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A trio of Yankees merit consideration at the quarter pole AL Awards check-in

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With just over 25 percent of the season in the books, the Yankees’ biggest stars are approaching their astronomical expectations.

Houston Astros v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

At 24-19, the Yankees have overcome their disappointing start to a winning record, but still stand at just fourth in an American League East led by the surprisingly strong Boston Red Sox. However, at just a game-and-a-half off the division lead, the Yankees are well within reach of claiming first in only a couple of days.

The top-end of the Yankees’ rotation and bullpen has been as staunch as any, holding down the fort as the offense has gotten healthier and into a better rhythm. Also, aside from extended absences from what seems like half of the club’s expected starting lineup, the Yankee offense has begun to round into a shape reminiscent of their preseason expectations.

With 43 games down and 119 to go, three Yankees have risen above the rest, firmly entrenching themselves within the race to potentially earn awards at season’s end:

AL Cy Young

While Aroldis Chapman might be the Yankees’ best pitcher on a per-inning basis, the team’s most valuable pitcher is undoubtedly their “white whale,” Gerrit Cole. Even though he’s coming off of his worst start yet, in which he allowed five runs in as many innings, Cole still sports just a 2.03 ERA and 0.780 WHIP across 57.2 innings, all marks ranking second or third in the AL. Through nine starts, Gerrit Cole has carried a greater workload than nearly any other pitcher, at a superior quality than almost any other qualified starter.

AL Cy Young Contenders

Player Innings K% BB% ERA xERA wOBA xwOBA fWAR bWAR
Player Innings K% BB% ERA xERA wOBA xwOBA fWAR bWAR
Gerrit Cole 57.2 39.7 2.3 2.03 1.98 .212 .223 2.6 2.2
John Means 52.0 28.0 5.3 1.21 2.78 .197 .268 1.8 2.6
Shane Bieber 59.2 36.4 8.7 3.17 3.34 .299 .293 1.6 1.7
Tyler Glasnow 57.1 38.6 9.1 2.35 2.32 .226 .242 1.6 1.6

By leading all qualified AL starters in both strikeout and walk percentage, Cole has plowed through opponents to the effect of low run totals and late-inning starts. While a pitcher here or there might best Cole in one particular category or another, the overall combination of dominance and body of work blows away all of his AL competition.

Corbin Burnes and Jacob deGrom have compelling cases against Cole for the title of best pitcher in the majors, but fortunately for the Yankees’ ace, he won’t have to compete with them for AL honors. On pace for more than a 10-win season, Cole would be a shoe-in for the Cy Young, and even a strong contender for the MVP if he were to finish the season as strong as he’s started. While the latter is unlikely, as only one AL pitcher has won both awards in the past 25 years — his former teammate, Justin Verlander — Cole’s incredible start to 2021 has given him a massive lead in the race to be named the league’s best pitcher.

Mariano Rivera AL Reliever of the Year

Although Boston’s Matt Barnes won the season’s first AL Reliever of the Month Award, a Yankee’s been even better, and Cleveland’s bullpen ace isn’t far behind.

Mariano Rivera Reliever of the Year Contenders

Player Innings K% BB% ERA xERA wOBA xwOBA fWAR bWAR
Player Innings K% BB% ERA xERA wOBA xwOBA fWAR bWAR
Aroldis Chapman 16.0 58.6 8.6 0.00 1.12 .146 .167 1.2 1.1
Matt Barnes 20.1 49.3 4.2 2.66 1.10 .167 .165 1.2 0.8
James Karinchak 18.1 51.5 9.1 0.49 1.42 .138 .190 0.9 1.5

In the fewest innings of the three contending firemen, the Yankees’ closer leads the group in fWAR, ERA, K/9, and is tied with Karinchak for the lead in total strikeouts. And, not that it particularly matters, but Chapman (10) trails only Mark Melancon (14) for the MLB lead in saves.

