Considering the St. Louis Cardinals are in first place and have been the hottest team in the National League for the last couple months, the team has a shocking lack of viable candidates for National League Most Valuable Player. And I don’t mean to win the award, which will almost certainly (deservedly) go to Milwaukee Brewers outfielder and 2018 winner Christian Yelich or Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Cody Bellinger–I mean to even get votes.
Through Wednesday, the Cardinals’ team leader in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, shortstop Paul DeJong, ranked tied for 27th in the NL. Kolten Wong, who leads by the Baseball Reference WAR measure (and only trails DeJong in fWAR by decimal points), ranked tied for 14th among position players and doesn’t have the statistical profile of a conventional MVP candidate–much of his value is defensive and his ten home runs lag significantly behind the award’s big contenders. Both DeJong and Wong are having excellent seasons, though neither is as likely to win the MVP at this point as Matt Carpenter was at this time last season, and Carpenter didn’t come particularly close.
So this leaves two more major NL awards up for grabs for a Cardinal to win for the first time in a decade–the Cy Young Award for the league’s best pitcher and the Rookie of the Year Award for the league’s best first-year player (although Manager of the Year, for which Mike Shildt will and should be considered, is a major award, I’m ignoring it for the sake of this post because I’m dangerously unqualified to even passively comment on the matter). And the same, unlikely candidate might provide the Cardinals’ best chance at both awards–Dakota Hudson. And I’m not even sure if Dakota Hudson is even good.
To spare myself from getting yelled at on Twitter (surely, nobody would ever yell at somebody on Twitter for an article they didn’t actually read, so adding this disclaimer will save me), I should point out two things: if I had a Cy Young ballot, I would most definitely rank Jack Flaherty ahead of Dakota Hudson, and I think Flaherty probably has a better chance of receiving (fourth or fifth place votes) than Hudson. But I’m less certain on the second part of this because of one big statistic–the pitcher win.
Even after Dakota Hudson’s excellent start on Thursday afternoon, in which the rookie went six scoreless, one-hit innings, Flaherty still leads the duo in ERA and innings pitched, though neither lead is a landslide (Flaherty has a 3.14 ERA in 160 1/3 innings; Hudson has a 3.40 ERA in 153 2/3 innings). But Hudson does have a noticeable lead in Wins, with 15 to Flaherty’s 9. Though the biggest feather in Flaherty’s cap is by the way of fielding-independent metrics, which suggest that while Flaherty has benefited from some good fortune in 2019, he has been nowhere near as lucky as Hudson–while Flaherty has a FIP of 3.77, worse than his ERA but still certainly above-average, Hudson has a FIP of 4.94. Even during his six scoreless innings yesterday, he was hardly dominant–he struck out two batters and walked two and by xFIP, which adjusts a player’s FIP for a league average home run to fly ball rate, Hudson had a very ordinary 4.55.
A common misperception is that, decades ago, the Cy Young Award would just go to whoever got the most wins. This is likely a mistranslation of the truth–that a high win total was a helpful component in a Cy Young case but that the award generally went to one of the league’s better run suppressors–widely accepted by sabermetrically-inclined fans who want to believe that pre-Moneyball, people associated with baseball didn’t put value in not giving up runs or striking out batters. Perhaps the 10-9 Jacob deGrom wouldn’t have won the Cy Young twenty years ago, but it would’ve gone to a really, really good pitcher who won a bunch of games (probably Max Scherzer).
But the win total is still appealing, particularly as the race gets into down-ballot territory. Jacob deGrom was clearly the best pitcher in the National League last season, but would he have won the Cy Young Award had he bested Scherzer’s ERA and FIP not by 0.83 and 0.66 but by, say, 0.20? I truly do not know the answer. I do know that Jon Lester finished 2018 ranked 39th in the NL in fWAR and tied for first in wins and he received down-ballot Cy Young votes. Jack Flaherty, currently 9-7, could easily finish the season with a deGrom-like win-loss, but it borders on mathematically impossible for him to finish the season with deGrom-like ERA and FIP.
Dakota Hudson, however, does have a good ERA, even if his FIP leaves something to be desired. Hudson ranked 14th in the National League in earned-run average among qualified starters, passing Stephen Strasburg, a legitimate contender for the award, yesterday afternoon. The obvious caveat here is that Strasburg is much better by FIP, but from an awards perspective, I ask a question to which I don’t have a definitive answer: does that matter?
