Wednesday, September 30, 2015

2015 MLB Awards

With the 2015 major league baseball season concluding this weekend, it is time to hand out some awards, including several categories invented for this express purpose. We will highlight surprises, disappointments, fielders, hitters, top rookies, and all of the usual awards except things like Manager of the Year, which I have no real use for. So strap yourselves in and prepare to read many, many words as we wait for playoff games to start next week. Let's start in the field, shall we?

AL Gold Gloves
P     Dallas Keuchel, Astros
C     Salvador Perez, Royals
1B   Mitch Moreland, Rangers
2B   Ian Kinsler, Tigers
3B   Manny Machado, Orioles
SS   Alcides Escobar, Royals
LF   Brett Gardner, Yankees
CF   Kevin Kiermaier, Rays
RF   Kole Calhoun, Angels

Only two Royals, you ask? Well, Alex Gordon would almost certainly have Gardner's spot if he hadn't torn his groin and missed almost two months. Lorenzo Cain was outstanding this year in center, but Kiermaier was otherworldly. The deepest position here is third base, where strong arguments can be made for Adrian Beltre, Mike Moustakas, Evan Longoria, or Josh Donaldson in place of Machado.

NL Gold Gloves
P     Zack Greinke, Dodgers
C     Yadier Molina, Cardinals
1B   Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks
2B   Dee Gordon, Marlins
3B   Nolan Arenado, Rockies
SS   Andrelton Simmons, Braves
LF   Starling Marte, Pirates
CF   Billy Hamilton, Reds
RF   Jason Heyward, Cardinals

Although I would generally say that Simmons should win any and all fielding awards forever and ever, amen, NL shortstops had a banner year with the leather, with Adeiny Hechavarria, Brandon Crawford, and Nick Ahmed posting the third, fourth, and fifth-best defensive ratings in the majors at any position per Fangraphs, trailing only Kiermaier and Simmons. Molina beats out a stellar group of catchers (including Wilson Ramos, Yasmani Grandal, Buster Posey, Jonathan Lucroy, and Derek Norris) largely on the strength of squatting for more innings than any of them. The best left fielder in baseball this year was Yoenis Cespedes, but he unfortunately gets shut out here because he switched leagues in July.

Best Bounce-Back Season by a Hitter

Designated hitters are supposed to hit, and so when Kendrys Morales struggled through a pathetic .218/.274/.338 campaign a year ago, it appeared that he was washed up, and it also appeared as though the Royals were crazy for signing him as a free agent. Apparently last year's debacle happened because he didn't catch on with a team until June, as nobody wanted to pay the price of a compensatory draft pick that the Mariners had attached to him with a qualifying offer after the 2014 season. Having gotten a full spring training, Morales (at the age of 32) has hit .291/.358/.488 this year, helping anchor a Royals lineup that needed his power and on-base skills.

Best Bounce-Back Season by a Pitcher

Mets fans everywhere were apoplectic when Matt Harvey tore his UCL in the midst of a great season just over two years ago. He had a longer recovery time than most pitchers, since he sat out all of last season in addition to the final weeks of 2013, and that patience was rewarded with a return to the ranks of the top twenty pitchers in baseball. He has not been quite the flame-throwing ace of two years ago, with about a ten percent dip in effectiveness, and cannot even be considered the best pitcher on his own team this year (that would be Jacob deGrom). But Harvey has still been a very effective pitcher in his first campaign back from Tommy John surgery, helping the Mets to a surprise NL East title.

Most Disappointing Season by a Hitter

This is a two-way tie between Boston's two biggest acquisitions of the winter, Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. For $41 million dollars this year (and $142 million more to come over the next four), the Red Sox locked up the two worst everyday players in baseball. Neither player posted an OBP above .300, and the Panda hit the fewest home runs of his career despite moving from the worst home run park in baseball (AT&T) to one of the best (Fenway). Both were also atrocious in the field, with Ramirez in particular mystified by the complexities of playing in front of the Green Monster.

