting were held today. We’re certainly not saying that they’ll maintain their current paces through the season. But while they are surprising, these players are all legitimate candidates to win the MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year in both the American and National Leagues.

Note: Stats accurate through games on Sunday, June 3. 

AL MVP: Andrelton Simmons, shortstop, Los Angeles Angels

While we generally think of MVP candidates as power hitters, Simmons finds other ways to impact games. He’s second in the American League with a .336 average and sports a clean .405 OPB. Also, while Simmons has only four home runs, he’s slugging .469 and has 18 extra-base hits. So, even if the immense power isn’t there, Simmons has been far from a slap hitter. He’s doing damage with the bat. On top of that, Simmons is playing his usual top-tier defense at a premium position. He’s worthy of being called an MVP candidate.

NL Cy Young: Patrick Corbin, starting pitcher, Arizona Diamondbacks

In the three seasons after Tommy John Surgery (2015-2017), Corbin put up a 4.35 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, and 8.1 strikeouts per nine innings of work. In 2017, he had a 4.03 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, and 8.4 K/9. Nothing about that really screams Cy Young contender. This year, though, he’s been one of baseball’s best. Corbin has a 2.99 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, and has struck out 11.7 per nine. Corbin has 98 strikeouts, tying him with Jacob deGrom for second in the National League, trailing only Max Scherzer. That’s a Cy Young-caliber season.

AL Rookie of the Year: Ryan Yarbrough, starting pitcher, Tampa Bay Rays

Given how Tampa has managed its pitching staff, it’s hard to classify Yarbrough as a starter or reliever. But regardless of what label we give him, Yarbrough has been effective. He has a 3.38, 1.13 WHIP, and a 8.8 K/9 rate. The Rays have a tendency to move their prospects along slowly. That frequently leads to them getting overlooked in favor of younger prospects who move through the minors quicker. But in the case of Yarbrough, it’s paid off.

NL MVP: Nick Markakis, right fielder, Atlanta Braves

Markakis has a .328 batting average, which puts him is fourth in the National League. He’s backed that up with a .392 OBP, .489 slugging percentage, and seven home runs, helping to spark an offense that’s been one of baseball’s best. From 2013-2017, Markakis averaged three home runs a year and hit .277/.348/.380. He definitely belonged in the majors, but there was nothing to suggest that Markakis — entering his age 34 season — would be an MVP candidate. However, he’s been just that.

AL Cy Young: Daniel Mengden, starting pitcher, Oakland Athletics

With only 48 strikeouts in 74.1 innings, Mengden may not fit the classic model of a modern pitcher. Even still, Mengden has prevented runs, and runners, in general. He has a 2.91 ERA and 0.97 WHIP. While those kind of numbers with mediocre strikeout totals can suggest to some good luck, they also point to a pitcher who’s just not allowing loud contact. With only eight walks, whatever loud contact Mengden has allowed hasn’t done much damage. The way Mengden has pitched in 2018 deserves ample praise.

NL Rookie of the Year: Joey Lucchesi, starting pitcher, San Diego Padres

The Padres have plenty of young hitters that give fans hope for the future. Pitchers like Lucchesi give San Diego and its fans reason to be optimistic about the franchise’s young arms, too. Lucchesi is, unfortunately, temporarily on the shelf. But in nine starts, he posted a 3.23 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, and a 9.1 K/9 rate. Not bad for a guy that was only the ninth ranked prospect in his own organization entering the year. If Lucchesi continues at that pace when he returns from injury, he’ll certainly get Rookie of the Year votes.

AL Rookie of the Year Max Stassi, catcher, Houston Astros

Max Stassi

Stassi is hitting .273/.345/.505 with five home runs. That would be enough to earn some Rookie of the Year consideration in normal years. Those numbers look even better when we remember that Stassi is a catcher. Not only is he a catcher, but he’s caught a pitching staff that’s been the best in baseball through the first-third of the season. Stassi deserves recognition, and in a year that didn’t include Shohei Ohtani, he’d have a real chance to win.

NL MVP: Scooter Gennett, second baseman, Cincinnati Reds

A .342/.378/.571 slash line is darn good for anyone. From a second baseman, it’s even better. Gennett has backed that up with 12 home runs, 14 doubles, and 41 RBI. That puts him on pace for 32 home runs, 38 doubles, and 111 RBI. Imagine what he’d do on a better team. It may not be fair, but it’s very hard for players on losing teams to get serious MVP consideration. On a contending team, Gennett would be a real threat to win the National League MVP. Quite frankly, even on the hapless Reds, he should be anyway.

AL Cy Young: Blake Snell, starting pitcher, Tampa Bay Rays

Once a highly-touted arm, Snell had a 3.83 ERA and 1.45 WHIP entering the year. So, it looked like he had a long way to go before we could call him a Cy Young contender. A lot has changed for the 25-year-old lefty in his third year, though. Snell has a 2.36 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, and 10.4 K/9. Guys like Justin Verlander, Corey Kluber, Gerrit Cole, and Luis Severino will be hard to top. But if Snell can maintain numbers like that, he’ll definitely remain in the American League Cy Young conversation as we get deeper into the season.

