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Ideological battles add suspense, mystery to suspenseful races

With just three weeks left in the season, debates are starting to rage about the major awards in both leagues, and the races for all six major awards are tightening up. The one possible exception is the National League MVP race, where the prospect of a the first hitting Triple Crown in 43 years has added a unique level of drama to the one race where a clear winner would otherwise seem to have emerged. For some, this is time to choose sides and dig in their heels. Here at Awards Watch, those ideological battles add another layer of mystery and suspense to these already-compelling races.

NOTE: All stats are through Sunday, September 12. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold italics. The number in parentheses after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list. Rookies are players who, before the current season, have had fewer than 130 at-bats or 50 innings-pitched in the majors or have spent fewer than 45 days on the active roster before rosters expand on September 1.

American League

1. Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers (2)

Season Stats: .335/.429/.631, 34 HR, 116 RBIs

With Josh Hamilton out indefinitely due to bruised ribs, the voters need to take another serious look at Cabrera. At the end of May, two months into the season, Hamilton was hitting .281/.335/.500. That doesn't look too bad until you realize that Cabrera's worst month prior to September saw him hit .323/.400/.576. Cabrera has also struggled with some injuries in September, but he has played at an MVP level throughout the season to this point, while Hamilton really only did so for three months.

2) Josh Hamilton, OF, Rangers (1)

Season Stats:.361/.414/.635, 31 HR, 97 RBIs, 8 SB

Hamilton has now missed more than a week since he collided with the outfield wall at Target Field on September 4, and though an MRI on Saturday showed nothing more than three bruised ribs, he doesn't seem any closer to returning than he was a week ago. He attempted to play light catch on Tuesday, but had to stop due to the pain. Hamilton didn't emerge as an MVP candidate until June, and is now facing the possibility of missing most of September, meaning his MVP candidacy is based almost entirely on his production over a three month span. That's just half a season. It was an unbelievable half a season (.410/.461/.717, 22 HR, 70 RBIs), but a half a season shouldn't be enough to bring home this award, not even for a five-tool stud on a first-place team.

3) Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees (3)

Season Stats: .316/.377/.536, 26 HR, 95 RBIs

With Hamilton hurt and Cabrera playing for a losing team, some MVP attention has swung toward Rays third baseman Evan Longoria (.296/.374/.514, 21 HR, 98 RBIs, 15 SB), but he's third in line among AL East infielders as far as I'm concerned. Cano and the Red Sox' Adrian Beltre (.326/.369/.563, 27 HR, 96 RBIs) both have Longoria beat at the plate and in the field. In the latter case, Beltre has the edge because he's simply a superior fielder at the hot corner (though the margin is small), while Cano wins out because he plays a more demanding position with a lower offensive standard (average major league 3B: .267/.329/.423; average ML 2B: .266/.330/.391). Of the two, I think Beltre is the superior candidate (it's particularly noteworthy that he has hit better on the road than in hitter-friendly Fenway Park), but I'm listing Cano over Beltre here because Cano has been the key bat on the team with the major league's best record. I don't believe that team performance should factor into the MVP vote, but enough voters do, and that tips the balance here. After all, that's what has drawn their attention to Longoria.

National League

1. Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (1)

Season Stats: .320/.422/.589, 33 HR, 102 RBIs, 13 SB

Unlike Albert Pujols, who trails too much in batting average, Votto still has a fighting shot at the Triple Crown, but even (perhaps, especially) if that crown goes unclaimed for a 43rd straight season, Votto seems to be the obvious MVP choice. His Reds have pulled away in the Central and seem unlikely to blow their current 6 1/2 game lead, and Votto has simply been the most productive hitter in the NL. Also worth noting, as with Beltre, Votto has been even more productive away from his hitting heaven of a home ballpark, batting .339/.441/.607 on the road, a line which blows noted road warrior Adrian Gonzalez's road stats out of the water.

2. Carlos Gonzalez, OF, Rockies (3)

Season Stats:.337/.374/.612, 32 HR, 100 RBIs, 23 SB

As I wrote last week, Gonzalez, given his large lead in batting average, is the man with the best chance to capture the Triple Crown in a season that has surprisingly produced a trio of late-season contenders for that rare feat. Gonzalez will have to pull it off to beat Votto for MVP, however, as he gives up a lot not just in on-base percentage, but in his home/road splits. While Votto has raked everywhere, Gonzalez has hit just .288/.310/.450 with seven home runs and 34 RBI on the road. Joe Posnanski tried to rationalize that a bit, and made some solid points doing so, but I don't imagine they'll make much of a difference to the average voter, and those who are moved likely won't be able to get past that deficit in OBP.

3. Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals (2)

Season Stats: .309/.401/.598, 39 HR, 104 RBIs, 12 SB

Pujols won the last two NL MVPs, but with his Cardinals likely to miss the playoffs and Pujols having one of his weakest seasons (no, seriously), I don't think many voters will be motivated to make it three in a row.

American League

1. CC Sabathia, LHP, Yankees (1)

Season Stats:19-6, 3.14 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 2.58 K/BB, 2 CG

2. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners (2)

Season Stats: 11-11, 2.39 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 8.5 K/9, 3.40 K/B, 5 CG, 214 K

This race is quickly turning into an ideological battle over the value of pitching wins. I come down firmly on the side of those who believe that pitching wins and losses are wildly overvalued and nearly useless statistics that are dependent as much upon run and bullpen support as the performance of the pitcher in question, but I realize I'm still in the minority, particularly among professional baseball scribes. Thus Sabathia's major league leading 19 wins continue to carry the day here, despite the fact that Hernandez has quite clearly been the best pitcher in the American League, and thus deserves the award designated for the best pitcher in the league.

I've seen some try to argue that Hernandez has benefited from playing in a week division, pointing to his 6.38 ERA in four starts against the Rangers, the best team in the West, but that argument ignores the fact that he doesn't get to face his own historically awful offense as well as his 0.35 ERA in three starts against the Yankees, who lead the major leagues with 5.34 runs scored per game on the season. It's also worth noting that Hernandez leads the American League in Baseball Prospectus' win-expectancy-based SNLVAR, which is adjusted for the strength of opposing lineups (that's the L amid that alphabet soup which stands for Support Neutral Lineup-adjusted Value Added over Replacement), though I don't imagine those still hung up on wins would be terribly swayed by that fact.

3) David Price, LHP, Rays (N/A)

Season Stats: 17-6, 2.87 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 2.30 K/BB, 2 CG

One hope Hernandez might have is that Price, who was my leader on this list for much of the season, could draw votes away from Sabathia. Price is just two wins shy of Sabathia and has been at least his equal in most other measures, trailing significantly only in innings pitched, which is very much a product of the Rays' efforts to protect the arm of their 24-year-old ace. Price and Sabathia will face off in St. Petersburg Monday night as the Rays and Yankees open a stretch of seven head-to-head games over an 11-day span. Those seven games could well determine which team finishes the year with the best record in baseball. It could also bring about a second Sabathia-Price matchup in the series finale in the Bronx next week if both teams opt to use Thursday's off-day to skip their weakest starter and keep their aces on regular rest, though given the Rays' handling of Price thus far this season, that unfortunately seems like a long shot.

National League

1. Roy Halladay, RHP, Phillies (1)

Season Stats:18-10, 2.44 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 7.9 K/9, 7.18 K/BB, 8 CG, 3 SHO>

2) Adam Wainwright, RHP, Cardinals (2)

Season Stats:18-10, 2.38 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 3.75 K/BB, 5 CG, 2 SHO

In this impossibly tight race, Halladay had the edge despite his slightly higher ERA because of all of the extra outs he has recorded this season. Wainwright has thrown 208 1/3 innings. Halladay has thrown 228 2/3, which leads the major leagues. That means Halladay has recorded 61 more outs than Wainwright. That's more than two full games worth of innings and outs that Halladay has covered for his team. In a race this close, those sorts of things matter.

3) Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, Rockies (3)

Season Stats:18-6, 2.75 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 8.5 K/9, 2.35 K/BB, 4 CG, 2 SHO

The Marlins' Josh Johnson has actually pitched better than Jimenez on the year and even had a more impressive run of dominance than Jimenez's season-opening salvo. In Jimenez' first 14 starts of the season, he posted a 1.15 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, and 2.44 K/BB. During that run, Jimenez held his competition to one or zero runs 10 times. However, over a 14-start stretch from May 13 to July 27, Johnson posted a 1.01 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, and 6.19 K/BB. During that run, Johnson held his competition to one or zero runs 12 times. Still Jimenez went deeper into his games on average, completing three of them (Johnson completed none), two of them shutouts, and he got the offensive support required to cash in that run with a 13-1 record (Johnson went 7-2). He also had the good sense to start the season that way, so no one had to dig into the gamelogs to see how dominant he had been. For those reasons, Jimenez is likely to out-poll Johnson when the Cy Young vote is finally registered.

