Saturday November 13th, 2010

The Baseball Writers Association of America awards will be announced over the next week and a half, starting with the Rookies of the Year on Monday and continuing through the American League Most Valuable Player on Tuesday November 23. Here, then, is a look at who is likely to win the four major awards in each league (or who likely has won given that the votes were cast more than a month ago, before the playoffs began) as well as who, in my opinion, deserves to win.

League leaders in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics. Rookies are players who, prior to the current season, had fewer than 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched in the majors or spent fewer than 45 days on the active roster prior to rosters expanding on Sept. 1.

To Be Announced: Monday, Nov. 15 Expected Winner: Jason Heyward, RF, Braves (.277/.393/.456, 18 HR, 71 RBI, 11 SB, 5.1 WARP) or Buster Posey, C, Giants (.305/.357/.505, 18 HR, 67 RBI, 4.4 WARP) Deserving Winner: Heyward or Posey

Things kick off with the award that's the toughest to call. Heyward and Posey are both deserving candidates who rose to the top of an incredibly deep rookie class in the senior circuit this season. Both were highly touted coming into the season, and both helped their teams reach the playoffs for the first time in several years (five for the Braves, seven for the Giants). Though the two play very different positions, both were outstanding fielders in 2010. Heyward showed tremendous range and athleticism in right field, ranking among the top right fielders in the game according to both John Dewan's plus/minus system and Ultimate Zone Rating, with Cincinnati's Jay Bruce the only right fielder to clearly out-rank him in both systems. Posey, meanwhile, threw out 37 percent of attempting basestealers (relative to a league average of 29 percent), allowed just one passed ball, and surely received some small share of the credit from many voters for the dominance of the Giants' pitching staff down the stretch, when they allowed just 2.06 runs per game over the final 31 games of the season.

The argument for Heyward starts with the fact that he spent the entire season in the major leagues, while Posey didn't get called up until May 29. As a result, Heyward posted the above rate stats over 623 plate appearances compared to Posey's 443. Looking at those rate stats, Heyward has the clear advantage in the all-important on-base percentage. He also has the ability to steal a base, which Posey lacks, thus giving his game one more dimension than his rival's. In short, the argument for Heyward is cumulative. He contributed more by simple virtue of being in the Braves lineup more.

The argument for Posey is that he not only hit for a higher average and slugging percentage, but matched Heyward's homer total in 180 fewer plate appearances and came just four RBIs shy of Heyward's total despite spending the first two months of the season in Triple-A. There's also the argument that Posey played a much more difficult position every bit as well as Heyward plays his, and given how similar their performance at the plate was in the big picture, that should give Posey a big advantage. In short, the argument for Posey is rate-based. Adjust the performances of each player to 162 games and you get 25 homers and 94 RBIs for Posey to 21 and 84 for Heyward.

Heyward advocates could counter-argue that there's no guarantee that Posey wouldn't have slumped had he played those extra two months, that you can't assume he'd have played at the same level for those extra 180 at-bats. That's fair given that most of Posey's production was contained in his red-hot July, when he hit .449/.490/.764 with seven homers and 24 RBIs over the first 23 games of that month and that his rate stats all steadily declined from there save for a plateauing of his slugging percentage thanks to his eight September home runs. It's also worth nothing that Posey spent May playing an unexceptional first base while waiting for the Giants to trade Bengie Molina, so he really only spent half the season behind the plate for San Francisco.

Posey advocates could argue that Heyward was himself very streaky, went through several prolonged slumps due to injuries large and small, and spent the first-half of July on the disabled list after hitting .172/.274/.232 over his previous 25 games, both due to a soft-tissue injury in his left thumb suffered when sliding into third base on May 14. Both arguments are well-founded and both candidates are deserving. If I had a vote, I'd be more likely to cast it for Posey's condensed performance, but I don't feel strongly about that choice.

To Be Announced: Monday, Nov. 15 Expected Winner: Neftali Feliz, Rangers (2.73 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 3.94 K/BB, 40 SV) Deserving Winner: Feliz

With the possible exception of NL Cy Young, this is the easiest call to make. Feliz set the rookie record for saves, breaking Kaz Sasaki's mark of 37 set in 2000, with a dominant season as the closer of a Rangers team that returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1999. Feliz's only competition in the AL's weak class was Tigers' center fielder Austin Jackson (.293/.345/.400, 27 SB), and Feliz pulled away from him down the stretch by not allowing a run, inherited or otherwise, in his last 16 appearances while Jackson hit just .266/.327/.363 over the season's final two months, dropping his average below .300.

