Red Sox left fielder Andrew Benintendi came into the 2017 season as the smart pick to win the AL Rookie of the Year, after hitting .295/.359/.476 in 34 games as a September call-up last season. He was so good that the Red Sox felt OK about trading away their other hot-hitting prospect, Yoan Moncada, to get Chris Sale. But while Benintendi has struggled (his 2-homer night on Sunday notwithstanding), the Yankees’ Aaron Judge has firmly established himself as the frontrunner, in the RoY race. And now, with Mike Trout due to miss at least three more weeks with a surgically repaired thumb, Judge is about to move to the top of the leader AL leader board for WAR — Is Aaron Judge really going to join Fred Lynn and Ichiro Suzuki as the only other players in the game’s history to win the MVP and the RoY in the same season?
Just a third of the way through the season, one could argue that Judge has already wrapped up the AL RoY Award. Remember how crazy everybody went last year over the hot start by Judge’s teammate Gary Sanchez? Judge has been better. He’s got 2 fewer homers, but a higher batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, has played almost as good defense, and has proven himself to be a better baserunner — which is insane for a man listed as 6-foot-7, 282 pounds. Among the 10 AL rookies with 100 or more plate appearances, Judge is the leader in runs, hits, triples, home runs, RBI, walks, BA, OBP, and SLG, all adding up to 3.3 WAR, nearly double runner-up Guillermo Heredia’s 1.8. And while Heredia’s been slumping over the last month, posting .250/.298/.318, Judge has shown no signs of slowing down. His power has dipped, with “just” 5 homers in his last 102 PA, but his batting average and on-base percentage have actually gone up a tick.
The MVP race won’t be so easy for Judge, despite his main competition, Trout, being on the shelf for at least a month. Let’s break down the rest of the top 10 in WAR and see who’s got a shot at stopping Judge from making history:
- Keuchel, Astros, 3.1 – Dallas Keuchel’s return to Cy Young form has been one of the big reasons the Astros are on pace to tie the single-season mark for wins, and he would win his second Cy Young in a landslide if the voting were held today, but voters don’t like giving MVP awards to pitchers, and so he’d practically have to continue to go undefeated with a 1.67 ERA to win it. Remember how good Pedro was in 1999? He lost the MVP to Pudge Rodriguez.
- Vargas, Royals, 2.9 – With all due respect to Jason Vargas, 34-year-old journeymen do not come out of nowhere to win MVP awards. In just 11 starts this season, he’s already established a career high WAR, doubling up his previous high. This dude is gonna regress to the mean so hard…
- Dickerson, Rays, 2.8 – Corey Dickerson appears to have put it all together in his fifth big league season, but he’s also benefitting from a .394 BABIP, which is 70 points higher than his career mark coming into the season. This will not last.
- Altuve, Astros, 2.8 – Just 27, Jose Altuve has already made four All Star appearances, won two batting titles, and led the league in hits three times, and this year he’s as good as ever. He’s finished 13th, 10th, and 3rd in the MVP balloting over the last three years, and voters love an excuse to cast their ballot for a crappy little guy (see: Pedroia, Dustin). Other than Trout, he’s Judge’s best competition.
- Bundy, Orioles, 2.5 – Dylan Bundy is having a fine season, but he’s nowhere near MVP level, and that’s even with a run of luck that has allowed him to post a 2.93 ERA while his FIP is a hearty 4.09.
- Gardner, Yankees 2.5 – Yankee outfielder Brett Gardner has been one of the most totally overlooked guys in the American League since his breakout season in 2010, when he stole 47 bases (in 56 attempts) and led the league in dWAR. This year he’s hitting homers at an unprecedented clip, his 12 so far just 5 short of his career best, and he’s on pace for a career-best 131 OPS+. But this guy can barely get an All Star vote, much less an MVP vote, so good luck, buddy.
- Santana, Twins 2.5 – Ervin Santana has been a maddening headcase for any fan of whichever team he graces. He’s got a tantalizing talent, but can never keep it together for longs stretches, and has had some horrific postseason appearances. Could this be the year he fulfills all that promise? He leads the AL in complete games and shutouts with 2 apiece (go figure), innings pitched, and hits per nine innings with just 4.8. But he’s kept his ERA down by posting a .155 BABIP, which would shatter the all-time mark of .204 set by Dave McNally in 1968. Won’t happen.
- Garcia, White Sox 2.4 – In 1,551 previous plate appearances spanning five seasons, Avisail Garcia has posted .1 WAR. This season he’s posted 2.4 WAR in just 211 plate appearances. His BABIP is 64 points above his career norm, his home run rate is up 52%, and his extra-base hit rate is up 68%. It’s entirely possible that after the equivalent of three Major League seasons he suddenly learned to rake, but it’s not likely. Avisail should just enjoy his time in the sun.
This all takes us back to the man who, for however briefly, remains the league leader in WAR, Mike Trout, who is still the biggest thing standing between Judge and the MVP award. Before the injury, Trout was on pace for 10.4 WAR. If we assume the worst, that he misses six weeks, he’ll miss 48 games, which brings his pace down to 7.3, assuming no more injuries and no readjustment period. Trout is a once in a generation talent, unquestionably the best player in the game today, and there’s a chance he may miss just four weeks. If anybody can sit for a month a still win the MVP, it’s Trout.
But if Judge can just play at 80% of his current level and keep the Yankees in the playoff picture, if the Angels sink like a stone in Trout’s absence, and if the Altuve vote gets split by teammates Dallas Keuchel and Carlos Correa, the lumbering human giant has a chance.
Washington Nationals (Gonzalez 4-1, 3.03) vs Los Angeles Dodgers (Ryu 2-5, 3.91)
@ 10:00pm ET on ESPN
Boston Red Sox (Price 1-0, 3.00) vs New York Yankees (Pineda 6-3, 3.76)
@ 7pm ET on ESPN
Kansas City Royals (Kennedy 0-5, 5.12) vs San Diego Padres (Cosart 0-2, 4.88)
@ 4:10pm ET on FS1
Detroit Tigers (Verlander 4-4, 4.63) vs Boston Red Sox (Johnsons 2-0, 2.57) or
Baltimore Orioles (Tillman 1-3, 5.59) vs New York Yankees (Luis Severino 4-2, 2.90) or
Chicago White Sox (TBD) vs Cleveland Indians (Carrasco 5-3, 3.36)
@ 7:15pm ET on FOX (regional action)
Detroit Tigers (Norris 2-3, 4.47) vs Boston Red Sox (5-3, 4.24) or
@ 8pm ET on ESPN