Despite adding playoff teams to juice up September in as many markets as possible, Major League Baseball is surprisingly lacking in pennant races this season.
The American League Central is up for grabs, with the likelihood that whichever teams miss out will likely miss the postseason entirely. The Mets and Braves are still jockeying for the top spot in the National League East, though the winner will be in the playoffs regardless. The Brewers are fighting to stay in the NL wild-card race.
Other than those dribs and drabs of drama, though, there isn’t much uncertainty left in terms of which teams will make the playoffs with a few weeks remaining. That makes this a good time to revisit some of the awards handed out by the Baseball Writers Association of America when seeking a little futures action. While the MVP races seem to be all but drying up in both leagues due to dominant seasons by Aaron Judge and Paul Goldschmidt, the other races offer intriguing opportunities to sports bettors.
Remember a couple of things when considering betting on the BBWAA awards. For one thing, you don’t have to determine the right answer. You just have to determine who the voters think is the right answer. Thus, history is a better guide than analytics in the case of MVP. Some voters, typically older, consider the success of the player’s team. Others, mostly younger, consider only the player’s performance.
Secondly, while the players considered for these awards only have until the end of the regular season to stake their claim to them, bettors have to wait until November, when the BBWAA starts unveiling the winners, to cash their tickets. Manager of the Year also is a BBWAA award, but it almost always goes to the manager of the team that makes the biggest improvement season over season, so we’ll pass on breaking down those races here.
Some states, including New York, do not allow gambling on anything voted on, so some award-betting enthusiasts might want to consider taking a little trip to wager on these markets.
National League MVP
Goldschmidt has always been a brilliant, underrated player, good in all facets of the game. But he’s having a season for the ages — perhaps one that can get him into the Hall of Fame one day — at an age, 35, when he is supposed to be well into his decline.
He leads the NL in many key measures of batter’s-box offense, including wRC+ (185) and slugging (.603), while trailing only Freddie Freeman in the batting race.
Goldschmidt has pretty much run this race wire to wire, and his dominance is reflected in the odds. BetMGM has him at -2500 to win the award, according to Vegas Insider, with everybody else at least +3500.
At those odds, Goldschmidt isn’t worth playing. Is there a longshot worth considering? Probably not, but if there is, he’s on Goldschmidt’s own team and it will require voters think a bit outside the box.
The narrative would go something like this: Goldschmidt, a four-time Gold Glove winner, is having a down year defensively at first base, ranking in the fifth percentile for Outs Above Average (OAA), according to Baseball Savant. Meanwhile, Nolan Arenado, who plays across the diamond from Goldschmidt in St. Louis, is batting .299 with 28 home runs and a .910 on-base percentage, while ranking in the 99th percentile for OAA.
Just as MVP voters often will throw out a designated hitter because of his lack of contribution to preventing runs, they could hold it against Goldschmidt — and reward Arenado — for contributing to that part of the game. It’s unlikely, however, and the odds reflect that.
But one could certainly make an argument that Arenado is the MVP of the Cardinals — MLB.com beat writer John Denton just did that very thing — so why shouldn’t he also be MVP of the league?
American League MVP
Aaron Judge is nearly as prohibitive a favorite as Goldschmidt at -2000, per Vegas Insider. The next contender is Shohei Ohtani at +650, and then it pretty much falls off a cliff, all the way down to José Ramírez at +12500.
OK, so let’s consider this a two-man race. Does Ohtani stand a chance? Probably not. While his combined fWAR from his pitching and hitting (8.1) will make writers think twice about his candidacy, he still is considerably behind Judge (9.7). More to the point, the Angels are in fourth place out of five teams in the AL West, and writers don’t like voting for players on squads that far down in the standings. Yeah, Bryce Harper won it last season for the non-playoff Phillies, but they went 82-80. The Angels are 20 games under .500.
This one is probably over. Save your money for a better race.
NL Cy Young
The Sandy Alcantara train is gaining steam, with the towering Marlins right-hander forging ahead into solid frontrunner status with odds of -250. He leads the league in innings pitched, is second in the NL to Julio Urias (who has 50 fewer innings) in ERA (2.43), and is sixth with 181 strikeouts.
It’s a strong candidacy, but every start these contenders have will move the race a bit, unlike in the MVP discussions. Hence, Zac Gallen (+500), Urias (+700), Max Fried (+700), and Tony Gonsolin (+3300) are worth considering.
What sets Alcantara apart is the combination of durability, judging by all those innings, and swing-and-miss stuff that leads to suppressed offense. Ultimately, voters’ no. 1 consideration will — and should — be ERA, since it remains the best indicator of real-world runs allowed. Urias probably won’t threaten the 200 innings typically deemed necessary to nab many votes, but Gallen (with a 2.50 ERA) could get close enough to that number while potentially catching Alcantara in ERA. It’s probably worth a shot at 5/1.
AL Cy Young
Once again, a race seems to be settling into a two-man affair, with 26-year-old Dylan Cease (-145) vs. 39-year-old Justin Verlander (even money). The next-closest contender, Shane McClanahan, is at a whopping +3500, per Vegas Insider.
Verlander has the better ERA (1.84), but Cease has 60 more strikeouts and has pitched 15 more innings. The Astros announced that Verlander will return to their rotation on Friday after missing 18 days with a calf injury, leaving a little mystery in this race. But Verlander’s specific injury, described as a fascial disruption, often requires more time than that to heal, and it’s unclear how many pitches Houston will let their best playoff pitcher throw in the weeks leading into the postseason.
The White Sox are going to need every win they can get to stick in the AL Central race, making Cease the better play here.
NL Rookie of the Year
Guess what? We have ourselves another two-way affair. The beauty of this one is it’s between a position player, Atlanta’s Michael Harris Jr. (even money, per Vegas Insider), and his teammate, Spencer Strider (-125), a pitcher. Apparently, the Braves know what they’re doing when it comes to developing young players.
Harris is running away with this thing on the position-player side. His fWAR of 4.5 is two wins better than the next-closest contender, Arizona outfielder Jake McCarthy (2.5). But Strider (4.8) actually has the superior WAR and his ridiculous K/9 of 13.75 leads all pitchers regardless of rookie status.
The other cool part of this race is that both players have been hot down the stretch. Strider has a 1.89 ERA and has held opponents to a .183 batting average in his three starts this month, while Harris is batting .391 with five home runs in 46 September at-bats. Flip a coin on this one, but perhaps the best bet is on the Braves to contend for the next 10 years or so.
AL Rookie of the Year
If you watched the Home Run Derby, you probably have an idea where this one is headed. Seattle center fielder Julio Rodriguez, who stunned the viewing audience with 81 long balls in his first Home Run Derby, has all but sewn it up. He’s -3000.
Here’s where narrative can play a part in making a little money, however. The Orioles’ surprise run in 2022 — after three straight full seasons of at least 108 losses — has been widely, and probably accurately, attributed to the arrival of no. 1 overall pick Adley Rutschman (+1100), a switch-hitting catcher who could become a perennial MVP candidate in years to come.
While Rodriguez is batting .279 to Rutschman’s .251 and has slugged .499 to Rutschman’s .440, some voters might dig a little deeper and credit Rutschman for the improvement in the Orioles’ pitching. Catcher is the most difficult position to quantify defensively and, a la Yadier Molina, Rutschman deserves consideration for what he has allowed Baltimore pitchers to do this season. At those odds, it’s worth a stab.
Photo: Gregory Fisher/USA TODAY