The Commissioner’s Trophy has been handed to the Braves for winning the World Series in 2021. The only part of the season left is the individual awards.
There are plenty of interesting cases for the awards to be handed out from the past year of baseball. In the AL, there’s the MVP debate between a breakout season from Blue Jays’ Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Angels’ two-way star Shohei Ohtani. In the NL, a wide-open MVP race could come down to a number of players of non-playoff teams.
This also could be a unique year in Cy Young history. Robbie Ray and Max Scherzer, both finalists for the awards, are free agents and could potentially win and leave for another team. There have only been 13 Cy Young winners walk in free agency the following year, and never before have both winners left in the same offseason.
Unlike 2020, there is a much larger sample size to look at in 2021. The previous year, teams were limited to just 60 games. This year, the league was able to get in the full 162-game stretch.
Here’s what you need to know about the Baseball Writers’ Association of America major award finalists and winners.
Bryce Harper, Phillies: This was the season Phillies’ fans have been waiting for. In the third year of his 13-year, $330 million contract, Harper recorded the second-highest Fangraphs WAR (fWAR) of his career at 6.6, behind only the 9.3 mark he posted in his 2015 NL MVP winning season. He led the majors in OPS (1.044) and wRC+ (170), and his 16.7 percent walk rate was the third-best. His 35 home runs were the sixth-best in the NL. Harper also added 13 stolen bases.
Juan Soto, Nationals: The more Soto plays, the more he begins to look more like Ted Williams. Soto led the league in walk rate at 22.2 percent, which was the second straight year he paced the big leagues in walk rate, making him the youngest to accomplish the feat in back-to-back years, overtaking Williams, who was 23 and 24 in 1941 and 1942. He also walked only 14.2 percent and was third in the majors with a .999 OPS. His 6.6 fWAR is tied with Harper and trailed only Trea Turner (6.9) among NL batters. Soto also hit 29 home runs and stole nine bases.
Fernando Tatis Jr., Padres: Health again limited Tatis in how much time he was able to spend on the field as his 130 games were the fewest of the three NL MVP finalists, but when he played, he did it all. Tatis led the NL with 42 home runs and he was third with 25 stolen bases. His .611 slugging percentage trailed only Harper’s .615 mark and his .328 ISO (isolated power) led the NL.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays: If it weren’t for the next guy on this list, Guerrero would have been the runaway favorite for AL MVP. He posted an impressive .311/.401/.601 slash line, netting him the majors’ second-highest OPS at 1.002, and he was tied for the MLB lead with 48 home runs. He walked an impressive 12.3 percent of the time and struck out only at a 15.8 percent clip. On top of all that, he was also on the field all the time, as only two players tallied more plate appearances than Guerrero and his 698 this past season. Few batters hit the ball harder as he ranked third with a 95.1 average exit velocity and was second with 23.1 percent hard hits per swing, according to Baseball Savant.
Shohei Ohtani, Angels: It was the season that captured the attention of the baseball world. Ohtani pulled off incomparable feats of greatness in 2021 with his ability to both produce as one of the most feared bats in the game and dominate on the mound as a true ace. He was third in the majors with 46 home runs and his 26 stolen bases were fifth-most in the AL, and he finished with 5.1 fWAR as a batter. In 130.1 innings pitched, he recorded a 3.18 ERA, which ranked eighth in the AL among pitchers with 130 IP, and a 3.51 FIP. His 29.3 percent strikeout rate was the 11th-best in the majors and was fifth-best in the AL. That added another 3.0 fWAR. All told, that 8.1 fWAR was the most of any player in the big leagues.
Marcus Semien, Blue Jays: Guerrero wasn’t the only Blue Jay with an MVP-caliber season. Signed to a one-year deal before the season, Semien made a case for the best free agency signing in the offseason as he turned in a .265/.334/.538 slash line that helped him post tie Soto and Harper with 6.6 fWAR. In the AL, only Guerrero, Salvador Perez and Ohtani had more homers than his 45 total, and Semien added in 15 stolen bases to boot. Semien was not just an impact performer at the plate, but a standout defensive player. According to Baseball Savant, Semien’s seven outs above average made him the sixth-best defensive second baseman in the game.
