Why Craig Counsell Should've Been Manager of the Year, Yelich's Case for MVP

Tom Verducci explains his vote for Craig Counsell as NL Manager of the Year and his unofficial picks for MVP and Cy Young.
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As one of the 30 voters for the National League Manager of the Year Award, I did not expect the outcome Tuesday night. I thought Craig Counsell of Milwaukee was the clear choice.

While Counsell did receive the most first-place votes, he lost out to Mike Shildt of St. Louis. And Shildt’s incredible personal story makes him a very deserving winner.

Shildt is the first Manager of the Year who never played professionally. His award stands also as a recognition of a life dedicated to baseball. Only eight men since 1900 managed in the big leagues without playing in the minors or majors (and two of them, Judge Fuchs and Ted Turner, owned the team). Shildt is the only one with a winning record. He and Ed Barrow of the 1918 Red Sox are the only ones to guide a team into the postseason.

The other surprise to me was that Dave Martinez of Washington didn’t finish in the top three. I had Martinez second on my ballot and Shildt third. Martinez brought Martinez brought the Nationals back from 19-31 to a championship and did so with not only the worst bullpen in the league (5.68) but also the worst bullpen among all 442 teams that ever made the playoffs.

(Votes are submitted prior to the start of the postseason. And no, let’s not wait until after the postseason to vote for Manager of the Year. This is a regular season award in which all 30 managers should be eligible. The best manager in October has his own award already: it’s called the Commissioner’s Trophy, and Martinez got his.)

Nobody squeezes more wins out of a roster or manages more aggressively than Counsell. Here are a few reasons why I voted for Counsell, and how I would vote on the remaining awards:

• Based on their run differential of +3, the Brewers should have been expected to win 81 games. They won 89. It was the third straight season Counsell’s teams outperformed their expected, or Pythagorean, won-lost record.

• The Brewers were one of only four teams with nobody on the staff who threw 162 innings. The other three teams lost 90, 95 and 108 games (Angels, Blue Jays, Orioles).

• Milwaukee finished 22-8, including an MLB-best 20-7 September despite hitting .232. It led baseball with a 3.01 ERA in the final month.

• The Brewers lost MVP finalist Christian Yelich to a broken kneecap on his first at-bat of a game Sept. 10. They won 14 of their next 16 games without their best player.

• Milwaukee tied a franchise record by using 30 pitchers (also done in 2017 and 2018 under Counsell).

• Counsell used Josh Hader in a save situation an MLB-high 18 times when he pitched more than one inning–tied with Mariano Rivera (2001) for the most such outings in the past 25 years.

NL Cy Young Award: Jacob deGrom, Mets 

He threw 21 ½ more innings than Hyun-Jin Ryu and 31 2/3 more innings than Max Scherzer, and did so with a better WHIP.

AL Cy Young Award: Justin Verlander, Astros

This is a razor-thin decision over Gerrit Cole. Verlander led the league in innings, WHIP, hits per nine and strikeout-to-walk ratio. Cole led in ERA, strikeouts, ERA+ and FIP. I thought I’d find an edge in how they pitched against winning teams, but there’s almost none there. Verlander was 7-3 with a 2.06 ERA in 13 games; Cole was 5-2 with a 2.09 ERA in 12 games. I went with the lower WHIP over more innings, as narrow as those margins are.

NL MVP: Christian Yelich, Brewers

I get Cody Bellinger’s edge in WAR. He is a fabulous defender. But Bellinger handled just 17 more chances in the outfield. The bigger difference is in how the two of them hit in the clutch. And I keep coming back to how Yelich–by far–made a bigger impact at the plate, based on big edges in RISP (.327-.298), late and close (.443-.260), games within one run (.332-.287), high leverage (.384-.314) and Win Probability Added (7.121-4.986). Yelich’s WPA was the highest of any player in the past four years–despite missing the last three weeks.

AL MVP: Mike Trout, Angels

Alex Bregman is a unicorn. He is the only qualified hitter with more walks than strikeouts, and he did so while hitting 41 homers. Sluggers like Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols in their prime do that, not a superb infielder who made plays at third, short and, when in a shift, the normal second base position. Don’t give me WAR, because whether you go bWAR or fWAR you could choose the stat that fits your argument. It comes down to this: even though Trout played 22 fewer games, he had more homers and led the league in on-base percentage, slugging, OPS, OPS+ and, yes, WPA.