Barring tie-breaker games, there is less than one week remaining in the 2012 regular season, and the majority of the major player awards remain unsettled. The races for the Rookie of the Year awards have been over for a while, but the Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards in the National League are too close to call heading into the final week, and while I have a clear preference for who I think should win those two awards in the American League, there is a strong possibility that the vote by the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (of which I am not one) will go in a different direction.
This is the final Awards Watch of the regular season, but it will return in November with predictions and reactions. In the meantime, the awards should provide some added drama to the season's final week and plenty of grist for the mill in the months that follow.
I'm going to break my own rules right off the bat here and list not three but four candidates for the NL MVP award, because this is really a four-man race. I could make an argument for any one of these four to top the list. Molina has clearly been the least productive at the plate, but he is also clearly the most valuable in the field both in terms of where he plays and how well he plays there. Posey also gets graded on a big curve for being a catcher, but doesn't need as much of a boost as Molina, which is largely why he remains at the top of my list. Braun has impressive counting numbers and all-around skills (one more steal would give him a second consecutive 30/30 season, and those first 29 steals have come at an 81 percent success rate). McCutchen leads the league in on-base percentage and runs, would lead in batting average if you eliminated Melky Cabrera (which will happen at season's end), and plays centerfield, not left like Braun.
When the writers take to their ballots, I expect that the closeness of the race will allow them to pass over McCutchen (because of the Pirates' collapse and his role in it) and Braun (because the Brewers, who enter Thursday with an elimination number of four, will likely wind up missing the playoffs). Another factor against Braun could be any remaining suspicions over his overturned positive drug test this past offseason. I don't agree with any of that, but that doesn't mean such a result would be an injustice, either.
For me, Putting Posey ahead of Molina is a simple apples-to-apples comparison. Yes, Molina's superior defense makes it close, but Posey is no slouch behind the plate and clearly the more productive hitter. Putting Posey ahead of McCutchen is easy given the similarity of their numbers, the fact that McCutchen's steals have come at a lousy 63 percent success rate, and the fact that Posey is a catcher.
The tough call is Posey vs. Braun. Braun has 64 points of slugging and nearly 20 home runs on Posey, but then Posey has a higher batting average and on-base percentage, more doubles, more walks, fewer strikeouts. Oh yeah, he's also a catcher while Braun is a leftfielder, opposite ends of the defensive spectrum.
Anyone read any good articles recently? It seems you can't check a score without stumbling across a piece about the MVP merits of Cabrera, who is threatening to win the Triple Crown (Josh Hamilton leads him in home runs by one), and Trout, who is the consensus pick among more progressive analysts such as myself. With the Tigers moving into sole possession of first place in the AL Central on Wednesday night, this has only gotten more muddled. Those who would tend to favor Cabrera because of his Triple Crown stats are the same as those who would prefer their MVP come from a playoff team. Those who look past those three categories to see Trout's all-around greatness this season are, for the most part, the same as those who believe that player value should be measured independent of team performance.
It's impossible to say how this will turn out, though it's likely if Cabrera wins the Triple Crown and the Tigers make the playoffs, Trout's one-time lock on this award will have been picked and Cabrera, who has finished in the top five in the voting five times, will finally have his first MVP award. If Cabrera or the Tigers fall short and the Angels pull off an upset of the A's for the final wild-card spot, well then Trout will get the right result but perhaps for the wrong reason.
One last argument for Trout. Note that he leads Cabrera in on-base percentage and is right there with him in batting average. The only real difference between the two at the plate is Cabrera's extra power, and Trout's baserunning largely closes that gap. My colleague
Josh Hamilton has the impressive counting stats (a major league leading 43 homers and second-best 124 RBIs), but his battling line (.286/.359/.588) reveals a much closer race with Cano, and when you factor in Hamilton's more extreme home ballpark and Cano's superior defense, Cano gets the edge.
I also have a hard time getting behind an MVP candidate who hit .203/.278/.381 for a third of the season as Hamilton did from June 1 to Aug. 6. Hamilton's Texas teammate Adrian Beltre provides more competition for Cano here, but again Cano has the advantage due to his edge in on-base percentage (Beltre's at .352) and with a nod toward the fielding metrics that suggest that Beltre isn't playing up to his usual standard at the hot corner this year.
