With the season less than two weeks old, it's far too soon to break down the candidates for the major player awards in each league. But there has already been an awards-related twist that opens up an intriguing debate and makes for perfect fodder to begin our fifth season of Awards Watch on SI.com.
On Wednesday Major League Baseball announced that its award for the best relief pitcher of the year would be renamed after Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, the men with the two most saves in baseball history. The Rivera award will be given to the best reliever in the American League and the Hoffman award will go to the best reliever in the National League. In the first nine years of the award's existence, just one award was handed out to the major league's top reliever (Rivera won the first two and three of the first five; Hoffman never won one).
In recognizing a winner from each league, it now conforms to the format of every other major award in baseball, including the Most Valuable Player, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, Hank Aaron (top hitter in each league), and Comeback Player of the Year awards, but its doing so brings up a question worth asking: Why in this day and age do all of these awards still have separate winners for each league?
Of the five major American team-sports leagues -- the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLS (heck, even in the Canadian Football League) -- MLB is the only one with more than one official Most Valuable Player. That distinction stems from the fact that baseball was once comprised of two wholly separate major leagues, the National, founded in 1876, and American, which began play in 1901. Over time, however, that structure has been eroded to the point that the separation between the two leagues is no longer any greater than that between the AFC and NFC in the NFL and only marginally greater than that between the Eastern and Western Conferences in the NBA and NHL.
That erosion took its most significant steps in the late 1990s, starting with the introduction of regular season interleague play in 1997. The following year, the Milwaukee Brewers became the first team to switch leagues, accommodating realignment stemming from that year's expansion. In 1999 Commissioner Bud Selig eliminated the league offices, effectively ending any pretense that the leagues were separate entities, simultaneously allowing umpires to call games in either league. The 2013 season brought another significant step with another realignment that found the Houston Astros switching from the NL to the AL and interleague play becoming a season-long feature of the schedule, rather than one primarily confined to a couple of weeks at a time, as had previously been the case.
Given all of that, does it still make sense to have separate awards for the two leagues? There's certainly precedent for having a single award for both leagues. The Rookie of the Year award had one winner in its first two seasons, 1947 and 1948. The Cy Young award went to just one pitcher for a full decade, from its creation in 1956 through 1966 as Commissioner Ford Frick, who initiated the creation of the award, resisted pleas to have separate winners in both leagues, something that only came about after his retirement.
The pressure to have separate league winners in those awards stemmed from the tradition of the leagues having separate MVP awards (indeed, Frick's reasoning for creating the Cy Young award was his perception that pitchers were underrepresented among MVP winners). That tradition dates all the way back to 1911, when the Chalmers Motor Car Company sponsored the game's first official MVP award, naming one winner for each league. That year, the American League was in just its 11th season, the truce between the two leagues was only nine years old and a mere seven World Series, pitting the champions of the two leagues against each other, had been played. The Chalmers Award lasted just four years, and when new MVP awards were created after the end of World War I, each league instituted its own, with the AL launching its version in 1922 and the NL following suit in 1924.
Since 1931, the MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards have been voted on by the Baseball Writers' Association of America (of which I am not a member). For most of the rest of the century the limits of technology made it unlikely that writers would get to see enough of players in the league they didn't cover to have the same expert opinions of those in the league they spent all their time with.
Today, however, seeing players from both leagues is a common experience for writers of all stripes thanks not only to interleague play and the wide range of national television broadcasts on FOX, ESPN, and MLB Network, but to DirecTV's Extra Innings package, the proliferation of highlight shows on a multitude of cable sports networks, online video highlights and gifs and, above all else, MLB.tv. Any barriers that might have existed between the leagues from the standpoint of those covering the game and voting for the awards have been torn down and any distinction between the two leagues, save for the designated hitter, is purely a formality at this point, preserved so that the World Series still makes sense.
So why not have just one of each award instead of one for each league? Well, for one thing, reducing the number of awards given out would run counter to every change baseball has made during Bud Selig's commissionership up to and including Wednesday's announcement about the relief awards. In the last 21 years, Major League Baseball has added four teams, two divisions, six playoff spots, two rounds of playoffs and 10 All-Star roster spots. It also created the Hank Aaron award in 1999, and its own officially-recognized Comeback Player of the Year and relief awards in 2005 (replacing the unofficial awards handed out by The Sporting News and Rolaids, respectively). The idea that MLB would even entertain the idea of eliminating half of its major awards is completely divorced from reality.
Also, there is something to be said for the impact playing with or without the designated hitter can have on a player's season. American League hitters have the luxury of getting a "half-day off" as a DH from time to time, allowing them to nurse an injury while still contributing to their batting statistics or to otherwise get a partial rest while staying in the lineup, a luxury not enjoyed by National Leaguers. Meanwhile, roughly one of every nine batters a National League pitcher faces in an intraleague game is a pitcher or pinch-hitter. NL pitchers and pinch-hitters hit a combined .172/.221/.243 in 2013. American League designated hitters hit .245/.324/.402.
Beyond that, eliminating separate league awards would have a direct impact on the bonuses contained in the contracts of some of the game's top players. Consider, for example, the eight-year, $248 million contract recently signed by reigning two-time AL MVP Miguel Cabrera. That deal contains two $30 million options for 2024 and '25 which will vest if Cabrera finishes in the top 10 in the previous year's MVP vote. Having a single MVP award would make it much more difficult for Cabrera's options to vest, likely forcing that portion of his contract to be renegotiated. That's not a league-wide issue, but it is an added disincentive for combining the leagues into a single award.
Perhaps the biggest reason for not combining the awards is this: having two is just more fun. MVP chases by pitchers Justin Verlander (who won) in 2011 and Clayton Kershaw (who did not) in 2013 added an extra element of drama to their stellar performances, which had wrapped up the Cy Young awards in their respective leagues long before the season ended. Consider also the last two National League MVP races. Buster Posey and Andrew McCutchen's personal pursuits of the MVP award made what were already special seasons for their respective teams all the more compelling. With one winner for both leagues, however, both likely would have lost the award to Miguel Cabrera (or, in a logical world, Mike Trout, and, yes, I did have to add that). Having two winners adds variety and literally doubles the chances of any given player winning an award.
Ultimately, the Awards Watch column is not really about who wins (although I've gone 24-for-24 in correctly predicting the winners of the MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year votes in each league at the conclusion of the last four seasons). It's about the chase, about charting the seasons of the game's best players as they unfold, about the tiny margins that separate great from greatest, about debate, and, above all else, about fun. That's why I start ranking MVP candidates when the season is barely a month old and why anyone bothers to disagree with me about those picks even at that early stage. In the context of a Major League Baseball seasons, wins and losses are serious business, but awards are fun. Let the fun begin.