- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Bryce Harper mentioned the MVP Award after he limped onto the press conference stage the day following his heart-stopping tumble.

Harper didn’t say the three little letters that are so dear to him. However, he did say he was concerned his hyperextended knee may keep him from winning the award for the second time in three seasons.

“The World Series is definitely on my mind,” Harper said. “Playoffs, things like that. One award’s on my mind, as well. You guys know what that one is. It’s a big one to me. Definitely team accolades and things like that come in front of my own, but that’s something I’m striving towards.”

A week later, Max Scherzer was placed on the disabled list. His pesky neck had turn him rigid once again. He couldn’t pitch. Scherzer was mad at himself because he didn’t do his neck exercises after having a recent, and past, problem with stiffness in his neck.

The stints away for both influence their chances at their positions’ most prestigious awards. Before they were hurt, Harper and Scherzer were front-runners for the MVP and Cy Young awards, respectively. Scherzer’s limited time away shouldn’t reduce his chances much, though a teammate is creeping up on him. Harper was in a tight race before being injured. His time on the disabled list could well cause the award to slip away from him.

Let’s look at the candidates for each with a little more than six weeks to go in the regular season.

Cy Young

Scherzer, Washington

He remains well-aligned to win the award for the second consecutive year since Los Angeles’ Clayton Kershaw is again injured. Scherzer has been spectacular the last two seasons. But, if Kershaw was healthy, Kershaw would have been on a path to winning the Cy Young both years. Instead, it’s Scherzer with a quality shot at his third career win. He’s second in ERA (2.25), first in strikeouts by a wide margin (220), first in batting average against (.171), also by a wide margin, and first in WHIP, at a preposterous 0.85. Scherzer is eighth in pitches thrown, giving his workload plenty of heft. Scherzer has even thrown two complete games, the rarest of birds in this pitching era, for good measure. He said he will pitch Friday versus the New York Mets. Assuming that is the case, Scherzer is in a good spot to win the Cy Young again. If he does, he will become just the sixth pitcher in history to have won three times.

Gio Gonzalez, Washington

Remember last November when the Nationals picked up Gonzalez’s $12 million option for this season? They could have let Gonzalez leave after five consecutive seasons of ERA rise. In fact, that move seemed to make more sense than taking Gonzalez’s option after he delivered a 4.57 ERA last season. Instead, Gonzalez has put together his best season in Washington and become a bargain. He is third in the National League in ERA. His WHIP is down to 1.12. That’s sixth in the league. He’s second in innings and third in batting average against. What’s different this season? For starters, Gonzalez is using his off-speed pitches more. Both curveball and changeup usage are up significantly. If Gonzalez makes it to 180 innings pitched this season — he needs just 18 more — his vesting option for $12 million in 2018 kicks in. His chances at unseating Scherzer are low. That doesn’t change what a resurgence this has been.

Kershaw, Los Angeles

Like last season, the question for Kershaw will be workload. His numbers are at their typical loony level: 2.04 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, .197 batting average against, a league-leading 7.00 K:BB ratio. He is also second in pitches per inning, which shows his efficiency when carving up those in the batter’s box. He is scheduled for a rehab start Saturday. He threw a simulated game Monday. Kershaw has not pitched since July 23 and expects to be back with the team next week. If that timeline holds, he could make around seven more starts. Will that be enough work to catch Scherzer, whose numbers are similar?

MVP
Harper, Washington

Slipping on a wet bag could end Harper’s MVP candidacy. Though the Nationals were thankful Harper’s injury was a hyperextension and bone bruise, there isn’t much he can do to heal it except wait. Day-by-day, that will cost him numbers in an MVP race where defense will have little to no influence on the voting. Though he has not played in 10 days, Harper remains in the thick of the race. He is second in the league in OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage). He is one of six National League players with 29 home runs. That ties him for fourth. Coming into Tuesday, he is still third in batting average, just a point in front of teammate Daniel Murphy. The question for Harper is when he will be back and what kind of production he provides afterward. The field is starting to move away from him while he sits on the bench in a hoodie.

Joey Votto, Cincinnati

The Cincinnati Reds are having another bad season. Votto is having another good one. This is how it goes there. Votto leads the league in OPS. He has 101 walks and 65 strikeouts. Usually such a ratio results in a high-average and limited extra-base hits. Not for Votto. He is fifth in the league in slugging percentage. The challenge when assessing Votto is that never-ending debate about what MVP means. Can the most valuable player be part of a last-place team?

Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona

Shhhh. Goldschmidt is having another fantastic season. Just don’t ask him to go around bragging about it. The Arizona first baseman is among the most under-appreciated players in the game. This season, Goldschmidt is fifth in OPS. He hits for power and average. Goldschmidt also runs well. His 16 stolen bases are by far the most in this top-end group of candidates.

Giancarlo Stanton, Miami

A recent surge has the Miami strongman pushing his way into the conversation. Stanton has a 1.444 OPS in August. There have been only six Augusts since 1913 with a better OPS, according to baseball-reference.com. Three of those were by Barry Bonds. The push has elevated Stanton’s peripherals beyond power numbers. His average is up to .285. He is third in the league in OPS. Like Votto, playing on a mediocre team could be held against him. Stanton also needs another sustained six weeks to stay in the conversation with more well-rounded players.

Charlie Blackmon, Colorado

The numbers are fun, but fueled by Coors Field. Blackmon is fourth in OPS. He has 14 triples, 12 stolen bases and a .620 slugging percentage. He is also the best defender. But, 47 of his 70 extra-base hits have come at home. The gap between Blackmon’s home and road OPS is almost 500 points. He’s had an outstanding season. Though, the disparities in home and road performance will push him behind others.

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