This has been a close race all season, but I've had Verlander in the top spot for most of it, and with his last start coming against a weak team in a pitcher's park while his rivals both face contenders, it's hard to believe that I won't feel the same a week from now.
Verlander leads the majors in innings and ERA+, which practically sews the award up by itself as it says that no pitcher has been more effective at preventing runs or eating innings, the two most important things a starting pitcher can do. Of course, Verlander has the impressive peripherals as well. He's second in the league in WHIP, has struck out one man per inning, leading the majors in strikeouts, and has the third-best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the league to boot. That's not to mention his major league best six complete games. One of those was a cheat, five innings in a rain-shortened game, but the baseball gods made good on it when, four turns later, Verlander allowed just two runs and struck out 12 over nine innings but failed to get a win or a complete game as the contest wound up going 11 innings (the Tigers won).
Price, the league leader in wins (tied with Jered Weaver, who would rank fifth, behind Chris Sale, if this list went that deep) and ERA could steal this award from Verlander if the voters fail to look past the pitching triple crown stats. Consider this comparison:
Price looks like the better pitcher through that keyhole, and will even moreso if he picks up his 20th win on Sunday, but closer inspection reveals that Verlander has clearly been better. In general the Cy Young voting has been much improved over the last several years, so there's reason to believe that the voters will get it right, but with Verlander having won last year and Price having both more wins and a lower ERA, there's a very good chance they won't.
Hernandez and Chris Sale have the same ERA and WHIP and very similar strikeout and K/BB rates, which given the fact that Hernandez pitches in a far friendlier ballpark, would seem to give Sale the edge. Indeed, Sale has a big advantage in ERA+ (153 to Felix's 130), but it's hard to get past the fact that Hernandez has thrown nearly 40 more innings (226 2/3 to 188 2/3, a full fifth more frames for King Felix), nor those major league best five shutouts. Hernandez has lacked his usual consistency this season, but in the aggregate, his season is almost as impressive as Verlander's and deserves to be listed ahead of those of Sale, Weaver and the Rangers' Matt Harrison.
Dickey will get two shots at winning his 20th game against cratering teams, and if he gets it, he will likely sew this award up despite the fact that Gio Gonzalez got there first. Dickey, a 37-year-old knuckleballer, would be a deserving winner, but it's worth noting just how close this race really is. Bearing in mind the fact that Dickey has received roughly one more run of support per 27 outs, cover up his and Clayton Kershaw's records and look at the rest of the stats presented above. That's a virtual tie, isn't it?
Dickey's edge over Kershaw includes leading the majors in quality starts (25, tied with Yovani Gallardo, to Kershaw's 23) and quality start percentage (81 percent) and NL in innings pitched (220 to Kershaw's 211 2/3, both in 31 starts), and he holds several other small advantages in the stats above. He also had the most impressive stretch by any pitcher this season from late May to the end of June. All of that makes him the clear winner, something his two remaining starts will likely cement, but it's worth remembering just how close Kershaw came to winning back-to-back Cy Youngs at the ages of 23 and 24. If not for his bad hip, he might have done it.
Kershaw, who pitched well save some rust in his return to action Sunday night, will make at least one more start. However, with the Dodgers' elimination number at four (any combination of Cardinals wins and Dodgers losses adding up to four will prevent them from making the playoffs), he could well be pitching to save his team's season on Friday and may be shut down after that as his next turn wouldn't come up until the final day of the season and the Dodgers seem almost sure to be eliminated well in advance of that.
Cueto led this race for much of the season, but a 5.08 ERA in five September starts dropped him below Dickey and Kershaw. As it stands, he just barely edges out the Cardinals' Kyle Lohse and the Nationals' Gonzalez for the third spot, while Cole Hamels and Matt Cain have arguably out-pitched all three of them save for the one very important department of run prevention.
You may have noticed that I've gone all season without mentioning two closers, the Braves' Craig Kimbrel and the Rays' Fernando Rodney, with regard to the Cy Young award. Some might find that unusual given their season stats:
Kimbrel is about to set the record for the highest single-season strikeout rate by a pitcher with at least 21 innings pitched in major league history (in 2010 he struck out 17.4 men per nine innings in 20 2/3 innings, the record for any pitcher with more than six innings pitched). After striking out the only four men he faced (in a single inning, no less) on Wednesday night, he has struck out more than half of the 221 batters he has faced this season.
