Although the three finalists for each of the three National League individual awards are already known, the races are a bit more up in the air than in the American League -- with one rather glaring exception. In the same way as I did with their AL counterparts on Friday, I'll name the three finalists for each award announced last week by the BBWAA, who I think will win the award and who I think should win the award -- usually, but not always, the same player. I'll also mention who, if anyone, I think was snubbed by the writers by not placing in the top three of voting.
Most Valuable Player
Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks
Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates
Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals
Who Will Win: Andrew McCutchen
Who Should Win: Andrew McCutchen
This is the most interesting awards race of the entire season, made even moreso by who isn't on the list. Braves fans and some media people advocated strongly in favor of Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman to win the award, but Freeman will have to get in line behind Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds. Votto isn't a snub, precisely, because Goldschmidt is a worthy candidate in his own right, leading the National League in slugging percentage, raw OPS and OPS+ (Votto led in OBP).
Whether or not you think Votto should be in the top three instead of Goldschmidt depends entirely on how you view their defense and the defensive metrics surrounding them; Votto has a better reputation as a defender, but their BIS defensive-runs-saved derived numbers this year were both rather marginal, with Goldschmidt's in the positive direction (0.3 dWAR) and Votto's the other way (-0.5 dWAR). While Freeman was the best hitter on a first-place team, his bat was a clear step behind Goldschmidt and Votto's (144 OPS+ to Goldschmidt's 160 and Votto's 154) while his defense was similarly marginal despite his reputation in Atlanta circles as a supposed defensive wizard at first base (-0.3 dWAR), and the writers seemed to recognize this.
For all the discussion surrounding the three first basemen, however, all they're in a race for is third place. As the season wound down, all eyes were on the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals as they and the Reds battled to determine NL Central primacy. The two leaders of those respective lineups should be the real contenders for the NL MVP award -- center fielder McCutchen (674 PA, .911 OPS, 8.2 WAR) for Pittsburgh and catcher Molina (541 PA, .836 OPS, 5.7 WAR) for the Cardinals. Neither man distinguished himself at the plate the way Goldschmidt did, but whereas the Arizona first baseman played the position farthest to the right on a National League roster's defensive spectrum -- starting from the most valuable position and on the left and listing them in order of positional scarcity, first base ends up last on the list unless the designated hitter comes into play -- McCutchen and Molina played positions all the way on the left, positions of premium defensive importance.
Molina spent a bit of the season hurt and ended up with over 100 fewer plate appearances than McCutchen, who also hit better than the Cards' backstop, and Molina wasn't even the most valuable hitter on his own team -- second baseman Matt Carpenter's scorching second half gave him that accolade. Due to both the merits of his case against Molina's and the fact that some of Molina's support was likely siphoned off to Carpenter, I expect McCutchen to take home his first MVP; however, I think Molina's case is stronger than it first looks.
First of all, I think the WAR numbers are a bit misleading, and I've grown a bit uneasy with WAR in general for other reasons involving the defensive metrics at play; among other things, I don't think the metrics and their value derivatives have quite caught up to surge in defensive shifting in the modern game. I only include them with hesitation. Second, I think catcher defense specifically is wonky and perhaps a bit undervalued in the WAR calculations due to the work that's been done over the course of the season on pitch framing at Baseball Prospectus and to a lesser extent FanGraphs.
This work is also something I'm a bit skeptical about, especially when it comes to the derived Runs Saved values being pumped out surrounding framing. If those were taken at face value (requires ESPN Insider access), the NL MVP top three finalists should really look something like Jonathan Lucroy of the Milwaukee Brewers, Molina, and Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants -- yes, in that order -- with McCutchen sneaking in somewhere around eighth or ninth, sandwiched in between two catchers.
Defensive Runs Saved credits McCutchen as a +7 run center fielder in 2013. The framing runs per game metrics cited in that ESPN article peg Lucroy as nearly a +46 run defensive catcher from pitch framing alone (1074 innings of .38 runs saved per nine comes out to 45.66 runs for his whole season). To put that in some kind of perspective, Andrelton Simmons of the Atlanta Braves just concluded what by dWAR was the most valuable defensive season in the history of baseball (5.4 dWAR), beating out the best peak seasons of legendary shortstops Ozzie Smith (4.7 dWAR) and Mark Belanger (4.9 dWAR). His defense was worth almost sixteen fewer runs than Lucroy's pitch framing.
If those numbers are correct, the "true" MVP is always a catcher and the position of catcher is arguably the most important one in all of professional sports, only rivaled by the quarterback in football. That might very well be the case, but I'm going to wait a while for the stats to undergo peer revision -- especially with a stat ascribing value to something as complicated as the interaction between a batter, pitcher, catcher and umpire that results in a called ball or strike. I think the award should go to McCutchen, with Molina as a very strong second.
