Monday September 19th, 2011

There are 10 days left in the 2011 season and still several major player awards yet to be decided. In the American League, the Most Valuable Player race has a new, first-time leader who could be the first starting pitcher to win an MVP award in a quarter century while the Rookie of the Year chase is only now starting to come into focus. Over in the National League, the Cy Young battle is a three-way toss-up and the MVP race is still up in the air.

After a season spent examining one of those three major player awards per week, what follows is the second edition of our Lightning Round, in which I take a look at all three awards and attempt to anticipate how the Baseball Writers' Association of America will vote for them.

NOTE: All stats are through Sunday, September 18. 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. Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers (N/A)

Season Stats: 24-5, 2.29 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 9.0 K/9 244 Ks, 4.36 K/BB, 4 CG, 2 SHO

24-4, 2.48 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 8.4 K/9 (238 Ks), 3.55 K/BB, 10 CG, 1 SHO

That second stat line above belongs to Roger Clemens in 1986, the last time a starting pitcher won the MVP award. (Reliever Dennis Eckersley, the 1992 AL recipient, is the last pitcher of any kind to win it.) As stated in Awards Watch's very first edition last year, this column has largely ignored pitchers in the Most Valuable Player award races because they just don't win the award but Verlander has an excellent chance at ending that drought.

Verlander's season hasn't been the best since Clemens' first Cy-campaign of a quarter-century ago -- Pedro Martinez's 1999 season, after which he was controversially omitted from two ballots, stands above it -- but the Tigers' ace has all the necessary elements to attract MVP votes: a win total rarely seen in the context of a five-man rotation, the pitching triple crown (league leads in wins, strikeouts and ERA), a division title and a strong finish. The Rocket had all of those in '86 except, surprisingly, the league lead in strikeouts, though did whiff out 238 men, just seven less than AL leader Mark Langston.

It doesn't hurt Verlander that a lot of his prime competitors are in free fall and taking their MVP candidates with them. Such is the case with a couple of the Red Sox' MVP hopefuls as Boston has gone 5-14 in its past 19 games and fallen from two games ahead in the AL East to four games back and just two up in the wild card on the resilient Rays. Adrian Gonzalez went 0-for-12 with six strikeouts over the weekend and Dustin Pedroia is 11 for his last 58 (.190). The Yankees' Curtis Granderson is also slumping, hitting .222/.333/.389 in September, numbers inflated by his 3-for-3 performance on Saturday during which he picked up his 40th home run.

The result is that this already wide-open race has been thrown out to the strongest finisher, and that appears to be Verlander.

As I wrote last week, the Tigers' success this season has had more to do with their bats than Verlander's arm, with Alex Avila and Miguel Cabrera deserving a solid share of MVP votes and Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta and others contributing significantly as well. But the Red Sox's and Yankees' lineups are even more loaded with talent, which did nothing to slow down earlier momentum built up by the likes of Gonzalez, Granderson, and Jacoby Ellsbury. If anything, the fact that Verlander seems to have taken the lead in this race comes down to the simple fact that no one seems to want to vote for . . .

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

Season Stats: .304/.448/.623, 42 HRs, 100 RBIs

Bautista leads the majors in on-base percentage and slugging percentage, which is far more significant than the fact that he also leads in home runs. He played a solid third base when the Blue Jays needed him to do so for roughly a month at mid-season and he is an all-around athlete who contributes with his bat, batting eye, legs, glove, and arm. By most objective measures that isolate his performance from that of his teammates, he's clearly been the most valuable player in either league this year. His performance has also been the difference that has kept the Blue Jays above .500, which would make them a second-place team in Verlander's division. Still, Bautista just doesn't seem likely to get the support he'll need to claim this award despite the fact that the stocks of the other recent top candidates are all dropping.

Sadly, the primary reason for Bautista's lack of support is that his team isn't a contender. That means he's being penalized for his teammates' performances, not his own, an antiquated method of voting for the leagues' Most Valuable Players that needs to be eradicated.

There's also the sense that Bautista has petered out as the season has gone on. There's some truth behind that. He hit 20 of his 42 home runs in April and May with a slash-line of .363/.505/.786, but he also hit .287/.433/.623 in July and August, hitting 15 homers in those two months combined despite losing time to a minor ankle injury. More to the point, that line from the first two months was unsustainable and that he managed to maintain it for as long as he did should count heavily in his favor for this award. I also suspect that Bautista is still experiencing some bias and mistrust stemming from his sudden emergence as one of the top run producers in the game last year at age 29, whether it's unfounded speculation about performance enhancing or sign stealing or just a simple snobbery regarding Bautista as a fluke unworthy of canonization.