To Be Announced: Tuesday, Nov. 16 Expected Winner: Roy Halladay, Phillies (21-10, 219 K, 2.44 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 7.30 K/BB, 9 CG, 4 SHO) Deserving Winner: Halladay

Adam Wainwright actually had a very similar season to Halladay's (20-11, 213 K, 2.42 ERA, 1.05 WHIP), but the choice is clear. Wainwright didn't lead the NL in anything, while Halladay led the majors in wins, innings pitched, complete games, and shutouts, and led the NL in strikeout-to-walk ratio and walks per nine innings with a miniscule 1.1 BB/9 (in both categories he was second in the majors only to Cliff Lee, who walked just 18 men all year and posted the second-best K/BB ratio in history). Among Halladay's four shutouts was a perfect game against the Marlins on May 29, which puts him in line to be just the second man ever to throw a perfect game and win the Cy Young in the same season since the award was introduced in 1956. The other was Sandy Koufax in 1965.

To Be Announced: Wednesday, Nov. 17 Expected Winner: Ron Washington, Rangers, 90-72, won AL West Deserving Winner: Terry Francona, Red Sox, 89-73, 3rd place AL East

Manager of the Year typically goes to the manager of the surprise playoff entry or contender in a given league, to the manager whose team improved the most over the previous year, or to the manager whose team overcame the most obvious hurdles to rise to or toward the top of the standings. In terms of wins, Joe Maddon's Rays improved the most in the junior circuit, going from 84 wins in 2009 to 96, a 12-win jump that landed them their second AL East title in three years. Washington's Rangers only improved by three wins, winning the West as much because of the collapse of the Angels, who won 17 fewer games, as anything else, but in doing so they snapped an 11 year playoff drought, and that sort of thing draws attention.

I was more impressed by the job Francona did, taking a Red Sox team devastated by injuries and undermined by a poor season from its bullpen and keeping them on the fringes of the Wild Card hunt into late September. Yes, the Sox actually won six fewer games than they did the year before, and perhaps those 89 wins were a testament to just how strong that Boston roster was before the injuries carved it up, but then Washington's Rangers only won one more game in a far weaker division. Maddon, who won in 2008, would also be a deserving choice, as would the retiring Cito Gaston of Toronto, who has never won the award, or the A's Bob Geren, while Buck Showalter, who has won the award with the Yankees and Rangers, deserves an honorable mention for getting the lowly Orioles to play at a .596 clip for 57 games.

To Be Announced: Wednesday, Nov. 17 Expected Winner: Bud Black, Padres, 90-72, 2nd place NL West Deserving Winner: Black

Dusty Baker is Black's main rival here, but I understand how Baker's Reds won the NL Central. I even picked them to do it (not sure I've mentioned that before). I still can't wrap my head around how Black coaxed the Padres to a 90-win season in which they led their division for the majority of the year. I know he did it with pitching, which favors crediting the manager, a former big league hurler and pitching coach. I know he got an incredible and likely somewhat fluky season out of his bullpen, a great sophomore season from young stud Mat Latos, and that Adrian Gonzalez is a monster, but I still can't figure out how that adds up to 90 wins, particularly coming off a 75-win season in 2009. Typically a manager gets the credit when the voters can't figure out where else to assign it, so look for Black to trump Baker, who has already won three of these suckers anyway.

To Be Announced: Thursday, Nov. 18 Expected Winner: Felix Hernandez, Mariners (13-12, 232 K, 2.27 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 3.31 K/BB, 6 CG, 1 SHO) Deserving Winner: Hernandez

This is the most compelling vote out of the eight awards this year because of what it will tell us about the continued devaluation of pitching wins as measure of pitching success. Last year, Tim Lincecum set a record by winning the Cy Young in a non-strike year with just 15 wins, while Zack Greinke simultaneously set the AL low with 16 wins. That bodes well for Hernandez, who would break both records if he were to pull down the award with a mere 13 victories. It's also worth noting that no pitcher has won the award in either league for a season in which he had double-digit losses since Pat Hentgen went 20-10 in 1996 and no Cy Young award winner has lost more than Hernandez's 12 games since Jim Palmer and Randy Jones went 22-13 and 22-14, respectively, back in 1976.

