Gray, Minor among leaders in ESPN’s Awards Index

Former Vanderbilt pitcher Sonny Gray is only 6-6 but he is among the leaders in an ESPN index for the National League Cy Young Award. (photo by Mike Morrow)

He has a 6-6 record. He is on a team struggling in fourth place in its division. Yet former Smyrna High School and Vanderbilt right-hander Sonny Gray has climbed into the list of contenders for the National League Cy Young Award, accordiing to what ESPN.com calls the Awards Index for 2019.

Gray is listed as the fifth likeliest pitcher to win the league Cy Young Award in a breakdown by Bradford Doolittle and Dave Schoenfield in the ESPN analysis. Doolittle created the index. It’s based on items such as Wins Above Replacement and factors called Win Probability Added and Championship Probability Added.

Given that the post-season awards are chosen on a subjective basis by sports writers, analyzing the probability of awards through statistical measures is suspect. But the analysts do delve into basic statistics such as earned run average, which remains the single best statistical measure of a pitcher’s performance, so its use is reassuring.

Gray is ranked behind Hyun-Jin Ryu of the Dodgers, Max Scherzer of the Nationals, Jacob deGrom of the resurgent Mets and Aaron Nola of the Phillies.

Doolittle and Schoenfield report, “In the Index, Gray somewhat shockingly nudged past (Stephen) Strasburg for the No. 5 spot. Since the last rankings, only four players in all of baseball have improved their Awards Index more than Gray.”

The analysis then notes that Nola is one of those four.

Gray has drawn notice for his performance since early in the season. It was a bit eye-opening that he was chosen to the All-Star team, as a replacement, given his lackluster win-loss record. But it is even more surprising that he should creep into the Cy Young Award picture. While the ESPN index may be an objective look, it remains difficult to believe the writers will look toward Gray, whose Reds team is currently seven games out of first place, come time for Cy Young balloting.

And since he has only that 6-6 record, it’s logical to point to Gray’s respectable 3.25 earned run average as a probable indicator of his award value. But the Mets’ deGrom, who won the award last season on the strength of his 1.70 ERA, is in line with Gray’s current record in the win-loss department. DeGrom is currently 7-7. Winning percentage didn’t exactly help deGrom in last year’s balloting since he finished 10-9, so at least there is consisentency in the Awards Index message.

Ryu, at 11-2 and a 1.53 ERA is rightfully considered a strong frontrunner.

Gray is not the only former Vanderbilt pitcher getting some love in the awards projection. The same Awards Index lists Mike Minor of the Texas Rangers fourth in the American League Cy Young picture, behind Charlie Morton of the Rays, Justin Verlander of the Astros and Lance Lynn of the Rangers. The list has Gerrit Cole of the Astros fifth behind Minor.

Minor, a veteran from Forrest High School and Vanderbilt, is 10-6 with a 3.06 ERA. Verlander has a 15-4 record and a 2.68 ERA, so he’s considered the favorite to win the award, or possibly Cole, who’s 14-5 at 2.87.

Yet another former Vanderbilt player has a place in the Awards Index, as outfielder Bryan Reynolds of the Pirates is listed the third likeliest candidate to win National League Rookie of the Year honors, behind Fernando Tatis Jr. of the Padres and slugging Pete Alonso of the Mets. Reynolds is listed ahead of Alex Verdugo of the Dodgers and first baseman Christian Walker of the Diamondbacks.

Schoenfield and Doolittle debate the race between the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger and the Brewers’ Christian Yelich, last year’s winner, in the National League Most Valuable Player race. While those two players go neck-and-neck in the statistical department, the debate seems to overlook the fact that MVP voting usually comes down to the key player on a team that actually wins a division. Unless Yelich is able to lead the Brewers past the Cubs and Cardinals, this would appear to be Bellinger’s year. The ESPN list currently has the NL MVP race as Bellinger, Yelich, Max Muncy of the Dodgers, Freddie Freeman of the Braves and Ronald Acuna of the Braves, in that order.

The same point could be made about the American League MVP race. The ESPN duo has Mike Trout as the likely winner, and he most certainly may be the league’s most outstanding player. But if winning a division is the big factor it has been historically, DJ LeMahieu of the Yankees or Alex Bregman of the Astros may move past Trout. The ESPN Awards Index has the top five, in order, as Trout, Bregman, Xander Bogaerts of the Red Sox, LeMahieu, and former Overton High School star Mookie Betts of the Red Sox.

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