Most Disappointing Season by a Pitcher

Carsten Charles Sabathia doesn't qualify for this award because I think we have all seen his decline over the past three years or so, but what on earth happened to Atlanta's Julio Teheran? The 24-year-old, who looked like a budding ace for much of last year, has had trouble finding the plate AND has seen a spike in his home run rate, two factors which contribute heavily to his FIP rising by over a full run and his ERA by almost two. This may just be a blip after he crossed the 200-inning threshold for the first time a year ago (221, to be precise), but this has been a poor season for one of Atlanta's building blocks. Teheran just beats out Boston's third-biggest acquisition of the winter, Rick Porcello, many of whose struggles can be attributed to the bad defense behind him. Still, Porcello has an $82.5 million extension that doesn't kick in until next year, which is big money for someone who gagged up a plus-five ERA this season (although his second half was markedly better).

AL Rookie of the Year

Can we just pause for a minute and admire what a banner year for rookies this has been? The game has received a ridiculous infusion of young talent across the majors, with a whopping fifty-nine freshmen (thirty-six position players and twenty-three pitchers) posting one-plus WAR seasons per Fangraphs, as opposed to forty such players in 2014 and forty-six in 2013. In fact, it's the best rookie class in baseball history. A tsunami of talent is hitting the majors, and it has been so impressive that a guy who homered every fifteen at-bats this year (Miguel Sano) can't even sniff the ROY award in his league. That's because the American League welcomed two brilliant young shortstops this summer in twenty-year-old Carlos Correa of the Astros, the first pick of the 2012 draft, and twenty-one-year-old Francisco Lindor of the Indians, the eighth pick in 2011. Both were impressive at the plate (.278/.345/.508 for Correa, .319/.356/.488 for Lindor) and in the field, with Correa's bigger power balancing out Lindor's edge with the glove. In an impossibly close call, I'm going to give the edge to Correa largely on the basis of being ten months younger and thus a little more impressive at the highest level, but either one could win this award.

NL Rookie of the Year

The Bashin' Boychik, Joc Pederson, made this a race for the first half of the season, playing a very good center field in spacious Dodger Stadium and blasting twenty home runs to go with a .230/.364/.487 line. But he hit the proverbial rookie wall after the All-Star break, cratering to .178/.314/.287 with just five home runs down the stretch. Preseason favorite Kris Bryant, meanwhile, has lived up to the lofty hype all season long, hitting .281/.371/.499 with twenty-six bombs while playing a strong third base and holding down the third spot in the playoff-bound Cubs' lineup. He's one of a staggering four rookies currently starting for the North Siders (along with Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, and Jorge Soler), but he has certainly been the best of the lot, with a six-WAR season to his credit, even if he does lead the league in punchouts.

All-Rookie Team
C       Kyle Schwarber, Cubs
1B     Matt Duffy, Giants*
2B     Addison Russell, Cubs
3B     Kris Bryant, Cubs
SS     Carlos Correa, Astros
OF     Randal Grichuk, Cardinals
OF     Joc Pederson, Dodgers
OF     Michael Taylor, Nationals
DH    Miguel Sano, Twins
LHP  Carlos Rodon, White Sox
RHP  Noah Syndergaard, Mets

*Yes, I am aware that Duffy is a third baseman (and a good one) by trade. But I had to do this to get him and Bryant both on the team, since Duffy was the second-most valuable rookie in baseball this year. Apologies to Lindor, Jung-Ho-Kang, Odubel Herrera, Billy Burns, Anthony DeSclafani, Trevor May, and Lance McCullers, all of whom had brilliant seasons and could have made the cut.

Best Relief Pitcher, AL

A year ago Kansas City's bullpen was historically good, with the "law firm" of Herrera, Davis, and Holland (Joe Posnanski's term) all posting sub-1.50 ERAs and giving up three home runs in a little over two hundred innings against 258 strikeouts. As expected, there has been some regression this year, but precious little for Wade Davis, who has surrendered just seven earned runs in sixty-four innings for an ERA of 0.97. Davis' continued dominance is a big reason why the Royals ran away with the AL Central this year, and he will continue to be important now that he has taken over for the injured Greg Holland as Kansas City's closer.

Best Relief Pitcher, NL

The most fearsome sight for a major league hitter is looking up from the batter's box and seeing Reds closer Aroldis Chapman, he of the 105-mph fastball and wipeout slider, on the mound. Since 2012, Chapman has struck out at least fifteen batters per nine innings every year, and this year was no exception, even if his talents as an elite closer are being wasted both on a rebuilding team like the Reds (where he is a luxury item) and in the bullpen in general (I still want to see what he would do in the rotation). As long as he keeps pumping triple digits, however, he will continue to be among the best relievers in the game.

