As we approach the All-Star Break, it's again time to check in on the game's best of the best and see how the races for MVP and Cy Young are stacking up. Our top choices remain unchanged from previous months, but a few new names join the mix.
When Mike Trout went down with an injury on May 28, there was a question of what would happen in his absence.
What has happened is Judge has put some distance between himself and the rest of the MVP field. Since Trout played his last game, Judge has hit .344/.479/.718, with 13 home runs, 31 RBIs and 37 runs scored in 36 games. He's almost two full wins above replacement ahead of Trout, and he's nearly a full win ahead of any AL position player.
Before you say that Betts' offensive numbers aren't quite MVP-caliber, remember that you're dealing with the best defensive outfielder in the majors. Betts finished second in the majors in WAR last season and will be in the mix for the top spot this season, largely due to his defensive value and his baserunning (15 stolen bases in 17 attempts). And while Betts has only 15 home runs, remember that he currently leads the American League in doubles with 28.
The biggest reason an Astros player won't win the MVP is that there are too many good ones to choose from. Altuve and Correa rank 2-3 behind Judge in WAR, and they're close enough (4.3 and 4.2) to be interchangeable, right alongside Betts. Springer is not far behind at 3.6.
Springer has been the Astros' biggest catalyst of late. He's hitting .377 with 16 home runs and an MLB-best 1.219 OPS in his past 36 games, in which the Astros are 26-10. And it's Springer who has the most WAR in the majors since Trout went out (2.4). He's just ahead of Altuve and Correa (2.2).
Ramirez has played his way into the back end of this discussion after a June in which, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, he became the first player in the modern era to record at least 14 extra-base hits in a seven-game span.
In the past two seasons, Ramirez has made the jump from solid infielder to All-Star standout. Remember that this is someone who hit .219 two years ago.
Since June 14, he's on a 22-game tear in which he's leading the majors with a .440 batting average and 1.370 OPS. His 2.3 WAR since Trout's injury is second among position players.
AL Cy Young
Chris Sale, Red Sox
In a season where anyone and everyone is hitting the ball out of the ballpark, Sale has given up only nine home runs in 120 2/3 innings. He has given up a home run to 1.9 percent of the hitters he has faced, which ranks third out of the 74 pitchers in the majors who have qualified for the ERA title. He trails only Michael Fulmer (1.4 percent) and Lance McCullers Jr. (1.7 percent). Last season, Sale gave up 27 home runs and ranked 37th at 3 percent. A 1 percent change is a big one in this case.
Vargas might have been due for a bit of a drop-off, but Wednesday's start notwithstanding, he has been ace-caliber and done so without the strikeouts. Instead, he has relied on retiring hitters with runners in scoring position, as well as his outfield defense, to drive his success.
Regarding the latter, the out rate he's getting on balls hit in the air ranks among the top 15 in the majors. It also helps that he has walked barely more than two batters per nine innings.
Corey Kluber, Indians
When Kluber went on the disabled list in early May, it looked like another case of a pitcher suffering from the hangover of a heavy workload during the previous (dominant) postseason.
Since Kluber's return, however, he has looked like the pitcher who excelled in October and then some. He has a 1.24 ERA in seven starts, his only loss a 1-0 affair against the San Diego Padres on Tuesday. He has struck out 74 in 51 innings and set the Indians' record with five straight 10-strikeout games. And like Sale, he has limited the long ball, giving up only one home run in that span.
Sleeper: Craig Kimbrel, Red Sox
Because of the high-scoring environment in the majors, and an abundance of high ERAs, a good reliever could sneak in and net some votes. In the AL, that's Kimbrel, who looks like the 2013 version of himself that saved 50 games. Kimbrel has had one season with a strikeout-to-walk rate higher than 5-to-1. Right now, he's at 13-to-1 (65-5). And he's allowing about half-a-baserunner per inning.
Goldschmidt hit a little skid the past two weeks, bringing his numbers down. But he's still a front-runner, which is a testament to how good his stats were to begin with.
