Monday September 26th, 2011

This is the final regular-season edition of Awards Watch for 2011, but it's not my final word on this year's awards. Some of these races, particularly the two MVP races, are still close enough that the final three games could still tilt the balance, and Awards Watch will return to weigh in on things again both immediately before and after the results are announced in November.

NOTE: All stats are through Sunday, September 25. 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 Sept. 1.

1. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers (1)

Season Stats: .333/.396/.599, 33 HRs, 110 RBIs, 31 SBs

2. Matt Kemp, CF, Dodgers (2)

Season Stats: .324/.400/.581, 37 HRs, 120 RBIs, 40 SBs

Kemp has hit .474/.500/.921 over his last nine games to make a serious run at the Triple Crown and remind the NL MVP voters that he has been the most productive player in the league this season. That he has compiled those season stats shown above while playing his home games in a pitching-friendly ballpark and manning a premium defensive position should make him a slam-dunk candidate, but even with his hot finish there's concern that the Dodgers' inability to contend despite his performance will undermine his candidacy and deflect the award to Braun, who has indeed been nearly as good.

The knock against Braun, relative to Kemp, is that Braun plays a less important defensive position (though some might argue he plays it better than Kemp plays center) and gets a boost from his home ballpark. Kemp's home and road splits are nearly identical, but Braun's home OPS is 131 points higher than his road mark. Braun has also played 11 fewer games than Kemp, which is one reason why he falls a bit short on his counting stats, and games played is among the things voters are instructed to consider when filling out their MVP ballots. Of course, Braun's team is also going to the postseason, which will break the tie in his favor for many voters. Right now this race feels close enough that what these two men do over the next three days could decide it.

3. Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals (N/A)

Season Stats: .300/.369/.547, 37 HRs, 98 RBIs

It's clear now that Braun has been the Brewers' most valuable player, which limits the candidacy of his teammate Prince Fielder, who had been considered the front-runner for this award mid-season despite never really deserving to be. Justin Upton is another popular candidate as the best hitter on the surprising NL West-winning Diamondbacks, but I find it hard to believe that the writers would vote for a rightfielder who, with three games left in the season, had yet to compile 90 RBIs. Defending NL MVP Joey Votto leads the league in on-base percentage and has been tremendously productive yet again, but his Reds fell out of the NL Central race in late July. That leaves this third spot to a member of the surging St. Louis Cardinals, who may yet sneak past the slumping Braves and into the NL wild card spot.

Lance Berkman has arguably been the Cardinals' most valuable player this year as he ranked among the league's most productive hitters while Matt Holliday struggled with various injuries and ailments and Pujols suffered through a two-month slump to start the season and a broken wrist after finally flipping the switch in June. However, Berkman is a brutal rightfielder and has actually played in fewer games than Pujols this season due to his own age-related aches and pains. Which brings things back to three-time MVP Pujols, who has hit .349/.423/.585 during the Cardinals' surge over the past month, looking every bit like the player who finished in the top two in the voting for NL MVP in seven of his previous 10 seasons. If the Cardinals do make the playoffs, both Berkman and Pujols are likely to be rewarded on the MVP ballot, but look for the latter to get the bulk of the credit.

1. Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers (1)

Season Stats: 24-5, 2.40 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 9.0 K/9 (250 Ks), 4.39 K/BB, 4 CG, 2 SHO

Verlander's poor outing against the Orioles in his final regular-season start on Saturday did two things. First, it prevented him from becoming the fourth man to win 25 games while pitching in a five-man rotation. Second, it gave Jered Weaver, who will make his final start of 2011 on Wednesday, a chance to pass Verlander for the ERA title. Should Weaver succeed, the loss of the pitching Triple Crown (leading the league in wins, strikeouts, and ERA) is likely to diminish the impression that Verlander's season was historically significant, which might make him a tougher sell to MVP voters who have been reluctant to give the award to a pitcher. The last starting pitcher to win the MVP without having led his league in ERA was Denny McLain in 1968, when he won 31 games and had a 1.96 ERA. Before McLain, it was the Philadelphia A's Bobby Shantz in 1952.

Still, a pitcher won 24 games just once in each of the last two decades, Verlander's WHIP is the fifth lowest mark since 1972, his 251 innings are the seventh most this millennium, and if Weaver doesn't pass him in ERA, his will be just the fifth pitching Triple Crown in the AL since 1945. Verlander certainly deserves serious consideration for this award. The only question is whether or not, without that 25th win, and possibly without the ERA title, the voters will decide that his season was monumental enough to break the hitter-only hegemony that has dominated their voting for the last 18 seasons.

2. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF, Red Sox (N/A)

Season Stats: .322/.377/.551, 31 HRs, 103 RBIs, 38 SBs

Ellsbury hit a three-run home run in the top of the 14th inning on Sunday night to give the Red Sox a badly-needed 7-4 win and prevent them from falling into a tie for the wild card with the Tampa Bay Rays. That was the galvanizing moment that his MVP candidacy needed. Certainly, the odds would be against Ellsbury winning the award if the Sox were to complete their collapse and fail to make the postseason. However, if the Red Sox salvage a postseason berth, Ellsbury's home run could be considered the hit that saved their season, and a reminder that he has actually been tremendous down the stretch, hitting .368/.416/.693 during the team's swoon with eight home runs, three of which came in Sunday's doubleheader in the Bronx.