AL Cy Young Award

Both Cy Young races are very close three-way races. In the junior circuit, on the one hand, you have David Price, whose trade from Detroit to Toronto helped kick-start the Blue Jays and get them on a roll. On the other hand you have Dallas Keuchel, who leads the league in shutouts and innings pitched, and has been a major reason why Houston has transformed from seventy-win afterthought to eighty-three-win playoff contender. But I'm not picking either of those guys. No, I'm giving the nod to the very deserving Chris Sale, toiling away brilliantly on a moribund White Sox team that has been going nowhere since April. Sale leads the league in strikeouts with 267 and almost a dozen per nine innings, and earlier this year tied Pedro Martinez's record for most consecutive starts with double digit strikeouts at eight. He can't be blamed for the bad defense behind him and the mediocre offense supporting him, and is my choice here.

NL Cy Young Award

This might be the toughest choice of all. Behind door number one, the consensus best pitcher on the planet, Dodgers southpaw Clayton Kershaw, with a 2.16 ERA (third in the league), a 0.886 WHIP (third), 294 strikeouts (first) in 229 innings (first), a 2.04 FIP (first), and 7.1 bWAR (third). Behind door number two, Kershaw's teammate Zack Greinke, owner of a 1.68 ERA (first), 0.859 WHIP (first), 192 strikeouts (eleventh) in 214 innings (fifth), a 2.75 FIP (fifth), and 8.7 bWAR (first). The third door opens to reveal new-found Cubs ace Jake Arrieta, he of the 1.82 ERA (second), 0.879 WHIP (second), 229 strikeouts (fourth) in 223 innings (second), a 2.40 FIP (second), and 8.3 bWAR (second), not to mention a no-hitter against the Dodgers on August 30th.

Man oh man, is this close. The narrative favors Arrieta, who also has twenty-one wins to his name, against sixteen for Kershaw and eighteen for Greinke, plus the no-no (although Kershaw threw a one-hit shutout against the Giants to clinch the NL West a couple days ago). The traditional rate stats favor Greinke, while Kershaw has a sizable edge in strikeouts and FIP. In the end, I think I'll go with Arrieta, who has been simply superb down the stretch in helping boost the Cubs to their first playoff berth in seven years. Regardless, none of the three would be a bad choice.

All-MLB Team

C     Buster Posey, Giants
1B   Joey Votto, Reds
2B   Jason Kipnis, Indians
3B   Josh Donaldson, Blue Jays
SS   Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox
LF   Yoenis Cespedes, Tigers/Mets
CF   Mike Trout, Angels
RF   Bryce Harper, Nationals
DH  Nelson Cruz, Mariners

SP   Jake Arrieta, Cubs
SP   Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
SP   Chris Sale, White Sox
SP   Zack Greinke, Dodgers
SP   Dallas Keuchel, Astros
RP  Wade Davis, Royals
RP  Aroldis Chapman, Reds

AL Most Valuable Player

Yet another close race! This one is neck and neck between the Blue Jays' Josh Donaldson and the Angels' Mike Trout, who by the way is in line for his fourth straight top-two MVP four full seasons. That is insane. There is little to separate these two, from their slash lines (.299/.372/.575 for Donaldson, .295/.397/.581 for Trout) to their home run totals (41 and 40) to their general importance to their teams (immense in both cases). When it's this close, I have to give it to the guy who not only plays his home games and half his divisional road games in great pitchers' parks, but is close to six years younger to boot, and well on his way to a Hall of Fame career. Give it to Trout.

NL Most Valuable Player

This is not at all a close race, and hasn't been since a volcanic explosion in May that began at the expense of Marlins pitcher Tom Koehler with three monster home runs off the bat of Bryce Harper, who used that performance as a launchpad for a historically great season. Harper's .334/.466/.654 slash line is 100 percent better than league average, and he leads the senior circuit in runs (117) and home runs (41); if his teammates were better at getting on base in front of him we'd likely be talking about an old-school Triple Crown. And he won't turn 23 until late October. His isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) is almost forty points higher than anyone else in baseball, he fields his position well, and he's a plus base runner. That all adds up to 10.2 wins above replacement, the third-highest number for any position player his age in modern baseball history, trailing only Trout and Ted Williams. Spare me the nonsense about his being on a .500 team; baseball is an individual game in a team setting, and without Harper this year's Nationals are probably a .400 team. No, this award should be Harper's to lose.

Enjoy the playoffs, everybody!