Monday September 12th, 2011

There are less than 20 days left in the 2011 regular season, but just two of the six races for the three major player awards have a clear leader. Go ahead and put down Justin Verlander as the American League Cy Young award winner and Craig Kimbrel as the National League Rookie of the Year, but both MVP awards, the NL Cy Young and the AL Rookie of the Year awards are both wide open with handfuls of contenders still in play for each and the very real possibility that a favorite might not emerge before the season comes to an end.

With the awards races so tight, Awards Watch is once again shifting to "lightning round" coverage for the season's final three weeks. Rather than listing the top five contenders in each league for one award and rotating through the MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year awards from week to week, I'll instead present the top three contenders in each league for all three awards every week. That means that some significant contenders for the MVP and AL Rookie of the Year awards especially will go unmentioned each week, but the goal here is not to give due mention to the contenders, but to isolate the winners, which will be no easy task given the closeness of the majority of these race.

NOTE: All stats are through Sunday, September 11. 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.

1. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF, Red Sox (4)

Season Stats: .317/.376/.533, 26 HRs, 90 RBIs, 36 SBs

Last Three Weeks: .341/.413/.634, 4 HRs, 12 RBIs, 3 SBs

Three weeks ago, in ranking Ellsbury's teammate Adrian Gonzalez second on this list, I wrote: "Advanced stats such as Wins Against Replacement Player (WARP) and it's descendent, WAR, have rated Jacoby Ellsbury as the most valuable Red Sox player for most of the season, and I think that reality is starting to come into focus for the electorate. Don't be surprised to see Ellsbury, not Gonzalez, on the abbreviated 'lightning-round' list when this column returns to the MVP race in September." And here we are.

Gonzalez is still a significant contender for this award, but Ellsbury seems to be getting more heat, and for good reason. Ellsbury's candidacy is very similar to Dustin Pedroia's in his MVP-winning 2008 season, when he was not the wild card-winning Red Sox's most productive hitter, but was productive enough to be their most valuable player after factoring in his contributions on the bases and in the field at a key position. Pedroia led the league in runs, hits and doubles that year. Ellsbury doesn't lead the league in anything, but is in the top five in those three categories as well as stolen bases and batting average and is sixth in slugging percentage.

Mix in Curtis Granderson's recent slump and the electorate's disinclination to vote for a player on a non-contender such as Toronto's Jose Bautista, and Ellsbury rises to the top. A Boston collapse could well undermine his candidacy, but it shouldn't. Though the Sox have gone 2-9 in September, Ellsbury has hit .362/.423/.617 on the month and almost saved them from disaster on Saturday with a game-tying home run in the ninth in Tampa Bay, although the Sox lost anyway.

2. Curtis Granderson, CF, Yankees (1)

Season Stats: .265/.368/.564, 39 HRs, 111 RBIs, 24 SBs

Last Three Weeks: .159/.326/.362, 4 HRs, 13 RBIs, 0 SBs

Granderson is one home run away from becoming only the second man in baseball history to have 40 home runs, 100 RBIs, 100 runs scored, 20 stolen bases and 10 triples in the same season. However, the first man to do it, Willie Mays, who actually hit 51 home runs when he accomplished the feat in 1955, didn't win the MVP award, and only two men have ever won an MVP award with a batting average below .270. Those men were Roger Maris, who countered a .269 average with a record-setting 61 home runs in 1961, and Marty Marion, who was a good-field/no-hit shortstop for the pennant-winning Cardinals in 1944, when many of the game's top players were still at war. Marion won the award by one point.

Thus despite Granderson's impressive counting stats, his recent slump, which dates back to August 20, could be strangling his candidacy, which is to say nothing of the likelihood that some voters might put stock in the advanced statistics which reflect poorly on his play in the field this year.

3. Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays (3)

Season Stats: .305/.443/.627, 41 HRs, 98 RBIs

Last Three Weeks: .229/.345/.486, 5 HRs, 18 RBIs

The last man to lead the major leagues in both on-base percentage and slugging-percentage, the two most important and commonly used hitting statistics in the game, was Barry Bonds in 2004, who actually did it every year from 2001 to 2004 and also won the NL MVP every year from 2001 to 2004. The last to do it before Bonds was Larry Walker in 1999. Walker, playing for a last-place team in the pre-humidor Coors Field, did not fare well in the MVP voting. The last American Leaguer to do it was Mark McGwire in 1996, who also did it in the NL in the record-setting 1998 season, but didn't win the MVP in either year, again in large part due to the performances of his teams. Bautista seems likely to suffer the same fate, though it's worth noting that his fourth-place Blue Jays would be in second place in the AL Central, albeit 10 ½ games behind the Tigers and tied with the White Sox. Bautista may do better in the voting than McGwire did in 1996, when he finished seventh, in part because the Blue Jays are better, and in part because of the progress made by objective analysis over the past decade-plus. However, it still seems clear that the player who, by any objective standard has been the most valuable player in the majors this season will not be recognized as the most valuable player in his league.

1. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers (2)

Season Stats: .331/.398/.579, 27 HRs, 96 RBIs, 31 SBs

Last Three Weeks: .333/.386/.556, 3 HRs, 14 RBIs, 5 SBs

Matt Kemp and Joey Votto have been the most productive players in the NL this year, but neither is likely to win this award because their teams are non-contenders. With that in mind, Braun looks like a pretty easy choice for this award, but I'm not yet convinced that the electorate feels the same way, in part because he hasn't yet hit the magical totals of 30 home runs and 100 RBIs, both of which have already been reached by four other NLers, including Braun's teammate Prince Fielder. Braun should reach both easily by seasons end, however, and could well win the batting title as well (he trails Jose Reyes by just two points and Reyes, who, incidentally, only has four more stolen bases than Braun, is gradually trending downwards). If he accomplishes all three, he could win this award fairly easily, but the field behind him remains thick with tempting alternatives both deserving and otherwise.

2. Prince Fielder, 1B, Brewers (1)

Season Stats: .293/.406/.535, 31 HRs, 108 RBIs

Last Three Weeks: .216/.348/.378, 3 HRs, 10 RBIs

Speaking of "otherwise," Fielder has had a fine season, but he has no value outside of the batter's box, and his on-base percentage has been inflated by a major league leading 29 intentional walks, a product of the miserable season Casey McGehee has had hitting behind him in the Brewers' lineup. Of course, Fielder is Braun's protection in the lineup, and one could argue that Braun's season owes something to hitting ahead of Fielder, but advanced analysis has suggested there's less benefit derived from lineup protection than commonly believed, and even still, Fielder can take no credit for Braun's tremendous advantage in the field and, especially, on the bases. Here's a fun game: remove the intentional walks (and the plate appearances in which they came) from both players' batting lines, add the extra bases gained via stolen bases to their slugging percentages, and deduct the times caught stealing from their on-base percentages, and you get this:

Braun: .331/.389/.640

Fielder: .293/.376/.535

That's not real close, and it still doesn't take defense into account.

3. Matt Kemp, CF, Dodgers (3)

Season Stats: .317/.396/.561, 32 HRs, 107 RBIs, 38 SBs

Last Three Weeks: .282/.414/.507, 4 HRs, 15 RBIs, 5 SBs

Kemp gets the edge over Votto because he plays a more demanding position, even though Votto, a first baseman, is the better fielder relative to his peers. Kemp's 38 steals have come at an outstanding 81 percent success rate, and Kemp is in the top four in the league in batting average, home runs, RBIs, runs, hits, stolen bases, slugging percentage, and OPS. He's also second in the majors to Fielder in intentional walks. Kemp won't win this award because the Dodgers aren't contenders, but given that, it seems worth noting that the L.A. has won 15 of its last 19 games, is just 3 ½ games out of second place in the NL West, and now has a better record than Votto's Reds.

1. Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers (1)

Season Stats: 22-5, 2.44 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 9.1 K/9 (232 Ks), 4.55 K/BB, 4 CG, 2 SHO

Last Three Starts: 3-0, 4.19 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 9.3 K/9, 3.33 K/BB

Verlander's case for this award is indisputable. He has been the best pitcher in the league and the winningest, he has been a major reason that the Tigers are running away with the AL Central, he threw a no-hitter earlier in the year, and he has a chance to make his season even more memorable by pushing his win total to or even past 25, which, as Tom Verducci noted, would make him just the fourth major leaguer ever to win that many games while pitching in a five-man rotation. Not all of that is equally relevant to his candidacy here, but none of it hurts. He won't win the MVP award, nor should he, but he could win this one unanimously.