Ellsbury leads the major leagues in total bases with 356, which doesn't even count his 38 steals (or 23 net steals after deducting his 15 times caught stealing), is third in hits (208) and runs scored (117), and fifth in the AL in batting average, and has played an outstanding centerfield. He's a deserving candidate regardless of what happens to the Red Sox over the next three games. Unfortunately, how his team fares is likely to be the determining factor in his candidacy.

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

Season Stats: .304/.447/.615, 43 HRs, 103 RBIs

How a player's team performs should have no bearing on an individual award like this one, but the voters still consider team performance a major factor in the MVP races. So why is it that Kemp has generated so much MVP heat while Bautista's candidacy continues to be undermined by the fact that he didn't contribute to a contending team, yet the Dodgers and Blue Jays, the latter of whom play in a far tougher division, have nearly identical records (the Dodgers have lost one fewer game)? Part of it is how they've finished. Kemp has been hot, while Bautista has hit an underwhelming .263/.424/.447 in September, which is just a little slugging shy of his overall second-half performance. He is also literally limping to the finish line after crashing into the Tropicana Field wall on Sunday and suffering a minor knee injury that has left him day-to-day with only three days left to play.

The Tigers' Miguel Cabrera is red-hot in September, hitting .416/.531/.740 and is on the verge of passing Bautista for the major league lead in on-base percentage, and the Yankees' Curtis Granderson is only two off his lead in home runs. It's a long shot for either to pass Bautista, but if his line loses that black ink above, it will only further reduce his chances of winning the award despite the fact that, objectively and in isolation from his teammates, he has been every bit as valuable as Verlander and Ellsbury this season, if not moreso.

1. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (1)

Season Stats: 21-5, 2.28 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 9.6 K/9 (248 Ks), 4.59 K/BB, 5 CG, 2 SHO

Unless Cliff Lee throws an 11-inning shutout with at least 17 strikeouts on Monday night, Kershaw is going to win the NL pitching triple crown. It has been won just 11 times since the creation of the Cy Young award in 1956, and each time it has earned the pitcher in question Cy. I see no reason to expect that streak to be broken this year.

2. Roy Halladay, RHP, Phillies (2)

Season Stats: 19-6, 2.35 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 8.5 K/9 (220 Ks), 6.29 K/BB, 8 CG, 1 SHO

Halladay has turned in a season roughly comparable to the above line every year since 2008. Last year, it was enough to earn him the Cy Young award. This year, as in 2008, he'll have to settle for being the runner-up.

3. Cliff Lee, LHP, Phillies (3)

Season Stats: 16-8, 2.38 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 9.2 K/9 (232 Ks), 5.52 K/BB, 6 SHO

Lee, who beat out Halladay for the AL Cy Young in 2008 while with the Indians, is the only one of these three pitchers with a regular season start remaining. Lee will face the Braves tonight, but, as per the above, he won't be able to catch Kershaw, even with a 15-strikeout shutout, which isn't out of the question as he shut out Atlanta on September 5 and struck out 16 Braves back in early May. That said, if he dominates the Braves again, Lee could pass Halladay for second place, so this list isn't yet final, either.

1. Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers (1)

Season Stats: 24-5, 2.40 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 9.0 K/9 (250 Ks), 4.39 K/BB, 4 CG, 2 SHO

If Weaver does manage to drop his ERA below Verlander's on Wednesday it will prevent this from becoming the first season since 1924 in which the pitching Triple Crown was won in both leagues, but it won't prevent Verlander from winning the Cy Young. A couple points of ERA won't change the fact that Verlander has clearly been the AL's best pitcher this season.

2. Jered Weaver, RHP, Angels (2)

Season Stats: 18-8, 2.41 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 7.6 K/9 (198 Ks), 3.54 K/BB, 4 CG, 2 SHO

Heading into his final regular season start against the Rangers in Anaheim on Wednesday, the final day of the season, Weaver could pass Verlander for the league lead in ERA by recording just two outs, but if he gives up one run, he'll need at least five innings pitched, and if he allows two, he'll need at least eight innings pitched. It's not a gimme, but it's something Weaver is certainly capable of doing. Nine of his starts this season saw him last at least eight innings and allow no more than two earned runs and 19 of his starts saw him allow one or no runs across five-plus innings pitched.

3. James Shields, RHP, Rays (3)

Season Stats: 15-12, 2.84 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 8.3 K/9 (221 Ks), 3.56 K/BB, 11 CG, 4 SHO

CC Sabathia went 0-for-3 in his attempt to pick up his 20th win, and took his final turn this season in a simulated game on Sunday. Shields, who leads Sabathia in ERA and WHIP and every pitcher this millennium in single-season complete games, will start against Sabathia's Yankees Monday night focusing more on pitching the Rays into the playoffs than locking down his third-place finish for this award.

