Major League Baseball’s 2020 regular season was different.
It lasted just 60 games, with no fans cheering in the stands and players working around a rigorous set of health protocols aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus. There were experimental rules, a universal DH and 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs. It was a season that won’t compare to others in length and experiences, but it was one that presented a true test of will for players and managers.
And yet, despite the unique challenges of playing amid a pandemic, there were those who found a way to stand out among their peers. The MLB award races will be as close as ever this year — the smaller sample size allowed multiple candidates to stand out as contenders for most end-of-season honors.
Here are picks for the top five of each award.
- Freddie Freeman (ATL)
- Manny Machado (SD)
- Fernando Tatís Jr. (SD)
- Juan Soto (WSH)
- Marcell Ozuna (ATL)
Picking the winner: Freeman gets the nod over Machado and Tatís Jr. behind a .341/.462/.640 slash line that would’ve all ranked first in the NL if not for Soto (more on him in a minute). The Braves’ doubles machine anchored the middle of a deep lineup and he figures to be a Gold Glove finalist at first base. If he does win, Freeman would be the first primary first baseman to win NL MVP since Joey Votto in 2010.
Victim of time missed: Soto put up numbers that would’ve helped him run away with the NL MVP had he not missed the Nationals’ first eight games because of a positive COVID-19 test. Eight games wouldn’t have been so costly, but the 13 total games he missed in 2020 constitute nearly 22 percent of the season. It was enough to knock him from the top rung of contenders.
Just outside the top 5: Another National made the case for MVP consideration this year as Trea Turner finished the year with an MLB-high 78 hits. The shortstop’s .982 OPS ranked sixth among qualified NL hitters but Soto’s rate stats are too impressive to ignore and Ozuna led the NL with 18 home runs.
- José Abreu (CHW)
- Shane Bieber (CLE)
- José Ramírez (CLE)
- DJ LeMahieu (NYY)
- Mike Trout (LAA)
Picking the winner: Abreu and Ramírez put together statistical seasons very close to one another. However, Ramírez got off to a pedestrian start, hitting .230 with a .762 OPS over his first 29 games before exploding for a .358 average and 1.240 OPS over his final 29. Abreu is the pick here because of his consistency throughout the course of the 60-game season, posting an OPS over .970 in both August and September.
Placing the pitcher: Bieber’s season will be enough to net him the AL Cy Young award, but he falls short of the MVP because of the truncated season. A shorter schedule makes every game more significant and, as a result, skews value toward position players. If a pitcher completed a full season of what Bieber did (led MLB in wins, strikeouts, ERA, FIP, K/9 and H/9), he would be the runaway favorite for MVP.
Just outside the top 5: Nelson Cruz was the toughest player to place for AL MVP. He falls just outside the top five after he missed six games in September due to injury and struggled to the tune of a .154 average over his final 11 games (over one-sixth of the season). LeMahieu pulls ahead of Cruz for leading the AL in batting average, on-base percentage and OPS while a strong WAR total puts Trout at five.
NL Cy Young
- Trevor Bauer (CIN)
- Yu Darvish (CHC)
- Jacob deGrom (NYM)
- Dinelson Lamet (SD)
- Brandon Woodruff (MIL)
Picking the winner: This Cy Young race is one of the closest in recent memory, with viable cases for Bauer, Darvish and deGrom. Bauer led the NL with a 1.73 ERA and 0.795 WHIP, holding opponents to an MLB-best .159 batting average. Darvish paced the league with a 2.23 FIP and 3.0 fWAR while ranking second in strikeouts-to-walks ratio (6.64). The award goes to Bauer for his clear lead in WHIP and edge he holds over Darvish in strikeout rate.
Falling short of a three-peat: After winning back-to-back NL Cy Young awards in 2018 and 2019, deGrom entered this season in search of another and showed no signs of regressing. He was the NL’s premiere strikeout pitcher, leading the league in both total strikeouts (104) and K/9 (13.8). But he lands at third here after failing to limit both runs and walks as well as Bauer and Darvish.
Just outside the top 5: Kyle Hendricks doesn’t boast the strikeout numbers of the top contenders for this award, but he was still very effective as a groundball pitcher who did well to limit walks. The Cubs’ right-hander was also dependable for length — he was one of three pitchers to eclipse 80 innings this season and the only one who did it in 12 starts.
AL Cy Young
- Shane Bieber (CLE)
- Kenta Maeda (MIN)
- Gerrit Cole (NYY)
- Lance Lynn (TEX)
- Dylan Bundy (LAA)
Picking the winner: There is no other answer than Bieber here, as the Indians’ budding ace became the first qualified starter in MLB history to finish a season with an ERA below 2.00 and a K/9 above 14.0. His 3.2 fWAR the AL’s second place mark of 2.8 held by both Zack Greinke and Maeda. Bieber’s 2020 season will go down as one of baseball’s greatest what ifs had he been able to make a full 30 starts.
