As the second half of the season rolls on, no first-place team in the National League holds more than a five-game lead in their respective divisions, setting up what could be a wild finish to the regular season.
The New York Mets hold a slim 1.5-game lead over the Washington Nationals in the NL East, and the Los Angeles Dodgers are ahead of the defending champion San Francisco Giants by only 2.5 games in the West. Meanwhile the St. Louis Cardinals have built a five-game gap over the Pittsburgh Pirates, but the Bucs have won four straight and are well within striking distance.
Whoever manages to wrangle a division title and or one of the two wild card spots will need some heavy lifting from their superstars, many of whom are also in contention for the NL’s major individual awards.
Last season, Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw swept the NL’s awards, but the reigning MVP and Cy Young-winner struggled in May and endured a minor hip injury earlier this summer. With Kershaw in the midst of a down year, for him, several other NL stars have the chance to win their first MVP and Cy Young.
Here are the predictions for the 2015 NL MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year:
The Diamondbacks' Paul Goldschmidt and the Reds' Joey Votto have both put up excellent numbers, but neither are on teams in playoff contention, a fact that hinders their chances at MVP. Meanwhile, there's the Cubs' Anthony Rizzo, the Pirates' Andrew McCutchen and the Dodgers' Adrian Gonzalez perhaps quietly having very strong seasons, and each could mount a late campaign to earn MVP votes.
But the race more than likely comes down to two players: Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper and Giants catcher Buster Posey. It's of little surprise that Posey is in consideration, as he eyes the second MVP of his career after winning it in 2012. The 28-year-old is on pace to equal the numbers from his 2012 campaign with 16 home runs, 75 RBIs, and a .332 batting average all while keeping San Francisco in the hunt for a postseason berth.
But Harper’s managed to keep up his incredible production in the first-half of the season, and now leads the NL in six categories: runs (77), home runs (29), on-base percentage (.460), slugging (.650), OPS (1.110), and total bases (234). The 22-year-old has also been posting big numbers without much protection from the clean-up spot.
Prediction: Bryce Harper
Before the All-Star break last month, Nationals' ace Max Scherzer seemed to be in line for the second Cy Young of his career and would be the sixth pitcher ever to win the award in both leagues. Between May and June, Scherzer went 8-3 with an ERA hovering just above 2.00, tallied 101 strikeouts compared to only 10 walks, and the Nationals ruled the NL East. But the 31-year-old has looked human of late, notching two no decisions to start August, and last month he went 2-3 with a pedestrian 3.40 ERA.
A strong finish to the season could put Scherzer back in the driver’s seat, but the Dodgers' Zack Greinke, the Cubs' Jake Arrieta, and the Pirates' Gerrit Cole are all making cases. Arrieta found his groove in June and July, with a 9-2 record over 13 starts and allowing four runs only once in that span. He’s also recorded two straight shutouts, and should the Cubs make the postseason Arrieta will garner some votes.
Other than Greinke, Cole might have the most consistent resume this season. He’s atop the NL with 14 wins in 22 starts, third with a 2.39 ERA, eighth in strikeouts (143), and 11th in WHIP (1.10). However, Cole started off August with two unimpressive starts, and will need to rally to improve his standing.
That leaves Greinke, whose 45 2/3 innings scoreless streak is just the tip of what should be his second Cy Young season. With Kershaw experiencing a dip in production, the 31-year-old has put the Dodgers staff on his back with an 11-2 record, an NL-best 1.71 ERA, 136 strikeouts, 0.85 WHIP, and he hasn’t walked more than three batters in a single game all season. Scherzer can still make a push, but Greinke’s all-around dominance makes him the pitcher to beat. Greinke could match Scherzer with Cy Young awards in both leagues, first winning in the AL with Kansas City in 2009.
Prediction: Zack Greinke
Much like the Cy Young, Dodgers centerfielder Joc Pederson burst ahead of the pack to start the year but he’s since regressed and allowed the Cubs Kris Bryant, the Giants Matt Duffy, the Phillies Maikel Franco, and the Mets Noah Syndergaard to gain more attention. It’s difficult to understate Pederson’s importance to L.A.’s lineup in the first half, as he’s second on the team with 21 home runs and fifth with 43 RBIs. However, the 23-year-old went through a slump in July, and has only one home run in his last 109 at-bats. His NL-worst 133 strikeouts are also a detriment to Pederson’s case.
Bryant has thus far lived up to his considerable preseason hype with 16 home runs and 65 RBI, but his poor .249 average and 132 strikeouts stick out. Should the Cubs remain in the postseason hunt, Bryant will get some votes but seems unlikely to win ROY unless he lifts his numbers in the final month of the season.
Franco needs 25 more plate appearances to reach the 350 threshold to qualify for ROY honors, and overall his numbers are just as impressive as the other top candidates. The budding Dominican Republic star has 13 home runs, 48 RBIs, 43 runs scored, and a .277 average, though Philadelphia’s 45-68 record hurts Franco’s chances.
Duffy’s been the most consistent rookie hitter with a .307 average compared to only 63 strikeouts and a .345 OBP, while collecting 51 RBIs, nine home runs, and 48 runs scored. But Duffy’s contributions haven’t mean as much as Syndergaard’s work on the mound for New York.
Since the 22-year-old made his debut on May 12, he’s racked up a 6-6 record with a 3.01 ERA and 106 strikeouts to 22 total walks. Syndergaard’s role in the starting rotation has made a huge impact on the Mets postseason hopes, most notably his 1.32 ERA and 2-1 record in July. And he should have had two more wins last month after allowing only three combined runs at Washington and at St. Louis in back-to-back starts. If he pulls it off down the stretch, Syndergaard would be the second straight ROY for the Mets, following Jacob deGrom’s win last season, and New York would be the first team with back-to-back ROYs since the Dodgers claimed five straight from 1992 to 1996.
Prediction: Noah Syndergaard