NL Rookie of the Year: Brian Anderson, third baseman, Miami Marlins

Miami’s 2018 season was never going to be about wins and losses, but developing future players. Anderson has emerged as one of those guys. We’d like to see some more pop from his bat. But even with only two homers, a .291/.366/.400 line is quite impressive. Anderson isn’t simply emerging as a building block of the Marlins, he’s been one of baseball’s best rookies. If the current pace holds, he’ll get Rookie of the Year votes. If the power numbers increase, Anderson will have a realistic chance of winning.

AL MVP: Jean Segura, shortstop, Seattle Mariners

Like the aforementioned Simmons, Segura has only four homers. But he also has 23 extra-base hits, is hitting .331/.351/.470, and is tied for fifth in the American League with 12 steals. Additionally, he’s been a driving force for an offense that, despite dealing with a rash of injuries (and a key suspension), has consistently ranked as one of the best in the game. With or without power, Segura’s value to the Mariners makes him worthy of being in the MVP conversation.

NL Cy Young: Josh Hader, relief pitcher, Milwaukee Brewers

Conventional logic says that relievers generally fight an uphill climb when it comes to being Cy Young contenders. But Hader has been too good for conventional logic. His 3.4 BB/9 may seem a little high. But with a K/9 rate of 18.1, the walk total doesn’t seem so bad. Even in the current, strikeout-heavy era, two strikeouts an inning is nothing short of phenomenal. Given that Hader has a 1.05 ERA and 0.67 WHIP, we doubt that anyone who’s faced him would disagree.

AL Cy Young: Charlie Morton, starting pitcher, Houston Astros

Morton had a solid postseason and an excellent World Series for the Astros in 2017. But Morton entered 2018 as a 34-year-old with a career 4.41 ERA and 1.41 WHIP. Nice back-end-of-the-rotation guy? Sure. But not a Cy Young contender. That said, even with a dismal outing on Sunday, Morton has a 2.84 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and an 11.3 K/9 rate. The competition is deep, even on his own team, but Morton is certainly in he Cy Young discussion.

NL Rookie of the Year: Christian Villanueva, third baseman, San Diego Padres

Unlike Anderson in Miami, Villanueva hasn’t done an especially good job of getting on base. But we can overlook the .241 average and a .305 OBP for a man with Villanueva’s power. He’s slugging .546 and has 15 home runs, more than any two National League rookies combined. In fact, Bryce Harper is the only player in the Senior Circuit with more homers than Villanueva. If the average and OBP were a little higher, we could make a decent case for Villanueva’s MVP candidacy. As it is, he’s a clear Rookie of the Year frontrunner.

AL MVP: Eddie Rosario, left fielder, Minnesota Twins

Rosario has been one of the Junior Circuit’s best overall offensive weapons. He’s hitting .317/.352/.573 with 13 home runs. Additionally, while we concede that five steals may not look especially impressive, only three American League players with more home runs than Rosario also have more steals. Those are Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Francisco Lindor, all MVP candidates of the non-surprising variety. Sure, we’d have a hard time giving Rosario the MVP or any of those guys. But he’s certainly keeping the right company.

NL Cy Young: Mike Foltynewicz, starting pitcher, Atlanta Braves

Mike Foltynewicz

Guys like Markakis have helped the Atlanta offense be better than expected. Foltynewicz has had a lot to do with the overachieving pitching staff. He had a 4.87 ERA, 1.46 WHIP, and an 8.1 K/9 rate entering the year. In 2018, he’s posted a 2.22 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, and a 10.4 K/9 rate. The only National League pitchers with a lower ERA and more total strikeouts than Foltynewicz’s 80 are Scherzer and Jacob deGrom. In fact, Foltynewicz ranks in the top-five in the Senior Circuit in both categories. That’s a Cy Young resume.

AL Rookie of the Year: Daniel Palka, right fielder, Chicago White Sox

We’d like to see Palka strike out less and walk more, but he’s still having a very encouraging rookie season. The White Sox right fielder has six home runs in only 106 at-bats and is hitting .283/.315/.557. It’s easy to overlook what’s happening with Chicago’s Major League team in 2018. The White Sox are not going anywhere, so looking to what’s coming through a strong farm system is only natural. Even with all of that in mind, Palka’s season deserves praise.

NL MVP: Brandon Belt, first baseman, San Francisco Giants

Missing time with an appendectomy sure won’t do Belt any favors. Prior to that, though, Belt was on fire. On the season, Belt has 11 home runs and is hitting .307/.403/.547. That .950 OPS is third in the National League, trailing only Nolan Arenado and Freddie Freeman. That puts him ahead of the likes of Kris Bryant, Charlie Blackmon, and Bryce Harper. Like Belt, all of those gentlemen are National League MVP candidates. Belt is certainly rubbing shoulders with the right crowd.