The race for second: Maeda finishes ahead of Cole in the AL Cy Young race after leading the majors in WHIP (0.750) and generating weak contact better than anyone. Cole’s home run troubles (14 allowed in 12 starts) kept him out of second but he beats out Lance Lynn for third due to the latter’s unsightly 4.19 FIP. Bundy closes out the group with a modest 3.29 ERA but strong numbers across the board.
Just outside the top 5: The sixth spot could go to either Greinke or Lucas Giolito, depending on your preference. Greinke’s 4.03 ERA is nothing to get excited about, but his 2.80 FIP indicates he got unlucky and his 7.44 K:BB ratio is the best of his career. Giolito’s no-hitter vaulted him into the Cy Young conversation and he nearly broke 100 strikeouts on the year; his startling 3.5 BB/9 just held him back.
NL Rookie of the Year
- Alec Bohm (PHI)
- Tony Gonsolin (LAD)
- Jake Cronenworth (SD)
- Devin Williams (MIL)
- Kwang-hyun Kim (STL)
Picking the winner: Another tough category to sort out, Bohm nearly edges out Gonsolin and Cronenworth for his impressive .338/.400/.481 slash line despite appearing in only 44 games. Rookies in general didn’t play significant portions of their team’s seasons, so the playing time threshold is a bit lower for this award than for MVP or Cy Young. Gonsolin beats out Cronenworth for putting up a stellar 2.31 ERA and 0.836 WHIP over nine appearances (eight starts).
Rookie in relief: It’s not too often that a reliever cracks the top 5 in Rookie of the Year voting, but Williams posted a 0.33 ERA with a 17.7 K/9 in a valuable middle relief role for the Brewers this season. He beats out Kim for the fourth spot with nine holds over 22 total appearances — playing in more than a third of Milwaukee’s games this season.
Just outside the top 5: The playing time threshold may have been lowered a bit for this award, but it wasn’t enough for Ke’Bryan Hayes to qualify after played only 24 games for the Pirates this season. Hayes hit .376 with a 1.124 OPS and actually had more homers (5 to 4) and triples (2 to 0) than Bohm did in 2020. However, he will still hold rookie eligibility going into 2021.
AL Rookie of the Year
- Kyle Lewis (SEA)
- Willi Castro (DET)
- Ryan Mountcastle (BAL)
- Justus Sheffield (SEA)
- Luis Robert (CHW)
Picking the winner: Lewis ran away with AL Rookie of the Year honors after Robert struggled in the second half of the season. With only six AL rookie hitters playing in more than 40 games and just five pitching at least 50 innings, there was room for smaller-sample hitters Willi Castro (.932 OPS in 140 PA) and Ryan Mountcastle (.878 OPS in 140 PA) to slide in at second and third place. But Lewis’ .262/.364/.437 slash line was enough to hold them off.
Handling expectations: Robert entered the 2020 season as the clear favorite to win AL Rookie of the Year. He got off to a hot start and won AL Rookie of the Month in August with nine home runs and a 1.015 OPS. However, the league adapted and he fell back to Earth hard. Robert’s .409 OPS in September was third-worst among any player in the majors for the month (min. 20 games).
Just outside the top 5: Similar to Ke’Bryan Hayes in the NL, Jared Walsh just didn’t play enough to crack the top five in the Junior Circuit. Walsh played 32 games, hitting .293 with nine home runs and a .971 OPS on his way to winning AL Rookie of the Month in September. Perhaps if he had pitched as well like he did during his short 2019 stint in the majors, Walsh might have finished higher.
NL Manager of the Year
- Jayce Tingler (SD)
- Don Mattingly (MIA)
- David Ross (CHC)
- David Bell (CIN)
- Mike Shildt (STL)
Picking the winner: Tingler wins NL Manager of the Year for leading the Padres to their first playoff berth since 2006 in his first year as skipper. The Padres weren’t cheap about it either, they ranked third among MLB teams in winning percentage (.617) and second in run differential (+84). Mattingly takes second after guiding the Marlins to the playoffs despite a huge COVID-19 outbreak in their clubhouse.
Just outside the top 5: Craig Counsell helped the Brewers qualify for the playoffs on the final day of the season. They did it after undergoing significant roster turnover last offseason, even as Christian Yelich turned in a down year.
AL Manager of the Year
- Rick Renteria (CHW)
- Terry Francona (CLE)
- Kevin Cash (TB)
- Charlie Montoyo (TOR)
- Bob Melvin (OAK)
Picking the winner: The AL Manager of the Year award should go to Renteria, who helped the White Sox make the often-difficult transition from being the winners of the offseason to playoff contenders. Chicago snapped its own October-less streak of 11 straight years without making the postseason while playing among the toughest schedules in baseball with opponents from only the central divisions. Francona gets second for helping Cleveland return to the postseason even though the front office continues to trade away his best pitchers.
Just outside the top 5: Rocco Baldelli guided the Twins to back-to-back AL Central titles for the first time since 2009-10. Like the White Sox, the Twins faced a very difficult schedule while absorbing injuries to Josh Donaldson, Byron Buxton, Max Kepler and Rich Hill.