Not only has Chapman diversified his arsenal with one of the game’s best split-fingered fastballs — a pitch he’s yet to give up a hit against, with eight K’s in nine chances — he’s actually throwing as hard as he ever has during his second stint in pinstripes. Just this past Tuesday, Chapman finished off Khris Davis with a fastball classified as a sinker at 102.8 mph, the fastest pitch he’s thrown in any of the past three seasons. After averaging 97.8 mph with his four-seamer in 2020, Chapman’s average fastball velocity has climbed back up to 98.8 mph, his best mark since 2017.

Even as the rest of the majors has eroded Chapman’s status as the hardest thrower in baseball, his augmented arsenal and resurgent arm strength have made him better than ever. His strikeout rate of 58.6 percent would best his career-high by almost 10 percentage points, and his xERA of 1.11 is better than any of his past seasons by nearly a run. Improbably, Chapman still owns a negative FIP due to his obscene strikeout rate and run prevention.

Chapman will probably allow an earned run at some point, but it’s hard to imagine how, given how quantitatively and qualitatively dominant Chapman’s been to start the 2021 campaign. Fittingly, a Chapman win would mark the third time that a Yankee has captured the Mariano Rivera Award since its inception in 2014, and Chapman’s second victory in the past three years. (Andrew Miller won the first in 2015.)

AL Most Valuable Player

Before their injuries, Mike Trout and Byron Buxton were each on pace for 10-win seasons according to both bWAR and fWAR. However, Trout is projected to miss as much as two months with a calf injury, and Buxton has yet to begin running since straining his hip. If Trout and Buxton miss as much time as they’re projected to, their extended absences might preclude them from award consideration despite their very early leads.

Now, if Shohei Ohtani continues his historic run as the first dominant two-way player since the Babe, he should — and likely will — win the AL MVP. When combining his value as one of the AL’s premier sluggers with his contributions on the bump, few can sniff Ohtani’s on-field production. Currently on-pace for about eight wins of fWAR, Ohtani also showcased his brilliance on the mound on May 11th, when he went seven innings while striking out 10 and allowing a single earned run. So long as he stays healthy, an eight-win season is probably his floor, with a ceiling around Babe Ruth’s live ball era single-season record of 14.1 WAR.

However, if Ohtani’s health or production falters, Aaron Judge is among the next group of names worth considering for the honor:

AL Most Valuable Player Contenders

Player OPS+ wRC+ wOBA xWOBA fWAR bWAR
Player OPS+ wRC+ wOBA xWOBA fWAR bWAR
Byron Buxton 232 224 .496 .438 2.5 2.7
Mike Trout 200 198 .456 .422 2.5 2.1
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 195 190 .449 .425 2.4 2.1
Xander Bogaerts 173 174 .427 .388 2.2 2.1
Jose Ramirez 154 150 .390 .422 1.7 2.0
Aaron Judge 177 174 .421 .464 1.7 1.3
Shohei Ohtani 157 161 .401 .382 2.0 2.7

Somewhat quietly, Aaron Judge has posted stats similar to those of his 2017 campaign, when he finished second in AL MVP voting to noted cheater Jose Altuve despite besting him in fWAR and bWAR by two-thirds of a win and a third of a win, respectively. If anything, Judge has been unlucky, as his major leagues-leading xwOBA has outpaced his wOBA by a greater margin than any other player in this group.

Although José Ramírez’s floor is certainly higher than Judge’s due to his own underperformance of his batted ball data and positional versatility, only Vladimir Guerrero Jr. can match Judge’s potential for a Herculean offensive output. If his defense regresses towards average or better, near where it’s been over the past couple of seasons, and his quantitative statistics begin to more closely mirror his batted ball data, Aaron Judge could plausibly separate himself from the rest of the pack.

There’s obviously plenty of season left to go for these races to figure themselves out, but for now, it’s exciting to have three Yankees well in the mix.

Note: All numbers included in tables were as of the end of play on Wednesday.