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M.L.B. Awards: In a Short Season, Veterans Are Standing Out

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Sept. 25, 2020

A typical baseball schedule is merciless — six weeks of spring training followed by six months of games, with few days off and many thousands of air miles. The advantage for younger players shows up in the list of Most Valuable Player Award winners; it has been 13 years since anyone started a season in his 30s and won the M.V.P. That was Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees, in 2007 — and he, of course, used performance-enhancing drugs at various points in his career. The last player to do it without ties to steroids was Jeff Kent of the San Francisco Giants, two decades ago. This pandemic season, as you may have noticed, is far different from any other. With just 60 games in the regular season, and travel limited to divisional regions, it should theoretically be easier for older players to stand out. Sure enough, some leading contenders for the M.V.P. Awards are out of their 20s: The Atlanta Braves’ Freddie Freeman was 30 on opening day in late July, and the Chicago White Sox’ Jose Abreu was 33. Picking the winners for such a small sample of games will be tricky for voting members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. (The New York Times does not participate in awards voting.) But as the season enters its final days, this is how the leaders look from here, with all statistics through Tuesday.
N.L. Most Valuable Player Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves Freddie Freeman has a remarkably similar pedigree to that of the Colorado Rockies’ Nolan Arenado and the St. Louis Cardinals’ Paul Goldschmidt: All are infielders who have won the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards and made at least four All-Star teams; all made their debuts in the first part of the 2010s and have spent their careers with mid-market National League teams, earning multiple trips to the postseason but never to the World Series; all rarely stir controversy and seem averse to self-promotion. The M.V.P. Award is its own kind of promotion, and Freeman should become the first of the three to win it after a combined 13 finishes in the top 10. He is leading the N.L. in times on base for the third year in a row, while batting .347 with 12 homers and 50 runs batted in — numbers all the more impressive because of what came before. In early July, three weeks before the start of the regular season, Freeman struggled with a case of Covid-19. He prayed when his fever spiked to 104.5 degrees, he said. “My body was really, really hot, so I said, ‘Please don’t take me,’” Freeman told reporters when he returned. “I wasn’t ready.”
Freeman was ready by opening day, and in mid-August he started an 18-game hitting streak, helping the Braves win 12 of those games and run away with their third N.L. East title in a row. He gets the nod over his teammate Ronald Acuna Jr., the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Mookie Betts , the Washington Nationals’ Juan Soto and the San Diego Padres teammates Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr.
A.L. Most Valuable Player Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox
If we’re going to be swayed by the outsize production of a steady, dependable, veteran first baseman in the N.L. race, we’ve got to endorse Jose Abreu in the A.L. Abreu has been a foundational piece since the White Sox signed him out of Cuba before the 2014 season, and the team refused to trade him during a roster overhaul that has made Chicago a force. Smart move: Abreu leads the majors in hits (74), runs batted in (56) and total bases (141), while playing every game and belting 19 homers. His younger teammate, shortstop Tim Anderson , has continued his ascent with a .353 average. The Yankees’ D.J. LeMahieu and Luke Voit, Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez and the Angels’ Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon have been outstanding, too. But Abreu is the choice.
N.L. Cy Young Trevor Bauer, Cincinnati Reds
Image Trevor Bauer has thrown fewer than 100 pitches in just one outing this season. Credit... Morry Gash/Associated Press
This award is essentially too close to call, making the pitchers’ final turns in the rotation especially important. Besides Trevor Bauer, all of these pitchers could make a case: the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, the Chicago Cubs’ Yu Darvish, the Milwaukee Brewers’ Corbin Burnes, the San Diego Padres’ Dinelson Lamet and the Mets’ Jacob deGrom, who has won the last two N.L. Cy Young Awards.
But Bauer, the iconoclastic right-hander, has been the best at the two factors that should matter most when evaluating pitching excellence: durability and dominance — that is, overpowering hitters while consistently working deep into games. The Reds can count on Bauer for at least 100 pitches in nearly every start (he has thrown fewer than 100 just once this season), and the results have been dazzling: a 1.80 earned run average with about 12 strikeouts, two walks and five hits allowed per nine innings.
A.L. Cy Young Award Shane Bieber, Cleveland Indians
Image Shane Bieber is finally getting more attention for his dominance on the mound than for his last name. Credit... Jason Miller/Getty Images
When something very obvious and distinctive identifies a player, he has to be really good to shake it. The Houston Astros’ Jose Altuve was always associated with his height (5 feet 6 inches) until he played so well that people stopped bringing it up. Shane Bieber is entering that territory. He’s the only Bieber in major league history, but, of course, he’s hardly the most famous entertainer with the name. For Players’ Weekend last summer, Bieber, 25, poked fun at himself by wearing a jersey with “NOT JUSTIN” stitched across the back. He still trails Justin Bieber in Twitter followers by the slim margin of 112.4 million to 30,800, but he has become so successful on the mound that his eye-catching name is an afterthought. We mention it here only because Bieber’s greatness as a pitcher has been so obvious. He leads the majors in wins (8), E.R.A. (1.74) and strikeouts (112), and should win the Cy Young Award unanimously. It will be his first, but may not be his last.
N.L. Rookie of the Year Jake Cronenworth, San Diego Padres
Image Jake Cronenworth could become the third Padre to win the Rookie of the Year Award. Credit... Gregory Bull/Associated Press
The Phillies’ Alec Bohm has blazed through September as Jake Cronenworth’s production has waned. But Bohm did not debut until Aug. 13. By then, Cronenworth was hitting .333 and had started at first and second base, helping to steady the Padres until their late-August surge. Cronenworth, who is hitting .304 with an .886 OPS, would be just the third Padre to win the Rookie of the Year Award and the first since Benito Santiago in 1987. Besides from Bohm, he could face competition from starter Dustin May of the Dodgers, a team whose past is brimming with rookies of the year. Starting with the award’s namesake, Jackie Robinson, in 1947, Dodgers players have won the award 18 times. A.L. Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis, Seattle Mariners
Image Kyle Lewis is emerging as a potential pillar in the Mariners’ rebuilding plan. Credit... David Ryder for The New York Times
The Mariners haven’t had a rookie of the year since Ichiro Suzuki in 2001, which was also their last playoff season. Their drought is the longest in baseball, and longer than that of any team in the N.F.L., N.B.A. and N.H.L., too. It will continue through 2020, but Seattle’s long-term plan is taking shape, with Lewis as a pillar. Though he never played in Class AAA, he has built off a 2019 cameo to hit .272 with 11 homers, a good eye at the plate and sensational defense. Lewis, who played at Mercer University, was chosen 11th over all in the 2016 draft, which means 10 teams whiffed on a future star. In Seattle, he is a worthy heir to the tradition of dynamic center fielders who came before him, like Ken Griffey Jr., Mike Cameron and Adam Jones, a first-round pick the Mariners traded, something they regretted for a decade.
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