Players on second-division teams have won MVP awards before, but they tend to be future Hall of Famers such as Alex Rodriguez, Cal Ripken Jr., and Andre Dawson. Bautista will not join them in Cooperstown but that doesn't mean he shouldn't join them as an MVP winner.

3. Curtis Granderson, CF, Yankees (2)

Season Stats: .268/.371/.565, 40 HRs, 113 RBIs, 24 SBs

Jacoby Ellsbury has hit .363/.422/.633 during the Red Sox' 19-game skid mentioned above, so you can't blame him for the their troubles, but if the Sox miss the playoffs, no Boston player is going to win the MVP award. That, and the sudden consensus in favor of Verlander, is why Ellsbury has fallen from first place in this race to fourth in a week in which he posted a 1.050 OPS. If the Red Sox pull out of their nose dive and salvage the wild card (something the Yankees could help them with via seven remaining games against the Rays), Ellsbury could climb back into the top three, but for now, if the award is going to go to the player having the best year on one of the two AL East behemoths, Granderson seems to have the best case, in part because his team now boasts the best record in the league.

Granderson is tied for the major league lead in RBIs, is two off the major league lead in home runs, is just the second player ever to have 40 homers, 100 RBIs, 100 runs scored, 20 steals, and 10 triples in the same season, the first being Willie Mays in 1955, and is just the third Yankee centerfielder ever to hit 40 home runs, the first two being Joe DiMaggio (once) and Mickey Mantle (four times).

Ellsbury's counting stats (26 homers, 97 RBIs) don't pop like Grandersons, and he has more support in his lineup than Granderson does with the Yankees. Early-season slumps from Nick Swisher and Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez's knee surgery and subsequent thumb injury, and Mark Teixeira's uncharacteristically low batting average, which has dragged down his overall production despite his handsome counting stats, show just how important Granderson's year-long production has been. Robinson Cano is the only other legitimate MVP candidate on the Yankees, while the Red Sox could claim four such players, with Gonzalez, Pedroia and David Ortiz joining Ellsbury. Still, Granderson's .268 average is a hard sell to old-school voters, and his poor showing in advanced defensive metrics and weak 71 percent success rate on steal attempts (the last of which came in mid-August) could hurt him with those more statistically inclined, who would likely list Bautista first on their ballots, anyway.

1. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers (1)

Season Stats: .336/.400/.597, 31 HRs, 103 RBIs, 31 SBs

In the last week, Braun hit four home runs to pass 30 on the season, drove in seven runs to pass 100 for the year, and went 10-for-22 (.455) to move ahead of Jose Reyes for first place in the race for the NL batting title. Those three accomplishments have helped strengthen his already-strong MVP candidacy, but there's some concern that his teammate ranked third below will siphon off some of his votes, and there seems to be growing support for . . .

2. Matt Kemp, CF, Dodgers (3)

Season Stats: .320/.398/.565, 34 HRs, 113 RBIs, 40 SBs

When you adjust for his home ballpark and position, Kemp has been the most valuable offensive force in the National League this year, something which finally seems to be sinking in now that the Dodgers have gone 28-17 (.622) since the start of August, climbed back into third place in the NL West, and brought their record up to an even .500 for the first time since May 2. Clayton Kershaw, who we'll get to below, has been a large reason for that recent success, as has an unexpected surge from first baseman James Loney, who has hit .396/.455/.723 over the Dodgers' last 27 games. Kemp, however, has been doing it all season, going back to Opening Day, when he reached base all four times that he came to the plate (on a single and three walks), stole a base, and scored two runs.

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

Season Stats: .296/.410/.550, 34 HRs, 112 RBIs

Defending NL MVP Joey Votto (.320/.429/.549) should be in this spot, but he not only trails Fielder in homers and RBIs, with 28 and 98, respectively, but his Reds trail Fielder's Brewers by 16 games in the standings. That shouldn't matter, but it does to enough voters to make it a significant point in Fielder's favor. That said, Votto's challenge and Braun's hot finish seem to have diminished Fielder's candidacy by holding him up against a superior teammate and a superior first baseman, which means this may now be a two-man race between Braun and Kemp.

1. Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers (1)

Season Stats: 24-5, 2.29 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 9.0 K/9 244 Ks, 4.36 K/BB, 4 CG, 2 SHO

Verlander, who has picked up the win in each of his last 12 starts, didn't allow a run in either of his games last week for a total of 15 scoreless frames that represent, believe it or not, the first consecutive scoreless outings of his remarkable season. He has a chance to win 26 games and the AL MVP. The Cy Young is a formality at this point.

2. Jered Weaver, RHP, Angels (2)

Season Stats: 18-7, 2.41, 1.02 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 3.39 K/9, 4 CG, 2 SHO

Weaver had a pair of quality start wins against bad teams last week. That kept alive his hopes of a 20-win season (he'll make two more starts this season and would have to win both), and has helped to keep the Angels (just barely) alive in the AL West. However, while Weaver allowed just three total runs in 13 innings last week, he was short of dominant, striking out just three men against three walks and two home runs. This race seems to have been decided by Weaver's two disaster starts as August turned into September. He'll finish a strong second, but is unlikely to pick up a single first-place vote.

3. James Shields, RHP, Rays (3)

Season Stats: 15-11, 2.78 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 8.3 K/9 (214 K), 3.57 K/BB, 11 CG, 4 SHO

I had Shields ahead of CC Sabathia for the third spot in this race last week, and Sabathia's only start since saw him give up four runs in 5 2/3 innings to the Blue Jays. Shields lost to the Red Sox in his lone start last week, but out-pitched Sabathia, going seven innings while also allowing four runs. Sabathia will likely finish with 20 wins (he has 19), but Shields' ERA is nearly a quarter of a run better, and he also leads Sabathia in WHIP, innings pitched, leads the league in shutouts, and leads the majors in complete games with a total not seen since the 20th century.

1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (1)

Season Stats: 19-5, 2.30 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 9.7 K/9 (236 Ks), 4.63 K/BB, 5 CG, 2 SHO

Kershaw made just one start last week, but it was an eventful one. On Wednesday night, the Dodger ace cruised through five scoreless innings, allowing only a double by Arizona leftfielder Gerardo Parra while striking out five and holding the Diamondbacks scoreless. However, when his second pitch of the fifth hit Parra's elbow, home plate umpire Bill Welke immediately tossed Kershaw from the game. Welke was primed for the ejection after the previous night's game, in which, after a Hong-Chih Kuo pitch sailed over his head, Parra homered and made a point of admiring his shot, then exchanged words with Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis when crossing home. That prompted Kershaw to jaw at the Diamondbacks bench from the Dodger dugout. Though Parra did a good job of dodging Kershaw's waist-high pitch, it bifurcated the batters box, and Kershaw hadn't walked a man all game (and, in fact, had walked just one man in his last three games), suggesting he wasn't having any control problems.

Fortunately, Major League Baseball decided the early ejection was punishment enough and opted not to suspend Kershaw, thus avoiding tainting this race. In the end, Kershaw lowered his ERA, WHIP and K/BB, increased his K/9, and got the win, so while he lost a shot at his third shutout of the season, the incident shouldn't have any real effect on his chances here.

2. Roy Halladay, RHP, Phillies (2)

Season Stats: 18-5, 2.34 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 8.6 K/9 (211 Ks), 7.03 K/BB, 8 CG, 1 SHO

Halladay's lone start last week was his first shutout (and league-leading eighth complete game) of the year. He allowed six singles and a walk to the Astros while striking out seven and throwing a tremendous 75 percent of his 114 pitches for strikes. Over his last seven starts, he has gone 4-1 with a 1.61 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning, twice finishing what he started. His only non-quality start in those last seven saw him pulled after five innings due to a rain delay.

3. Cliff Lee, LHP, Phillies (3)

Season Stats: 16-7, 2.38 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 9.1 K/9 (223 Ks), 5.31 K/BB, 6 SHO

Lee was one strike away from his seventh shoutout of the season on Thursday when, with the Phillies up 1-0, he floated an 0-2 pitch up over the plate to the Marlins' Jose Lopez, who hit a wall-scraping solo home run over Citizens Bank Park's leftfield fence to tie the game. Lee got the third out of the ninth on two more pitches, and the Phillies won the game 2-1 in the bottom of the 10th, but Lee, who had thrown 117 pitches through nine, had to settle for a no-decision. Still, he allowed just that one run in nine innings while striking out 12 men against no walks (his major-league-leading ninth game this season with 10 or more strikeouts), so he did improve his overall numbers, but that 17th win would have been nice, if just for the sake of appearances. Lee's outing was the ninth this season in which a pitcher threw nine innings without getting a decision (or a complete game). Jered Weaver is the only pitcher to do so twice. Meanwhile, that home run by Lopez was the only run allowed by any of the top three NL Cy Young contenders since we last checked in on the race a week ago, and Halladay and Lee remain tied for the league lead in innings pitched, one frame ahead of Kershaw. Any chance the BBWAA could just give the award to all three of them?

1. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP, Rays (1)

Season Stats: 13-10, 2.91 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 5.8 K/9, 1.79 K/BB, 2 CG, 1 SHO

Hellickson beat the Red Sox in his lone start of last week, which fell an out shy of quality, started two of the Rays' six wins against Boston over the past 10 days, has gone 2-0 on September, and has posted a 1.94 ERA over his last six starts. His peripherals remain underwhelming, but he has been tremendously consistent all season, reaching the fifth inning in every start and only once failing to finish it, and allowing four or more runs just three times and as many as five just once. In fact, Hellickson has allowed three or fewer earned runs in 28 of his 31 career starts dating back to his cup of coffee in late 2010. He's not running away with this award, but he'd be hard pressed to blow it at this point. That said, his last two starts could both come against the Yankees, who are the only team to knock him out before the fifth inning all year.

2. Michael Pineda, RHP, Mariners (2)

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

Five of Pineda's last six starts were quality, but he went 0-3 in those games with the Mariners inept offense scoring a total of just two runs in his last three games combined. That has dropped his overall record below .500, which could be a tough sell at the ballot box. In terms of his success against hitters, Pineda has clearly been the best rookie pitcher in the AL this year, but his record and ERA pale next to Hellickson's and don't even compare all that well to those of the next man on this list. Pineda will make just one more start this season, that coming against the Twins on Wednesday. If he throws a shutout, he'll finish the year at 10-10 with a 3.53 ERA. That likely won't be enough to bring home the hardware unless the Yankees flat-out maul Hellickson twice.

3. Ivan Nova, RHP, Yankees (3)

Season Stats: 15-4, 3.81 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 5.5 K/9, 1.70 K/BB

Nova's here because the Angels' two rookie candidates have serious flaws (Mark Trumbo's on-base percentage has been below.300 since mid-August and Jordan Walden leads the majors in blown saves) and because he leads major league rookies in wins with a handsome .789 winning percentage. Nova has won his last 11 decisions dating back to early June and has been a better pitcher since being wrongly farmed out to Triple-A in July, going 7-0 with a 3.32 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 6.2 K/9, and 2.41 K/BB in nine starts since his return. He could well be the Yankees' No. 2 starter in the Division Series, but his season as a whole, while exceeding expectations, hasn't been strong enough to get him any higher on this list.

1. Craig Kimbrel, RHP, Braves (1)

Season Stats: 1.81 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 14.9 K/9, 4.28 K/BB, 45 SV

Kimbrel is falling apart. He has given up runs in two of his last five outings, and just gave up the second home run of his major league career (postseason included) on Sunday to fellow rookie Lucas Duda of the Mets (the Reds' Ramon Hernandez hit the first). In the process, his ERA has inflated by more than a quarter of a run . . . to 1.81. Okay, silence the alarms. Duda was the only baserunner Kimbrel allowed in a non-save situation in what was the first game all season that saw both Kimbrel and the Braves' dominant sophomore lefty set-up man, Jonny Venters, allow a run, and his runs allowed and blown save on the 9th were his first since early June. This award is as sure a thing as Kimbrel himself.

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

Season Stats: .289/.352/.454, 19 HRs, 72 RBIs

Relative to the offensive standards of their positions, Nationals catcher Wilson Ramons and second baseman Danny Espinosa have been more valuable than Freeman this year. Ramos (.261/.328/.432, 13 HRs, 46 RBIs, 34 percent of runners caught stealing) might be a tough sell since none of his numbers really pop until you hold them up against those of the average catcher (.245/.314/.390, 27 percent CS). Espinosa has matched Freeman with 19 home runs, adding 61 RBIs and 14 stolen bases, but his rate stats (.234/.320/.407) underwhelm, again until you compare his on-base and slugging percentages to the those of the average major league second baseman (.318 and .386, respectively) and credit Espinosa for his superlative fielding. The average major league first baseman has hit .271/.346/.453. Freeman, who went 1-for-16 over the last week, albeit with four walks, has been better than the average man at his position, but not by as much as Ramos, and doesn't do as many things outside of the batter's box as Espinosa. Still, out of context, Freeman's numbers look better, which, combined with the fact that he plays a key offensive position for a playoff team, will likely garner him more support than either of the Nationals' duo.

3. Vance Worley, RHP, Phillies (3)

Season Stats: 11-2, 2.85 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 7.9 K/9, 2.70 K/BB, 1 CG

Atlanta's Brandon Beachy struck out 18 men over two starts last week, needing just 9 2/3 innings to do so, but as that low innings total suggests, his net results weren't great as he allowed eight runs and was lucky to get away with a pair of no-decisions. That makes Worley's hold on third place stronger, unless one of that Nationals' duo has a red-hot final 10 games.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.