MLB Awards Watch: An early look at the battle of the Angels for AL MVP and a tight NL Cy Young race

While we may be only a month into the 2022 MLB regular season, certain stars have already jumped ahead in the races for baseball’s biggest individual awards.

Manny Machado is making his case for why he should be the Most Valuable Player in the National League, though don’t count out Nolan Arenado, back to his Colorado form in his second season in St. Louis. In the American League, Mike Trout is battling reigning MVP — and Angels teammate — Shohei Ohtani for the honor. There are some exciting new faces among the familiar ones in both Cy Young races, without a clear-cut front-runner yet.

There’s plenty of baseball left to play — but it’s never too early for awards predictions. So for the first time this season, ESPN MLB experts Bradford Doolittle and David Schoenfield are checking in on these races in this month’s Awards Watch.

A statistical glimpse of the races is provided using Doolittle’s AXE ratings. The ratings are prorated for 162 games using season-to-date results, plus a rest-of-season forecast based on anticipated playing time and 2022 performance. Playing time estimates are based on depth chart data from


Award Index (AXE) leaders

1. Manny Machado, Padres (151.9)

2. Nolan Arenado, Cardinals (134.4)

3. Jazz Chisholm Jr., Marlins (128.6)

4. Tommy Edman, Cardinals (127.3)

5. Eric Hosmer, Padres (126.5)

6. Ke’Bryan Hayes, Pirates (125.4)

7. C.J. Cron, Rockies (125.4)

8. Juan Soto, Nationals (125.2)

9. Daulton Varsho, Diamondbacks (124.8)

10. Bryce Harper, Phillies (123.8)

Odds from Caesars Sportsbook

Machado +550

Arenado +600

Soto +800

Ronald Acuna Jr., Braves +1000

Freddie Freeman, Dodgers +1200

Francisco Lindor, Mets +1400

What AXE sees: What a season for third basemen! Machado has outdistanced Arenado so far. He has been on a tear since the season started, and his WAR pace (12.9) would put him in the running for one of the best position player seasons ever. He has even out-Trouted Trout. Machado is the real deal as an MVP candidate, but he’s unlikely to maintain this blistering pace. For one thing, Machado has a .406 BABIP so far. He’s going to the opposite field more, but that’s not going to turn a .282 career hitter into the .359 hitter he is at the moment. Still, Machado is having a special season all across his stat line. He’s even on pace to steal 30 bases.

What Dave says: Yes, Machado will slow down, but he’ll also get extra credit for carrying (along with Hosmer) what is otherwise a lackluster Padres offense in the absence of Fernando Tatis Jr. Arenado has slowed down big time in May after his red-hot April in which he hit .375/.444/.681, so I give a rest-of-the-season advantage to Machado. Soto is still a good bet to end up as the best all-around hitter in the league because of his high OBP, but he has two things working against him: the Nationals will finish well out of the playoff race and he’s not driving in many runs. And keep an eye on Harper. He enters Monday leading the NL in hits, doubles, OPS and runs created. With his elbow injury, he may end up DHing a lot, which will work against him, but he’s locked in at the plate. I like his chances to climb up the rankings, but he’s going to have to put up monster offensive numbers.

Last word from Brad: I love the new faces at the top of the NL leaderboard, from the underrated (Edman) to the journeyman who has found a home (Cron) to some exciting young players off to great starts (Chisholm, Varsho, Hayes). There’s going to be some movement here, though, as some of these hot starts begin to cool and some more familiar names begin to rise, as Soto and Harper have done as of late. Still, it would not be shocking if this race turns into a season-long duel between Machado and Arenado. They are good enough and have the track record; their best seasons are invariably going to be MVP-caliber.


Award Index (AXE) leaders

1. Mike Trout, Angels (141.0)

2. Taylor Ward, Angels (140.5)

3. Aaron Judge, Yankees (136.6)

4. Jeremy Pena, Astros (133.7)

5. Shohei Ohtani, Angels (130.0)

6. Ty France, Mariners (129.6)

7. Jose Ramirez, Guardians (129.4)

8. Byron Buxton, Twins (127.9)

9. J.P. Crawford, Mariners (125.7)

10. Kyle Tucker, Astros (124.8)

Odds from Caesars Sportsbook

Ohtani +280

Trout +400

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays +550

Buxton +900

Judge +1000

Ramirez +1200

Wander Franco, Rays +2000

What AXE sees: Poor Taylor Ward. At 28, he has put together a month of MVP-caliber baseball and yet he still trails Mike Trout, who plays right next to him on a nightly basis, if only by a hair. Trout’s consistent greatness is virtually unmatched in baseball history. If he stays on pace, this will be his 11th straight season with a .900 OPS or better. AXE is built to be a consensus of leading metrics, but let’s zoom in on WAR and one of its sub-component rate stats: wins above average win percentage. Trout is at .565. His career high so far is .561. So AXE sees an all-time great playing better than ever, but he has four players (Ward, Judge, Pena and Ohtani) with very different narratives tailing close behind.

