Awards week preview: Top honors ahead for best moundsmen

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The Baseball Writers Association of America will announce the winners of baseball's major awards over the next week and a half, starting with the Rookies of the Year on Monday and continuing through the league Most Valuable Players the following Monday and Tuesday. Since it has been more than six weeks since the last installation of my Awards Watch column, here's one final look at who is likely to win awards that will be announced next week -- the Rookies of the Year, Managers of the Year and Cy Youngs. Next Friday, I'll preview the two Most Valuable Player awards, which won't be announced until Nov. 21 (AL) and 22 (NL).

I'll have reactions to the actual results immediately following the announcements, each of which is scheduled for 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on the day listed below. Remember that votes were submitted prior to the playoffs on the day after the regular season ended, so postseason performance is not a factor in these awards.

NOTE: League leaders in bold, major league leaders in bold and italics. 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.

To Be Announced: Monday, Nov. 14

Expected Winner: Jeremy Hellickson, SP, Rays (13-10, 2.95 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 5.6 K/9, 1.63 K/BB, 2 CG, 1 SHO)

Deserving Winner: Hellickson

There's an argument to be made that Mariners righty Michael Pineda pitched better than Hellickson this year. Pineda had a huge advantage in strikeout rate (9.1 K/9 to Hellickson's 5.6) as well as a superior walk rate (2.9 to 3.4). Both allowed home runs and hits at comparable rates, but because he walked men less often, Pineda had a better WHIP (1.10 to 1.15), and Hellickson derived far more benefit from his defense and/or luck.

Beyond even the strikeouts, that last is the core of the argument for Pineda. Hellickson's opponents hit just .224 on balls in play, by far the lowest mark among the 93 qualified pitchers in the majors this season (the median for that group was .292, and the league average for all pitchers was .295). However, Pineda's .261 BABIP was the ninth-lowest among qualifiers, and despite that good fortune on balls in play, his vastly superior strikeout rate, and the fact that both pitched their home games in pitcher-friendly ballparks, Pineda still posted an ERA more than three-quarters of a run higher than Hellickson's. Consider the nature of the other ballparks in their divisions and the relative strength of the lineups that play in those ballparks (in both cases only Texas from the AL West compares to Boston, New York and even Toronto in the East), and Pineda's case gets even weaker.

The final blow is Pineda's workload. It's not his fault. The Mariners were careful with him, as well they should have been, particularly given that, unlike Hellickson's Rays, they were never in the playoff hunt. Still, both men spent the entire year in their team's rotation, but Hellickson made one more start and threw 18 more innings, averaging 6.5 innings per start to Pineda's 6.1, and turned in the only complete game by either pitcher. Pineda pitched into the eighth inning just twice. Hellickson did it six times. Hellickson also pitched into the sixth inning in all but three of his starts, while Pineda failed to reach the sixth five times.

There is also the matter of more traditional metrics like won-loss record and team performance. Last year's AL Cy Young results proved that voters are less swayed by a pitcher's wins total than ever before, but even though Pineda's Seattle teammate Felix Hernandez won that award with a 13-12 record for a 101-loss team, don't expect Pineda (9-10, 3.74) to win this one with a 9-10 mark for a 95-loss squad. In fact, Pineda may not even finish second given that the Yankees' Ivan Nova (16-4, 3.70) had superficially superior traditional stats and even less luck on balls in play (.284 BABIP) while pitching in a hitter's park in Hellickson's division.

Hellickson was the preseason favorite for this award and while he didn't pitch quite as well as expected, he will still be a deserving winner.

To Be Announced: Monday, Nov. 14

Expected Winner: Craig Kimbrel, RP, Braves (2.10 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 14.8 K/9, 3.97 K/BB, 46 SVs

Deserving Winner: Kimbrel

Kimbrel broke the one-year-old rookie saves record of 40 set by last year's AL Rookie of the Year, Neftali Feliz. He also posted the fifth-best strikeout rate for a pitcher with at least 70 innings pitched in the history of baseball (fourth-best if you up the minimum to 75 innings pitched). That alone should earn him this award as he was not only the best rookie in the National League this year but legitimately had one of the great relief-pitching season's in the game's history.

