Some thoughts on baseball awards

Baseball will hand out its yearly awards next week – the MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year. Yes, the voting never pleases everybody, and old-time voters still look at archaic stats like wins and RBI’s. There have been countless snubs over the years. No one can really agree on what constitutes value. It’s often a messy process.

But I don’t care. It’s still something I look forward to every year, even if the best players don’t always win. It certainly didn’t stop me from writing 1,600 words on the topic.

Here is how I would hand out this year’s baseball awards:

AL MVP: Miguel Cabrera

A lot of people disagree on the meaning of most valuable player. Does it go to the best player regardless of team performance? Does it go to the best player on the best team? Are pitchers eligible? How much does position matter?

Joe Posnanski posed this question a few weeks ago – there are basically four ways to slice up MVP logic. You either:

Unequivocally vote for the best player
Vote for the best player, but in close races consider team performance and big moments
Pretty much vote for the best player, but strongly consider clutchiness and team performance
Never vote for a player on a bad team except in extreme cases

I am of the second mindset – if I were a voter, I would almost always vote for the best overall player and only factor in team performance as a coin toss.

OK, that said, I still give the edge to Miguel Cabrera over Mike Trout in 2013.

I don’t think there is any doubt that Cabrera will win – the question is, should he? The same debate happened last year, but there were more variables. Last year, Cabrera was the first player in 45 years to win the Triple Crown. But Trout took baseball by storm and put up a ridiculous 10.9 WAR as a rookie – almost four wins higher than Cabrera. The voters, of course, sided with Cabrera, and I imagine they will do the same this year.

Voting for Cabrera, in either year, goes against what most sabermetricians would argue. By WAR, Trout was, once again, the best player in baseball. He didn’t hit for the average or power that Cabrera did, but he was a far, far superior baserunner and defender at a much more scarce offensive position. Those are things you absolutely have to take into account.

But, I mean, Cabrera hit for a higher average, slugged 80 points higher, hit 17 more home runs, reached base more often – he was a wrecking ball at the plate. Cabrera led baseball in: batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and OPS+. He won the Triple Crown last year and put up better numbers in 2013. He was the most feared hitter in baseball.

I love touting the advanced stats, but in this case, I am going to go with my gut because I can, ok? And my gut says Miggy. My gut also says I am hungry.

NL MVP: Andrew McCutchen

The real contenders in the National League are McCutchen, Paul Goldschmidt, and Yadier Molina. Here is a quick comparison:

McCutchen: .317/.404/.508, 158 OPS+, 8.2 WAR
Goldschmidt:  .302/.401/.551, 160 OPS+, 7.1 WAR
Molina: .319/.359/.477, 131 OPS+, 5.7 WAR

Molina’s raw numbers are far from the level of McCutchen and Goldschmidt, but his value as a catcher is tremendous. I give the edge to McCutchen – he didn’t have quite the power as Goldy did, but he played in a more difficult ballpark for a hitter, played a much more important position in centerfield, and was a far superior baserunner.

And also – the Pirates’ story this year was just awesome. They hadn’t made the playoffs since I was in diapers and finally gave their long-suffering fans a season to remember. McCutchen was the driving force behind the team. And he was the best player in the league.

AL Cy Young: Max Scherzer

I imagine most voters will vote for Scherzer because he went 21-3. But I would never look at wins to determine the Cy Young. The only pitcher that could give Scherzer a run for his money (though he will likely finish second) is Yu Darvish.

If we strip away wins, here is how the two match up.

Scherzer: 2.90 ERA, 214 innings, 240 strikeouts, 0.970 WHIP, 4.29 SO/BB, 6.7 WAR
Darvish: 2.83 ERA, 209 innings, 277 strikeouts, 1.073 WHIP, 3.46 SO/BB, 5.8 WAR

Darvish has the lead (slightly) in ERA and strikeouts, but Scherzer was a lot better at limiting baserunners. WAR gives him nearly a full win advantage.

Remember, for awhile, the best pitcher in the A.L. was Chris Sale. In fact, he finished with the highest WAR in the American League, so there is certainly a case to be made for the White Sox southpaw. I really have no idea how Sale was supposedly more valuable than Scherzer – they pitched the same exact number of innings and Scherzer gave up 8 fewer runs and 22 fewer baserunners. Sure, they pitched in different ballparks, but Scherzer still had a higher ERA+. I guess this is why people have a problem with WAR – there are times when it inexplicably spits out a number and no one knows why.

