Wednesday, September 26, 2012

MLB Awards

Baseball's postseason is almost here, and at this point all of the excitement is in the American League, as the National League playoff spots are mostly sewn up.  In particular, the most interesting development to watch will be in the AL West, as Texas, Oakland, and the Angels battle it out over the last week of the season.  The Angels are two games behind the A's for the second wild card berth, and they close out with six games against the lowly Mariners sandwiched around a weekend series in Texas.  Oakland has the opposite schedule, with six games against the league-leading Rangers spaced out by three home dates with Seattle.  So if the Angels win two more games over the remainder of the season (not inconceivable) than the A's, there will be at least one tie, to say nothing of what Baltimore, Tampa Bay, and the Yankees do in the AL East.

Today, however, the plan is to focus on the individual awards, which of course won't be announced until November.  Let's go in order from easiest to most difficult, so that hopefully this post will get more interesting as it goes along.

AL Rookie of the Year: Mike Trout, Angels
In pretty much any other year, the rather outstanding rookie class would be much discussed and analyzed, with terrific performances from Yu Darvish, Yoenis Cespedes, Wei-Yin Chen, and Jarrod Parker, and a solid season out of Jesus Montero. But this is Trout's year, as any sane baseball person understands, and he should win unanimously.

AL Manager of the Year: Buck Showalter, Orioles
Seriously, have you taken a look at that O's roster?  Apart from Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and Nick Markakis (out for the season), do you recognize anyone?  Okay, fine, Jim Thome has had a cameo, and their bullpen has been terrific.  But Showalter has guided a team with little star power and an underwhelming rotation to a likely playoff berth, and Baltimore fans can rejoice in the likelihood of a World Series title the year after Peter Angelos inevitably fires him.

NL Manager of the Year: Davey Johnson, Nationals
I have no idea why Johnson is ever out of a managing job.  His teams win everywhere he goes, often significantly above their performance both before and after he manages them.  The Nats have led the East and indeed the National League for almost the entire season, despite all the hoopla surrounding the Strasburg innings limit and major injuries to half of his regular lineup (Morse, Werth, Desmond, Ramos) and last year's closer (Drew Storen).  Not bad for a guy in his first full year with a franchise that hasn't had a winning season since they were in Montreal.

NL Rookie of the Year: Bryce Harper, Nationals
As recently as a month ago, this was not only a very close race, but you would have been hard-pressed to have Harper in your top three for anything other than hype.  In that time, however, Harper has broken out of his post-All-Star Game slump in a big way, raising his slash line to .260/.331/.450 with 19 home runs and 4.0 rWAR, all while very capably handling center field for a major contender under an intense spotlight.  And he's still a teenager! Wade Miley, Todd Frazier, and Isao Aoki round out the best of an impressive senior circuit rookie crop.

AL Most Valuable Player: Mike Trout, Angels
The Triple Crown (if Miguel Cabrera winds up winning it) is a nice statistical achievement, given that it hasn't been done in 45 years, but I think it has been pretty conclusively shown over the past few years that two of those legs (batting average and RBIs) are an outdated and ineffectual way to measure a player's worth.  Cabrera does lead the league in OPS and is unquestionably one of the most feared hitters in baseball (if not the most), but as anyone can point out, he is at best a below-average defender and a bad baserunner.  Despite missing almost all of April, meanwhile, Trout has scored eighteen more runs than anyone else in the league, has hit 28 homers, is third in the AL in OPS, has stolen 47 bases in just 51 attempts, and played sublime defense in center field.  The MVP is given out for a single season, so Cabrera's past brilliance and the fact that Trout is a rookie should have no bearing.  Additionally, here is the list of people who have compiled a higher WAR in one season than Trout's 10.5: Babe Ruth (6x), Rogers Hornsby (2x), Carl Yastrzemski, Barry Bonds (2x), Lou Gehrig, Cal Ripken, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb (2x), Mickey Mantle (2x), Willie Mays (2x), Joe Morgan, Stan Musial, and Ted Williams.  Gehrig, Mantle, and Cobb all performed that feat during their age-24 seasons.  No one has ever done it as a 20-year-old like Trout.  He has had a season for the ages, and should be rewarded as such.