That is provided you are willing to overlook his final three weeks. On September 8, Kimbrel struck out two Mets in a scoreless ninth inning while recording his 43rd of the season. After that outing, his season ERA stood at 1.55 and he had not allowed a run, inherited or otherwise, since June 11, a span of 38 appearances and 37 2/3 innings pitched. Over that stretch, he had allowed just 14 hits and 26 baserunners (0.69 BR/9 IP, 0.66 WHIP if you leave out his one hit batsman). However, he had also already made 71 appearances by then (by comparison, career saves leader Mariano Rivera of the Yankees has reached that mark just thrice in his 17-year career and surpassed it only once).

Kimbrel was nearly spent. In his next appearance he allowed his first runs since June 11 and blew his first save since June 8. After three more dominant outings, he was fully spent. Kimbrel had allowed just one home run in his first 100 major league appearances (including the 2010 postseason, but on September 18 and 19, he allowed home runs in consecutive games, yielding three runs in 1 2/3 innings in those two outings and blowing another save in the latter. Then, on the final day of the season, with the Braves clinging to a one-run ninth-inning lead that would force a one-game playoff against the Cardinals for the NL wild card, Kimbrel faced six men, gave up a single, three walks, and a sac fly to blow yet another save and got hooked mid-inning for the first time since April 30.

Some of the voters who sent in their ballots the next day might have found it hard to vote for a pitcher who had just blown a save that cost his team its season (though the Braves didn't actually lose that game until the 13th inning), but I'm guessing that most had enough perspective to realize that Kimbrel's failure in Game 162 was largely the fault of Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, who had so overworked his 23-year-old stud prior to that point. It surely helped that Kimbrel had effectively run away with this award before those final three weeks. This could have been unanimous. It won't be -- his teammate, first baseman Freddie Freeman, could get a few first-place votes after hitting 21 home runs, tied for the most by an NL rookie, and driving in 76 runs, highest by all NL first-year players -- but Kimbrel should still win it easily.

To Be Announced: Tuesday, Nov. 15

Expected Winner: Justin Verlander, RHP, Tigers (24-5, 250 Ks, 2.40 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 9.0 K/9, 4.39 K/BB, 4 CG, 2 SHO)

Deserving Winner: Verlander

Now this will be unanimous. Add to the numbers above the fact that Verlander led the majors in innings pitched (a career-high 251, an average of more than 7 1/3 innings per start), quality starts (28, tied with likely runner-up Jered Weaver, who made 33 total starts to Verlander's 34) and ERA+ (170). His WHIP was also the 16th best of the liveball era (since 1920), and if you eliminate the big-strikezone/high-mound era from 1963 to 1968, it jumps up to eighth-best since 1920. Yes, he had the second-lowest BABIP (.237) among major league qualifiers behind Hellickson, but he was so dominant, even the voters who noticed likely didn't care, in part because his closest rivals for this award were right behind him (Weaver was fifth at .252, and James Shields was eighth at .260).

To Be Announced: Thursday, Nov. 17

Expected Winner: Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers (21-5, 248 Ks, 2.28 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 9.6 K/9, 4.59 K/BB, 5 CG, 2 SHO)

Deserving Winner: Kershaw

The pitching triple crown (league leads in wins, strikeouts, and ERA) has been won just 11 times since the creation of the Cy Young award in 1956, and every single time, the pitcher who won the it also won the Cy Young award. Justin Verlander will make it 12-for-12 when he picks up the AL hardware on Tuesday and it makes Kershaw the prohibitive favorite to be lucky 13 on Thursday.

There is an argument, however, that last year's winner, Roy Halladay (19-6, 220 K, 2.35 ERA), was the best pitcher in the National League again this year. Halladay's case rests on park factors and batting average on balls in play, neither of which is enough to distract from all of those bolded numbers in Kershaw's stat line. Still, both pitchers threw essentially the same number of innings (Halladay led by the smallest amount possible, 233 2/3 to 233 1/3), and it was Halladay that led the league in ERA+ (again by a sliver, 164 to Kershaw's 163). Halladay also had a league-best eight complete games, walked a league-low 1.3 men per nine innings, led the majors with a 6.29 K/BB ratio, and had less help from his defense and lucky bounces, with a .305 BABIP to Kershaw's .274, doing all of that while pitching his home games in hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park as opposed to pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium.

It's a compelling argument, but not an overwhelming one, which is why you're unlikely to hear much complaint, even from Phillies fans, when Kershaw wins the award on Thursday.