What Dave says: Trout might have five MVP Awards instead of the three if the Angels had made the playoffs more than once in his career (he has finished as the runner-up four times). Well, now Trout is pounding the baseball like never before — if you factor in the dead baseball and run-scoring environment of 2022 — plus the Angels look like a legit playoff contender. He actually trails the unheralded Ward in OPS+, but the teammate most likely to battle Trout for MVP honors will be Ohtani. He was an easy MVP choice last year, not just because of his unprecedented two-way performance, but because he put up dominant offensive numbers. If his overall numbers at the plate don’t end up as good, will Ohtani’s two-way brilliance be enough to sway voters?

Last word from Brad: For most players putting up numbers like Trout has thus far, you’d say there is no way he’s going to keep it up. With Trout, you only wonder whether he can stay on the field for 145-155 games. If he does, no one — not even the great Ohtani — can keep pace.

AL Cy Young

Award Index (AXE) Leaders

1. Kevin Gausman, Blue Jays (137.4)

2. Paul Blackburn, Athletics (133.9)

3. Justin Verlander, Astros (127.7)

4. Michael Kopech, White Sox (127.1)

5. Michael King, Yankees (126.7)

6. Nestor Cortes, Yankees (125.9)

7. Alek Manoah, Blue Jays (125.3)

8. Shohei Ohtani, Angels (124.1)

9. Dylan Cease, White Sox (122.7)

10. Logan Gilbert, Mariners (120.3)

Odds from Caesars Sportsbook

Verlander +600

Gausman +700

Gerrit Cole +700

Cease +750

Ohtani +900

Shane Bieber, Guardians +1000

Manoah +1200

Gilbert +1400

Shane McClanahan, Rays +1400

What AXE sees: Gausman put up a 0.86 FIP over his first seven starts while leading the AL in innings pitched among AL hurlers. There isn’t a bottom-line metric around that isn’t going to swoon over that combination. He contended for the NL Cy Young a season ago, so this isn’t a complete surprise. But Gausman also faded a bit as the season progressed, and the sample sizes for pitchers at this point of the season are so small that we can’t read too much into the leaderboard. The presence of Verlander, though, is always going to catch your attention.

What Dave says: I agree with Caesar’s top three of Verlander, Gausman and Cole, in part because we know these three can carry a heavy workload. While that’s less important now than in years past (Corbin Burnes won the NL Cy Young last year with just 167 innings), it’s a big consideration if it’s an otherwise close race. So while I like the young guns — especially McClanahan’s 58 strikeouts in 39⅓ innings — I’m not convinced they’ll get into that 190-inning range. Gausman faded in the second half last season with the Giants, so my favorite right now is Verlander, who looks like a man on a mission with back-to-back no-hit bids.

Last word from Brad: The usual suspects will enter the conversation but I’m keeping my eye on the young breakout names here: Cease, Manoah and Gilbert — perhaps even Kopech if he gets enough innings. All have shown maturity, dominance and consistency. All in all, it’s too early to anoint a frontrunner.

NL Cy Young

Award Index (AXE) Leaders

1. Pablo Lopez, Marlins (145.9)

2. Carlos Rodon, Giants (136.0)x

3. Merrill Kelly, Diamondbacks (135.0)

4. Zac Gallen, Diamondbacks (134.3)

5. Corbin Burnes, Brewers (131.4)

6. Miles Mikolas, Cardinals (128.3)

7. Max Fried, Braves (126.8)

8. Max Scherzer, Mets (125.5)

9. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers (124.6 )

10. Chris Bassitt, Mets (123.8)

Odds from Caesars Sportsbook

Rodon +500

Scherzer +500

Burnes +550

Walker Buehler, Dodgers +1200

Kershaw +1600

What AXE sees: First of all, we cut off the leaderboard at 10, but Buehler is lurking just outside of this group and has to be included in any group of front-runners. But the thing that really leaps off the page here is the presence of the two Diamondbacks. Arizona’s rotation overall has done an about-face over past season, with Madison BumgarnerZach Davies and Humberto Castellanos joining Kelly and Gallen as strong starters. Are Cy Young voters allowed to vote for pitching coaches? If so, then legendary pitching coach Brent Strom should be the front-runner for his work during his first season with the Diamondbacks. Lopez, meanwhile, has quietly gone about becoming one of baseball’s best hurlers.

What Dave says: This looks like another jam-packed NL race. Last year, it was a three-way battle between Burnes, Zack Wheeler and Scherzer, but there were strong down-ballot contenders like Gausman, Buehler and 20-game winner Julio Urias. Buehler hasn’t been nearly as crisp or dominant this year, allowing more hard hits and with a much lower strikeout rate. Frankly, I don’t like his chances right now as his stuff has dropped a tick or two from previous seasons. Rodon was perhaps my favorite — until he got hammered Sunday night, seeing his ERA climb from 1.80 to 3.49. He has 56 K’s in 38.2 innings and just allowed his first home run, but now he’ll have to get his ERA back down among the league leaders. Burnes might be the pick right now, as he’ll get to spend all summer chewing up the weak offenses in the NL Central.

Last word from Brad: This is going to be a great race. There’s every reason to think that preseason and/or perennial favorites like Scherzer, Kershaw, Buehler and Burnes are going to be right there. But Rodon is proving his 2021 breakout was no fluke, and Fried, Gallen and Lopez are all talented pitchers producing at a new level and capable of carrying this through the season.

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