NL Cy Young
Corbin Burnes, Brewers: It was a major breakout campaign for Burnes in Milwaukee. He wrapped up the 2021 season with a 2.43 ERA and a 1.63 FIP that were both the lowest in the game. He combined overpowering strikeout stuff (MLB-best 35.6 percent strikeout rate) with pinpoint accuracy (t-third-best 5.2 percent walk rate) and held opposing hitters to a meak .199 batting average. Baseball Savant listed his barrels per plate appearance at 1.8 percent, the lowest in the majors. The only knock on Burnes is that he was the only Cy Young starter to make fewer than 30 starts (28) and he had the fewest innings (167). But when he was on the mound, few could match Burnes’ dominance.
Max Scherzer, Dodgers: Nationals’ red? Dodger blue? The uniform didn’t matter for Scherzer, he was going to dominate no matter what jersey he wore. Scherzer finished the year with a 2.46 ERA and 2.97 FIP in 179.1 innings of work and an impressive 6.56 K/BB ratio, behind only Burnes for the best in the majors. Scherzer turned everything up another notch when on the Dodgers as he owned a 1.98 ERA in 68.1 innings since moving out west and posted a 2.9 fWAR since that Aug. 4 start, the best of any pitcher in the majors.
Zack Wheeler, Phillies: Wheeler showed he had ace potential during his years with the Mets. They were finally realized in his second year with the Phillies. Wheeler pitched 213.1 innings, the most in the majors, and was fifth in the majors with a 2.78 ERA. His 7.3 fWAR trailed only Burnes among pitchers and his 247 strikeouts were the most among NL pitchers. He also tallied three complete games and two shutouts, both tied for the most in the majors.
AL Cy Young
Gerrit Cole, Yankees: Cole has continued to look every part the ace the Yankees wanted when they signed him to the nine-year, $324 million megadeal ahead of the 2020 season. In his first full season with the Yankees after the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, he pitched to a 3.23 ERA with a 2.92 FIP in 181.1 innings of work. His 33.5 percent strikeout rate was the best in the American League. He totaled 5.3 fWAR, which was good for the second-best mark in the AL, behind only Nathan Eovaldi of the Red Sox.
Lance Lynn, White Sox: Lynn pitched the fewest innings of the three AL Cy Young finalists at 157 innings, but he pitched at an ace level when on the bump in Chicago. He finished the year with a 2.69 ERA and 3.32 FIP, with the former being the lowest among AL pitchers with at least 150 innings of work. Lynn fanned batters at a 27.5 percent rate and only walked 7 percent of opposing batters, while opponents hit just .207 against him. His 4.2 fWAR was the fourth-best in the AL.
Robbie Ray, Blue Jays: The Blue Jays struck gold with their one-year deals. Not only did they sign Semien, but they also added Ray, who emerged as one of the best pitchers in the American League. Ray pitched to a 2.84 ERA across 193.1 innings of work, with both marks representing the best in the AL. His 32.1 percent strikeout rate was second in the AL behind only Cole and he recorded a career-low 6.9 percent walk rate after displaying issues with the free pass in previous years. He was particularly dominant in July and August as he combined to pitch to a 1.86 ERA with 89 strikeouts in 72.2 innings across 11 starts in those two months.
NL Rookie of the Year
Dylan Carlson, Cardinals: There was much ado made over the 22-year-old stars Tatis, Soto and Guerrero — and obviously it is all warranted — but Carlson made his mark in 2021 as another impressive 22-year-old in 2021. He filled an important role with the Cardinals as he launched 18 home runs and stole a pair of bases while slashing .266/.343/.437. He finished his rookie season with a 2.8 fWAR.
Jonathan India, Reds: The Reds called up the 2018 No. 5 overall pick to start the season, and he did not disappoint. India led all qualifying rookie batters with 3.9 fWAR and a .835 OPS. He was also one of only two rookie hitters in the NL to record double-digit home runs and stolen bases as he hit 21 homers and swiped 12 bases. He placed at the 86th percentile in both chase rate and sprint speed, according to Baseball Savant.
Trevor Rogers, Marlins: No rookie pitcher was even in the same realm as Rogers in fWAR. He finished the regular season at 4.2, with only the AL’s top rookie pitcher even coming within 1.5 fWAR. In 133 innings, he owned a 2.64 ERA, struck out 28.5 percent of opposing batters and walked 8.4 opercent with a .214 opponents’ average. His 2.55 FIP was the lowest among all rookie starters, as was his ERA. He missed the entire month of August as he was placed on the bereavement list, and likely would have been a runaway favorite for the NL award had he not missed that time.