Sandwiched in between the two two Cy Young announcements, two other awards will be given out next week, and while Awards Watch didn't examine the Manager of the Year races during the season, here's a breakdown of what to expect when those results are made public on Wednesday:

To Be Announced: Wednesday, Nov. 16

Expected Winner: Joe Maddon, Rays (91-71, Wild Card)

Deserving Winner: Manny Acta, Indians (80-82, 2nd place)

There have been 57 winners of the Manager of the Year award since it was created in 1983 (yes, an odd number, since there was a tie in the AL in 1996). Not counting the 1994 winners, both of whom skippered the teams with the best records in their leagues when the strike hit, or Jack McKeon in 1999, whose Reds lost a one-game playoff for the NL Wild Card, just seven winners of this award have managed teams that didn't make the playoffs.

Here's a quick look at those seven ranked by the number of wins by which their teams improved over the previous season:

33 -- Frank Robinson, Orioles, 1989

25 -- Jeff Torborg, White Sox, 1990

21 -- Larry Bowa, Phillies, 2001

21 -- Tony Peña, Royals, 2003

18 -- Buck Showalter, Rangers, 2004

13 -- Buck Rogers, Expos, 1987

minus-5 -- Girardi, Marlins, 2006

Girardi won despite the fact that Florida went from 83 wins under McKeon in '05 to 78 in '06 because the Marlins gutted their team before what proved to be Girardi's only season in Miami. They traded 2005 everyday players Carlos Delgado, Mike Lowell, Luis Castillo, Paul Lo Duca, and Juan Pierre soon after hiring him, traded ace Josh Beckett to Boston in the Lowell trade (in which they acquired Hanley Ramirez) and also let A.J. Burnett, Juan Encarnacion, and closer Todd Jones leave as free agents. Girardi's win, as evidenced by his being the only manager ever to receive the award after posting a losing record, happened under very unusual circumstances.

In every other case, the manager of the year led his team to a playoff position or a double-digit improvement in wins. That limits this year's AL candidates to the four playoff managers -- the Yankees' Girardi, 2008 winner Joe Maddon of the Rays, 2006 winner Jim Leyland of the Tigers, and last year's runner-up, Ron Washington of the Rangers -- and Manny Acta, who led the Indians to an 11-win improvement.

Maddon, Leyland and Acta have the best cases. Maddon helped keep a Rays team that lost Carl Crawford, Matt Garza Carlos Peña and its entire bullpen the previous offseason competitive enough to take advantage of the Red Sox' collapse and sneak back into the playoffs. Leyland had the double-whammy of a playoff berth and a 14-win improvement. Acta, meanwhile, helped make an Indians team that was deep in rebuilding mode a contender for the first four months of the season and a first-place team as late as July 20. I favor Acta because the Indians' performance was the one that surprised me most. I expect the writers stuck with a playoff manager, most likely Maddon seeing as the votes were submitted the day after the Rays completed their dramatic comeback to claim the wild card.

To Be Announced: Wednesday, Nov. 16

Expected Winner: Kirk Gibson, Diamondbacks (94-68, NL West title)

Deserving Winner: Gibson

Using the same logic as above, the NL contenders for Manager of the Year are the four playoff skippers -- Charlie Manuel of the Phillies, Ron Roenicke of the Brewers, Kirk Gibson of the Diamondbacks and Tony La Russa of the Cardinals -- and one manager of a surprise turnaround team, in this case Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle, whose first Pirates improved by 15 wins and actually snuck into first place in the Central for five non-consecutive days in late July. (The Nationals improved by 11 wins from 2010 but their Opening Day manager, Jim Riggleman, quit over a contract dispute in late June while the team was a game over .500, and his permanent replacement, Davey Johnson, actually fared slightly worse, going 40-43 to finish the season.)

Manuel's rotation will get all the credit for the Phillies' success, and though the rookie Roenicke's Brewers improved by 19 wins, the credit there will also go to the team's trades that reinforced its rotation. After a dramatic swoon over the season's final two months (18-38, .321), Hurdle's Pirates finished with just 72 wins. Given that Girardi's 78 wins in 2006 were by far the least by a Manger of the Year winner who spent the entire season with his team, that swoon effectively eliminated Hurdle from the running.

Had the voters known that La Russa, a four-time winner of the award and the first-ever AL winner in 1983, was going to retire after winning a World Series championship, he might have picked up a few extra votes, but his Cardinals were supposed to be contenders coming into the season, so their late-charge for the wild card will likely only have been enough to make him the runner-up. Gibson, meanwhile, took over the Diamondbacks mid-way through the 2010 season in which Arizona finished with 97 losses, then led them to 94 wins in 2011, a 29-win improvement that resulted in an utterly unexpected division title. He's the clear winner.