2. Jered Weaver, RHP, Angels (2)

Season Stats: 16-7, 2.44 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 7.9 K/9, 3.53 K/BB, 4 CG, 2 SHO

Last Three Starts: 1-1, 6.63 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 9.9 K/9, 2.33 K/BB

Fittingly, Weaver's candidacy began to unravel when he lost a matchup against Verlander on July 31 in which Weaver and the Tiger hitters got into a back-and-forth that ended with Weaver throwing at Alex Avila's head and getting ejected. Weaver threw nine scoreless innings against the Mariners in his next turn, but a suspension for the Avila incident pushed back his next start to August 13, when he got rocked by the Blue Jays for his first disaster start (more runs allowed than innings pitched) of the season (4 2/3 IP, 8 R). That outing pushed his ERA over 2.00 for the first time since late June. Three starts later, the Angels, who continue to battle Texas for the AL West title, decided to start Weaver on three-day's rest to try to steal the final game of their series against the Rangers in Arlington. Again, Weaver was lit up (6 IP, 7 R), and the fireworks continued in his next start at home against the Twins (5 IP, 6 R).

Those three disasters over the course of five starts inflated his season ERA by more than seven-tenths of a run, eliminating the only clear advantage Weaver held over Verlander. Weaver recovered with a dominant outing against the Yankees in his last turn, but anything short of a string of shutouts and a division title may be too little, too late given the lead Verlander has opened up in this race.

3. James Shields, RHP, Rays (3)

Season Stats: 15-10, 2.70 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 8.4 K/9 (210 K), 3.68 K/BB, 11 CG, 4 SHO

Last Three Starts: 3-0, 0.72 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, 6.5 K/9, 3.00 K/BB, 1 CG

CC Sabathia is 19-8, but Shields has better numbers in nearly every other category and his 11 complete games are the most by any pitcher since Randy Johnson finished 12 starts for the Diamondbacks in 1999. Shields is also on another dominant run, having completed at least eight innings and allowed no more than one run in each of his last four starts, including a huge win against the wild card-leading Red Sox on Sunday afternoon.

1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (1)

Season Stats: 18-5, 2.36 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 9.7 K/9 (231 Ks), 4.53 K/BB, 5 CG, 2 SHO

Last Three Starts: 2-1, 1.13 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 8.00 K/BB, 1 CG

2. Roy Halladay, RHP, Phillies (2)

Season Stats: 17-5, 2.44 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 8.7 K/9 (204 K), 7.03 K/BB, 7 CG

Last Three Starts: 2-0, 1.29 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 9.4 K/9, 3.67 K/BB

3. Cliff Lee, LHP, Phillies (3)

Season Stats: 16-7, 2.44 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 9.0 K/9 (211 K), 5.02 K/BB, 6 SHO

Last Three Starts: 2-0, 0.36 ERA, 0.81 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 6.67 K/BB, 1 SHO

Unlike the MVP and AL Rookie of the Year races, this is pretty clearly down to these three men (sorry Ian Kennedy and Cole Hamels). Within this group of three, however, it's very nearly a toss-up, particularly if you want to dock Kershaw for pitching in a friendlier home ballpark than the other two, though all three have pitched better at home than on the road. Halladay has been here all year, and as the defending award winner, all of last year as well. Kershaw flipped the switch in mid-June and has gone 12-2 with a 1.55 ERA in his last 16 starts. Lee had an almost impossibly dominant June, a poor July, and has since gone 6-0 with a 0.49 ERA in his last seven starts, lasting at least seven innings in each of them and allowing runs in just two of them. In fact, Lee has had 11 starts this season in which he has thrown at least seven innings and not allowed a run, by far the most in the majors. Kershaw and his teammate Hiroki Kuroda are tied for second with seven each. Jered Weaver is third with six. Lee also leads the majors with eight games with 10 strikeouts or more. Kershaw, again, is second with seven, this time tied with Felix Hernandez.

1. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP, Rays (1)

Season Stats: 12-10, 2.96 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 5.8 K/9, 1.85 K/BB, 2 CG, 1 SHO

2. Michael Pineda, RHP, Mariners (2)

Season Stats: 9-10, 3.72 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 9.2 K/9, 3.23 K/BB

3. Ivan Nova, RHP, Yankees (5)

Season Stats: 15-4, 3.94 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 5.4 K/9, 1.74 K/BB

This race features the pitcher with the shiniest record (Nova, 15-4, who leads major league rookies in wins), the pitcher who has actually pitched the best this year (Pineda, who leads major league rookies in strikeouts with 171 and has the lowest WHIP and best strikeout-to-walk ratio of the above trio), and the pitcher who seems most likely to win the award: Jeremy Hellickson.

Hellickson was my projected winner as far back as last Thanksgiving, but he hasn't pitched as well as I, or many others, expected given his minor league track record and glowing scouting reports. Still, his 2.96 ERA is second only the Phillies' Vance Worley among rookies with 100 or more innings pitched. He leads all major league rookies in innings pitched (170 1/3), and his 12 wins are second only to Nova's 15. He also hasn't had a disaster start all season. In fact, he has only once failed to complete the fifth inning, has only once allowed as many as five runs, and has posted a 2.65 ERA since the end of April.

The gap between their ERAs seems like too much for Pineda to overcome, and given the disregard for pitching wins demonstrated in the Cy Young votes of the last two years, I'm guessing Nova's record won't carry as much weight as it would have five years ago.

As for the crowded field behind these three, Angels first baseman Mark Trumbo leads major league rookies in home runs and RBIs, but his on-base percentage is consistently below .300. Angels closer Jordan Walden leads the majors with nine blown saves and pales in comparison to fellow rookie closer Craig Kimbrel of the Braves. The rest of the field lines up behind those two. Rays left fielder Desmond Jennings, Mariners second baseman Dustin Ackley, and Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie, especially, have been outstanding in small samples, but don't have enough season left to mount serious challenges, while Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer has been ordinary by the standards of his position and Jays catcher J.P Arencibia's slugging has been undermined by his .221 average and resultantly sub-Trumbian on-base percentage.

1. Craig Kimbrel, RHP, Braves (1)

Season Stats: 1.78 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 14.8 K/9, 4.14 K/BB, 43 SV

Last Four Weeks: 1.50 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, 18.0 K/9, 4.80 K/BB, 7 SV

Kimbrel's blown save on Friday was his first since June 8 and the first outing in which he allowed run of any kind (earned, unearned, inherited) since June 11. The interim saw him convert 25 straight save chances and make 38 consecutive scoreless appearances, the latter being the longest such streak since 1919, which is as far back as the searchable data goes. Along the way, he broke 2010 AL Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz's year-old record for saves by a rookie. Then, there's that strikeout rate, which is the fifth best in baseball history by a pitcher with at least 70 innings pitched (Carlos Marmol set that record last year with 15.99 K/9 in 77 2/3 innings). Kimbrel is having a great season by any standard. Coming from a rookie, it's a guaranteed award-winner.

2. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves (2)

Season Stats: .296/.357/.466, 19 HRs, 71 RBIs

Last Four Weeks: .302/.337/.442, 3 HRs, 13 RBIs

Freeman's season isn't all that thrilling when you consider that the average major league first-baseman has hit .272/.346/.453 this season, but coming from a 21-year-old (Freeman actually turns 22 today) rookie, that's a very encouraging performance, and one comparable to teammate and 2010 Rookie of the Year runner-up Jason Heyward's final line from a year ago (.277/.393/.456, 18 HRs, 72 RBIs).

3. Vance Worley, RHP, Phillies (4)

Season Stats: 11-2, 2.92 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 7.9 K/9, 2.78 K/BB, 1 CG

Last Four Weeks: 3-1, 3.14 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 9.7 K/9, 5.17 K/BB

Atlanta's Brandon Beachy, Arizona's Josh Collmenter, and San Diego's Cory Luebke have arguably pitched as well or better than Worley this season, and the Nationals' duo of second baseman Danny Espinosa and catcher Wilson Ramos deserve consideration as well, but Worley has the shiniest basic stats of the bunch (11-2, 2.92 ERA) and has held his own in one of the best starting rotations in recent memory, which will likely draw more votes than any of his rivals.

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