This isn’t to dismiss FIP as a statistic–while I am no FIP absolutist and disagree with those who disregard ERA entirely in player evaluation (I do disregard W-L entirely in player evaluation), I think any baseball analyst who isn’t putting at least some focus on strikeout and walk rates isn’t evaluating pitching very intelligently. But there is an argument to be made against voting for awards based on potential performance, which FIP does rather than what actually did happen on the field in terms of overall result. When the two movies were jockeying for Oscars a decade ago, I thought the small-budget, independent film The Hurt Locker was a better movie than the gargantuan Avatar, but there’s no question that the latter had more potential. Just as I wouldn’t suggest future moviemakers take a budget a fifteenth the size that it could because this particular small movie worked, I wouldn’t suggest that what could have been should be rewarded over what was.
But this is a devil’s advocate argument–Dakota Hudson walks too many and strikes out too few to enter the rarified air of my Cy Young ballot. I like his fairly low ERA, and that his ground ball rate is among the best in baseball makes me think he might truly have a talent for lower ERAs than FIPs. I just don’t think the gap is going to be the 1.54 runs it currently is. Here’s my current, back-of-the-napkin Cy Young ballot, including numbers both traditional and non-traditional through Wednesday, with Hudson listed as #6 because that’s the easiest way I could think of for you to easily compare the numbers to the others and because I care so much about your reading experience.
- Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals: 9-5, 148 2/3 IP, 2.60 ERA, 2.27 FIP
- Jacob deGrom, New York Mets: 8-8, 176 IP, 2.76 ERA, 2.86 FIP
- Hyun-Jin Ryu, Los Angeles Dodgers: 12-5, 161 2/3 IP, 2.45 ERA, 3.19 FIP
- Walker Buehler, Los Angeles Dodgers: 12-3, 159 1/3 IP, 3.28 ERA, 2.96 FIP
- Stephen Strasburg, Washington Nationals: 16-5, 179 IP, 3.47 ERA, 3.14 FIP
- Dakota Hudson, St. Louis Cardinals: 14-6, 147 2/3 IP, 3.53 ERA, 5.00 FIP
As you can see, Hudson is comparable, though probably a touch behind, through the first three statistics listed, and is then dramatically behind in the final one. I would be astonished if Dakota Hudson got a single Cy Young vote and I think Jack Flaherty would need a September like his August to get any, either.
But Hudson also has the advantage of rookie eligibility. However, there is a pronounced disadvantage, which is that Pete Alonso exists. The Mets rookie first baseman, who has already set a franchise record for home runs in a season, is the award’s runaway favorite and has been since Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. went down with a season-ending injury. There’s really nothing Dakota Hudson can do to pass Alonso, but can he sneak onto some three-person ballots?
Only one pitcher is clearly ahead of Dakota Hudson in the NL–Atlanta Braves starter Mike Soroka, who like Hudson is a low-strikeout ground ball machine. And since Soroka, in addition to a FIP in the threes, has an ERA in the twos, his deficit in the win column probably won’t be enough for voters to put Hudson over Soroka. But Hudson might have a chance over other pitching rookies, including teammate Giovanny Gallegos, who leads Hudson in fWAR. Gallegos, however effective as his season has been, lacks the saves that are the pitcher wins of relievers.
But offensively, there are several candidates that could easily fit alongside Alonso and Soroka on a Rookie of the Year ballot. Tatis Jr., despite only playing 84 games before his season-ending injury, ranks third by fWAR, and his combination of offensive prowess (by the rate statistic of wRC+, he was a slightly superior hitter to what Pete Alonso has been) and defensive acumen (although his numbers were a bit shaky, he had a few highlight-reel plays and the mere act of playing shortstop can’t go unnoticed) makes him an attractive candidate. Pirates outfielder Bryan Reynolds is hitting nearly as well as Alonso or Tatis. Diamondbacks rookies Carson Kelly (old friend!) and Christian Walker have carried the team into shocking late-season viability, and Brewers second baseman Keston Hiura has been excellent in less frequent playing time.
Here’s my current back-of-the-napkin Rookie of the Year ballot.
- Pete Alonso
- Fernando Tatis Jr.
- Mike Soroka
But there is no consistent, universally agreed upon way to evaluate batters and pitchers outside of WAR. Pitchers fare substantially better in Rookie of the Year voting than in MVP voting, so *squinting intently* maybe Dakota Hudson could find himself on ballots with a strong September. But for now, I’m going to say that the Cardinals are on the outside looking in to receive any major award votes, outside of manager Mike Shildt.