American League

1. Neftali Feliz, RHP, Rangers (1)

Season Stats: 3.05 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, 3.88 K/BB, 36 SV

Feliz's next save will tie the rookie record, which he now seems like a lock to break. When Kaz Sasaki set the record in 2000, he won the Rookie of the Year, when Todd Worrell set the record Sasaki broke in 1986 (his 36 rookie saves still stand as the NL record), he, too, won the Rookie of the Year. When Doug Corbett set the mark Worrell broke with 24 saves in 1980 . . . well, he finished third behind Cleveland sensation "Super Joe" Charboneau, but to the best of my knowledge, Austin Jackson doesn't open beer bottles with his eye socket.

2) Austin Jackson, CF, Tigers (2)

Season Stats: .305/.361/.415, 3 HR, 32 RBIs, 22 SB

Missing from Jackson's line above are his 94 runs scored, 10 triples, 31 doubles . . . and his AL-leading 152 strikeouts. Jackson's K's show no sign of slowing down, but his walks have picked up in the last two months. Even without his first four career intentional passes, Jackson has walked 15 times in his last 176 plate appearances after walking just 15 times in his previous 318 PA. Sure, batting ahead of Will Rhymes (the motivation for three of those four IBBs) might have something to do with that, but Jackson has now posted better numbers in the second half of his rookie season than the first half (.310/.370/.431 to .300/.354/.403), giving hope to Tigers fans that there's more here than some athleticism, a bunch of strikeouts, and a lot of luck on balls in play. If I was building a team, I'd rather have a center fielder with Jackson's ability than a shut-down closer, but I'd take Feliz's future as a starting pitcher over either.

3) Wade Davis, RHP, Rays (N/A)

Season Stats: 12-9, 4.24 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 5.9 K/9, 1.68 K/BB

Davis has gone 7-0 with a 3.34 ERA over his last nine starts, which is particularly impressive given the fact that a shoulder strain sent him to the disabled list in the middle of that run. Since his return, he has gone 3-0 with a 3.24 in four starts, though it's all too little too late to catch Feliz and Jackson.

National League

1. Jaime Garcia, LHP, Cardinals (1)

Season Stats: 13-7, 2.69 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 2.03 K/BB

Garcia and Davis are the only two rookies to have reached double-digit wins on the season and even though Garcia's last start was a dud (seven earned runs allowed in four innings), he still ranks sixth in the NL and ninth in the majors in ERA. Among rookies, just five of whom qualify for the ERA title to this point in the season, the man closest to Garcia's 2.69 ERA is the Mets' Jonathon Niese, who has a 3.85 mark, more than a run worse than Garcia's. Drop the cut-off to 80 innings pitched (roughly half of Garcia's total) and Garcia still leads major league rookies by more than a half a run over the Giants' Madison Bumgarner, who has a 3.28 ERA.

2. Jason Heyward, RF, Braves (2)

Season Stats: .289/.399/.481, 17 HR, 68 RBIs, 9 SB

Heyward's late-season push for this award continues as he enters Monday night's action with an active 10-game hitting streak during which he has hit .359/.479/.487, the relative lack of power being the only negative in that stretch. If Heyward can round up his current numbers (to, say, 20 homers, 80 RBIs, a .290 average, .400 OBP, and .500 slugging, some of which is less likely than others), he could yet take this award from Garcia, who has been the clear frontrunner ever since Heyward hurt his thumb back in May.

3) Buster Posey, C, Giants (3)

Season Stats: .324/.369/.509, 13 HR, 59 RBIs

With a nod to Pirates second baseman Neil Walker and his active 18-game hitting streak, during which he has hit .364/.395/.701 with five homers and 18 RBIs, Posey, who hit in 21 straight games in July, still gets the honorable mention spot in this race as Walker's hot streak has yet to push his season stats past those of San Francisco's future-star backstop.

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