1. Craig Kimbrel, RHP, Braves (1)

Season Stats: 2.00 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 14.9 K/9 (126 Ks), 4.34 K/BB, 46 SV

Three poor outings in September, two of them blown saves, have taken the shine off Kimbrel's ERA, which was just 1.55 as recently as September 8, but he could get it back below 2.00 by getting just two more outs without allowing a run. Meanwhile, he ranks fourth among all major league rookies in strikeouts with more Ks than AL ERA qualifiers Jeremy Hellickson and Ivan Nova thanks to the sixth-best K/9 in major league history (minimum 50 innings pitched). That strikeout rate combined with the rookie record for saves (breaking the record of 40 set by AL Rookie of the Year Neftali Feliz last year) and the lack of a strong rival candidate all but guarantees Kimbrel this award.

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

Season Stats: .287/.351/.455, 21 HRs, 76 RBIs

Freeman leads NL rookies in home runs (tied with Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa), RBIs, and all three slash stats (minimum 350 at-bats), which seems like enough to make him the runner up to his teammate Kimbrel. Although compared to the standard of his position he hasn't had as impressive a season as Espinosa or Nats catcher Wilson Ramos, the latter of whom is probably most deserving of this spot on the ballot.

3. Vance Worley, RHP, Phillies (3)

Season Stats: 11-3, 3.03 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 8.1 K/9, 2.66 K/BB, 1 CG

The third spot in this race is a bit of a toss-up. Espinosa and Ramos are both deserving, though it's unclear to what degree the voters will recognize that fact given their superficially unimpressive numbers. The Braves' Brandon Beachy and the Padres' Cory Luebke have posted strong peripherals in more innings than Worley, and the Diamondbacks' Josh Collmenter helped pitch Arizona to a division title, posting a 3.38 ERA but just a .500 record in 24 starts and a handful of relief appearances. All are at least as deserving if not clearly moreso than Worley, but my assumption is that Worley, having also contributed to not just a division winner but the best record in baseball and one of the best rotations in major league history will be buoyed by his impressive winning percentage (.786) and the sense that he "held his own" alongside the Phillies' four aces.

1. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP, Rays (1)

Season Stats: 13-10, 2.90 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 5.7 K/9, 1.73 K/BB, 2 CG, 1 SHO

Hellickson's peripherals are unimpressive, but he is fifth in the AL in ERA and has been remarkably consistent over the course of the season, only once allowing as many as five earned runs in a start and allowing as many as four just thrice, while only once failing to finish the fifth inning in 28 starts, going 4 1/3 frames in the exception. He'll follow Shields by facing the Yankees on Tuesday in his final regular season start. A big outing with the Rays still chasing the wild card would add narrative to an already solid candidacy for this award.

2. Ivan Nova, RHP, Yankees (3)

Season Stats: 16-4, 3.70 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 5.3 K/9, 1.72 K/BB

The last rookie to win 16 or more games was Justin Verlander, who went 17-9 and got 26 of 28 first-place votes for Rookie of the Year back in 2006. Nova seems unlikely to get past Hellickson for this award, but he now has a lower ERA than Michael Pineda despite pitching in a far less friendly home ballpark and will enter the playoffs as the No. 2 starter on the team with the second-best record in baseball. Nova's peripherals are underwhelming, but they're not significantly worse than those of Hellickson, who has benefitted from a .222 opponent's average on balls in play, which has helped lower his WHIP, and actually aren't all that much worse than Verlander's in '06 (1.33 WHIP, 6.0 K/9, 2.07 K/BB).

3. Michael Pineda, RHP, Mariners (2)

Season Stats: 9-10, 3.74 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 9.1 K/9 (173 Ks), 3.15 K/BB

Angels first baseman Mark Trumbo has 29 home runs and 87 RBIs, but a .291 on-base percentage. His Royals counterpart Eric Hosmer is hitting close to .300 with an OBP 50 points higher than Trumbo's, but has 10 fewer homers and RBIs in just 28 fewer at-bats. Blue Jays catcher J.P Arencibia has similar counting stats to Hosmer in 80 fewer at-bats, but also has roughly 70 fewer points of batting average and on-base percentage. Second basemen Jemile Weeks of the A's and Dustin Ackley of the Mariners have played well in partial seasons, but not so well as to overcome their disadvantages in playing time, and Weeks's 22 stolen bases have come at a poor 67 percent success rate. Rays leftfielder Desmond Jennings and Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie have each been even better, but in even less playing time due to late promotions. Trumbo's teammate, Jordan Walden has a 10.2 K/9 and 32 saves, but leads the majors with 10 blown saves.

I wouldn't be surprised to see someone from that group sneak past Pineda into third place, but Pineda, who leads major league rookies in strikeouts this season, was clearly one of the best rookie pitchers in baseball in 2011 and has as strong a case as any of them.

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