AL Rookie of the Year
Randy Arozarena, Rays: It was hard to imagine Arozarena topping his historic 2020 postseason performance, but he continued to establish himself as a star in 2021 with his full rookie season. He posted the only 20/20 season among rookies as he hit each mark exactly, and his .274/.356/.459 slash line led him to a .815 OPS, the best among qualifying AL rookies. Arozarena also checked in at the 72nd percentile in outs above average, per Baseball Savant, as he split his time between the two corner outfield spots. He led all AL rookies with 3.3 fWAR.
Wander Franco, Rays: The Rays promoted their uber-prospect in June, and the 20-year-old star showed he was ready for the majors. Franco reached base in 43 straight games to tie Frank Robinson for the longest on-base streak for a batter 20 years old or younger. After an early slump, he slashed .302/.354/.473 in the final 285 plate appearances of the season with six homers and a steal, ultimately finishing the campaign with a .288/.347/.463 slash line with seven homers and a pair of steals in 308 total plate appearances on the year. Despite the shortened season, he was third among AL rookie hitters with 2.5 fWAR.
Luis Garcia, Astros: Before shining in the postseason for the Astros, Garcia stepped up in a major way to fill out a rotation spot during the regular season. He totaled the most innings of any AL rookie pitcher at 155.1 and was second behind only Arozarena with his 3.1 fWAR. He impressed with a 3.30 ERA and 3.63 FIP as he struck out 26.4 percent of opposing batters and walked 7.9 percent.
NL Manager of the Year
Craig Counsell, Brewers: If Brewers’ fans had been told Christian Yelich would continue his downward spiral and hit just nine home runs and steal nine bases in a full season, they wouldn’t feel great about their 2021 chances. But Counsell helped the Brewers defy the odds, win the NL Central and finish with the third-best record in the NL. The Brewers had 2.0-plus fWAR seasons from five different batters and three pitchers, Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta, turned into perhaps the league’s best one-two-three punch of any rotation in the majors.
Gabe Kapler, Giants: The Giants last won the World Series in 2014 and hadn’t reached the postseason since 2016, which was also the last time they had a winning record. But in Kapler’s second season, the Giants won 107 games, the most of any team in baseball. The turnaround came with the resurgence of veterans like Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt, who were critical parts of the Giants’ World Series stretch earlier in the 2010s, and breakout performances from starters like Kevin Gausman, Logan Webb, Anthony DeSclafani and Alex Wood.
Mike Shildt, Cardinals: The Cardinals looked to be well out of the playoff picture when the month of September began. Then came the winning streak. St. Louis won 17 straight, rumbling from several games back of the Reds and Padres to a convincing advantage to claim the second Wild Card spot and reach the postseason for the third straight year. Shildt pushed all the right buttons for a team that received just 15 starts from ace Jack Flaherty and had only 39-year-old Adam Wainwright pitch more than 110 innings. Despite the standout season, he was fired by the Cardinals after the season.
AL Manager of the Year
Dusty Baker, Astros: The Astros might have reached the postseason in five straight years, but they were coming off a 29-31 campaign in 2020 and were set to have a challenging 2021 after losing ace Justin Verlander to Tommy John surgery and George Springer to free agency. Baker had no problem leading Houston to the AL West crown — and eventually a pennant, though voting was done before the postseason. Baker managed a patchwork rotation into having the 10th-best collective fWAR in baseball, and he guided the lineup to having the highest batting fWAR in the game.
Kevin Cash, Rays: It might seem a bit odd for the reigning AL pennant winner would have its manager named a finalist for AL Manager of the Year, but Kevin Cash just continues to raise the bar. Despite the Rays having a payroll of $70 million, according to Spotrac, nearly $30 million less than any other team to reach the playoffs, Tampa Bay finished the season with the best record in the American League at 100-62 despite playing in the same division as the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays, who all had more than 90 wins. Cash lost the team’s top starting pitcher midway through the season, but managed a team with a stable of rookie starters and openers, and rotated through a lineup that saw nine different players tally more than 100 games.
Scott Servais, Mariners: Talk about an underdog. When the season began, FiveThirtyEight gave the Mariners an 8 percent chance of making the playoffs and projected Seattle to finish with a 73-89 record. Servais took a team with low expectations and only four players with more than 130 games played into a 90-win team, leading Seattle to its best record since 2003. The Mariners finished just two games out of a wild card and were in the hunt for a playoff spot until the final day of the season.
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