NL Cy Young: R.A. Dickey, Mets
Homer alert! Homer alert!  Fair, at least part of me wants Dickey to win the Cy Young because he plays for the Mets, and an equal part of me thinks it would be awesome for a knuckleballer to win.  I will acknowledge the incredible seasons of Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel, but there are at least five starters (Dickey, Johnny Cueto, Gio Gonzalez, Kyle Lohse, and Cole Hamels) who are deserving candidates and have pitched many more innings than Kimbrel or Chapman.  Dickey leads the league in ERA, WHIP, innings pitched, and strikeouts, and despite his specialty pitch is just 24th in the league in walks allowed.  If you're a Luddite (tip of the cap to Keith Law) who cares about wins and losses, he's compiled a 19-6 record pitching for the rather uninspiring Mets.

NL Most Valuable Player: Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
But wait, you say, the Pirates have fallen out of the race!  And McCutchen was slumping when they needed him most!  Okay, fine.  How about the fact that he leads the NL in WAR (7.0), is second in OPS, first in runs and hits, and tied for sixth in home runs?  Does that do it for you?  He also mans a premium defensive position and is the only guy in Pittsburgh's lineup who can scare opposing pitchers on a regular basis.  I go with McCutchen over Ryan Braun primarily for defensive value, although Braun is perhaps the most feared hitter in the National League (I don't care about Braun's steroid test results from last fall one bit).  Buster Posey, the best hitter in the league since mid-season, and playing the most difficult position to boot, would be my runner-up, but the Pirates would be hanging out with the Cubs and Astros if they didn't have McCutchen.

AL Cy Young: Justin Verlander, Tigers
This is the toughest race to pick a winner in.  David Price, Chris Sale, Felix Hernandez, Jered Weaver, Max Scherzer, and even Jake Peavy and Hiroki Kuroda all have strong arguments to make.  Now, some people might be inclined to discredit Verlander because he has not been as dominant as he was in 2011, but as mentioned earlier, last year shouldn't matter one bit.  Let's dispense with some of the other guys first.  Kuroda and Peavy have been grinders all year, and Kuroda in particular has carried the Yankees' pitching staff for parts of this season, but I don't think anyone can argue that they've been as dominant at any point as the other competitors, which makes sense when you see their more modest strikeout numbers and slightly more modest ERAs.  Weaver, Scherzer, and Sale have all been outstanding, and unhittable for stretches, but all three have pitched 40-50 innings fewer than Verlander, and Scherzer is a full run behind in ERA to boot (although he is second in the league in strikeouts).  That boils down the race to Hernandez, Price, and Verlander, and really, any of them would be terrific choices.  Price leads the league in ERA and Hernandez in FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching).  But Verlander leads the league in innings, strikeouts, and WAR, is second in FIP and WHIP (to Weaver), and has thrown the most complete games while facing more batters than anyone else in the league.  He should win his second Cy Young.

One final note on Verlander; it will be interesting to see if he holds up into his 30s as well as he has in his 20s.  Verlander is 29 now, and has logged 200+ innings each of the past six years (after 186 in his rookie year), with a high of 251 last year.  We know all about how he still pumps gas in the ninth inning around the 120-pitch mark, but if he can sustain that kind of consistency (the only other active pitchers with such innings streaks are Roy Halladay from '06 through '11 - he won't make it this year - and Mark Buehrle from '01 through '11 - he might still) with the kind of excellence that he has displayed in really every season save 2008 (when his walk rate spiked and his strikeout rate dipped), he may turn out to be the best pitcher of his generation.

Playoff previews coming next week.