Goldschmidt is hitting .315 with 19 home runs. He has a legitimate shot of besting his career-high 36 home runs from 2015. He excels in the field, boasting an uncanny range that allows him to play farther off first base than anyone else. The only thing that could deter Goldschmidt from being top three by season's end is injury (which he has experienced before), or an abundance of intentional walks that prevent him from doing major damage. He shares the major league lead in that stat with the next guy on our list.
This isn't quite 2015 Harper, but it's reasonably close: He's hitting .324/.431/.600 and there has been no drop-off at any point this season. He has ended every day he has played but one with a batting average of at least .300, an on-base percentage of at least .400 and a slugging percentage of at least .500.
And by the way, in the past 10 games, Harper is locked in, compiling 16 hits, nine walks, nine runs scored and eight RBIs. He's hitting .444 with a 1.278 OPS in that span.
If we're rating players on a per-game basis, you can make a case that Turner is a match for Judge. Injuries cost Turner significant time. What's amazing about Turner is that he has been better in the 22 games since his return (.392 batting average, 16 RBIs) than he was in his first 39 pre-injury (.379 batting average, 17 RBIs).
The one question mark with Turner is how long his magic will last. He's getting hits on 84 percent of his line drives. That's atypical (he was 67 and 68 percent the previous two seasons) and might not stretch through September.
It seems necessary to acknowledge the Brewers in some way, given how long they've held onto first place in the NL Central.
Though Eric Thames would be the popular choice, Shaw has been almost as good of a hitter (at a position in which good hitters aren't as prevalent). He has racked up a .926 OPS (15 points behind Thames) and is a far more valuable defender. The deal that netted him from the Red Sox in exchange for Tyler Thornburg and minor leaguers is one of the most notable of the last offseason.
NL Cy Young
Max Scherzer, Nationals
Scherzer leads the NL in ERA, WHIP and FIP with numbers that look otherworldly. He's currently in the midst of an eight-start run in which he has given up 10 runs and 24 hits in 61 innings. He has compiled 87 strikeouts and an ERA of 0.89 in that span.
Scherzer might have the best pitch in baseball: a slider with a couple of variations that causes massive issues for hitters because of its late-darting nature. Opponents are hitting .081 (11-for-135) against it. Last season, he struck out 98 batters with his slider. He's already at 72 through 17 starts this season.
Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
Since the start of June, Kershaw has made a pretty good case that he's at worst No. 1a when it comes to being the best pitcher in baseball. He has posted a 1.90 ERA in seven starts, helped by a current stretch of 20 straight innings in which he has not given up an earned run. In six of those seven starts, he gave up two runs or fewer.
Much like with Scherzer, so much of Kershaw's success is tied to his slider. Opponents are 6-for-69 (.087) in at-bats ending against it in his past nine starts. They're missing on nearly half of their swings against it.
Gio Gonzalez, Nationals
We challenge you to try to identify the third-best starting pitcher in the National League. The top two are head-and-shoulders above anyone else. The conversation for the No. 3 spot encompasses a lot of names -- Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray, Stephen Strasburg, Carlos Martinez and Jacob deGrom among them. We're going with the hot hand, Gonzalez, who has been fantastic in his past six starts.
Since June 5, Gonzalez has a 2.31 ERA. Other than one blip, he has avoided the biggest issue he has dealt with throughout his career: issuing walks. He has 44 strikeouts and 12 walks in that span. Before that, his strikeout-to-walk ratio was 1.7-to-1.
Sleeper: Alex Wood, Dodgers
If you looked only at Wood's numbers and didn't look at the name, you'd think you were looking at Kershaw. That's how good Wood has been. He has given up no runs or one run in eight of his past nine starts. The one knock on Wood is the lack of innings pitched (he started the season in the bullpen).
But six or seven innings of brilliance every five days has been far more than we ever could have expected. We'll leave you with this doozy that a colleague procured from the Elias Sports Bureau: In the past 100 years, only two left-handed starters have begun a season 10-0 with a sub-2.00 ERA -- Wood and 1978 Yankees starter Ron Guidry, who finished 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA.