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Lightning Round debuts with Trout, Braun, Dickey among leaders

There is less than a month left in the 2012 baseball season, which means it's time for Awards Watch to move into the "Lightning Round." Rather than list the top five candidates in each league for one award each week, for the remainder of the season I'll be listing the top three candidates in each league for all three of the major player awards every week. Thankfully, this year's races merit such close attention. Though the Rookie of the Year races are effectively over, the competition for the Cy Young award in each league is incredibly tight, and there's significant potential for the voters to misidentify the Most Valuable Player in each league as those races tighten up as well.

NOTE: As has been the case all year, the rankings reflect how I would vote (I do not have a vote) if the season ended today, not necessarily how I think the actual voting will finish. 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. The number in parentheses after each player's name reflects his rank on the previous list. All stats are through Wednesday, September 5. League leaders are in bold, major league leaders in bold italics. The varying "Last Three Weeks" time periods correspond to the period of time since I last visited that particular race, and, yes, all three American League Cy Young candidates have made just two starts while all three National League candidates have made three since I last checked in on that award two weeks ago.

American League

1. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (1)

Season Stats: .330/.394/.563, 25 HR, 75 RBI, 108 R, 44 SB

Last Three Weeks: .280/.352/.415, 3 HR, 9 RBI, 15 R, 6 SB

Trout has been the best player in baseball this season, and he's going to have to hit a lot worse over the next three weeks than he has over the last three for that not to be true at season's end. Still, with his bat slowing down and his having spent April in the minors, one can imagine an argument some might make for not placing him atop their MVP ballots should his offense not pick back up and the Angels miss the playoffs.

That's malarkey, of course. Even if you do believe that team performance should impact an individual award, which I don't, it's clear that the Angels wouldn't even be as close as they are to a playoff spot (2½ games out in the wild-card race as of Thursday morning) without Trout's massive contribution.

2. Miguel Cabrera, 3B, Tigers (2)

Season Stats:.330/.396/.595, 35 HR, 116 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .357/.449/.679, 5 HR, 13 RBI

Cabrera's remarkable second-half surge (he has hit .366/.441/.685 with 20 home runs and 60 RBIs since June 25) is what has made the thought of Trout not winning this award possible. Cabrera just passed Trout for the batting title lead on Wednesday (he's at .33015 to Trout's .32976), giving him the lead over the rookie in all three Triple Crown stats and all three slash stats. If Cabrera's Tigers reach the playoffs due to a September surge (they caught the division-leading White Sox via a head-to-head series this past weekend but have since fallen a game behind and are actually a half game behind the Angels in the wild-card race) while Trout's Angels are eliminated, some will argue that those circumstances prove Cabrera's superior value, particularly in light of his pre-season move to third base in order to accommodate fringe MVP candidate Prince Fielder at first base.

Never mind that Cabrera is a lousy fielder at his new/old position and a largely immobile baserunner, facts which undermine his production at the plate rather than enhance it, while Trout is outstanding in both aspects and arguably the best in the game on the bases. I don't deny Cabrera's great value. I'm listing him here because I genuinely believe he has been the second most valuable player in the American League this season, but to my eye, the gap between him and Trout remains significant and obvious.

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

Season Stats: .301/.366/.545, 29 HR, 73 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .239/.329/.507, 4 HR, 5 RBI

This is going to be a two-man race between Trout and Cabrera, so the identity of Bachelor Number Three doesn't much matter. I don't expect much consensus on this spot from the voters, and if there were a clearer leader in the Cy Young race (see below), I'd probably put the top pitcher in the league in this spot, but with only one spot left in this format, it didn't seem fair to include one without the other two, at least for now. Cano is the best of the rest of the AL hitters, but the gap between him and Cabrera is much larger than the gap between Cano his various rivals for this spot.

National League

1. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers (3)

Season Stats: .311/.389/.604, 37 HR, 98 RBI, 90 R, 22 SB

Last Three Weeks: .375/.451/.800, 8 HR, 21 RBI, 17 R, 3 SB

Now this is going to be interesting. Braun plays for a team with a losing record and is coming off both a controversially overturned positive test for performance enhancing drugs and last year's MVP award. What are the chances that the writers are going to make him a back-to-back winner? I'd say slim to none, particularly given the superior narratives attached to his two primary rivals for the award. That said, I don't think team performance should matter, the positive test from 2011 was thrown out and has not been followed by another, and, in my opinion, Braun has been the best player in the National League to this point in the season. It would, of course, be ironic if Braun was passed over for the award this year in part because of his team's poor performance as he won over Matt Kemp last year largely because of the relative performances of their teams, a result I disagreed with.

2. Andrew McCutchen, CF, Pirates (1)

Season Stats: .345/.408/.561, 24 HR, 83 RBI, 93 R

Last Three Weeks: .267/.345/.307, 0 HR, 11 RBI, 11 R

Three weeks ago I posited that, at that moment, McCutchen could have been the unanimous winner of this award, but he has slumped badly since then while Braun has surged. As a result, McCutchen has fallen out of the top spot in my rankings for the first time since he ascended past Joey Votto in July. McCutchen has homered just twice since July 18, slugging a mere .376 over that span, and the slide captured by his Last Three Weeks line above actually goes back four weeks, with McCutchen hitting .245/.325/.314 since August 9.

It doesn't help matters that Braun is actually the superior basestealer (Braun's 22 steals have come at a 79 percent success rate, while McCutchen's 16 swipes have come at a mere 59 percent success rate) and, according to advanced fielding metrics, the superior fielder as well, at least relative to others at his position. You might want to quibble with those fielding evaluations, but you'd be wasting your breath as Braun has no real hope of winning this award, leaving McCutchen as the favorite, at least for the moment.

3. Buster Posey, C, Giants (2)

Season Stats: .325/.400/.525, 19 HR, 85 RBI

Last Three Weeks: .299/.360/.418, 0 HR, 9 RBI

It's not outside the realm of possibility for Posey, a player who wasn't even in my top 10 at the All-Star break (though he did merit an honorable mention in early May), to take this award with a big second-half surge much like the one that landed him the league's Rookie of the Year award in 2010. Given the adjustment he gets for being a solid defensive catcher, his Triple Crown and slash stats aren't far behind McCutchen's at all. Still, Posey hasn't homered since going deep six times in his first 10 games of August and one could argue that he's not even the most valuable catcher in the league given the season the defensively superior Yadier Molina, who is also hot at the plate right now (.389/.440/.511 since August 1), is having.

The upshot of all of that is that this award, which has at various points in this season seemed like destiny for Kemp, Votto and McCutchen, is still very much up for grabs with less than a month left in the season.

NEXT: Cy Young Award

American League

1. Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers (1)

Season Stats: 13-7, 2.73 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 9.2 K/9 (209 K), 4.02 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS, 6 CG, 1 SHO, 153 ERA+

Last Two Starts: 1-0, 5.93 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, 11.2 K/9, 3.40 K/BB, 6.8 IP/GS

2. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners (3)

Season Stats: 13-6, 2.51 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 8.4 K/9 (191 K), 3.98 K/BB, 7.3 IP/GS, 5 SHO, 148 ERA+

Last Two Starts: 1-1, 2.20 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 6.6 K/9, 4.00 K/BB, 8.2 IP/GS, 1 SHO

If the writers were to submit their ballots today, David Price would probably win this award, but the way I see it, the battle for the title of the best pitcher in the American League this year is a dead-heat between the last two winners of this award. Most of the statistics that I employ above are rate stats, which make it easier to compare players despite discrepancies in playing time, but there's no almost no need for that with these two. Here are their raw counting stats:

Verlander has allowed 10 unearned runs, which don't show up in his ERA, to Hernandez's four, but Hernandez has hit 11 batters, which doesn't show up in his WHIP, to Verlander's four and also leads the duo in wild pitches and balks. Yes, I just mentioned balks (Verlander has one, Hernandez two); this is that close. I'm listing Verlander first because he has been in that spot on my list all season, because he has had to contend with a brutal team defense and because he has tiny leads on Hernandez in most of the rate stats listed above (including ERA+), but if you prefer the guy with the lower unadjusted ERA and the five shutouts, one of which was a perfect game, I won't argue with you.

3. David Price, LHP, Rays (2)

Season Stats:17-5, 2.54 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 8.7 K/9 (175 K), 3.24 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 1 SHO, 147 ERA+

Last Two Starts: 1-1, 6.75 ERA, 1.87 WHIP, 6.7 K/9, 2.00 K/BB, 5.3 IP/GS

How can I rank a 17-game winner who is just three points off the league lead in ERA behind a pair of 13-game winners, one of whom has an ERA nearly one fifth of a run higher? Easy -- because I almost completely ignore both won/loss records and ERA when I rank pitchers. ERA is an important stat, but it lacks the context provided by the park-adjusted ERA+, while wins and losses are almost completely meaningless given their dependence on run and bullpen support.

Price has the lowest ERA+ of this trio, but that's not why he's third. The three are bunched tightly enough in that category that you can almost throw that one out as well for this trio. It's largely due to his deficit in innings pitched. Price has thrown just 88 percent as many innings as Verlander. In that time, he has also walked more men than either Verlander or Hernandez and allowed baserunners (with hit batsmen included) at a higher rate than either of his rivals. To those who favor Price in this race, I ask: What has he done better than Verlander or Hernandez this season? If all you can come up with is "win," please consider the run support each has received per 27 outs:

Price: 4.61

Verlander: 3.84

Hernandez: 3.70

National League

1. R.A. Dickey, RHP, Mets (2)

Season Stats:18-4, 2.64 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 8.9 K/9 (195 K), 4.33 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS, 5 CG, 3 SHO, 146 ERA+

Last Three Starts: 3-0, 1.19 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 5.6 K/9, 2.80 K/BB, 7.6 IP/GS, 1 SHO

2. Johnny Cueto, RHP, Reds (1)

Season Stats: 17-7, 2.58 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 7.1 K/9 (149 K), 3.63 K/BB, 6.7 IP/GS, 2 CG, 165 ERA+

Last Three Starts: 1-1, 3.79 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, 6.6 K/9, 3.50 K/BB, 6.3 IP/GS

The National League Cy Young race now looks like it will come down to Cuteo and Dickey, whom I also had in the top two spots in my last look at this race two weeks ago, albeit in the opposite order. After adjusting for ballpark effects (which is what ERA+ does), Cueto has been the top run preventer in the majors this season (and the best in the NL even without the context), but Dickey has been the better pitcher in every other way. Of course, run prevention is a pitcher's top job, so, as in the AL, this is almost as much a matter of taste as of objective quality. One could make a legitimate argument that either has been the "best" pitcher in the National League this year.

One of the things I try to protect against in making these lists is allowing any of them to be a simple leaders list of any single category, and that's a large part of why I ultimately put Dickey ahead of Cueto this week. Yes, Dickey is a great story, but the knuckleballers stat line is impressive even if you don't know anything about his journey to this point or his primary pitch. Cueto's line, while still outstanding, is simply inferior to Dickey's outside of ERA and ERA+, and Dickey ranks second and third in the league in those two categories. To me, that makes Dickey the leader for now, but it's close enough that what these two do in the season's final month will determine which one, if either, takes home the award.

3. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (4)

Season Stats: 12-8, 2.79 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 9.1 K/9 (201 K), 4.02 K/BB, 6.9 IP/GS, 2 SHO, 136 ERA+

Last Three Starts: 1-1, 2.14 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 11.1 K/9, 3.25 K/BB, 7.0 IP/GS

One could make a similar argument for Kershaw relative to Cueto, but to me Kershaw's hasn't out-pitched Cueto by enough to overcome his greater deficit in run prevention. Another way to look at it: Kershaw comes up short in an apples-to-apples comparison with Dickey, so if Dickey and Cueto are in a dead-heat, Kershaw has to be third.