Chris Sale is the perfect example of why pitcher wins don’t matter. He went 17-8 in 2012. In 2013, he pitched more innings, gave up fewer hits, walked less, struck out more – by WAR, he was a full win higher. Chris Sale went 11-14 in 2013.

I would never want wins to go away – I still like to know a pitcher’s record just because it’s familiar and it’s a quick talking point. 20 wins, even 15 wins, is still a big-time accomplishment. But as far as measuring performance, it bears little significance.

NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw wasn’t just the best pitcher in baseball last year – he had a historic season and a sparkling 1.83 ERA. Here are the only qualifying starting pitchers to have a sub-2.00 ERA in my lifetime:

Kershaw, 2013: 1.83
Roger Clemens, 2005: 1.87
Pedro Martinez, 2000: 1.74
Pedro Martinez, 1997: 1.90
Kevin Brown, 1996: 1.89
Greg Maddux, 1995: 1.63
Greg Maddux, 1994: 1.56

Kershaw was only the second pitcher in the 21st century to post an ERA under 2.* Granted, he pitched in Dodger Stadium, which is known as a pitcher’s park. And, yes, he had the benefit of pitching in the National League. And, sure, league-wide offense was considerably lower in 2013 than it was in the mid-1990s.

*This, of course, depends on your definition of the 21st century. Most would say it started in 2000. Wikipedia says it started in 2001. Like most things, I side with Wikipedia.

ERA+ is probably a better measure of objective performance, since it neutralizes ballpark and league factors. Even so, Kershaw’s ERA+ of 194 was the highest since Zack Greinke in 2009.

But even if ERA means different things in different years, it’s always cool to see a starting pitcher dip below the 2.00 mark.

The start of Kershaw’s career is perhaps the most dominant since Dwight Gooden in the 1980’s. Kershaw has led all of baseball in ERA for three consecutive years. He has led the National League in WHIP for three consecutive years. This year, he had seventeen starts where he pitched at least seven innings and gave up no more than one run. Seventeen! He gave up more than three runs in just four out of thirty-three starts.

At 25 years of age, Kershaw has not even reached the typical prime years for a pitcher. When the time comes, he’ll make more than any pitcher in the history of baseball.

AL Rookie of the Year: Wil Myers

Myers was a sensational rookie and a fun player to watch – no batting gloves, a little cocky, a beautiful swing. He killed the Yankees down the stretch (and I imagine will continue to do so for many years) and finished with a .293/.354/.478 line and a 132 OPS+.

His only real competitors are Jose Iglesias of the Tigers and Yan Gomes of the Indians. Iglesias played a great shortstop and hit over .300. Gomes played fewer games than Myers, but finished with a higher OPS+ and a higher WAR and a higher slugging percentage and … wait, now that I’m looking at the stats, the race is closer than I thought. But I already wrote Myers up top so he still gets my vote.

NL Rookie of the Year: Jose Fernandez

This was the most difficult selection. I think it will be closest vote for any of the awards.

The league hit .182 against Jose Fernandez – that’s lower than Kershaw and Scherzer and Darvish and ever single starter in baseball. He gave up 5.8 hits per nine innings, the lowest mark since Pedro Martinez in 2000.* His 2.19 ERA would have won him the ERA title in most years but didn’t this year because Kershaw. He was absolutely dominant and should have a great career ahead of him as long as he, you know, stops getting into fights after hitting home runs.

*It was the lowest mark in the National League since Sid Fernandez gave up 5.7 hits per nine innings in 1985. No relation to Jose.

His major competitor is, of course, Yasiel Puig. Puig had one of the best starts for any rookie ever – through his first 27 games, he was hitting .443/.473/.745. He electrified a struggling Dodgers team and was one of the catalysts for a team that won 42 out of 50 games in the middle of the summer.

The National League had several rookies that would have likely won in other years – Shelby Miller, Hyun Jun Ryu, Gerrit Cole. But, really, this is a two-man race, and my vote goes to Fernandez.

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