Cy Young Award
Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins
Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals
Who Will Win: Clayton Kershaw
Who Should Win: Clayton Kershaw
After the relative difficulty of picking a deserving NL MVP, the Cy Young race is appreciably one-sided: Clayton Kershaw was the prohibitive favorite by the All-Star Break and had the thing more or less wrapped up by the beginning of September. That's not to say there wasn't quality competition, of course. Without Kershaw, we'd have an interesting race between Marlins rookie Jose Fernandez (172.2 IP, 2.19 ERA, 187 K) and Cardinals veteran Adam Wainwright (241.2 IP, 2.94 ERA, 219 K). Due to their ages and the relative fortunes of their teams, I suspect a Fernandez/Wainwright Cy Young race would look a lot like the Trout/Cabrera MVP race from last year -- Fernandez has far superior rate statistics, but in a much smaller sample for a bottom-feeding team.
None of that really matters, however, since Clayton Kershaw exists and threw 236 innings of 1.83 ERA baseball with 232 strikeouts in 2013. He's your National League Cy Young Award winner or the voters should have their ballots taken.
Rookie of the Year
Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins
Shelby Miller, St. Louis Cardinals
Yasiel Puig, Los Angeles Dodgers
Who Will Win: Yasiel Puig
Who Should Win: Jose Fernandez
The NL slate of candidates for Rookie of the Year in 2013 couldn't be any different from its AL counterpart. Whereas the AL race may have Detroit shortstop Jose Iglesias backing into the award after an unsustainable hot streak to start the year in Boston, the NL ballot features Yasiel Puig, an outfielder who would be a near-lock for the MVP award by merit had he played a full season (432 PA, .925 OPS, 160 OPS+); Shelby Miller, who despite his manager's lack of confidence in him in the postseason has an argument for a top-six finish in NL Cy Young voting (173.1 IP, 3.06 ERA, 169 K); and Jose Fernandez, who as discussed above has a strong argument to win the Cy Young in a world without Clayton Kershaw.
Miller's the odd man out here, because any argument for him outside of his presence on a playoff team (voting is done before the postseason, so Mike Matheny's deployment of Miller -- or lack thereof -- in October didn't have a chance to hurt Miller's cause) works better for Jose Fernandez, and playoff representation is traditionally not a big deal in Rookie of the Year voting for obvious reasons, being as it's an award that claims to be about the future as much as the present. Puig came up in June while Fernandez started the year with his club, but the Dodgers played Puig full-time out of the gate while the Marlins strictly controlled Fernandez's innings, leaving the two men about as equal on the issue of playing time as a starting pitcher and a right fielder can be.
At the end of the day, I suspect it will come down to how the specific writers voting on the Rookie of the Year Award feel about Yasiel Puig, the Man. Up until the Braves openly provoked Fernandez into a confrontation late in the season, certain corners of the sportswriting world liked to build the two men up in opposition to one another -- Puig as the flashy hothead and Fernandez as the quiet good citizen, with Fernandez coming out the better in all these comparisons. In a way, then, Fernandez might have the Braves to thank if he loses out to the Dodgers outfielder, because Puig certainly did nothing to placate those writers who suggested he should play a more boring brand of baseball that showed greater respect for the feelings of the St. Louis Cardinals, among others.
That said, there are slight dings in Puig's game -- he's often not a very good defensive outfielder at all, and he made very questionable baserunning decisions from time to time. That's not to say that defense and those baserunning decisions weren't incredibly fun to watch -- they were -- but if we're going by a strict accounting of who was better in 2013, Jose Fernandez's flashiness on the rader gun and strikeout board was in service of doing his job. Still, I think Puig will have the star power and pull to eke this one out.
Manager of the Year
Fredi Gonzalez, Atlanta Braves
Clint Hurdle, Pittsburgh Pirates
Don Mattingly, Los Angeles Dodgers
I don't really care for this award, but the idea of Fredi Gonzalez or Clint Hurdle getting a Manager of the Year Award for their on-field decision making is galling. Fortunately for Fredi, the voters won't have taken into account his disastrous mishandling of Craig Kimbrel and his bullpen at the end of the NLDS. Hurdle, at the very least, had a sound postseason with fairly standard bad manager tics that are unremarkable in context. Thankfully, Mike Matheny isn't represented on this list.
My vote would go to Don Mattingly if only because he's the guy on the list who I think actively hurts his team the least on the field; I have no reason to believe that any of the three, especially Hurdle, are anything other than fantastic managing the clubhouse and the locker room (and if you need a reminder how important that part of the job is, well, there's the Boston Red Sox), so that's the metric I'd use. But I'm not providing a "who will win" or a "who should win" for this because frankly, it's difficult to call and only tangentially concerns the actual game being played on the field.