There are less than two weeks left in the 2012 Major League Baseball season, and there is still plenty to be decided about who most deserves some of the major player awards. The most extreme case is the race for the National League's Most Valuable Player award, which could legitimately go to any one of four men. Clayton Kershaw's hip impingement could well decide the National League Cy Young race, though it hasn't yet, and in the American League, the MVP and Cy Young races threaten to once again stoke the battle between old-school thinking and progressive analysis. Here, then, is the penultimate Awards Watch of the regular season.
No hitter has won the Triple Crown -- leading the league in batting average, home runs, and RBIs -- since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967, 45 years ago. Miguel Cabrera currently leads the American League in two of those three categories and, after going deep Wednesday night, is just one home run shy of Josh Hamilton's league-leading total of 42. If Cabrera wins the Triple Crown, I fully expect that he'll also win the AL Most Valuable Player award. However, the Triple Crown alone will not convince me that Cabrera has had a better season than Mike Trout.
The thing is, the Triple Crown really only measures two things: the ability to hit for average and the ability to hit for power. Driving in runs is a by-product of those two and of hitting with a lot of runners on base, a measurement which thus favors a middle-of-the-order hitter like Cabrera over a leadoff man like Trout. Cabrera clearly hits for more power than Trout, but the gap in batting average between the two is small. As for driving runs in, we can correct for Trout's relative lack of opportunities by looking at what percentage of the runners on base during their plate appearances each has driven home. Through Tuesday's action, Cabrera had plated 21.4 percent of 312 runners, while Trout had plated 18.2 percent of just 191. Again, not a huge gap (Cabrera's percentage ranks second in the league, Trout's ninth).
I'm not going to argue that Cabrera isn't the better hitter -- he clearly is -- but I think the gap is smaller than the home run and RBI categoies suggest. Meanwhile, nearly all of Cabrera's value is contained in his production at the plate (I'll give him credit for playing third base every day, but only a little, given that he's sub-par in the field). Trout, on the other hand, is a superb centerfielder and the best baserunner in the game (his major league-best 46 steals have come at an amazing 92 percent success rate, and he's just as good at taking the extra base). To me, that compensates for the difference between the two at the plate, as well as the 20-odd games Cabrera played in while Trout was in Triple-A in April. Advanced statistics like Wins Above Replacement (whatever iteration you prefer) suggest that my analysis actually sells Trout short.
Incidentally, since 1925, the hitting Triple Crown has been won 10 times, but on four of those occasions, the player that won it did not win the MVP award. Thus, there's plenty of precedent for Triple Crown winners not winning the MVP.
Cases can be made for the Rangers' Hamilton or Adrian Beltre in this spot, but I favor Cano, who has reached base more often than either one and has been more consistent and more valuable in the field than Hamilton. Not that it much matters. This is a two-man race.
It can be argued that Posey isn't even the best catcher in the National League this year. Yadier Molina is clearly the superior defender and has hit 324/.382/.513 with 20 home runs and, my favorite part, 12 stolen bases in 15 attempts. Molina has thrown out 47 percent of opposing basestealers to Posey's 31 percent, and Molina has caught about 140 more innings.
That said, both throw out runners more often than the league average and, while Molina is clearly the superior thrower, his reputation also plays a role. There have been 48 fewer attempts made against Molina, and Posey has actually thrown out more runners on the season. Quantifying the other aspects of catching are more difficult, but to my eye, while Molina is obviously the better defender and having a fantastic season at the plate, Posey is accomplished enough behind the dish that his advantage beside it (including roughly 30 additional points of both on-base percentage and slugging) is enough to give him the edge.
Posey leads not just catchers -- not just the National League but all of baseball -- in the park-adjusted OPS+ (171 to Molina's 140, not even close), and while Molina has the edge in Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement (bWAR), the two are effectively tied in that imprecise statistic (6.6 for Molina to 6.4 for Posey).
The way I view this race is that there are four men (the three listed here and Molina, who is an extremely close fourth but just doesn't have the stats to compare to the other two men listed here) who are almost equally deserving of the award. Forced to choose, I take Posey.
McCutchen has finally broken out of his funk, hitting .333/.478/.667 over his last 10 games with four home runs and three steals in as many attempts. That his performance hasn't resulted in a similar recovery by the Pirates, who are 2-8 over that span, is a good reminder that player performance and team performance are two distinct things.
When the Pirates were in a playoff position and McCutchen was the clear choice for MVP, I repeatedly stated that the Pirates' unexpected success had nothing to do with McCutchen's first-place rank on this list (though the inverse was not true). Similarly, the Pirates' recent nose-dive, which on Wednesday night saw them fall back to .500 and sink below the Phillies into a tie with the Diamondbacks in the wild-card standings, essentially ending their postseason hopes, won't sink McCutchen's candidacy, at least not in this space.
I very nearly flipped Braun and McCutchen, but the latter's advantage in on-base percentage, his comparatively pitching-friendly home park, and his position (centerfield as opposed to left) were just enough to give McCutchen the edge, though by the time you read this, I may have changed my mind again.