For those able to see past wins and losses, there is little doubt Hernandez was the best pitcher in the American League this year. Not only did he lead the majors in ERA, but did it while leading the AL in innings, falling just one frame shy of Halladay's major league-leading total. Hernandez also finished just one strikeout behind Jered Weaver's major league-leading total, one complete game behind Cliff Lee and Carl Pavano's league-best mark, was second to Lee in WHIP, led the majors in quality starts and quality start percentage (30 of his league-leading 34 starts were quality), and held opposing batters to a .212/.273/.312 line. He did benefit a bit from his ballpark (Clay Buchholz slips past him in adjusted ERA) and the Mariners' solid defense (his opponent's .265 average on balls in play aided his league-low hit rate and that handsome opposing batting line), but no other American League pitcher was as consistently dominant or as thoroughly dominant as Hernandez in 2010. (Those who point to his poor performance against the division leading Rangers are advised to check out his splits against the Yankees, who boasted the top offense in the majors in 2010).

Which brings us back to wins. Hernandez won just 13 games and lost 12 because he received just 3.07 runs per game of support from the dreadful Mariners' lineup, which scored fewer runs per game than all but one AL team since the introduction of the designated hitter (the 1981 Blue Jays scored 3.10 R/G to the M's 3.17). That's not his fault, and it's encouraging to see that there is growing recognition of that fact. As late as August, Hernandez seemed likely to lose the award to eventual 20-game winner CC Sabathia, but the debate that sprung up around his candidacy, as well as Sabathia's underwhelming finish, which we now know was due to a torn meniscus in his right knee, seemed to melt the resistance of a significant portion of the electorate, warming them up to the idea of a dominant 13-game winner as the proper Cy Young choice. We'll find out on Thursday just how much progress has been made on this front. Rooting against progress: likely runner up David Price (19-6, 188 K, 2.72 ERA).

To Be Announced: Monday, Nov. 22 Expected Winner: Joey Votto, 1B, Reds (.324/.424/.600, 37 HR, 113 RBI, 16 SB, 7.7 WARP) Deserving Winner: Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals (.312/.414/.596, 42 HR, 118 RBI, 14 SB, 8.9 WARP)

Votto is going to win this award because he had an incredible season and his Reds were the surprising winners of the NL Central after a decade and a half of losing seasons. I get that and I'm fine with it. The gap between Votto and Pujols this season was tiny; both were good in the field, surprisingly effective on the bases (Votto was caught stealing just five times, Pujols only four times), and monsters at the plate. Still, it deserves mention that Pujols has already won the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger. How is it that he could be the best fielder and best hitter at the position both men play, yet not the league's MVP? It's largely because of the standings. Votto's Reds not only won their division, they did it by upsetting Pujols' Cardinals. Votto was easily the best player on that Reds team and a clear counter-weight to Pujols given just how similar their seasons were. Had the Cardinals repeated as division champs, or even finished second to a third team with Votto's Reds back down in the second division, Pujols would be about to win his third straight NL MVP. I don't agree with that logic. It's unfair to penalize a player for the performance of the other 24 men on his team. This is an individual award and should be awarded based solely on the performances of the individual players. Still, I don't really have a problem with Votto winning it. It's that close.

To Be Announced: Tuesday, Nov. 23 Expected Winner: Josh Hamilton, OF, Rangers (.359/.411/.633, 32 HR, 100 RBI, 8 SB, 8.2 WARP) Deserving Winner: Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Tigers (.328/.420/.622, 38 HR, 126 RBI, 7.5 WARP)

I'm probably the only non-Tigers fan alive who still thinks Cabrera should win this award, but I just can't get past the fact that Hamilton only played at an MVP level for three months of the 2010 season. When the calendar flipped to June, he was hitting an underwhelming .281/.335/.500, and he later missed 24 games in September due to a pair of broken ribs. Yes, what he did in the three months in between was absolutely insane. He hit .410/.461/.717 over 349 plate appearances, racking up 22 homers and 70 RBIs in half a season. That's just nuts. I get that. I get that he was a solid defender in left and center field and a threat on the bases while Cabrera was a liability at first base and a statue on the bases. Still, Cabrera hit like an MVP from the opening series in Kansas City (8-for-14, 2 homers, 7 RBI) through the end of August, when he was hitting .340/.435/.643 five months into the season. Cabrera's worst month to that point was his .323/.400/.576 June, which still blew the first two months of Hamilton's season out of the water. Yes, the Tigers collapsed after the All-Star break, but that had everything to do with rookie Brennan Boesch going from hero to an almost literal zero at the plate and Magglio Ordoñez suffering a season-ending broken ankle and nothing to do with Cabrera, who just kept on hitting. Even in September, his one truly underwhelming month, Cabrera slugged .500 and drove in 19 runs. Given that there's not a huge gap in their overall numbers, I favor Cabrera's full-season of consistent mashing over Hamilton's white-hot half-season of multi-faceted brilliance, but again, I'm probably alone on this one.

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