NEXT: Rookie of the Year award

American League

1. Mike Trout, CF, Angels (1)

Season Stats: .330/.394/.563, 25 HR, 75 RBI, 108 R, 44 SB

Last Week: 6-for-30 (.200), 0 XBH, 4 BB, 3 SB, 6 R

Mike Trout will be the unanimous and deserving winner of the 2012 American League Rookie of the Year award. Put it in ink. This race is over.

2. Yoenis Cespedes, LF, A's (2)

Season Stats: .290/.348/.481, 16 HR, 65 RBI, 14 SB

Last Week: 6-for-30 (.200), 0 XBH, 0 BB, 1 HBP, 2 SB, 5 R

Cespedes has started all but two of the A's games in the second half and appeared in all but one of them, helping to quiet those who were eager to label him injury-prone after his intermittent attendance in the first half. He has quieted significantly since his surge immediately following the All-Star break, however, hitting a mere .258/.321/.367 with two home runs since the calendar flipped to August, thereby eliminating the only feasible challenge Trout might have faced for this award.

3. Scott Diamond, LHP, Twins (3)

Season Stats: 11-6, 3.35 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 4.9 K/9, 3.35 K/BB, 6.5 IP/GS, 1 SHO, 121 ERA+

Last Week: 1 GS: 5 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 2 BB, 4 K, 0 HR, W

After Trout and Cespedes the American League rookie field is thick with starting pitchers who have turned in fairly pedestrian performances. Of the six who qualify for the ERA title, Diamond leads the pack in innings per start (just barely over Yu Darvish) and is the only one to have an ERA+ more than 10 points above average. Diamond actually ranks eighth among all AL pitchers in ERA, though it's worth noting that the 26-year-old has posted a 3.84 mark outside of his friendly home ballpark and has thrown just 87 percent as many innings as AL rookie leader Wei-Yin Chen.

National League

1. Wade Miley, LHP, Diamondbacks (1)

Season Stats: 14-9, 2.90 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 6.4 K/9, 3.90 K/BB, 6.5 IP/GS, 149 ERA+

Last Week: 1 GS: 6 2/3 IP, 9 H, 3 R, 2 BB, 3 K, 1 HR, ND

If I was still listing the top five candidates for the Cy Young award, Miley would make my National League list. He's is third in the majors in ERA+ (behind Cueto and Verlander), fifth in the NL actual ERA and his ERA for the season has never been higher than 3.13. He's in the top 10 in the league in WHIP, strikeout-to-walk ratio and wins, and fourth among NL pitchers in Baseball-References Wins Above Replacement (behind my three Cy Young candidates above). He might not be the unanimous winner of this award, but he should win it easily as he's not only been the league's top rookie, but one of its best pitchers, period.

2. Todd Frazier, UT, Reds (2)

Season Stats: .289/.347/.531, 18 HR, 62 RBI

Last Week: 5-for-24 (.208), 0 XBH, 1 BB

We still don't know how Joey Votto's return from the disabled list will impact Frazier's playing time. Votto was activated on Tuesday and played his first game since July on Wednesday night, going 2-for-3 with a walk. Frazier started at third base in that game and went 1-for-4, but that doesn't mean he's going to be the team's everyday third baseman. As it is, he doesn't qualify for the batting title. He's not going to win this award, but a cut in playing time combined with a hot Bryce Harper (.400/.471/.967 with five home runs in his last eight games, including two homers on Wednesday night) could lead to a lower finish.

3. Mike Fiers, RHP, Brewers (3)

Season Stats: 8-7, 3.11 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 3.93 K/BB, 6.1 IP/GS, 134 ERA+

Last Week: 1 GS: 3 1/3 IP, 6 H, 6 R (4 ER), 4 BB, 4 K, L

Fiers has a 7.40 ERA over his last five starts, a stretch bookended by a pair of disaster outings in which he allowed a combined 14 runs (12 earned) in 5 1/3 innings. He had a couple of very strong outings in the middle of that run, but it looks like either the league or his workload (he has thrown 159 1/3 innings this year after a previous career high of 128 last year) is catching up to the 27-year-old righty. Still, his overall performance has been significantly above average, something that can't be said of many other rookies in the senior circuit this season.

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