Though rain robbed us of a showdown between Verlander and Chris Sale with the AL Central lead on the line last Thursday, Verlander did make two starts between last week's Awards Watch and this one. He didn't allow a run in either one, totaling 13 scoreless frames in a pair of wins. Verlander has thrown 20 percent more innings than the man more likely to win this award, league wins- and ERA-leader David Price, with a better park-adjusted ERA+ and superior marks in every other category listed above as well.
Sale leads the majors in ERA+ and has just one fewer win and six fewer innings pitched than Price while boasting a lower WHIP, the same number of strikeouts and a far superior strikeout-to-walk ratio. With Felix Hernandez going 0-3 with a 9.00 ERA in his first three starts this month, including a disaster outing on Sept. 13, Sale moves up to the second spot this week, though there's some wiggle room between him and Verlander.
Price returned from having a start skipped due to shoulder inflammation and beat the Yankees on Sept. 14, allowing just two runs over seven innings and striking out six. One could argue that Price deserves to rank ahead of Sale based on the relative strength of the lineups they have faced over the course of the season but, again, I just can't find the argument that puts Price ahead of, or even close to Verlander.
Dickey has received 4.8 runs of support per 27 outs this season. Clayton Kershaw has received 3.8. With that in mind, cover up the won-loss records of the two men above and look at the rest of the listed statistics. That's alarmingly close, isn't it?
Kershaw's last start was skipped because of a hip injury, diagnosed as an impingement, which might yet end his season. However, as of right now, both he and Dickey have made 30 starts, and Dickey has only thrown 5 1/3 more innings, one of them in relief, than Kershaw. So, whatever impact Kershaw's hip might have on this race, be it by ending his season now or reducing his effectiveness in however many starts he has left, it hasn't take effect yet.
I list Dickey first above because where the differences are greatest (complete games, strikeout-to-walk ratio), they favor Dickey. The chances are now very good that Dickey will wind up winning this award, in part because of Kershaw's injury, in part because of those extra wins, but it's worth noting that he was well on his way to deserving it on his own merits.
Cueto still leads the league in ERA+, but he has gone 0-3 with an 8.22 ERA in three September starts, effectively eliminating the big lead he had in that category, and leaving his Cy Young case to his peripheral stats, which simply don't measure up to the other two men above him on this list. Still, there are other strong candidates, including Cole Hamels, Gio Gonzalez, Kyle Lohse and Matt Cain, who fail to measure up to Cueto despite his recent slump.
This is how I expect the voting for this award to go. In fact, it has been for a while now, but Darvish didn't earn third place on my list until this past week. He was pretty lousy over a stretch of 13 starts from late May to early August, going 5-7 with a 5.82 ERA, 1.54 WHIP and 5.3 walks per nine innings, but he pitched well prior to that (6-1, 2.60 ERA), and in his last six starts has gone 4-1 with a 2.32 ERA, 0.82 WHIP and just 2.7 walks per nine innings. The result is that Darvish has been very good for roughly half of his rookie season (his first eight starts and last six, a total of 14 starts minus his rough first inning of the season) and very bad for the other half (those middle 13 starts). That pattern suggests the league adjusting to Darvish, and Darvish adjusting back, though mechanics, extra rest and simple luck (over those last six starts his opponents have hit .221 on balls in play, almost exactly 100 points lower than his BABIP over the previous 13-start stretch) have played parts as well.
The reality is that, in the aggregate, Darvish has been just a hair better than the middling group of rookie starters who now line up behind him on this list. Of course, by season's end he could well have 16 or more wins, an ERA below 4.00 and the second-best strikeout rate by a qualified starter in the majors (with Stephen Strasburgh having fallen just short of 162 innings pitched) to go along with those 200-plus strikeouts, making him an easy choice for one of the top three spots on most ballots. The only question is if his year-end stats will shine bright enough to move him ahead of Cespedes.
This race remains, as it has been for most of the season, Miley plus list filler. It's not that there haven't been other strong rookie performances in the National League this year. It's just that none of them have come close to being as valuable as Miley's, which has put him on the periphery of the Cy Young conversation. The hardest part about making these lists this year has not been making close calls between two or more great seasons in the running for the MVP or Cy Young award, it has been deciding which middling NL rookie performances have been strong enough to warrant inclusion behind Miley.
Fiers has emerged as my NL Rookie of the Year runner-up recently because his performance has been further above average than the other challengers, but he also suits my purposes well by illustrating how well Miley has pitched. Outside of their strikeout rates, Miley has Fiers beat in every category despite throwing more than 50 percent more innings (62 2/3 IP to be exact). If Fiers is the best of the rest and Miley has Fiers beat by such a large degree, it sheds light on just how much of slam-dunk choice Miley is for this award.
With Joey Votto and Scott Rolen both healthy, Frazier has started just two of the Reds' last seven games. Not helping matters is the fact that he has hit just .209/.292/.256 in September and hasn't homered since August 21. I suspect that Bryce Harper, whose next home run will be his 20th, will ultimately slip back into the top three, but he's not quite there just yet.