Meanwhile, only one man has ever saved 40 games while posting an ERA lower than that of either of the two men above, that being Dennis Eckersley in 1990, when he saved 48 games and posted a 0.61 ERA. Save for 10 extra walks, Rodney's performance, one of the most unexpected of the season, is a near-exact replica of Eckersley's 1990 season. Of course, Eck didn't win the Cy Young in 1990 either, and he shouldn't have won it two years later when he was also, incredibly, named the AL's Most Valuable Player.
The reason for omitting Kimbrel and Rodney is one stat that isn't list above: innings pitched. Kimbrel has thrown 60 1/3 innings and Rodney 71 1/3. I don't care how dominant a one-inning closer might be, I simply can't justify including them in a discussion with pitchers who have thrown three times as many innings. That's really the end of the discussion for me.
What Rodney and Kimbrel have done this season has been remarkable, but hasn't been nearly as valuable as the performances of Dickey, Verlander and their challengers above.
Miley seemed to have this award in the bag a month ago, but he has left the door open a crack with a 6.45 ERA over his last four starts, just one of which was quality. Fortunately for Miley, no one was really knocking on the door to start. Some portion of the electorate may reward Bryce Harper for becoming just the second teenager in major league history to hit 20 home runs in a season (the Red Sox's Tony Conigliaro became the first when he hit 24 in 1964).
However, while Harper's performance this year has been extremely impressive for a player of his age, and could see him finish with 20 steals as well (he stole number 17 Wednesday night), the Rookie of the Year has historically been about the best performance independent of age or experience outside of the league, not the performance most suggestive of future success. For all of the skill Harper has displayed, his battling line (.262/.332/.459) leaves me a bit cold.
Aoki, the 30-year-old Nippon Professional Baseball veteran, wins an apples-to-apples comparison with Harper of top-of-the-order outfielders. He has hit for less power, but leads in batting average and on-base percentage by larger margins than that by which he trails Harper in slugging, which gives him a significant edge as OBP is the most important statistic of the three. Aoki also has a big advantage in steals, swiping his 28 bags at a crisp 80 percent success rate. Harper's play in centerfield closes the gap, but not by enough. Aoki takes over this spot from teammate Mike Fiers, who has gone 1-3 with a 6.97 ERA in September.
Rosario leads NL rookies in home runs and RBIs and is just one behind Mike Trout for the major league rookie lead in home runs. Yes, Rosario plays in a favorable ballpark for such a thing, but that seems insignificant compared to the fact that he's come to the plate roughly 200 fewer times than Trout this season. By going 14-for-24 over the past week, Rosario has pulled his on-base percentage up over .300, and when I consider the fact that the average major league catcher has hit .249/.319/.401 this season, the only thing that keeps me from ranking him higher is his relative lack of playing time.
Never mind 2012, this is the greatest rookie season in the Live Ball Era. Trout will win this award unanimously.
It's amazing how completely Cespedes has been overshadowed by Trout this season, particularly given the hype that surrounded Cespedes prior to his signing with the Oakland and the A's surprising performance this season. Cespedes has been a big part of the A's success, particularly in the second half, in which he has avoided the disabled list and hit .307/.366/.515 while the team has gone 45-24 (.652). Not that team performance is relevant here, but it's just surprising how little discussion there has been about how much Cespedes has lived up to the hype. He just might get his due in the postseason, assuming Trout and company don't ruin that as well.
Darvish came down with a stiff neck prior to his last start and it remains to be seen when he'll start next. If he feels better in time, he'll start Friday against the Angels then again against the A's in Oakland on the final day of the season. If not, he'll likely make just one more start, likely on Sunday against the Angels.
Whatever the final week holds for Darvish, he has secured this third spot in the Rookie of the Year voting thanks to his last seven starts, over which he has gone 5-1 with a 2.13 ERA with his usual plethora of strikeouts but newfound control that has seen him walk just 2.5 men per nine innings, good for a 4.29 K/BB ratio and a BABIP-assisted 0.79 WHIP.